Celebrity, Movies, Oscar Race

Interview: Hilary Swank stands tall, dives deep discussing ‘The Homesman’

1 Comment 16 November 2014

American Maverick Tommy Lee Jones shines light on Hilary Swank

American Maverick Tommy Lee Jones shines light on Hilary Swank

I had a chance to have tea with two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank at the Hamptons International Film Festival in the lobby of the Maidstone Hotel. We discussed her scrubbed down, soulful role as Mary Bee Cuddy in Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman, one of my favorite movies of 2014. The Nebraska native, 40, addressed the challenges of playing a single Nebraska homesteader on the Western frontier and how that woman’s struggle remains relevant today.

You play a virtuous woman in a dangerous time: does that still resonate?

Mary Bee lived in a time where manners and morals were virtues. We are in a day and age where we’ve lost touch with that for a lot of other reasons. For me, she does the right thing because she believes in doing the right thing. She’ll say right to your face how she feels. The world would be a better place if we would just really deal honestly with each other. She goes where angels feel to tread.

As an actress, you had to tread in the past, riding horses, plowing fields. Do you ride?

I didn’t. I love animals. I’ve had experience horseback riding recreationally. But I didn’t know how to ride to this extent. Getting to be an actor gives me the ability to walk – or ride — in someone else’s shoes and empathize with someone else’s plight in life. Playing a farmer, it’s extraordinary how hard a life it is: they have to grow and work and sustain life. Farmers are fitter than any bodybuilder. You have to know how to direct mules and pull that carriage and pull the plow. There are distinct steps to get to it and you cannot skip a step. And then there are those bits like getting on a horse when your horse is not behaving and you’re losing the light. I love that challenge and the collaborative aspect of it. Tommy Lee Jones is a hands-on horseman and he wanted me to look a specific way. When I jump in I get to jump in with the best.

[RELATED: Oscar-Winners Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones Amaze in ‘The Homesman’]

Mary Bee is a Sarah Plain and Tall kind of character. She’s unvarnished. Did that suit you?

It cuts all pretenses and gets to the heart of the matter. To use a book as a metaphor: to judge a book by its cover. It’s so easy to judge a woman on first meeting. Being around Tommy Lee Jones, I see the way people look at him and talk about him. Stereotypes are dangerous. Ultimately he made a feminist movie and it shows his heart and how multi-faceted he truly is. He allows people in. If anything, making this film made me appreciate him like I appreciate Mary Bee. People can put labels on Mary Bee, like she’s bossy, or she’s plain. But there’s more to all of us than anybody can ever see, even the people that are close to us. It’s so important to give people the benefit.

How hard is it to find leading roles this multi-faceted for women in Hollywood now?

I’d love to find a great supporting role and not carry the movie. There are years when we’ve had a lot of great women’s roles I just hope to not make it a gender thing. I want to find roles that tell stories that we can connect to, or learn from, or be entertained by. As a female artist, I do find full-rounded, fleshed out people to play, it just might not be as often as I like. So I can’t really complain even though I want more.

What was your takeaway from this portrait of women in the West?

Their strength, courage and bravery, how they blazed a trail for us women is incredible to me. How they survived and we were able to push on is a reminder that we really should be more grateful for what we have in front of us. And, looking back, we should consider the trails they blazed and say thank you to them for what they endured and accomplished.

The Homesman is currently in theaters.

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Criticism, Movies, Oscar Race

Oscar Winners Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones Amaze in ‘The Homesman’

2 Comments 14 November 2014

American Maverick Tommy Lee Jones shines light on Hilary Swank

American Maverick Tommy Lee Jones shines light on Hilary Swank

With The Homesman, Director/Co-writer/Star/Texan Tommy Lee Jones confounds again, making brilliant American cinema on the back of the blockbuster dime he earned for Men in Black and The Fugitive, among many others. His taste is no-nonsense, astringent in its view of human nature, and unsentimental about the American West. As we learned in his less mainstream 2005 film with the unpronounceable title, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Jones is not about currying favor with the audience: ride along if you dare, and you’ll discover something authentic and unexpected. And, in both films, the performances are exceptional, from Melissa Leo in Estrada to Hilary Swank in The Homesman.

