12 Years a Slave is the most important American movie of the year. Based on the autobiography of Solomon Northrup, a cultured black northerner who was duped, kidnapped and then sold into slavery in 1841, the film immerses the viewer in the everyday brutality of the Antebellum South without reserve, without mawkishness, and certainly without the postmodern slapstick of last year’s Django Unchained. The steadfastness of its vision marks a watershed in the cinema of American slavery. Here, the film’s two principal actresses––mesmerizing newcomer Lupita Nyong’O and rising star Sarah Paulson––discuss how they landed their roles, the courage it took to enter such a harrowing story, and the focus required by the film’s notoriously demanding director, British filmmaker and visual artist Steve McQueen.
Lupita Nyong’O plays Patsy, a gorgeous slave-girl befriended by Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and victimized by Master Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his jealous wife (Paulson). When I sit down with the actress, it’s startling to meet a young woman glowing with both hope and excitement, so different from her character.
You went straight from an acting MFA to playing this role. That’s a big jump! How did you land the part?
I was just about to graduate from Yale’s drama school and I was finally allowed to go out for professional auditions. My manager received the script and thought I’d be good for it. We put me on tape in New York and then they called me in for an audition in LA. Which was a very hard one-hour audition. Finally I was sent down to Louisiana to audition for Steve [McQueen]. So it was three auditions in three different states.
When Steve chose you did you he say anything about what he saw in you?
In Louisana I had a one-hour on-camera audition and then we went out for tea and he just interrogated me about my life––who I was, everything. That evening he invited me for dinner with some of his fine art representation when Michael [Fassbender] suddenly appeared and joined the dinner party. I was very surprised about that. Maybe he was doing a chemistry read, I don’t know. The next day I went back to New Haven and he called me and said, “I’d like to offer you the part.” My knees went weak. I sat on the pavement and said, “I’d like to accept the part.” [Laughs.] The next thing he said was, “There’s a lot of work to do but I think you have it in you.” And that was it. I only found out after we were done filming that I was up against over a thousand other actresses.
Obviously it was a role you wanted, but it’s an extremely intense and courageous role for you to play. In a lot of Steve’s work, there’s a deep interest in the body and opening up the body to abjection. He asked a lot of you. What prepared you for that?
I think Yale, number one. It was Yale school of drama. There is no way I would have even got past the first audition if I hadn’t done my training there. I think it opened me up to a larger existence and gave me the courage––to fail. Because that is one of the biggest lessons. Sometimes you’re going to fail and that’s okay and life goes on. But you’ve got to try because that’s the only way you can fully lend yourself to other human experiences. And then there was trust in Steve. In watching Hunger and Shame and then meeting the man, I knew that he was in pursuit of truth. He was not taking advantage of me. I knew I was in good hands. And I could allow that kind of grief into my life because I was safe. Then there was also facing the fact that this was true. This was someone’s life who tread this earth. Someone like Patsy made it possible for me to be here today. Without these people and what they endured, I would not be on American soil and having the privilege of playing this role.
While we’re here in this intense place, I wanted to ask you about the long take in the middle of the film. Because that is one of the most intense and difficult things to watch as a viewer. So I can’t imagine what it would be like as an actor to perform. How did Steve prepare you?
That’s the thing about working with Steve and the culture of the set that Steve establishes. Steve demands the best. He expects the best. And everyone wants to give their best. Michael talks about a “vibration of focus” on set. It felt like everyone was taking ownership for their particular role at all times. Not just in that scene. Steve shoots everything in long shots. We always went from the beginning to the end of the scene. So that one for me as an actor was no different, to just go through it. And it was actually a favor to do it in one take because we didn’t have to do it many times. We had to be focused and get it. And believe me, I had reason to want to get it, because I didn’t want to have to do it too much. It was painful. Very, very painful.
The film depicts a world so different from your own experience––and the experience of all of the principal cast. How do you go into that world and come out of it every day?
I had rituals before and after every day of shooting. And still, in doing this film I didn’t sleep. I was an insomniac. At one point I had to take a sleeping pill because I was like, “If I don’t sleep, I’m going to lose my mind.” [Laughs.]. I was never really totally successful in leaving Patsy behind on set. There was always something that lingered, something of her pain. But the success was in trying to leave her behind. And also working with the other actors. We were in it together. As much as our characters were antagonized by each other in the drama, we were in it together and we needed each other to make it work. We took refuge in each other. We broke bread together, we had beers, we went go-carting. We had a bonding away from set. I think we owed it to the people we were playing to enjoy our freedom. And to always be reminded that we can step away from this.
Sarah Paulson plays Mary Epps, a cold-hearted, abusive matriarch. In person, the thirty-eight year old Florida-native comes across as a serious and thoughtful actress, committed to her craft..
