Steven Knight on Tobey Maguire, Bobby Fischer and ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2014.

Pawn Sacrifice,” the movie about Bobby Fischer’s quest to beat the Russians in the game of chess, proves to be another cinematic triumph for both Edward Zwick and Tobey Maguire. Another person who deserves credit for this movie’s critical success is Steven Knight who wrote the screenplay. Knight’s previous writing credits include David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises,” Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things” and John Crowley’s “Closed Circuit,” and he wrote and directed “Hummingbird” which starred Jason Statham. He also wrote and directed “Locke” which featured Tom Hardy in what proved to be one of the most underrated movies of 2014.

I got to sit in on an interview with Knight while he was in Los Angeles, California at the Four Seasons Hotel to promote “Pawn Sacrifice,” and it was really nice to talk with him again after having interviewed him about “Locke” for the website We Got This Covered. His screenplay showed how well researched he was in Bobby Fischer and the world championship games he ended up playing against the Soviet chess grandmaster Boris Spassky.

Ben Kenber: I read that when you found out Tobey Maguire was going to be playing Bobby Fischer in this movie that it made it easier for you to write the script.

Steven Knight: Yeah, well it was Tobey who came to me with the idea, so from the outset it was always going to be Tobey playing Bobby. That really helped because this is about a battle being fought with the face if you like. It’s the intensity of the movement, and Tobey has got that intensity so much.

BK: Boris Spassky (played by Liev Schreiber) is an interesting character as presented in this movie. This could have easily become a good guy/bad guy story, but the movie avoids that thank goodness.

SK: Yeah because that wasn’t the case. If anything, Bobby was the bad guy. He was the one with the unreasonable demands. He was the one everyone chased around for reasons that we know. But Boris was a decent person, and when he applauds at the end of game six you realize that this is a man who knows how to lose and have the dignity. If there’s any message about this Cold War, it’s that when two human beings can overcome that conflict.

BK: It’s almost scary to think about how Bobby would’ve handled fame if he were to become famous in this day and age because there would have been nowhere for him to hide.

SK: No, definitely not. If he came along today, he would get the best agent and he would get the best lawyers. They would come to him. He wouldn’t choose. They would get him than make a fortune.

BK: The last image of the movie, when Bobby Fischer wins and gets what he wants, has haunted me ever since because it’s all downhill for him from there. It’s sad to see that he’s not able to enjoy the success he earned.

SK: Yeah, and the image that’s always in my mind was he’s been running away and he’s hit a brick wall, and now they are gonna get him.

BK: It’s interesting that the movie ends there instead of following Bobby and observing what happened to him afterwards. It could almost make for a good sequel.

SK: It would make for an odd sequel (laughs).

Thanks to Steven Knight for taking the time to talk about what went into his screenplay for “Pawn Sacrifice,” and I look forward to what he has in store for us next. The movie is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW I DID WITH STEVEN KNIGHT ABOUT HIS FILM LOCKE.\

Edward Zwick on the Pressures of Fame and ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2014. This is worth noting especially when the director mentions a particular individual who has become far too famous for his or anyone else’s good.

Edward Zwick has remained one of Hollywood’s best and perhaps most underappreciated directors as he has given us such great motion pictures like “Glory,” “The Last Samurai,” “Blood Diamond” and “Legends of the Fall.” With “Pawn Sacrifice,” he takes us back to the Cold War when American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) took on the Soviet Empire and its chess grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in a 21-game competition in an effort to end the Soviet’s domination of the game. But as Bobby contemplates which moves he could make on the chess board, he also has to deal with his mental illness and paranoia which may descend him into a realm of madness he won’t be able to escape from.

Zwick sat down for an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California to talk about “Pawn Sacrifice,” working with Maguire and the genius of Bobby Fischer. As the interview went on, it focused more on the subject of fame and how crushing it can be. Bobby was really one of the first people who had to endure a type of fame which followed him all around the world, and we eventually saw what this attention did to him.

What’s up Hollywood reporter Izumi Hasegawa brought up the fact that, while this movie takes place back in 1972, it deals with celebrity in a way which feels very relevant to what’s going on today. We see artists like Miley Cyrus gaining notoriety for doing things which Hannah Montana would never do, and Zwick really made clear why we remain so deeply interested in famous people and the effect fame has on them.

Edward Zwick: We’re fascinated by the darker sides. We are fascinated when they reveal themselves in a way that is vulnerable or fragile or they have some sort of failures. I think we seize on that, and this was the very beginning of that. The person to ask about that too would be Tobey (Maguire) because he has had to deal with a share of it as an iconic superhero. I think that people of extraordinary ambition and single-mindedness reach a place that, at the same time, makes them more vulnerable to that glare. And as they try to retire from that glare and they turn inward, there is often this weird reaction and I’ve seen it with a lot of people I have worked with and it’s hard to describe. Most people who become artists to begin with, or who aspire to greatness, there’s often some vulnerability at the base that gets exposed, I think.

“Pawn Sacrifice” was released in a year which has seen documentaries made on the lives of Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and Nina Simone; three brilliant artists whose lives were tragically destroyed because they couldn’t handle the pressures of fame which was thrust upon them. Since Bobby never had to deal with his likeness being plastered all over the internet, it’s tempting to say he got off easy, but this was not the case. Like those three, Bobby didn’t and couldn’t deal very well with fame as it isolated him more and more from the rest of humanity, and I remarked to Zwick how watching Maguire portray the chess prodigy here made me wonder how he would have dealt with fame in this day and age.