The atypical Western — and one of my favorite movies of 2014 — starts with a portrait of Swank’s plain-and-bossy Mary Bee Cuddy. She lives alone on the Nebraska prairie: driving a mule, fetching water, making supper. Her overly tidy cabin is an oasis of civilization that sets the scene for a muscular set-piece where Mary Bee invites a gristly neighbor, Bob Giffen (Evan Jones) to dinner and proposes to the man after a postprandial song that puts the sod to sleep. When Mary Bee says, “I can’t live without real music much longer” she’s not exaggerating.

This set-piece grounds us in Mary Bee, her virtues and flaws, an aching loneliness more ungovernable than the mule. She is a good woman in a setting that offers no rewards or solace for such purity. And while this dinner sequence recalls one of my favorite scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – the introduction of the Christoph Waltz’s Nazi Jew-hunter, a villain at the family table – Jones exercises restraint, letting the scene unfold without snappy dialog or swirling camera movements (Rodrigo Prieto is the cinematographer). It remains both intimate and devastating.

From there, the movie adopts the narrative form of a journey from the West to the East – against the grain of the typical Western. Mary Bee assumes the responsibility that no man in her small community will accept: taking three mad women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter, all terrific) back across the Missouri River to the relative sanity of Hebron, Iowa. As John Lithgow’s Reverend Alfred Dowd says, “Life gave them more than they could bear.”

Enter Tommy Lee Jones, hanging from a noose, as George Briggs, the sinner that Mary Bee’s saint recruits to be her wingman on this impossible journey with three justifiably feral women. Briggs is a wild, selfish, unreliable cuss, with wiry hair popping out of his brows and ears. Jones relishes the role. Somewhere, deep within this grizzled cowboy is a man that’s abandoned his humanity on the frontier. Can Mary Bee revive and lasso that soul? That’s just one of the movie’s questions, but redemption really isn’t what Jones is about.

Jones has the flashier role – he’s Gabby Hayes to Swank’s Randolph Scott – but Swank, a Nebraska native, has the lead. While she bears a little too much star charisma to be entirely plain, the reedy Oscar-winner (Million Dollar Baby, Boys Don’t Cry) demonstrates convincing restraint and unfashionable earnestness. Because Swank, Otto, Gummer and Richter (and Meryl Streep in a cameo) have full and juicy parts, I’m tempted to call The Homesman a feminist Western. There’s no need. That would be surrendering to a sort of Stockholm syndrome. We’ve gotten so accustomed to the underrepresentation of complex women in contemporary movies that when we see a drama like this we categorize it as “feminist” when we really should just embrace it as clear-sighted, intelligent and provocative.

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Celebrity, Movies, Oscar Race

Interview: Jessica Chastain Discusses Surviving a Painful Year — and how Seeing ‘Interstellar’ Made Matthew McConaughey Weep

No Comments 10 November 2014

Chastain on fire with "Interstellar," "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby," and "A Most Violent Year."

Chastain on fire with “Interstellar,” “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” and “A Most Violent Year.”

Jessica Chastain is a sparkly beauty from the inside out. Sitting across from her in the basement of Manhattan’s Crosby Hotel, her red hair is cut in Cleopatra bangs that drape her fair, flawless skin. Her hands, expressive but child-sized, give away how tiny she really is. But the focus of the 37-year-old actress — who counts movies like The Help, Zero Dark Thirty and Mama among her credits — is anything but dainty. Her latest project, in which she costars with James McAvoy, is called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. It’s a daring three-part film that tells — from multiple perspectives — the story of a marriage collapsing under the grief of a baby’s death. In our conversation, the two-time Oscar nominee is lively and passionate.

Grief – and how people grieve differently – seems to be the central theme of Eleanor Rigby

Yes, absolutely. Not just how people grieve differently, but how men and women grieve differently. And also: How you can love someone so completely, where they, like, fill you, but not be able to communicate with them, and how that can be the actual straw that breaks the back.