How did Steve McQueen get in touch with you?
I auditioned. My agent sent me the script and said that they were about to cast another actress for the part, but if I wanted to be in the running I had until the next day to audition. I was in New York and the casting director was in LA so I made a tape and sent it off. Nowadays it’s not even a DVD, it is all online. You just press a button. But the next day I got a call saying that Steve McQueen was very intrigued––that was the word they used. Then I got a call two days after that saying he chose me.
Why do you think he chose you?
He said that he showed my audition tape to his daughter and his daughter was terrified of me. And that was a good indication that I might be the girl for the part. [Laughs.] I didn’t know what to make of that, but I thought, “I’ll take it.”
Does it require more courage to play a role that’s so morally twisted?
It’s funny. I have an actress-friend who read the script and said she couldn’t believe I said yes to the part. She thought the character was too horrible. I found that to be so curious because from an acting standpoint I never think about how things will end up. Will I be liked? Will I be vilified? Will I be hated? I don’t ask myself those questions. Will this be bad for my career because I’m playing a mean woman? I just thought it was an opportunity for me to do something I’d never done before. I’d never played a hard-hearted person before. So the questions I asked were about how to make her human. Or how to discover for myself her human motivations.
You said this was the first time you’d played a character like that. How different was it?
Well I’ve played people who are shut down, who are troubled. But I’d never played someone for whom coldness and cruelty was their default setting. I don’t think she’s a terrible person; I think she behaves terribly. And I came up with reasons for that. But I’d never played someone who’d always reach for the fire poker before she’d reach for the olive branch. That was very new.
Was there a scene that was the hardest to shoot––for you or for the crew?
The scene when Lupita is tied to the pole and whipped ruthlessly. It is a long scene that we’re all in. The focus changes in and out on people. The thing that I think is so great about the movie is that there aren’t constant close-ups to tell you what people are thinking. Instead you’re left with more of a mystery, the way life is. But that was a hard scene to shoot because there’s Lupita tied to a pole, helpless, and I had to stand there and be completely indifferent to it. That’s not an easy thing to do.
It’s such a long scene with no edits. Everyone has to be in character for the whole of it. What did you tell yourself before they started rolling?
I was trying to have Steve’s voice in my head, which was “Do not make excuses for her.” She is who she is. She’s a product of the time. She’s a product of her own bigoted upbringing. I don’t think she has the depth of character to challenge what she’s been taught. So she believes what she’s doing is right and just. And I had to get behind that fully. That’s the only way to get through those things is to attach yourself to your character’s commitment and then deal with your feelings about it afterwards when you’re in your trailer or hotel room. I felt the best way I could honor Solomon Northrop was to try to depict this woman as accurately as I could––in all of her horror. If I’d tried to do anything to make it more palatable I thought that would be a disservice to history.
Alexandre Moors grew up in the suburbs of Paris, painted graffiti, went to art school, and then came to America to make music videos for the likes of Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Lopez, and Talib Kweli. Moors’ debut feature, Blue Caprice, which explores the twisted father-son dynamics of the real-life Beltway snipers, keeps the strong emphasis on style, buts puts it to new poetic, provocative, and psychologically complex ends. Isaiah Washington gives a performance of combustible desperation as John Allen Muhammed, the ex-Marine who turned his adoptive son (Tequan Richmond) into an accomplice for his cross-country killing spree. With Gus Van Sant-like rhythms and Dostoyevskian themes, Blue Caprice gives new meaning to the saying that a family is like a loaded gun. Here, Moors talks about the early influence of art school, taking poetic license with history, and America’s abiding obsession with violence.
This is your first narrative film after a a career in music videos and commercials. Did you always know you wanted to make a feature?
Absolutely. I think I’ve wanted to make films since I was extremely young. It was easier for me to go through a traditional arts education because I knew how to draw well. So I took the long way around. But it was always clear that film was the ultimate goal.
How did art school influence your filmmaking?
Most of all it helps you develop an eye and a taste. You study painting, other people’s work, for years. Yesterday I screened Blue Caprice for the NYU film students. It was very interesting to talk to them. I was telling the department chair that I was always a little skeptical of film school. Film is the sum of all arts: music, theater, architecture. It’s everything. It seems like learning filmmaking can be a shortcut. You have to start further away.
And music videos? Did it feel like a big jump to work on a feature?
The first day of the shoot, the first thing I noticed was the energy of the crew, the energy of the actors. It’s totally different. Especially on a low-budget film, everybody was there for art. We were there to make an art object––not a commercial product. With music videos, you’re there to sell records. So the energy with the label is very different. Because Blue Caprice was a low-budget film, it was a labor of love for everyone. There was a beautiful, collaborative spirit on the set.