Edward Zwick: I think it would have been insufferable. Even the reason he disappeared even then was in some sense a reaction to that kind of scrutiny. It’s become so barbaric. I look at Donald Trump right now and I see someone who is now being considered in the political arena as legitimate who is famous for being famous. Not for his policies, good or bad, but because it is so important now in the culture to be famous or to be known, and he is now transitioning into this most serious realm. We’ve almost reached that height of absurdity.

What Zwick said rings absolutely true as our obsession with celebrities keeps getting bigger and bigger to where we are more likely to know who won the latest season of “American Idol” than the name of our current governor. This makes “Pawn Sacrifice” all the more important to watch, and it is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

BE SURE TO ALSO CHECK OUT THE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW I HAD WITH EDWARD ZWICK WHICH I DID FOR THE WEBSITE WE GOT THIS COVERED DOWN BELOW

Mary Elizabeth Winstead on Playing a Recovering Alcoholic in ‘Smashed’

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

She charmed us in “Death Proof,” “Live Free or Die Hard” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” but now Mary Elizabeth Winstead gets the most complex role of her character to date in “Smashed.” In the movie she plays Kate Hannah, an elementary school teacher who is also a raging alcoholic. After one night where she even goes as far as to smoke crack, Kate finds she needs to turn her life around really quick. Her path to sobriety is not an easy one as it makes her question the relationships in her life, especially the one she has with her husband Charlie (“Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul) which appears to revolve around their mutual love of getting drunk.

Winstead did a lot to prepare for this role as she visited many Alcoholic Anonymous group meetings and talked to the people there. She was also aided by one of the movie’s writers and a co-producer who were in recovery themselves, and they made her feel like she was not coming into this project dishonestly. Hearing Winstead talk about her research ends up illustrating the diversity of one particular city in California.

“L.A. is a great place to do it, because it’s such a big city, and every neighborhood is very specific as far as the different types of people who live there,” Winstead said. “So, every meeting I went to was completely different. I went to one that was like six people, and they were all men in their 60’s, totally working class, totally not L.A. Then I went to one in West Hollywood that was a lot of industry people, and I went to a huge women’s meeting where everyone was hugging and laughing. And it was great just seeing people share and talk about themselves and talking about their darkest moments in front of bunch of people and having it be totally accepted. It was an honor for me to be a part of that and to see that and it was a big first step for me into realizing how much I related to their struggle, and how much of a universal struggle it is.”

Among the most challenging scenes for Winstead comes when her character is drunk. Now playing drunk may look easy for an actor to do, but it is actually quite the opposite. The trick is to make the act of drunkenness believable to the audience you are presenting it to, but it can be easily overdone to where you can look utterly foolish. Winstead admitted she had never played drunk onscreen before, and she was terrified that she would look terrible doing it. She and James Ponsoldt (the director of “Smashed”) ended up consulting an acting coach in order to get it down right.

“Together we found this coach named Ivana Chubbuck who has this book called ‘The Power of the Actor’ and she has a chapter specifically dedicated to playing drunk,” Winstead said. “We sat in a couple of classes, and we did one of the scenes in her class as well, so we used her method a lot for that. And that was really helpful because we just didn’t want it to feel like acting. How do you not act drunk, but not really be drunk? That’s a difficult thing to pull off.”

One thing which makes “Smashed” really unique in the annals of addiction movies is how Kate is not the usual face of onscreen addiction. Winstead described Kate as being a full character and one she could really relate to despite her ongoing problems.

“What was great about it was that this was one of the only roles that I have ever read in a script where the female lead character is such a full person. You get to see so many sides of her personality,” Winstead said. “For me, I can be all of those types of people. I have a lot of different traits to my personality, depending on who I’m around, and what the dynamic in the situation is. So, to get to play a character where you get to see every single shade of who she is, is very rare. That was really exciting to me. So, I always felt as though I was her, just different sides of her.”

What also aided Winstead in this role was how Ponsoldt made the actors feel very free on set to where it almost seems like they are not even working with a script. Winstead made clear how much of what we see in “Smashed” is in fact scripted, but there were some unscripted moments which did make it into the final cut.

“I think part of the reason it feels so real is that it felt like the camera was always rolling,” Winstead said. “We were always in character and we were always going off script and back on and off and back on. So, it never felt like: ‘Cut! We’re ourselves now.’ It didn’t have that break: ‘We’re going to go back to our trailer, see you later.’ It was never like that. We were always on set, we were always in character, and we were always working toward making it authentic.”

Mary Elizabeth Winstead admits she has struggled long and hard to find roles which are as good as the one she plays in “Smashed.” Coming out of it, she wonders if she will ever find a role like this ever again, and this is very understandable considering what a highly competitive arena show business is. Her performance as Kate Hannah, however, earned her serious Oscar buzz ever since the movie was shown at the Sundance Film Festival, and it is highly unlikely people will forget Winstead’s revelatory turn once they have left the theater.

SOURCES:

Kevin Jagernauth, “‘Smashed’ Star Mary Elizabeth Winstead On How She Learned To Play Drunk, The Emotional Rollercoaster Of The Role & More,” Indiewire, October 11, 2012.

Karen Benardello, “Interview with Mary Elizabeth Winstead on ‘Smashed,’” We Got This Covered, October 9, 2012.

Christopher Rosen, “Mary Elizabeth Winstead, ‘Smashed’ Star, On The Lack Of Female Roles In Hollywood & ‘Die Hard 5,’” Huffington Post, October 10, 2012.