In a marriage, it can be hard when tragedy strikes, to deal with it together.

Yeah, well, to be on the same team. What does the other person need? I did a lot of reading where writers had written about their experiences of loss, and what had happened in their marriage after having [lost a child]. It was devastating. One thing I found fascinating was a pattern in which some women grieved— it was usually about self‑hate, guilt, and wanting to change something. Change their life, or move away from their history, their past. And the way that men dealt with the grief, was trying to fix it: Like, put some glue on it, and fix the problem. And because [these couples] are approaching this problem from different objectives, and in different ways, there’s this inability to communicate, and to actually help the other person.

This year has been especially painful for you, with the untimely deaths of Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Both were pivotal in your life: You went to Juilliard on a scholarship paid by Williams, and played Desdemona opposite Hoffman’s Othello. Can you talk a little bit about those men?

What’s so devastating to me is that I feel like there’s still a stigma in this world about depression. And if they’re really honest about it, most great artists have — can have depressive personalities, and they can have these incredible highs and incredible lows. But yet, some are not giving these artists the freedom to express it, and to talk about it as it’s happening to them. Not as it’s happening to a character. And I’m hoping that [Robin William’s death],starts to change the dialogue, because a lot of people were saying: ‘We’re blaming him, Robin Williams for his suicide.’

Related: We Might Have Robin Williams to Thank for Jessica Chastain

It’s a dark side of celebrity culture that reflects a wider attitude.

To me, that shows that we have a long ways to go. I’m thinking that if someone is dealing with depression, you can’t trust that person to reach out to you in a society that doesn’t really welcome that. So, that’s what I’m hoping changes with organizations that deal with suicide prevention and depression. There’s this particular organization called To Write Love on Her Arms — this one starts in high schools, where it’s especially difficult dealing with bullying, for people discovering their sexuality. There’s so much happening in high schools. I’m really passionate about this organization, and it’s just newly come into my life.

How did you hear about this organization?

I started searching online. I never talk about this, and I can’t believe what I’m going to say right now — I know my publicist is going, “What are you talking about?” But I do have — my sister killed herself. And that is in my history. So, for me, suicide is a very important issue. If I can do anything to help someone move through any darkness that they’re in, I’m gonna do whatever I can to help. It’s so important to begin the conversation when they’re in high school, because that’s when we’re getting programmed as to what’s acceptable in society. It should be acceptable to talk about your feelings.

Two years ago, we discussed Zero Dark Thirty, and how playing CIA officer Maya — a role that got you an Oscar nomination —inspired you offscreen.

Maya was definitely an inspiration to me. I could connect to the idea of being in love with work, and the obsession of it. I’ve reached a different point in my life now. Since the beginning of February 2010, I’ve been going nonstop. And I’ve gone from one kind of dark character to another. At the beginning of this year, I did Crimson Peak with Guillermo del Toro, and J.C. Chandor’s film The Most Violent Year at the same time. I decided I needed a break. And any fears that I had had before — that I can’t stop, that I love it so much, that I don’t want it to go away — I had to overcome. You know what? I can’t be an actor unless I’m allowed to fill up myself. Now, I like feel like a different person. I haven’t worked since the beginning of May. I have nothing scheduled. It’s good to be able to spend time with my family, looking them in the eye, and being with them when they’re not visiting me on a set , whenI have the distraction of a character I’m playing.

[RELATED: Adams on Reel Women: Jessica Chastain Talks Being Fearless like John Wayne in ‘ZD30′]

We haven’t discussed the other major movie you have coming out this fall, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Are details still top-secret?

I can tell you I saw my costar Matthew McConaughey on Saturday. In his own words, the movie is an “event.” He said he cried three times when he had seen it recently. I’m so excited about my character. She really moved me. And working with Christopher Nolan, it makes sense why people lose their breath around him. He is the real deal, full-stop, technically. And also he’s the kind of director that, when giving an acting note, makes your performance better. He doesn’t just insert himself to do it. He actually makes you better. He’s an actor’s director.