The film begins with a montage of actual news from the D.C. sniper case. It then flashes back to a very stylized, personal account of the two shooters. How constrained did you feel by the historical record?
When the real killing happened I was not in the country. So I was not infected by all the media coverage. I didn’t know how big of an impact that story had on so many people. That really allowed me to tackle the subject without fear or preconceptions. My screenwriter, Ronnie Porto, had many reservations about doing this film. He knew the scope of what we were doing. I kept telling him we weren’t doing a huge thing. We were telling a small story about a father and son jogging in the woods. We had a small entry point. But nonetheless we tried to learn everything we could about the case: court records, medical diagnoses about their mental health, everything. We knew as much as we could before we started to write. But then it was about choosing which facts to include to tell the story we wanted to tell. I was always clear that this film is inspired by a true story; its not a biopic or a minute-by-minute reconstruction of their odyssey.
Both characters are sociopathic. But in other ways their dramas are universal. And there’s a sense that the story belongs to a post-9/11 America, traumatized and eager for revenge. Do you see the film as pointing to larger currents in the culture?
I saw these characters as archetypes. The only preparation I asked of Isaiah Washington was that he read Notes from the Underground by Dostoyevsky. But when we were writing, we integrated little points of contact with the culture at large. Washington’s character embarks on this insane war against the entire country. But I think at heart his bigger problem is with god. It is an existential pain. And that’s how I saw his delusional quest. I took out many of the political elements involved. But obviously the film is also a commentary on a very particular problem America has with violence. And the breeding of violent behaviors.
I wanted to ask you about race. We’re almost trained to expect that a film with a black cast will make a statement about that. And yet Blue Caprice really isn’t about race at all.
What was very interesting was that when I was editing the film, I was in this workshop called IFP (Independent Film Program). We had many programs and discussions and people were like “You’re a white man and you’re making a film about two African-Americans. They’re gonna come at you for that.” I told them I thought that was silly. And it turned out I was right. To this day, at screenings, it has never come up. People recognize that the issue of race is irrelevant in the film. In the real case of the snipers, John [Allen Muhammad] was a big reader of Malcolm X and Farrakhan. He mentioned many times that his war was to liberate black people. But when you look at the people he killed, they were mostly black. I had disdain for his political opinions from this point on. His discourse on this issue didn’t make sense. And Lee, growing up in Antigua, told his parents he never experienced any kind of racism in his life until he met John. So yes, it was a conscious idea to leave race out of the film. I’m glad that people can accept that. For me, it’s a film about two human beings and that’s it.
There is something innately fascinating about watching a character, apparently normal, go completely to pieces. Such is the case for Lindsay Burdge’s portrayal of a troubled high-school teacher embroiled in an affair with one of her students in Hannah Fidell’s A Teacher. What makes Burdge’s performance so fresh is both the novelty of the provocation––the inverse of Lolita––and the tenuous composure she brings to her role. Her steeliness is all the more disturbing for what it hides, which we only glimpse in the uninhibited sex-scenes between student and teacher––themselves generating a certain amount of discussion at this year’s Sundance and South By Southwest festivals. Here, the twenty-eight year old actress talks about how she was able to connect with her character, the broader difficulties of modern womanhood, and why guys only grow up in their thirties.
Your role in A Teacher clearly demanded a lot of courage and complexity. What prepared you for it? It’s a very impressive performance.
When I was younger I studied acting and I always intended to be an actor. But I never pursued the business side of things. Only in the past few years have I been really going for it. I’d worked with Hannah [Fidell] before. When she came back to Brooklyn from Austin, she got in touch and told me about this idea she had for a film. She wrote the part for me. It was tailor made for me in that sense.
Do you see yourself in the part?
Definitely. There was a lot that was exciting about playing Diana. The hook for me was her obsession. I’m a very obsessive person. On any given day I’m obsessing about something. It’s always something. And also how she completely loses perspective. I can totally lose perspective too. It’s a nuanced situation that she’s in. I related to every––well not every––but many parts of her situation.
Including the attraction to younger men?
I happen not to be attracted to younger men.
Um. I’m more likely to be attracted to older men than younger men. But not in a way that’s taboo. Not in a way that it’s like, “Whoa!” Although when Bored to Death was on TV I did regularly have dreams that Ted Danson and I were an aging couple. I think that’s fair! [Laughs]
Do you think your character in A Teacher represents something unique to our generation?
Something I love about Hannah is that she’s specifically addressing the situation of women today, which is complex. Not all women certainly. But many are working on their careers and they end up pushing off getting married or having children until later. Meanwhile men their age seem to be––well there’s that scene in the film where she meets two guys at a party. And they come across like overgrown children. They’re boys. Okay so they have chest hair but that’s the only difference.