Jennifer Lopez on Playing Leslie Rodgers in ‘Parker’

Jennifer Lopez in Parker

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.

Jennifer Lopez has been so deeply involved in the music business for the last few years to where it is easy to forget she is also an actress. Now that her stint on “American Idol” is over, she gets the opportunity to be an actress again in Taylor Hackford’s “Parker.” In it she plays Leslie Rogers, an unsuccessful real estate agent and recent divorcee who has been dealt an unlucky hand in life and is forced to live with her overbearing mother Ascension (Patti LuPone) almost against her will. While “Parker” itself is not a great movie, it allows Lopez to give her best performance since she acted opposite George Clooney in “Out of Sight.”

The part of Leslie Rogers came to Lopez while she was filming a season of “American Idol,” and it made her realize what was missing from her life at that point. In talking with Nina Terrero of NBC Latino, she explained how she was drawn to “Parker’s” screenplay, and being on the set of this movie made her realize how much she wanted to go back to doing this kind of work.

“To be honest, I had been doing music, releasing two albums,” Lopez said. “And when I got the chance to do this movie between two seasons of ‘Idol,’ I realized how much I really missed acting; I hadn’t done enough of it over the past few years.”

“When they offered me a third season of ‘Idol,’ I just had to say no,” Lopez continued. “I made the decision that I was going to go back on tour and after that focus on film for the next few years. It’s just the perfect time in my life with the things that I’ve lived and the things I’ve experienced. I have so much to offer as an actor at this point in my life. I’m going to make music and I’m going to focus on my artistry.”

Filming “Parker” came also came around the time Lopez was divorcing from her husband of seven years, Marc Anthony. Now many have been quick to dismiss Lopez’s performance here as they have gotten so used to seeing her being so glamorous whenever she is in public. Regardless, she has been through a rough and tumble time, before and after she became famous, which people in general are not quick to acknowledge. She explained this in more detail during her interview with Terrero.

“We’re both human beings who’ve gone through hard and difficult times,” Lopez said of the similarities between herself and her character. “At this particular time, she’s recently divorced, a little desperate. When I was filming this role, I had similar feelings. I had recently decided to divorce and it was hard to get out of bed and go to the set every day. I knew what those feelings were, to feel your world was falling apart.”

Hackford himself had zero hesitation about casting Lopez in “Parker.” While it might seem rather odd to see this particular superstar playing a down on her luck character, Hackford had known her long enough to be aware of how she had to fight hard to get to where she is now. He made this clear to me during my one-on-one interview with him.

“I know who that person is, she’s for real,” Hackford said of Lopez. “You see the glamorous person out there in the world of entertainment, rich and famous and a lot of times you get a bad rap because people are jealous. But Jennifer’s the real person. She was a dancer and they can just work and work and work.”

“I trusted the fact that she was good, but I didn’t realize how good she is. She’s a fantastic actress. She walks on the set, she frees herself of all of that Jennifer Lopez stuff and she embodies the character,” Hackford continued. “You tell Jennifer a note and BANG! It’s there in the next take. Not partially there, it’s there. You think, my God she got it, she understood it. Now part of that’s me because if you can’t explain what you want, how do you expect someone to do it? But the other part of it is she’s got an instrument that is real and very developed. She’s a much better actress now that she ever was before, and she’s also gone through some things in her life. She’s got some miles on the treads of those tires, and ultimately she’s incorporated that. I think she’s terrific in this movie.”

Still, Lopez did show some hesitation in her scene with Jason Statham, who plays Parker of the movie’s title, where she has to strip down to her underwear to show him she is not wearing a wire. Even though Lopez said she spent a lot of time eating right and working out before filming this sequence, she is no less nervous about doing stuff like that today than when she first started out in movies.

“Doing scenes like this one are so nerve-wracking,” Lopez said. “You have to get mentally ready because it’s a vulnerable state, being in front of a crew having to do a scene like that. My heart beats getting ready for it, but you know at the end of the day it’s part of the job.”

Now many may still not be willing to give Jennifer Lopez the credit she deserves for her performance in “Parker,” but this will end up saying more about her critics than it will about her. Lopez actually proves to be quite believable as a divorcee who is trying to put her life back together with varying degrees of success, and she proves to be one of the things in this movie which actually works. At this point, her career can go in many different directions, and she is excited about the opportunities which are ahead of her.

“I always want my fans to be happy with what I do,” Lopez said. “But I don’t want to choose my projects based on what I think will please them. I choose projects that are I can excel in and that are real, not stuff that’s fake or forced. I don’t consider genre so much as having a great script, great director and great actors to play off of. Doing an intense drama scene can be as much fun as a romantic comedy. I enjoy all of it!”

SOURCES:

Nina Terrero, “Jennifer Lopez talks ‘Parker’ and her return to acting: ‘I have so much to offer,’” NBC Latino, January 22, 2013.

Ben Kenber, “Interview with Taylor Hackford on Parker,” We Got This Covered, January 25, 2013.

Ewan McGregor on Surviving ‘The Impossible’

Ewan McGregor in The Impossible

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.

While we endlessly applaud Naomi Watt’s emotional powerhouse of a performance in J.A. Bayona’sThe Impossible,” there’s no leaving out Ewan McGregor who is every bit as good. McGregor stars as Henry, husband to Watt’s character of Maria and the father of three young boys. After the Thailand beach resort they are staying at is laid waste by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Henry goes on a desperate search for Maria and his eldest son Lucas who are separated from him in its aftermath. McGregor convincingly portrays a man physically and emotionally battered by this horrific tsunami which destroyed thousands of lives, and he gives the movies of 2012 one of its most heartbreaking moments with a cell phone call back home.

