Exclusive Interview with Sophie Curtis about ‘Innocence’

Innocence movie poster

She has played supporting roles in “The English Teacher,” “At Any Price” and “Arbitrage,” but now Sophie Curtis finally gets her first leading role in the horror film “Innocence.” Based on the book of the same name by Jane Mendelsohn, Curtis plays Beckett Warner, a young woman who has just moved with her father to New York City after the tragic death of her mother. Once there she is enrolled in a super elite Manhattan prep school where she makes the acquaintance of the school’s nurse Pamela Hamilton (Kelly Reilly) who helps her settle in to her new environment. But as Pamela begins to insinuate herself into Beckett’s life even more, Beckett comes to discover that the school harbors a deep, dark secret that may end up claiming her life.

It was a lot of fun talking with Curtis back in 2014 on the phone as she was about to start college at UC Berkeley. We talked about how she got cast in “Innocence,” how the movie “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” was a big inspiration for her in playing Beckett, and of what it was like working with established actors like Kelly Reilly and Linus Roache.

 

Ben Kenber: Congratulations on this being your first lead role in a movie.

Sophie Curtis: Thank you. I’m very excited.

BK: You’re welcome. This is one of the few horror movies I’ve seen recently where a teenager having sex can actually save their life instead of end it because it’s usually the other way around (Sophie laughs). How do you feel about that?

SC: I felt like it was empowering. I think it’s good for kids to see both sides, and I really enjoyed playing a character who wants to overcome all the things that are thrown at her. My experience and my courage for it to be my first film, because I was very nervous about that while I was filming, I think that kind of adds to the veneer throughout the film and I hope people pick up on that one while they’re watching it.

BK: How did you get cast in “Innocence?”

SC: I went through the normal audition process, and then Hilary Brougher, the director, had it down to me and I think two other girls, and she met with all of us separately through lunch. We weren’t really auditioned or reading lines. We were just talking about our perspective of who Beckett is and what she’s struggling with and what that means to us. I think we really connected on our views of Beckett and I think we had an understanding. Hillary is awesome. She actually wrote my college recommendation for me so we were very close on set, and I think that we had an immediate connection and that probably helped with me in getting the role for Beckett. She helped me a lot in getting this character.

BK: Kelly Reilly plays a very enigmatic character, and I loved watching how she was able to say things without speaking a word. You look into her eyes and you know she is trouble. What was it like rehearsing with her? Did she surprise you when it came to certain scenes in the movie?

SC: Yes. It’s really funny because she’s actually super, super sweet when she’s not playing a bloodsucking witch and she gives a very raw performance. I think that really helped me with my character because her and Linus Roache who played my dad are very established actors and it was my first leading role, and I think they knew that everybody has to start somewhere so they were very accepting of that and just helped me to do the best that I could do with my performance.

BK: How long of a schedule did you all have to make “Innocence” in?

SC: I think it took us a month and a half, and we were filming really, really long days. Going in at four or five a.m. and finishing once it was dark out was really intense for me, but it was one of the best summers of my life so I’m absolutely grateful for that.

BK: You said “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” was a big inspiration for you in playing Beckett. What was it specifically about that movie that inspired you so deeply?

SC: I think it’s just the idea of going back to the source of horror. I think that “Dracula” and films like “Frankenstein” are films that have been drawn from so much to create today’s horror films and today’s horror novels. It’s kind of like the grandfather of horror and I think it’s the idea of supernatural love story with a normal girl, Winona Ryder who is one of my favorite actresses, just being trapped in a hyper reality and being misunderstood. I liked the simplicity of it and I like seeing how it’s transformed throughout in trying to create new movies like “Innocence.” That was the inspiration for Beckett.

BK: Are there any movies out right now that you feel are as good as “Bram Stoker’s Dracula?”

SC: Honestly, I really like old horror movies. To me, “Innocence” is not as much of a horror movie. It’s just more of a thriller and a coming-of-age story.

BK: What’s great about Beckett is that she is one of the more down to earth teenagers that we’ve seen in movies recently. Did you add a lot to this character that wasn’t in the script, or did you mostly stick to the script?