Interstellar is in theaters now: What the trailer here:

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Celebrity, Movies, Oscar Race

Eddie Redmayne Explains His ‘Theory of Everything’ and Fear of Stephen Hawking

No Comments 09 November 2014

Smart is sexy: Eddie Redmayne makes an example of himself

Smart is sexy: Eddie Redmayne makes an example of himself

A lithe, red-haired Eddie Redmayne slips into the banquette in a restaurant in Toronto, takes one look at the table’s snack mix and pushes away the bowl. Shaking hands, he remembers that the last time we saw each other was in New York at a lunch for Les Misérables. We had discussed how he lied about his equestrian skills to get a role in Tom Hooper’s TV mini-series Elizabeth I, and his matriculation at Cambridge alongside Tom Hiddleston.

That elite university was also where Redmayne first spied Stephen Hawking, the genius cosmologist and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) sufferer who Redmayne portrays in The Theory of Everything. The biopic delves into Hawking’s first marriage to wife Jane (Felicity Jones), as he suffers the effects of the neurodegenerative disorder that gradually robs him of muscle control. Redmayne and I spoke about meeting the real-life scientist, Redmayne’s terror at playing him onscreen, and the raves he’s earning at the Toronto International Film Festival for his immersive performance.

Had you known much about Hawking before you took the role?

I’d seen Stephen in his wheelchair from a distance at Cambridge. I’d studied history of art, and I just knew what I suppose most people know: the icon and the voice and something about black holes. Then I read this script and was embarrassed by how little I knew.

Did the role come easily to you?

There was a moment when I got the part where I felt a wonderful euphoria. It lasted about a second and a half. It’s been fear and trepidation ever since. The night before we started filming was the only night of my life that I did not sleep. It got to four in the morning, and I was being picked up at five, and I was like, ‘I haven’t slept. I can’t start this film without having had a minute’s sleep.’

Did it surprise you that Hawking was physically fit until he was an adult?

I didn’t know that much about him or ALS. I thought it was something that came on quite quickly. And in many cases, it does. But I found the love story aspect of it, this idea that there was this extraordinary woman named Jane, played by Felicity Jones, behind him completely riveting. I chased the role pretty hard, and I had a long conversation with [director] James Marsh. And I did that thing that actors do of pretending to sound really confident. I somehow managed to blag him into it.

Gentleman Ginger

Gentleman Ginger

What does ‘blag’ mean?

Blag means con him.

Well, maybe it wasn’t just blagging. You did an incredible job.

Thank you. My instinct had been that to approach a part like this, you needed to go back to an old school way of working. I felt that every single aspect of it would affect everything else. So the physical would affect the costume, would affect the makeup, would affect the voice. I worked with a dancer, an amazing woman called Alex Reynolds, and I spent a few months going to the London Motor Neuron Diseases Clinic to see how ALS manifests itself. It’s different in every single patient…. As the muscles stop working, you used other muscles. There are muscles here in our face that we never use, and [Hawking’s] mom and his wife Jane describe how he had incredibly expressive eyebrows. So it was trying to learn to isolate muscles, which meant a lot of time spent in front of a mirror with photos.

The movie frankly shows that Hawking remained sexually active post-diagnosis and fathered three children.

Completely. When you look at photos or hear about Stephen as a younger man, he was incredibly charismatic and flirtatious. The ladies loved him and still do…. It was absolutely apparent meeting him that he is a really strong, potent man in every sense of the word.

While a lot is made of the role’s physicality, the genius is that the illness never overcomes Hawking’s intellect or spirit.

The story of Stephen dwarfs the illness. For him, it is of no importance. He didn’t ever want to see a doctor again after he was diagnosed. He is someone that lives forward and lives optimistically. So, for me, what this film was about was an unconventional love story, a film about loving in all its guises. So, young love, passionate love, love of a subject, the tribulations of love, and the love of family.

With the current celebrity frenzy around the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, it seems like a perfect storm for ALS awareness now.