I got to catch up with McGregor at the Los Angeles press day for “The Impossible” which took place at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. While there, he said what made him want to do the movie was the script by Sergio G. Sánchez which he described as “an amazing read.”

“I didn’t know that it was a true story when I read it but I was grabbed by how there was something very honest and true about it,” McGregor said. “So, when I found out that it was a true story, it wasn’t a surprise. Some of the lines of dialogue were very extraordinarily accurate and powerful.”

Now whereas Watts got to meet Maria Belon, the tsunami survivor her character was based on, McGregor admitted he did not get to meet his real-life counterpart before shooting began. While this might have put the actor at a disadvantage, he was still able to use his imagination for the role and did get the opportunity to talk to other survivors as well.

McGregor in real life is the father of four girls, and we could not help but wonder if he thought about what he would do if they were caught up in the tsunami. Acting sometimes has you asking questions you may not want to know the answers to, but those questions are still hard to ignore. McGregor’s performance feels so emotionally honest to where it seems like he did ask himself that question, but when we asked him if being a father affected his work here in any way, he made it clear to us what his acting process is.

“Well I suppose you’re always acting from two things: your imagination and your experience in life. But it’s not very nice to think about those things and I tried not to make myself think about my kids because I wouldn’t do that,” McGregor said. “But I had these great little boys, these three fantastic kids that Naomi and I were lucky to work with. I was able to think about them and we created this family that I believed in, and it felt that there was a reality to what we created that I was able to use. I just thought about them really and how desperate it would be to be in that situation.”

Speaking of which, McGregor considers his role in “The Impossible” to be the first film where he explores what it is to be a parent. Now while he may have played a dad in other movies, none of them spring to mind as quickly or are anywhere as memorable as this one. McGregor talked about this in more detail with Damon Wise of The Guardian and told him the only other film he could think of where he played a dad was “Nanny McPhee Returns.”

“I’ve certainly never made a film that felt to me like an exploration of that, of what it means to be a parent and that love you have for your kids,” McGregor told Wise. “This is something I’ve been experiencing for 16 years of my life, and it’s not in my work really anywhere. I thought – albeit a really extreme version of that – it was a nice way to look at that specific and unique love you have for your kids.”

“The Impossible” has been criticized in recent months for focusing more on an English family when the real-life family which inspired this movie was Spanish, and for also leaving the Thai people on the sidelines. Those who have seen the movie, however, can verify this criticism is not true and is deeply unfair to the filmmakers who have made a movie which is actually about many families and not just one. McGregor, in his conversation with Wise, was not the least bit surprised by this criticism and went on to describe it as being “not very clever.”

“The truth is it’s a story about this family, this western family, who are on holiday there. And that story is many, many people’s story,” McGregor explained. “But to say that it doesn’t tell the Thai people’s stories … Naomi’s character is saved by a Thai man, and taken to safety in a Thai village where the Thai women dress her. It’s one of the most moving scenes in the film, really. In the hospital they’re all Thai nurses and Thai doctors – you see nothing but Thai people saving lives and helping. Most of the survivors we spoke to had nothing but amazing things to say about the Thai response to the tsunami, in that they mobilized themselves very quickly.”

Ewan McGregor’s defense of “The Impossible” speaks volume of how emotionally involved he became with the film’s story, and it resulted in one of the very best performances he has given to date. Whether or not he gets serious Oscar consideration for his work, you will never be able to forget the impact he has on you here. And once again, the scene where he’s on the cell phone will break your heart.

SOURCES:

Ben Kenber, “Interview With Ewan McGregor On The Impossible,” We Got This Covered, December 19, 2012.

Damon Wise, “Ewan McGregor: ‘The Impossible is my first film about being a parent,'” The Guardian, December 27, 2012.

James Patterson on Alex Cross and Bringing Him to the Silver Screen

Alex Cross movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is in regards to a press day which took place in 2012.

It has been over ten years since the last Alex Cross movie, “Along Came a Spider,” made it to the big screen. But now director Rob Cohen, who directed “The Fast and The Furious,” has brought the heroic detective and psychologist back in a reboot which is simply entitled “Alex Cross.” No one appears to be happier about Cross’ return to the world of film than the man who created him, James Patterson. The writer was recently at a press junket for “Alex Cross” at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, and he shared his thoughts on the new movie and the character he created.

James Patterson: I think it turned out great. Summit Entertainment (which is distributing it) has been fabulous to work with and they didn’t get in the way. They were helpful and supportive in every aspect. I think Rob did a terrific job especially given the budget ($24 million) which was not enormous and about a quarter of what he’s used to.

There was also the talk of Tyler Perry taking over the role of Alex Cross from Morgan Freeman who portrayed the character in both “Kiss the Girls” and “Along Came a Spider.” Many were baffled as to why Perry was cast, and they were also intrigued as to what Patterson thought about him in the role instead of Freeman.

JP: Morgan is Morgan, but Tyler is much closer to the character in the books. The character in the books is bigger, he’s physical and he’s bright and I think Tyler did a great job. I think he’s going to blow people’s minds with this. When I went to Atlanta to meet with him, he said to me “James, I wouldn’t do this if I wasn’t sure that I could pull it off. And I’m going to give myself over to Rob. I’m not going to be the director.” And I think that’s what he did, and he took off some weight and bulked up as well.