SC: She is really down to earth and I think she just has a very innocent demeanor. Hilary had adapted the script from the book as written by Jane Mendelsohn, and Jane was a producer on the film so she was very involved with how she wanted her story to be portrayed in the movie. I think Hilary kind of changed it from the book and she really involved me in that she starts off solemn and at other time she’s very happy. I kind of gave her my opinions on the script and how I felt Beckett should be represented after reading it and studying the character and just having an insight of being a teenager and how I felt Beckett should come off. So I think I did help or least I hoped I helped. I think I tried to make Beckett as much as my own character because she’s just a really awesome character and I had a really fun time playing her. She definitely taught me a lot while I was filming.

BK: Your character goes through a wide range of emotions throughout this movie. What was it like juggling all those different emotions while playing this role?

SC: It was really intense, but I think that me being nervous and excited and scared and happy and all of those things in real life as Sophie for being my first film and just being in this really intense working environment that I wasn’t used to. I think that really added to Beckett’s character and it helped me. I was going through similar emotions to what she was going through just in different circumstances, so you just try to draw from that and apply it to her situation.

BK: I understand that you are now starting college at UC Berkeley. How is that going for you?

SC: I’m here right now in my dorm, so if you hear other people it’s just my roommates. I’m in a triple so it’s really very crowded.

BK: What do you have planned next other than school?

SC: I’m just seeing what happens with “Innocence” right now. It’s just a really exciting time so I’m just reviewing a few possibilities, and there’s some really great opportunities. I just have to figure out which ones are the right ones for me. You have to be really, really dedicated to the project you take on because it’s really long hours and you have to really invest yourself in the character and become the character. It’s hard to wake up every single day and play somebody for hours on end that you don’t enjoy playing. I loved playing Beckett and I’d love to play her again if there’s a possibility of doing an “Innocence 2.”

BK: Well thank you for your time Sophie and good luck at school. It will definitely be a fun time for you for sure.

SC: Thank you, I’m very excited and happy to be here. It’s far from home so it’s been a little bit of an adjustment, but I like it a lot.

Innocence” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

 

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‘Flight’ is Not What I Expected it to Be

Flight movie poster

The advertisements for Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” are actually quite deceptive. It almost looks to be a mystery movie as we wonder if Denzel Washington’s character of Whip Whitaker was drunk or not when he crash-landed the commercial airplane he was flying. Whip ended up saving a lot of lives, but is the company which owns the airline he flies for trying to make him take the blame so they can reduce their loses? Looking at the commercials and trailers for “Flight,” it looked as if the film was being sold as a relatively easygoing cinematic affair. However, it turns to be something far more complex and ambiguous than what Hollywood is used to putting out.

“Flight” isn’t a mystery in the slightest, but instead a character study about a man who is overwhelmed by his addictions and has yet to be honest not only with others, but most of all with himself. From the start, we can see Captain Whip Whitaker is one messed up dude. Waking up in his hotel room after an evening tryst with stewardess Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), we see him drink some beer, smoke a cigarette, and arguing with his ex-wife over their son’s school tuition while snorting some cocaine. All of this happens before he puts on his uniform and heads over to his plane to get ready for takeoff.

Whip clearly has no business flying an airplane under these conditions, but fly it he does. When a malfunction suddenly forces it into a vertical dive, he manages to roll the plane over to where he’s flying upside down, and he does so just long enough to stabilize the descent and land it in an open field. Next thing Whip knows, he is waking up in a hospital room only to discover the real nightmare for him is about to begin.

It says a lot about the star power of Washington and Zemeckis that they could get a movie like “Flight” made today. Made for only $30 million, far less than what it cost for Zemeckis to make “The Polar Express” or “A Christmas Carol,” this is more of a character driven drama from the 1970’s as it gives us a main character who is not particularly likable, and yet we are compelled to follow him all the way to the movie’s end.

What I loved about the screenplay by John Gatins is how it revels in the ambiguity of its characters and the situations they are stuck in. We know Whip was far from sober when flying the plane, and yet we cannot help but wonder if his heroic act can somehow excuse his personal sins. His lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle, terrific as always), tells him how ten other pilots were placed in flight simulators which recreated the event, and of how they ended up killing everybody on board. But there is one big difference between Whip and all those pilots: they were all sober.

We can always count on Washington to give us some of the best performances in movies today, and his work in “Flight” is unsurprisingly superb. It’s also the riskiest role he has played in a long time as his character is far from likable and apparently determined to drive everyone who tries to reach him away. Heck, Detective Alonzo Harris from “Training Day” almost seems like a nicer person than Whip as Alonzo tried to have his partner killed, but we always find ourselves rooting for Washington no matter which character he plays, and he does an exceedingly brave job in uncovering this character’s wounded humanity for all of us to see.