That’s been a recurring theme in guy movies. It’s often romanticized. They don’t want to leave their teenage years behind. They can’t grow up, man up.
This is a huge generalization obviously. But in the world that Hannah and I are in, a dude doesn’t want to settle down… A dude doesn’t even know what the hell is going on until he’s thirty-five. It’s like suddenly everyone hits thirty and they’re like “I’m not what I’m meant to be! I was supposed to amount to something!” And especially in cities, in New York, LA. You come here because you want to accomplish something, you want to become something. And my character is very sensitive––like very, very sensitive––and very lonely. She doesn’t know how to live, how to connect. She doesn’t have the coping skills.
Also if her work is her life, it makes sense she’d find a partner in that setting.
And maybe it would be better if it were a teacher! [Laughs] But I can’t tell you how many women I’ve met as a result of this film, women in their thirties, a lot of them working in magazines, who are like “Yeah I’m going on a date with a twenty-five year old tonight.” I think it is a very complex situation. And then there’s the gray area that happens when you cross a line. How you deal with that.
Especially the red line of student-teacher relations. A Teacher is coming out at a time when every institution is ramping up awareness and pressure over sexual misconduct.
When I was in LA there was a case of a woman in Riverside who had an affair with four of her students and had been impregnated by one of them. It was everywhere. People were fascinated by it. It seems like you’re hearing about cases like that more and more. You wonder if it was always happening and people didn’t talk about it. But if you look online there are so many cases of it.
How have audiences judged your character?
It’s mixed. On the one hand she’s a predator. There’s no question she crosses an ethical line. As a teacher you can’t do that. But it happens so much now that to point a finger at one case is difficult. It’s not so black and white. There’s clearly something deeper going on with the person in question. That’s what the film is about.
What are your own thoughts about balancing family and a career?
I cannot figure it out. I think it’s something––I can only speak for myself. But I feel like I have two different people inside of me. At least two. One wants to move to the country, live on a farm, have a husband and babies, grow vegetables and read books. Just meditate and never think about skyscrapers or cranes or the internet ever again.
And the other person?
The other side of me wants to be a part of––well, progress, for lack of a more progressive term. I guess I feel I can’t undo what was done to me. I was raised in Los Angeles by lawyers. I grew up driving around in cars. I’ve kept myself pretty insulated from the internet and pop culture, but you can’t avoid it. And I can even get excited about it. There are cool things going on. There are people using the technology to move things forward. I think. I’d like to hope so. What’s clear is that the goal is balance. But I’m not sure any of us knows how to achieve that yet.
In Amelie, Audrey Tautou helped define indie-charm for a generation. And talking to Tautou in her SoHo suite—the bangs-and-stripes, the spacey smile, the art-school chic—is like visiting the source, the ur-hipster living in a dream. Amelie was such a defining role for Tautou that she’s likely never to escape from it; but why would she want to? As I talk to the French actress I realize how much of the her own personality went into the role. And how much each film in her career has brought new shades of meaning both to and from that initial burst of energy. Even in her latest film, Thérèse Desqueyroux, where she plays a murderous housewife, Tautou can’t help but sneak in her trademark quirk—the smile that’s half-mischief and half-whimsy. Here, she talks about playing a darker role in Thérèse, her upcoming film with Michel Gondry, and how fame changed her life, for better or worse.
This new role as Thérèse is so much colder than what you’ve ever played before. What attracted you to it?
At the beginning it was really a desire of working with the film’s director, Claude Miller. But, as you say, I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for me to do something different. I was very flattered to realize that Claude thought of me for such a dark and complex character. To play a poisoner!
Were you a rebel as a child?
Not at all. But I don’t think Thérèse is a rebel, either. She has a rebellious spirit but she keeps her mouth shut. And that’s who I was. I’m the kind of person who’s going to yell inside but not be brave enough to really say anything to anyone.
Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?
I didn’t want to become an actress. At first I wanted to be a primatologist, to study monkeys. I wanted to dangle from trees in the jungle and escape from tigers.
It must have been a surprise.
It was a surprise. But when I was maybe 17 I did some theatre in my school and really enjoyed it. My parents gave me a gift for two weeks of theatre in a theatre school in Paris. And my teacher didn’t want me to go back to my small town. He encouraged me.
It’s hard to believe, but Amélie came out over a decade ago. With the perspective of years, how have your thoughts about the film changed?
As time goes by I appreciate more and more what this movie made me live. I’m increasingly drawn to the idea that Amélie was a miracle––but I wasn’t aware of that at that time.
People must come up to you and say, ‘Amélie!’
Oh, yeah, but this is not the problem for me.
Fame has not been difficult?