As for Freeman, Patterson said the actor was never contacted about this movie. Like everyone else, he thinks Freeman is a wonderful actor but remarked how he is now 77 years old, and having him play a detective at that age was not going to work this time as Cross is around the age of 40 in the books.

Patterson was actually involved in the production of “Alex Cross” and even wrote the first draft of the screenplay. He had a lot of input as he owns 40% of the movie, but he was also able to step back and stay out of the way which he said is “the most useful thing that you can do sometimes.” The script did change a lot from what he originally wrote, and Patterson said he was perfectly alright with that.

When asked how he created Alex Cross, Patterson said he grew up in a town which eventually became known as “the murder capital of New York State,” and it was half black and half white. His experiences in this town enforced his reaction to the way blacks were treated in the media.

JP: I felt for a long time that the way movies were portraying African Americans was kind of stupid. I wanted to create a hero who really was a hero; an African American guy who is bright and anti all the stereotypes. Here’s a guy who’s taking care of his family, and this movie gets more into family than the first two did. He’s taking care of his kids, he’s cool with their grandmother, he’s well educated and a graduate of John Hopkins University, etc. So, I just wanted to go against the stereotypes, and I think that has worked and that’s what I’m happy about.

Returning to the movie, Patterson said one of the things which makes “Alex Cross” especially good is it has moments that are “really emotional,” and you don’t always have those moments in a film like this.

JP: Film crews can sort of not really be into the movie they’re working on that much, but there were times where they were watching the monitor and they were crying. It was very very emotional stuff and I think that’s unusual in a movie like this.

In talking about Matthew Fox who plays Michael “Picasso” Sullivan, Patterson described him as terrific and that his performance is one of the best and most original things about the movie.

JP: I think Matthew wanted to show everyone that he had this tremendous range which he does, and he wanted to be a bad guy. Once he got the part, he really pushed it. He took off a lot of weight because he wanted to have a certain look, and he was the madman.

Patterson believes what makes “Alex Cross” work so well as a movie was everyone went into it with a real hunger to do it. Cohen wanted a hit, Perry wanted to do something different and to show he had different skills than people thought he had, QED International (one of companies producing the movie) wanted to do something which would be a break out hit, and Patterson himself wanted another movie made about this character.

JP: Everyone was hungry and I always think that’s great. That does tend to produce a pretty good product.”

This was certainly the case here as “Alex Cross” proved to be a riveting action thriller with great performances from the entire cast and a lot of real emotion which never feels faked. Here’s hoping it finds the audience it deserves when it is released on October 19, 2012.

Click on the links below to check out the exclusive interviews I did with two people involved with the making of “Alex Cross.” These are interviews I conducted on behalf of the website We Got This Covered.

Rob Cohen

Ed Burns

Jamie Foxx on Saddling Up For ‘Django Unchained’

Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2013.

It was a role originally meant for Will Smith, but after watching “Django Unchained” it will be hard to think of any actor who could have played Django better than Jamie Foxx. The Oscar-winning actor came from the world of comedy where he has done hilarious work, but he continues to impress us with one terrific dramatic performance after another in films like “Collateral,” “Ali” and “Any Given Sunday.” The role of Django is one of the biggest and most challenging Foxx has taken on, and he convincingly takes this character from being a helpless slave to becoming a slick bounty hunter in splendid fashion.

When it comes to working with Quentin Tarantino, he’s always ready to show his actors movies they can base their characters on. Foxx was no exception to this, and Tarantino got him to watch Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Spaghetti Western “Django,” a movie which serves as one of “Django Unchained’s” biggest inspirations. It starred Franco Nero as a coffin-dragging gunslinger who comes into town and gets caught up in a feud between the KKK and a bunch of Mexican bandits. While talking with Rebecca Murray of About.com, Foxx explained what impact watching “Django” had on him as well working with Nero who has a cameo in “Django Unchained.”

“I was like, wow, it was amazing. And then to actually have the original Django in the movie. I don’t know if you’ve ever met him but he was the biggest star on the set,” Foxx told Murray. “For him to give his blessing, and I think it really follows true to it and I think that’s what’s going to be the pleasant surprise to people, that it’s a Western and that it stays along the lines of a Western that happens to be in the backdrop of slavery. Slavery almost becomes secondary at a certain point because at the beginning it’s traditional, slave. Then once he becomes this bounty hunter, that’s the backdrop. Now it’s about revenge and about getting this girl, so he stayed true to that and that’s cinematic.”

While at the “Django Unchained” press conference, Foxx made it clear he was ever so eager to work with Tarantino on it. He had no qualms about playing a slave, and what attracted him to the role was Django’s uprising. Movies have always been an outlet for the artists who make them and the audiences that watch them, and Foxx explained what makes this one particularly cathartic.

“When you see movies about slavery…we never get a chance to see the slave actually fight back, actually do for himself, and in this movie there are a lot of firsts,” Foxx said.

Despite the fact it is a genre movie and a revenge fantasy of sorts, “Django Unchained” does deal with America’s dark history of slavery. Tarantino never sugar coats it for mass audience consumption, but then again, why should anyone? It’s an ugly part of the past we’d like to ignore, but it needs to be acknowledged so we can learn from it in the hopes of never repeating it again. As a result, the movie has been greeted with controversy over its subject matter and the frequent use of the n-word with many people (and not just Spike Lee) complaining loudly about it. But Foxx, in an interview with Keith Staskiewicz of Entertainment Weekly, said he is not surprised at the strong response “Django Unchained” has been getting and doesn’t think anyone else should be either.