I do have to say, however, how amazed I am at the enormous amount of alcohol Whip consumes throughout the movie. Any normal person would have likely experienced liver failure long before this story reaches its final act.

Much has been said about how this is Zemeckis’ first live action movie since the year 2000 when he made “Cast Away” and “What Lies Beneath,” but people should really take note of how this is the first R-rated movie he has directed since “Used Cars” and that one came out in 1980. Having made so many films largely geared towards the whole family, it’s tempting to think he was no longer in a position to helm one with such complex characters and issues. But with “Flight,” Zemeckis does some of his most memorable work behind the camera in some time. There are moments where he paints some dramatic strokes broader than they need to be, but he never once shies away from the ambiguous nature and fascinating questions which Gatins’ screenplay elicits. He also does a brilliant job in one crucial scene involving a minibar in a hotel room, and the suspense of it had the audience I saw the movie with absolutely enthralled. And, of course, he stages a very frightening plane crash that tops the one he put together in “Cast Away.” Even from the safety of a movie theater, this sequence is truly harrowing to sit through, and its images hang over the rest of “Flight” like an ominous shadow.

Another superb performance comes from Kelly Reilly who plays Nicole Maggen, a former photographer trying to free herself from the throes of a nasty heroin habit. Reilly may be best remembered for her role in the deeply unsettling horror film “Eden Lake,” and her portrayal here feels very honest in how she presents an addict’s day to day struggle to stay clean.

There’s also a number of other terrific supporting performances to be found here from actors like John Goodman who looks to be channeling Jeff Bridges’ Dude character from “The Big Lebowski” for his role of Harling Mays. Goodman provides the movie with its much-needed scenes of comic support, and he proves to be as entertaining here as he was in “Argo.”

Bruce Greenwood, who increasingly lends the movies he appears in a strong integrity, is also really good as Whip’s longtime friend, Charlie Anderson. Also showing up in a small but pivotal role is the great Melissa Leo whose sweet voice can’t hide her relentless pursuit of the truth as FAA investigator Ellen Block.

I didn’t think I’d see another movie in 2012 other than Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” which offered an equal amount of complex characters in ambiguous situations. As a result, “Flight” turned out to be a big surprise for me as it challenges viewers in ways a strong dramatic film should. It offers us yet another great Denzel Washington performance, and it reminds us of what a terrific director Robert Zemeckis can be regardless of whether or not the characters in his films are computer generated.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Calvary

calvary-movie-poster

Calvary” is one of those movies which left me in a deep state of contemplative silence after it was over. While it is advertised as a darkly comic tale, and it does have some funny moments, it is really a serious story about sin, faith, and of what it means to be a good person in this day and age. I am always fascinated with movies about Catholics as they deal with characters who suffer psychologically, who are always caught up in one sin or another, and who can’t deal with the state of the world today in a relatively sane manner. The word Calvary is defined as an experience or an occasion of extreme suffering, especially mental suffering, and it is the perfect title for this particular movie.

The character who suffers most in “Calvary” is Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), and the movie opens with him listening to an unseen parishioner who confesses to being sexually abused by a priest when he was a boy. But then the conversation takes a sinister turn when the parishioner tells Father James he will kill him in a week. When Father James asks why, the parishioner tells him it is because he is a good man as well as a good priest, and a good priest’s death will have a far more devastating impact on the Catholic Church. From there, Father James has a week to settle his affairs with the townspeople and his family, and hopefully give him time to discover the identity of his purported assailant. But more than anything else, we will see his faith in the things he believes in get tested more than ever before.

“Calvary” takes place in the small Irish town of Sligo where everyone seems to know one another quite intimately. The more we get to know the town’s inhabitants, the more it seems like any of them could be the one who wants to murder Father James. They all have problems in their lives which have led them to lose their faith or belief in God, and while they come to Father James for help, they also tease and question him over his supposed rule over the town and for supporting a church forever tarnished by scandal.

The movie was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, brother of the insanely talented playwright Martin McDonagh. It’s tempting to think John would be suffering endlessly under his famous brother’s shadow especially after “In Bruges,” but he has already found his voice thanks to his previous film “The Guard.” With “Calvary,” he goes even deeper to explore issues of faith in a time where virtue seems like it’s in such short supply. As good hearted as Father James is, he is surrounded by people who have been scarred deeply by life and have sinned in one way or another. Heck, there are even people who go out of their way to flout their sins in his face just to see how he will react.