Right at the beginning, yes. It was too much. It was not something I was expecting or wishing for my life. I was so young. It was not something comfortable for me at all.
When did you get comfortable with it?
A few months, maybe. But at some point you just have to accept this new element in your life. I’ve always really tried to own my life: to work at my own rhythm and not just fulfill other people’s dreams or expectations.
You must have received many phone calls from the United States telling you to come to America.
I got some opportunities, sure. But I think I was not ready to be… I was not formatted for Hollywood, let’s say. I thought about that for my role as Thérèse: she’s not formatted to be a housewife and no one understands that. The people she’s around think they know what’s best for her, but they don’t.
So Paris is your home?
Paris is home, but actually I like New York. I worked in New York for a movie and it made me want to move here. But this idea scared my grandmother. She said to me, ‘Are you telling me that you prefer America to France?’ So, I went back home.
What else have you been working on?
The next movie is called Mood Indigo––directed by Michel Gondry. And after that there’s a movie with Cédric Klapisch: a really nice comedy.
What is working with Michel Gondry like?
When we work everything seems to be a huge mess, but I think that he creates this mess intentionally. He wants actors to forget their control. Because I like to control everything. But I haven’t seen the movie yet. I can’t wait to see it. I think it will be completely surreal.
What do you look for in somebody you’d want to be with?
When I meet somebody I just wait for some spontaneity. I think that’s mainly what I like… I know that at the beginning people you meet don’t really act normally around you. They can be a bit uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable with you being who you are?
Yeah, you know. When you have a tiny bit of celebrity it changes your relationship with people. It doesn’t change your look on the outside, but changes how the outside looks at you. So that’s what I’m looking for. Humor and simplicity and spontaneity.
Has it been difficult meeting regular people?
No, it hasn’t been difficult. I know there will always be the little bit of ice you have to break. It’s just a question of time. For some people it takes five minutes and for some others it’s going to take three days.
You’re putting me at ease right now.
Oh yeah? But me, I’m a very simple person, you know. So I’m not playing a part or trying to pretend I’m something I’m not. And also I don’t think I try to seduce everybody. I know I won’t please everybody. There are some people who like me and others who hate me. I assume that I have integrity, that I’m not a bad person. I think that’s the most important thing.
Niels Arestrup is an icon in France. Heir to the Depardieu lineage of meaty Gallic men, the sixty-four year old actor is less wacky than his predecessor––more restrained, severe, and in recent films, menacingly paternalistic. Director Jacques Audiard made brilliant use of this talent––playing Laius to a younger actor’s Oedipus––in A Prophet, one of the great European films of the last decade. More recently, Steven Spielberg cast Arestrup as a rural Grandfather, straight out of a Brueghel painting, in the World War One epic War Horse. In Arestrup’s latest film, You Will Be My Son, the actor plays an exacting French vintner who doubts his son’s ability to steward the family grapes. Here Arestrup––who is in New York for the first time––talks about his imposing air, why the French are serious about wine, and what his own father thought of his decision to become an actor.
You Will Be My Son is all about vineyards and vintages. Are you a wine connoisseur yourself?
In France it’s almost like we’re born with a bottle of wine on the table. It’s our tradition; it’s something very close to us. Even when I was a young child I understood what wine was, where it came from. But now, even though I love a good bottle of wine, I wouldn’t call myself a connoisseur. I’m much more of an amateur wine lover. And now we are always told to drink in moderation so that’s what I do.
The stereotype is that the French take pleasure seriously. To them, pleasure is not a frivolous, superficial matter. This is definitely the case for your character in the film.
Wine is part of our history and there’s a whole culture that’s developed. Yes it’s meant to give pleasure to the people who love it and love to drink it. But it’s also a great source of jobs for the people who grow and make the wine.
This role made me realize how often you’re cast as the intimidating father figure in films that are, at their root, Oedipal struggles. Where does that come from?
This is something that I’ve tried to understand myself––understand why they have this image of me. Despite the roles that I play, I’m someone who’s basically very shy. Maybe it’s because people who are shy have a reserve and a distance. And this distance can be interpreted by others as coldness.
There’s also a generational conflict in this film that hints at a larger split between the young and old in French society. Who will inherit France? Or am I making too much of this?
It’s a hard question to answer. There’s always been inter-generational conflict. The young always have difficulty understanding the old and vice versa. But I think today the distance between the young and the old is perhaps becoming bigger. Partly because of technology. Partly also because in France today there is a real mix of cultures, languages, behaviors like there wasn’t in the past. So perhaps this has made the generational gap even broader.
What did your own father say when you decided you wanted to go into the cinema? How did he react?