For me, it’s a wonderful thing because as part of my research, I met 30 or 40 people suffering and their families. It’s a brutal, horrific disease. But because there is very little money invested in finding a cure, it’s been around for a long, long time, and they’re not much closer to finding one. I’m now a patron of the Motor Neuron Disease Association in London, and for them [the Ice Bucket Challenge] has been game changing.

Tell me about meeting Hawking.

It was five days before we started filming, which was not ideal. I’d spent all these months prepping, and I was a little worried: What if everything I had prepped was wrong? Our first half hour together was pretty hilarious in a kind of awful way. I basically just vomited forth information about Stephen Hawking to Stephen Hawking. But he was very generous…. Above and beyond the specifics I gleaned about how he slurred his words and such, was that he emanates this humor and wit. And that is what ended up being the most wonderful thing because it meant that I could start each scene — whatever obstacle’s been put in his way, he still finds humor and he still finds joy.

What’s your biggest takeaway from the whole experience?

The film quotes Hawking’s line: “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” I’m a massive culprit of all the foibles in your life taking all of that joy away. But, actually, when Stephen was given a death sentence at age 21, he committed to living each one of those moments fully.

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Criticism, Movies, Oscar Race

Review: Michael Keaton Pecks at Fame in ‘Birdman’

1 Comment 22 October 2014

Winging it in the Cartoon Jungle

Winging it in the Cartoon Jungle

Welcome back, Michael Keaton.

Whether you remember him as the guy who threw away the Batman franchise before comic books were king, or the comic genius of Beetlejuice, Keaton is the crazy spinning center of Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman, which closed the 52nd Annual New York Film Festival and exited Venice with massive buzz that may be tough to sustain.

Keaton plays aging Hollywood has-been Riggan Thomson – see him remove his toupee to reveal a hairline that would politely be termed receding. The [oxymoron alert] self-absorbed actor is staging a Broadway comeback in his own pretentious adaptation of Raymond Carver short stories that Thomson also produced, directed and in which he stars. Thomson’s haunted by his past – he even hears voices – when he played a hooded, flying character named Birdman, with a very close resemblance to the Caped Crusader.

Disclaimer: Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is wholly intentional.

The premise gives the Mexico-born Inarritu (Babel) the chance to poke fun at the Hollywood blockbuster machine – digs are made at Robert Downey Jr. and other thespians-turned-superheroes for fat paychecks. Additionally, it creates a swirling backstage story of intrigue, infidelity and decadence with a dash of Latin American magic realism.

Up in the Air, Senior Birdmen

Up in the Air, Senior Birdmen

Inarritu’s direction is fluid and dynamic, the dialog alternately funny and barbed, and Antonio Sanchez’s score jazzy and unexpected. The heat rises when Edward Norton enters the scene as the egomaniacal Broadway actor Mike Shiner, a last-minute replacement for Thomson’s injured co-star. The stage is set for a battle of super-charged egos played out in front of a full house. This inspires a fantastic scene where Shiner gets drunk on stage and humiliates Thomson. And, in another, Thomson gets locked out at the stage door and returns via the audience, clad only in his tighty whities and wet toupee to deliver his best line reading ever.

Norton and Keaton have a bright ensemble dancing around them: Emma Stone as Thomson’s world-weary fresh-out-of-rehab daughter; Naomi Watts as the play’s sexy but insecure female lead and Shiner’s doormat; and a relatively subdued Zach Galifianakis as Thomson’s lawyer/co-producer/enabler.

While I love all the smoke and mirrors, and Keaton’s herculean Oscar-bait comeback beside Norton’s ripping supporting performance, by the third act, I began losing traction. By the time Thomson throws a tear-down-his-dressing-room tantrum, along with a gratuitous girl-on-girl kiss, I began to wonder what was the there there? Where is this going and why?

As I found in Inarritu’s Babel, and then Biutiful, there is a brilliant talent hindered by an ‘I’m better than Hollywood’ smugness. He is, that’s true, but I want Inarritu to deliver all the way, to break every mold, to really take wing. He almost did this time.

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A Most Violent Year
The Theory of Everything
The Grand Budapest Hotel
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