“You know it’s going to be controversial!” Foxx told Staskiewicz. “That’s what’s been blowing my mind, people saying, did you know this was going to be controversial? It’s like, come on man! Did you read the script? Why would Quentin Tarantino do anything that wasn’t controversial? What movie of his have you seen where you went, oh, this is a Hallmark Movie and rated G? That’s not what you sign up for. You don’t sign up for that.”

Still, Foxx admitted it was a tough movie to make considering part of it was shot at the Evergreen Plantation in Louisiana. It was at this same plantation where slaves were made to work, and they suffered and toiled under brutal conditions. Being there must have been deeply unsettling for everyone involved in the movie’s making, and it certainly had a strong impact on Foxx which he wasn’t about to ignore.

“It’s tough shooting when you’re in plantation row and that’s where your ancestors were persecuted and killed, and we were respectful of that,” Foxx told Staskiewicz.

Regardless of the controversy, “Django Unchained” proved to be one of the most entertaining movies of 2012 thanks to Tarantino’s clever screenplay and direction, and also because of the sensational performances from the cast. Jamie Foxx can add Django to his roster of great screen roles in a career which still has many more to be revealed. Foxx also made a very good point about the film’s subject matter to Adam Edelman of the New York Daily News which people really need to think about.

“Every two, three years there is a movie about the Holocaust because they want you to remember and they want you to be reminded of what it was,” Foxx said. “When was the last time you seen a movie about slavery?”

 

SOURCES:

Rebecca Murray, “Interview with Jamie Foxx from ‘Django Unchained,'” About.com

Matt Donato, “Interview With The Cast Of Django Unchained,” We Got This Covered

Keith Staskiewicz, “‘Django Unchained’: Jamie Foxx on portraying slavery and filming on an actual plantation,” Entertainment Weekly, December 14, 2012.

Adam Edelman, “‘Django Unchained’ star Jamie Foxx: ‘Every single thing in my life is built around race,'” New York Daily News, December 14, 2012.

Jessica Chastain on Portraying an Infinitely Determined CIA Agent in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

It’s utterly fascinating to watch Jessica Chastain go from playing the embodiment of grace in “The Tree of Life” to portraying a willfully determined CIA agent in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The role of Maya represents a huge change of pace for her as she gives this character a razor-sharp focus as she relentlessly pursues Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice, and she is riveting to watch throughout the movie’s two and a half hour running time. After watching Chastain in Kathryn Bigelow’s critically acclaimed film, I am convinced she can play any role given to her.

I was lucky enough to go the “Zero Dark Thirty” press conference which was held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Chastain said she had three months to prepare for this role, and she went through the screenplay with its writer Mark Boal throughout the production. She ended up nicknaming Boal “the professor” as he had spent several years doing research on the Bin Laden manhunt, and he clearly knows as much as anyone should on the subject. But the real challenge Chastain faced in playing Maya was the fact this character was based on a woman she could not meet, and this forced her to get especially creative.

“Because I was never able to meet the real woman my character’s based on because she’s an undercover agent, I had to use my imagination to fill in the blanks where the research couldn’t answer the questions,” Chastain said. “I tried to answer things like why she was recruited out of school. There’s a child’s drawing in Pakistan and other certain things which would be reminders of the life she was becoming a stranger to. I had to create on my own but still stay faithful to the woman I am portraying.”

One of the most talked about elements of “Zero Dark Thirty” are the torture scenes which have given some the impression that Bigelow has made a pro-torture movie (she has not). Acting in those scenes could not have been much fun, and Chastain acknowledged this in an interview with Christine Kearney of Reuters. In talking about her experience, Chastain makes it clear nobody was about glamourize this part of the story and how it made her fully aware of the differences between her and Maya.

“We filmed in a real Jordanian prison, in the middle of nowhere. The environment wasn’t great, especially as a woman,” Chastain told Kearney. “They had a lot of trust between the actors, nothing was dangerous or unsafe. There was a lot of discussion to make sure that we weren’t doing something that was going to be salacious. They just wanted it to be accurate.”

“I know I am playing a character who has trained to be unemotional. But I have spent my entire life allowing myself to be emotional, and allowing myself to feel everything,” Chastain continued. “There was actually one day that we were doing a scene, and I said, ‘I am sorry’ and I just had to walk away, and I just started crying … it was a very intense experience.”

Chastain is a classically trained actress who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Julliard, one of the most prestigious performing arts conservatories in the United States. Now I have heard people say how actors can get trained too much at schools like this one to where they can’t appear natural in film and television. I am always annoyed to hear someone, let alone anyone, say this, so it’s great to see Chastain prove them wrong with her Oscar worthy performance. While at the press conference, she explained how being a student at Julliard prepared her for a movie like “Zero Dark Thirty.”

“I spent four years studying Shakespeare and iambic pentameter and all that, and to be honest this text was more difficult than that,” Chastain said of the screenplay. “Not only has Mark taken the facts of what happened, but he’s also created a subtle character arc within it, and you find the humanity within what he’s created. So Julliard absolutely helped me when preparing to speak very complex language and it gave me the tools for the research I would need to do in order to be believable as a CIA agent.”