I think my case was more one of fatherly indifference. When I first expressed the idea of becoming an actor he kind of smiled and thought it was another one of my ideas. He assumed it was a passing fancy on my part and one day I would realize that what I really needed to do was something more serious, which for him was factory work. He was prepared to offer me a place in the factory.
I also wanted to ask about your work with the English theater director Peter Brook. He’s a legend. And this happened early in your career.
My meeting with Peter Brook was one of the most important events in my life. I worked with him on The Cherry Orchard. He is an extraordinary artist who allowed me to see so many new things.
Speaking of new things––any first impressions of New York?
You know, before you visit New York, you have a dream of a city you’ve dreamt of your whole life. It’s something imagined, something you’ve gotten from the cinema. So when you arrive you’re shocked to find it’s a real place, like any other place. This is what was so interesting about my visit here. I suppose I was expecting an imaginary city––instead I found a real one. But I’ve only been here on a short trip. As with people, it takes time to get to know a place.
Over the course of a fabled 50-year career spanning every genre under the sun, Brian De Palma’s most steadfast muse has remained the American fever dream, in all its wild permutations. Here, the veteran director revisits five unforgettable films from his personal archive.
Based on Stephen King’s debut novel, and adapted when the writer was still unknown, Carrie (1976) follows a shy, bullied teenager (Sissy Spacek) gifted with telekinetic powers. Tying supernatural fright to the universal traumas of adolescence, De Palma’s coming-of-age screamer became an instant classic and earned Spacek a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
“At first I wasn’t going to cast Sissy. I had my mind set on another actor, someone I had been grooming for the part. But because Sissy’s husband Jack [Fisk] was the art director on the film, I decided to give her a shot. Sissy was such an extraordinarily unusual actor at the time that the studio was even reluctant to test her. Eventually Sissy did audition and her screen test blew everyone away. As for the famous climax—the dumping of the blood at prom—that was, of course, in the book. But the studio wasn’t very happy about it. They thought it was too graphic. They said, ‘Maybe you can do something else?’ Like what? Confetti? No, it had to be pig’s blood. It had to be shocking.”
With a raging screenplay by Oliver Stone, who called the film his swan song to cocaine, and a mesmerizing performance by Al Pacino as the refugee-turned–drug kingpin Tony Montana, Scarface (1983) redefined the immigrant fairytale, and remains De Palma’s most controversially brutal—and eminently quotable—spectacle of corruption.
“Some people say this film is excessive—I disagree. The script was a direct report by Oliver on the places he visited in Miami. He saw all the clubs, the coke on the tables. People were cutting each other up with chainsaws! We had a battle with the MPAA because they wanted to give it an X rating. We even had narcotics cops from Florida come to testify that people should see this film because it showed what was actually happening. On a deeper, thematic level, Scarface is about something that recurs in a lot of my films: the megalomania of American society that can lead to excessiveness, greed, and very cruel interplays between people who are desperate to stay on top. Wealth and power isolates you. Whether you’re Walt Disney or Hugh Hefner, you create a bubble around yourself. It’s that old cliché: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Pacino conveyed that perfectly. He kept his Cuban accent, on- and off-set. His sidekick in the film, Steven Bauer, was Cuban, so they were constantly speaking in that accent during the shoot. There are a lot of quotable moments in the film but my favorite is, ‘Every day above ground is a good day.’”
De Palma’s playful adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s best-selling satire cast Tom Hanks as a hapless Wall Street banker scapegoated by a scandal-obsessed New York, and Bruce Willis as the drunk reporter bearing witness to the follies and hypocrisies of a media circus. Famously scorned at the time for its departure from Wolfe’s novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) now ranks as one of De Palma’s most underrated and exuberant studies of the absurd theater of American politics.
“The opening tracking shot was a very important way into the film. It took about 27 or 28 takes to get it right. The idea for the shot actually came from observing Truman Capote stumbling into parties completely drunk or drugged-up. I had been to a lot of those parties and I thought that’s how it should be for Bruce’s character: the voyage from the parking garage up through all the different strata of New York high society until his arrival at the huge palm garden of the World Trade Center. I started out making political comedies, caustic commentaries about the state of our society. The Bonfire of the Vanities felt like an extension of that. When I read the book I quite liked it. I thought it was an acerbic rendering of a particular madness going on in the ’80s. When I was adapting it I thought I should make the central banker character a little more sympathetic than he was in the book, and Tom [Hanks] was a good choice for that. But, of course, the film unnerved everybody because it wasn’t like the novel, which was, by then, a treasured icon of the New York literary scene. I changed things to make the film more palatable but they ended up upsetting a lot of people and it got very bad reviews. Looking back, I find it a very successful picture. It just isn’t the book.”
