Monday, May 17, 2010

The director who loves women

Mother and Child, the latest movie from writer/director Rodrigo Garcia, is slated to open in Denver May 21 and is just beginning its journey around the country.

Garcia, whose previous efforts include the movie Nine Lives and lots of prestigious television work on HBO series such as Six Feet Under, Big Love, The Sopranos and In Treatment, might be dubbed the director who loves women, and in Mother and Child, he does something that has become increasingly rare in the current movie climate: He provides an uncluttered platform on which three gifted actresses can explore agonizing emotional issues.

The movie’s stars -- Annette Bening, Naomi Watts and Kerry Washington -- play women who are dealing with mother/daughter issues, usually from both sides of the equation. Whatever audiences think about Mother and Child, it’s difficult to imagine that this dynamic trio of actresses isn’t delighted with the outcome.

If so, they have good reason. Garcia – the 50-year-old son of acclaimed novelist Gabriel García Márquez – provides them a showcase that allows for ample expression of complexity and contradiction.

Bening plays Karen, a woman who became pregnant as a teen-ager and whose mother forced her to give the baby up for adoption. Watts plays Elizabeth, the grown daughter Karen has never met, and Washington portrays a successful young woman who decides to adopt a baby because she’s unable to become pregnant.

With Garcia navigating choppy emotional waters, the talk in a recent interview gravitated toward acting. Movie acting can be difficult to write about and sometimes difficult to understand, even for a director whose work reflects a deep respect for character, an approach Garcia learned from early stints as a cameraman, with directors such as Mike Nichols and Robert Benton.

“I don’ t know how actors prepare,’’ said Garcia. “I enjoy not knowing. I like to have a couple of conversations just to make sure that we want to make the same movie. I don’t want surprises about what the story is, but I leave the details of how a role is performed to the actors.”

Allowing for a process that relies on equal amounts of preparation and spontaneous expression requires the creation of a calm on-set environment – or at least the illusion of one.

“With all the movies that I’ve done -- especially the three that I’ve written -- the budgets have been low and the schedules, frightening. (Mother and Child was shot in a fleet 29 days.) I have this memory of running 100 miles per hour before the actors arrived. Then when the actors come on set, you feel like you’re pulling the horses back so that everything can move at 20 miles an hour. The actors feel it’s all very relaxed, as if we’re just ambling. The moment they leave, the shit hits the fan, and it’s chaos again.”

Here, then, Garcia’s thoughts on his three principal actresses and the characters each of them plays.

Q. So what drew you to Bening?

Garcia: Part of it is instinct. You always have your list of who the great actresses for a role would be. Annette is able to convey a lot of intelligence, emotion, and strength. She’s a very natural actress. Maybe ‘naturalistic’ is a better word. I like an actor who can project different things at the same time – vulnerability, emotion and intelligence. Annette’s also very good with words. There are some great actors who aren’t necessarily good with dialogue.

Q. Does it take extra commitment for an actress to play a character who refuses to ingratiate herself with an audience? Karen avoids men, and isn’t shy about expressing hostility, even toward people who reach out to her.

Garcia: Karen is a prickly pear, a complicated person. I’m sure a lot of actresses would have been uneasy about playing her. They might have wanted to soften her, to pander to the audience. But Annette always understood that it (Karen’s insistence on walling herself off from others) was coming from a place of pain. She had been forced to give up a baby. She was protecting herself, like a porcupine.

Q. Karen’s also an older woman who’s not trying to disguise her age. She doesn’t spend much time on her appearance. Maybe that’s part of the way she keeps the world at bay, but I didn’t see any vanity in Bening’s performance.

Garcia: Karen’s not out to be liked. Annette embraced that even more than I thought she would. There was no make-up. The hair was always a little disheveled. Annette was able, very fastidiously, to track Karen’s journey.

Q. Naomi Watts also plays a character who’s not terribly sympathetic. Elizabeth is a hard-boiled attorney who keeps a tight rein on her personal life. She’s ambitious, ultra-competent and sexually aggressive.

Garcia: I made a point of proving that Elizabeth was a very accomplished lawyer. She’s smart. She uses sex to control the environment and people around her, but she doesn’t use it to get a promotion. I thought that distinction was important.

Elizabeth is very hostile in the way she controls things. She doesn’t care what you think. Naomi was the first person we went to. Like Annette with Karen, she understood that Elizabeth’s behavior stems from a wound she has inside.

In the case of Karen and Elizabeth, a big choice was made for them, to separate them against their will. In different ways, they decided to control their lives so that such choices would not be made for them again, so that they would not be exposed to pain.

Q. The role of Elizabeth requires a bit of nudity – both physical and emotional. How tough was that?

Garcia. Naomi probably thinks it’s worth it to her to do physical and emotional nudity if it takes her somewhere in her journey as an actor. Whether she’s comfortable or not, who knows? We had scenes that involved emotional and physical nakedness, and she did them five weeks after having a baby.

Q. It seems to me that Watts is willing to push boundaries, to really explore emotional extremes.

Garcia: She’s good at playing characters with strong contradictions, characters that are emotionally strung out. To play a woman like Elizabeth or the women she played in Mulholland Drive or 21 Grams, Naomi really had to go for it. Of course, when you spend time with her on the set, she ‘s also very funny. She has a naughty sense of humor. She could have a career doing romantic comedies or action stuff.

Q. Kerry Washington’s bio reads like a study in achievement. She’s on President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. She graduated Magne Cum Laude from George Washington University. She’s currently working in David Mamet’s play Race on Broadway, and has a Phi Beta Kappa key.

Garcia. I had seen Kerry only in The Dead Girl and The Last King of Scotland. She registered with me. We worked for one day on a short subject we did for a charity, and I thought she would be a perfect Lucy. She’s nothing like Lucy in many ways and like her in others. She has this spunk and this desire to do really well.

Q: Lucy is nothing if not strong willed. Is Washington like that?

Garca: Kerry is tireless. She’s this dynamo. She taught me a lot about Lucy. I wasn’t in tune with the fact that Lucy is such a perfectionist. That’s what I started understanding from Kerry’s performance. Lucy saw her inability to get pregnant as a personal failure, a blemish in her record. That’s what made her so desperate.

Q. But it’s certainly not a one-dimensional performance. Lucy’s dealing with a marriage that may be in trouble, as well as with her own feelings about not being able to conceive. Garcia: Kerry also brought a lot of humor to Lucy. People find something funny in Lucy’s hysterical desperation.

Q. You seem to like writing about women.

Garcia: I find it hard to write men. Men’s lives often are about exterior pursuits. Success in work. Money. Conquering the girl. Conquering the mountain. Killing the lion. I’m more interested in stories about the complicated nature of two people relating to each other. The person you can’t live with and can’t live without. The person next to you. A parent, a child, a sibling or a spouse.

Q. We probably should say something about the men in this movie. Jimmy Smits plays one of Karen’s co-workers at the assisted living facility where she works. She does her best to hold him at arm’s length, but he pursues her anyway. And Elizabeth has an affair with her boss (Samuel L. Jackson), the lawyer who owns the firm where she lands a job. He’s older than she, but he’s clearly a man of conscience, accomplishment and compassion.

Garcia: So many times in movies about women, the men are the enemy. I already had a couple of women who had such confrontational relationships with the world that I thought, ‘Let me put two really good men in front of them.’ These women are so at odds with the world, what would they do if I sent them a couple of really good guys? I wanted to see how they’d deal with that."

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