What’s beautiful about Chastain’s performance is not just how she takes Maya from being out of her element to becoming an obsessed CIA agent, but also how she imbues the character with such a strong humanity. Chastain also makes us respect not just Maya, but all those who worked diligently alongside her behind the scenes to bring down Bin Laden and continue to fight against terrorists both foreign and domestic. In talking with George Pennacchio of ABC News, Chastain sees her performance as a tribute to the real-life person her character is based on.

“She worked for a decade; she gave up so much. She basically became a servant to her work,” Chastain told Pennacchio. “In a way, making this movie is like acknowledging the sacrifices she’s made and thanking her for what she’s done.”

SOURCES:

Ben Kenber, “Interview with Jessica Chastain, Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow On Zero Dark Thirty,” We Got This Covered, December 18, 2012.

Christine Kearney, “A Minute With: Jessica Chastain on ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’” Reuters, December 19, 2012.

George Pennacchio, “Jessica Chastain compares herself to ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ character,” ABC, December 19, 2012.

Matthew Goode on Portraying Such an Evil Character in ‘Stoker’

Matthew Goode in Stoker

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.

Matthew Goode’s performance as the enigmatic Uncle Charlie in “Stoker” brings to mind the one Joseph Cotton gave as Charlie Oakley in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt.” Both men show a pleasant and courteous exterior, but there’s something in their eyes which tells you they are really twisted. Goode has delivered many strong performances in movies like “Match Point,” “Watchmen” and “A Single Man,” but it’s going to be impossible to forget him after seeing him playing a very frightening sociopath in this one.

Now playing a character as evil as Uncle Charlie has got to be a lot of fun for actors, but at the same time they really can’t judge a character like this too much. Once they do, they fail to portray them in a truthful way and their performance eventually rings false. Goode, in an interview with Nigel M. Smith of Indiewire, however, made it clear he was not about to fall into the same trap.

“I’m not a method actor; I think that would be rather exhausting on this sort of a project. But I don’t judge the character; I think that’s safe to say,” Goode told Smith. “You’re conning yourself between action and take. I don’t think about it too much, I just do what you have to do. You know there’s a camera in your face, and there are times when you can just get completely lost in it and the take is over. Then sometimes it’s very choreographed and you have to get your head in there to match with someone’s eye line, and I love that. I love the technique.”

“So with a darker character like this, it’s quite fun,” Goode continued. “It’s something that’s very different to who I am. I’m not a sociopath and I don’t go around strangling people. It’s just like kids playing. That’s really what our job is. We haven’t grown up.”

The other important thing to remember with a role like this is not to play it as evil. Yes, Uncle Charlie is evil as can be, but to portray just that one side of him would make for a very boring performance. You have to look at this character like you would any other and examine their wants, needs and motivations. In doing so, you will give yourself different areas to explore, and your performance will be all the better for it. In talking with Katie Calautti of Spinoff Online, Goode explained how he went about preparing to play Uncle Charlie.

“You can’t just play bad,” Goode told Calautti. “I wouldn’t even know how to start playing bad, or what that even means – it’s so two-dimensional. So you have to find some sense, despite his despicable acts, some kind of psychological truth of why. And director Park (Chan-wook) talked about bad blood and the idea that there was a predisposition within the family bloodline to want or need to commit these acts, and where does evil come from, is it nature or nurture? And for me they’re all very lonely, isolated characters. So I felt like, as much as this is a coming-of-age story for Mia (Wasikowska’s) character, Charlie’s kind of trapped in the past.”

The best scene in “Stoker” comes when Goode joins Wasikowska on the piano, and the two engage in a duet which can be best described as beautifully intense. Watching these two actors duel with one another while pounding away at those black and white keys was exhilarating, and it was the one scene from this film I wanted to know the most about. Karen Benardello of We Got This Covered was at the film’s press conference and asked Goode what it was like shooting this particular scene.

“It became liberating in the end,” Goode said. “I hadn’t played the piano in 20-odd years. So coming back into the fold of the piano, it was unbelievably daunting. Luckily, I don’t have a bad-sized hand, so I didn’t have to leap or anything like that. But it was hard work, but it was great working with Mia. We learned about three quarters of it, because some of it was just too hard, and too much going on with both hands. But we were able to fake some of that, and he was able to shoot the whole thing from whatever angle he wanted. We kind of recognized that in the vocabulary of filmmaking. When someone starts playing, you think, is he actually playing that? (laughs) He was able to dip down, and you go, they are! It’s not a trick on the audience, so it was nice.”

Hopefully Matthew Goode’s performance in “Stoker” will help burn his name into our collective consciousness because every moment he is onscreen is filled with a rising tension which never lets up. While he doesn’t let you in on all his character’s secrets, you know he is like a snake waiting to strike. He has already worked with a number of well-known directors such as Woody Allen, Tom Ford and Zack Snyder, but Goode makes it clear how a lot of the opportunities which have come his way so far have been the result of sheer luck.

“I’m not the person who’s able to pick and choose their roles,” Goode said. “But I know that Nicole [Kidman], for example, has said that she’s interested now – there might be a film in the studio system, but she loves independent film and she thinks that’s much more where her desires are, and the films she kind of likes. And so I think she is able to say to herself, ‘I like to choose projects not only based on the material but also the filmmaker,’ which is wonderful for her. And I think I just happen to have been quite lucky in the fact that the material that I gravitate towards or the people that have thought I am going to be better suited to it – because it’s not my choice, they’ve picked me. I’ve been lucky as hell, and the parts have been quite varied.”