A reimagining of the 1960s television series of the same name, De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (1996) featured a hit theme song, Tom Cruise at the helm of a sleek crew of covert CIA operatives, and a chain of set pieces including the now-famous vault sequence and the final high-speed chase atop a TGV train. The combination proved irresistible, launching a franchise and making the film one of the biggest blockbuster treats of the decade and De Palma’s greatest box-office success.
“This was the first film Tom ever produced. Because I’d produced a couple of pictures at that point, he and his partner Paula [Wagner] at times relied on my judgment. I remember that Tom was very responsive and straightforward. There were two very difficult scenes in the film: the CIA vault scene and the one atop the train. We had a jet engine creating the wind for the train sequence. You couldn’t stand up without being blown off. The shot where Tom does the flip, that’s really dangerous stuff for anyone to do. He did it twice for us, which was very brave. We were on top of that train for weeks and weeks. As for the CIA vault, that was my idea. I’d wanted to do an incredible action sequence that was completely silent. And then I had to think of all the things that could go wrong as the character tried to lower himself upside-down into this mythic vault. It was a sequence I thought about for months and months before I actually filmed it. Whatever people say, it’s always exciting to have a blockbuster. Everybody thinks you’re a genius for 30 seconds.”
De Palma’s latest film, his first in five years, orbits around the vaguely sapphic and very manipulative relationship between an ad agency assistant (Noomi Rapace) and her conniving boss (Rachel McAdams). De Palma adapted Passion (2013) from the recent French thriller Love Crime, but with its labyrinthine murder mystery centered on corruption and greed, it’s clear we’re back in vintage De Palma territory.
“I liked the relationship between the two women in Love Crime, but I didn’t like the way the flashbacks were used to explain everything. And I didn’t like that it revealed who the murderer was while the murder was being committed. Thrillers are supposed to keep the audience guessing, so in my version I kept it a mystery until late in the movie. We were very fortunate that Noomi and Rachel had worked together on Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, so that when Noomi got interested in the part, she brought Rachel along. They were game to do anything together. They weren’t reluctant to try things—they can go from kissing to crying to backstabbing so fast you get dizzy.”
Filmmaker Ziad Doueiri was born in Lebanon, studied film in California (where he worked as Quentin Tarantino’s camera operator), and currently lives in France. Given his many relocations, it’s no surprise that questions of cultural identity, roots, and belonging would appear in his work. His third and latest film, The Attack, which opens in New York this Friday, follows Amin (Ali Suliman), a successful Israeli-Arab surgeon who learns that his wife was involved in a suicide-bombing attack. Despite its loaded premise, The Attack, and Doueiri himself, ultimately cares less about politics than with adapting the thriller genre to the more heartfelt enigmas of intimacy, betrayal and assimilation, whether into foreign cultures or committed marriages.
The Attack is very much about hybrid identity and double consciousness. Is that something that’s close to your own experience?
I’ve lived between three countries all my life. I grew up as an Arab in Lebanon, then was a student in a French school, and then lived in the USA. To be immersed in a culture without totally adopting it has been a never-ending process for me. In all three societies I’ve lived in—the Lebanese, the French and the American—I’ve always felt that I was marginal. I’m not a typical Lebanese or French or American, and neither are my friends. So this idea of multiple identity—of integrating while keeping a distance—is something I think about a lot.
How did you come to the States?
I finished at a French high school in Lebanon and wanted to study film. I packed my stuff and came to California.
How did you first team up with Quentin Tarantino?
I got a call from a producer who was a friend. She said there was a low-budget film that needed help. I did it as a favor. And the film was Reservoir Dogs. That’s how we teamed up—and he kept on hiring the same crew. As simple as that.
What did you learn from him—either to imitate or avoid?
Quentin has an incredible influence on a lot of filmmakers because of his uniqueness and his compulsiveness. What I like the most about him is how he lets himself go. He just takes his character as far as possible. He’s a compulsive dialogist and expresses himself so well with words. But I can’t say I’m particularly influenced by his films. I love his films, but they are not my main influences.
What are your main influences?
I grew up in Beirut watching films all the time. Everything that came out in the States came out a week later in Beirut. Everything used to come to Lebanon. But it wasn’t until I started studying film in California that I began appreciating it even more. Ron Fricke affected me a lot. Films like Koyaanisqatsi, Chronos, Samsara. I was so taken by his visual storytelling, his imagery.
What attracted you about the novel [by Yasmina Khadra] on which The Attack is based?
I read it on the beach in Beirut and was captivated. Originally I didn’t want to do anything about the Middle East. But the book is about more than the politics. It’s about a love story, about betrayal, about interrogation.
The Attack has a two-part structure: half in Tel Aviv, half in Nablus. What was your experience shooting and collaborating in such a fraught place?