What’s really shocking about “Calvary” is John has gotten away with creating a truly good priest. Father James proves to be a good-natured man right from the start, and it made me realize how we don’t always see good characters like these in movies these days. Most characters we typically see are antiheroes or deeply flawed human beings struggling for some form of redemption, and it feels like filmmakers avoid using good characters in their movies for the fear of them appearing quite dull. This is not to say that Father James is not without his own flaws, but even when he waivers you feel his goodness flowing throughout, and you pray he doesn’t falter in the face of what seems at times like a godless town.

John also struck gold by casting Brendan Gleeson as Father James as the actor gives one of the very best performances of his career here. What I love about Gleeson here is he inhabits his character more than he plays him. From start to finish, he is simply Father James, and he gives this character an unforced naturalism which looks easy to portray, but in actuality is quite difficult to pull off. One scene which stands out is when Father James befriends a young girl whom he finds walking along the road by herself, only to be interrupted by the girl’s father who suspects this Catholic priest of being up to no good. It’s a painful moment as we, the audience, have gotten to know Father James quite well, and Gleeson makes the character’s wounded feelings all the more palpable.

Gleeson is also surrounded by a top-notch cast as well. Kelly Reilly, so good in “Eden Lake” and “Flight,” plays Father James’ daughter Fiona who was at one time suicidal and is now very eager to repair her relationship with her dad. From that description, this could have been a subplot overrun by a plethora of clichés, but Reilly invests her character with a wounded strength, and her scenes with Gleeson are wonderfully moving.

We all remember Chris O’Dowd from his star-making performance in “Bridesmaids,” and he is stunning here as Jack, the local butcher who doesn’t seem to mind his wife constantly cheating on him. O’Dowd has some funny moments here, but his role is a serious one as he constantly dares Father James to prove to him there is a god. It should be no surprise O’Dowd is as good as he is in “Calvary,” but then again, we still live in a world where most people think doing comedy is easy while making people cry is hard (it’s the other way around folks).

Irish comedian Dylan Moran successfully wrings the complexity out of his character Michael Fitzgerald, an extremely wealthy man whose life seems to have lost all its meaning. You also have Aidan Gillen here as the gleefully atheist surgeon Dr. Frank Harte, Marie Josee Croze as French tourist Teresa who suffers an unspeakable tragedy, Isaach de Bankole as car mechanic Simon Asamoah who does not like to be bossed around, David Wilmot as the good-natured but rather oblivious Father Leary, Pat Short as the incensed barman Brendan Lynch, Gary Lydon as shady detective Inspector Gerry Stanton, Killian Scott who plays the lovesick Milo, and Orla O’Rourke as the butcher’s flagrantly unfaithful wife Veronica. You even have veteran actor M. Emmet Walsh showing up here as American novelist Gerard Ryan, and even Brendan’s son Domhnall Gleeson shows up, and he looks completely unrecognizable by the way, as serial killer Freddie Joyce.

Every single actor in “Calvary” gives an exceptional performance. It doesn’t matter how big or small the roles are because all are very well written, and each actor seizes the material with tremendous passion. Every character is fully realized here, and no one looks to be off their acting game for one second.

While “Calvary” is a kind of whodunit story, it really doesn’t matter if you know the identity of the person threatening Father James long before it’s revealed because it’s not the point. What matters is how Father James struggles to maintain his faith as dark forces continually close in around him, and you pray he doesn’t lose an ounce of it in the movie’s climax. In the process, John forces you to question your own faith and of what means to be a good person in an increasingly cynical world.

“Calvary” does end on an ambiguous note which may annoy some members of the audience, but I happen to like ambiguous endings, and the one here is perfect. No, it doesn’t provide us with an easy answer, but so what? Not all movies are meant to have easy answers, and this one certainly wouldn’t benefit from any. Every once in a while, it is a good to watch a movie which really forces you to think long and hard about what you just saw.

If nothing else, John came up with a lot of great quotes which will stay with the viewer long after the movie has ended. My favorite has already been spoiled by the movie’s trailer:

“I think there’s too much talk about sins to be honest and not enough talk about virtues.”

Never has a truer line been spoken in a movie released in 2014.

* * * * out of * * * *

Click here to read an exclusive interview I did with John Michael McDonagh on “Calvary.”