 

SOURCES:

Nigel M. Smith, “‘Stoker’ Star Matthew Goode On the Joys of Playing a Sociopath and Working for Park Chan-Wook,” Indiewire, March 5, 2013.

Katie Calautti, “‘Stoker’ Star Matthew Goode on Evil, Parenting and, Yes, Belts,” Spinoff Online, March 1, 2013.

Karen Benardello, “Interview with Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode And Chan-wook Park On ‘Stoker,'” We Got This Covered, March 8, 2013.

Naomi Watts on Portraying a Tsunami Survivor in ‘The Impossible’

Naomi Watts in The Impossible

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

Australian actress Naomi Watts gives an emotionally pulverizing performance in J.A. Bayona’sThe Impossible,” a film which chronicles one family’s struggle for survival in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. In it, Watts plays Maria, a doctor who is staying with her husband and children in a beautiful resort in Thailand for the Christmas holiday. This vacation comes to a horrific end when the tsunami decimates the country’s coastal zone and separates Maria and her son Lucas from the rest of her family. The role has Watts dealing with her fear of water, playing a character based on a real-life person, and the immense difficulty of shooting in not one, but two giant water tanks.

While at the movie’s press conference which was held at The Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Watts described playing Maria as being “the most physically, emotionally draining role” she has ever taken on since “King Kong.” Considering she has played such equally draining roles in “21 Grams” and “Mulholland Drive,” that’s saying a lot. After doing “King Kong” she said she would never take on a role like that again, but even she couldn’t say no this script or working with Bayona who made the acclaimed horror movie “The Orphanage.”

Unlike the tsunami sequence in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter,” the one in “The Impossible” was done with real effects and no CGI. This makes the sequence all the more harrowing to watch, and seeing Watts hang onto a tree for dear life while water keeps rushing furiously by here makes for one of the most emotionally intense sequences in any 2012 movie. In an interview with Steven Rea which was featured on the Philly.com website, Watts talked about what it was like shooting the sequence which itself took four weeks to complete.

“I didn’t know it was going to be so difficult,” Watts told Rea. “They had it all very well prepared – we had allegedly the second largest water tank in the world, and they had these giant cups that we were anchored into . . . so you were just above water level, you could use your head, and you can use your arms so you looked like you were swimming. . . . And you’re on this track, and then a giant wave was coming towards you . . . and then side pumps were shooting more water, and all the garbage and debris. . ..”

“So, it got increasingly difficult, and then we noticed that we couldn’t actually act, or speak,” Watts continued. “We were lucky if we could get one word out, and that word would be ‘LU-CAS!’ It was tough, and then the underwater stuff was even more difficult. That was very scary.”

You have to give Watts a lot of credit not just for the brave performance she gives, but also for how making this movie made her deal with her fear of water. This was not the result of watching “Jaws” several dozen times, but of a near drowning accident she had when a teenager. She related this story to NPR’s Melissa Block.

“When I was about 14, my family emigrated from England to Australia, and we decided to stop in Bali on the way through. And having grown up in England, we were not great swimmers and knew nothing about riptides,” Watts told Block. “Anyway, we got caught in a riptide, and I didn’t know what to do other than swim against it, and got to the point of exhaustion, and then just about gave up. But then my mother, somehow, miraculously found sand beneath her feet and just managed to pull me in. And so, as a result of that experience, I’ve always been afraid of the waves and strong currents, so it’s quite interesting that I ended up doing this.”

It’s very interesting indeed, and it makes you admire Watts all the more for playing this character. After learning about her near-death experience, it becomes clear the fear which crosses the actress’ face onscreen was not at all faked.

Another big challenge for Watts in playing this role was it was based on a real-life person, Maria Belon, who, along with her family, amazingly survived the tsunami which claimed thousands of lives, and she herself suffered some serious injuries which had her at death’s door a few times. It’s always intimidating to portray a person from real life, especially one who’s still alive and has been through an experience we are grateful not to have gone through ourselves. While at “The Impossible” press conference, Watts talked about what it was like to meet Belon.

“Originally when I met Maria, I was incredibly nervous and I didn’t know where to begin. I felt like, I’m just an actor and you have lived through this extraordinary horrendous thing, and I just don’t know where to start,” Watts said of their first meeting. “But we sat there in front of each other for five minutes, she didn’t feel the need to speak and I couldn’t, and then she started just welling up and the story was told just through a look. I started welling up and then we just thought okay, let’s get on with this, and she continued to speak for three and a half hours and time just went by like that.”

“She stayed with me the whole time,” Watts continued. “I don’t just mean physically, but we were connected. We sent emails back and forth, and she would write endless letters about all the details that took place. The thing that she talked about was her instinct and her ability to trust herself which I think we lose so often. I feel like I am full of self-doubt and second guessing which is why this story becomes an interesting one because you wonder how you would deal with this.”

Naomi Watt’s performance in “The Impossible” deserves a Purple Heart as much as it does an Oscar. As an actress, she appears to be plumbing the depths of her soul to pull off roles like this one, and I think she’s one of the bravest actresses working today. While she may be yearning to stay away from roles like this in the future, it’s hard to think of many other actresses who can go to the places she goes to portray raw emotion so honestly.

SOURCES:

Ben Kenber, “Interview with Naomi Watts On The Impossible,” We Got This Covered, December 19, 2012.

Steven Rea, “Naomi Watts endured physically harrowing work for ‘The Impossible,’” Philly.com, December 20, 2012.

Melissa Block, “Naomi Watts, Mulling ‘The Impossible,’” NPR, December 12, 2012.