The Israelis were incredibly professional and welcoming. The experience affected me a lot. I had to put aside my prejudice, my politics, in order to work with the crew. And the people I met were so dedicated to the film. I was deeply impressed by that.
Are you worried the film will be seen through a political lens?
It’s already been banned in the Arab world. Lebanon pulled it last week. This was very upsetting for me and I’m planning to contest it. I think it’s a lost battle, but I have to fight it.
The film is about a man who has loved his wife without fully knowing her. He’s always learning about her—even after she has died.
This is the fundamental question of the film. Do you really know the person you love? The betrayal in the film is not sexual, but it’s devastating. We wanted to build the film as a love story—and the complexity of intimacy and love. It’s not about the conflict, the conflict is in the background.
For more on The Attack, see its trailer below.
In The East, a film that flaunts a stable of young talent both behind and in front of the camera, one of the most surprising performances comes from a Hollywood veteran, fifty-three year old Patricia Clarkson. Clarkson plays a corporate security guru and ruthless mentor to her gifted but innocent protégé, Sarah (Brit Marling). Marling, who also co-wrote the film with director Zal Batmanglij, imbues Sarah with a Siddhartha-like idealism that makes Clarkson’s air of knowing patronage all the more wickedly irreverent. When I meet up with Clarkson to discuss her role, I find an actress as debonair as the woman she plays, but without any of the nasty politics. Here, we discuss what it’s like working with such a young director, the unique challenge of supporting roles, and her impassioned response to the Deepwater oil spill.
You often look like you’re having a good time in your roles. In The East, that enjoyment is palpable.
For so many roles I’m in the home. It’s about my marriage, my children. Rarely do I play women who have powerful jobs. That was one of the reasons I took this part. Other than the fact that I really loved the script, and I do always seek higher ground. And I love to be part of something that is truly fabulous and detailed and odd.
But you’re so good at this kind of role.
I don’t know if that’s a compliment!
Well. Your character is not… unlikeable.
But she’ll cut you fast.
Don’t you think that’s the case with a lot of your characters? They’re clever. There might be circumstances that restrict them, but they know how to pull strings.
They have a certain power, yes. That probably comes from who I am. But in The East, for once I was able to really have my voice and strength. I didn’t have to have suburban hair. I didn’t have to wear mom clothes. I got to have a helicopter waiting for me on a tarmac!
Doesn’t that happen to you all the time?
I have a helicopter waiting for me right now. You want to take a ride?
You know there are actors that have helicopters waiting for them.
Like who? Brad Pitt?
Well, he needs one because people are always swarming him.
Doesn’t that happen to you?
I’m recognized. I do wear a hat on the streets of New York, you know. It just makes it a little easier. But it’s flattering. I’m a New York actress. People know who I am and they’re incredibly effusive and lovely. I’m lucky. I’m lucky, lucky, lucky.
When people approach you, what role do they remember you from?
It varies. Now it’s Cairo Time, which has become part of the zeitgeist. Sometimes it’s the Woody Allen films. It depends what sifts into the fabric of the city.
Have younger people started recognizing you?
Easy A now is crazy with the 25-and-under, 30-and-under crowd.. Easy A and Saturday Night Live.
Your time in The East is brief, but you’re extremely memorable and crucial to the story.
I like doing the leads in film, of course I do, but I also like doing a good supporting part, it makes you a better actor. You have to create an entire character in a few moments.
It’s very clear that Brit’s character imagines she could one day become you. You’re a role-model of sorts. But a very bad one!
Oh absolutely. Sometimes the hardest people on women as they move up the ladder are other women. They take on the misogyny and sexism of the very men they’re trying to top. Women can be just as deadly––just as cutting, just as unforgiving.
There’s a Medea quality to it. It reminded me of your power struggle with Nicole Kidman in Dogville.
Oh Lars! You know, Lars [von Trier] and Zal [Batmanglij] are kindred spirits. They are both really great directors. For a young man, Zal has real vision.
Was it strange working with someone so young?
My first conversation with Zal, we talked for an hour and a half, and I thought, ‘This young man, he knows what he’s doing.’ Zal is tough. It’s hard for young directors to be tough, to maintain themselves. I’ve seen young directors get pulled in a million directions. But Zal was Zal, every single hour of every day. He knew exactly who he was, exactly what he wanted. And I loved that. I love not being the strongest person on the set.
She was the ninja. She has a beautiful, quiet dignity and grace.
You grew up in New Orleans. You were quite vocal after the BP oil spill.
My mother is President of the city council so I was there right after Katrina, and I went out into the Gulf right after the oil spill. I saw it first hand. I was out in a boat, with my mother. It was devastating. There’s no other word for it. You saw life dying right before your eyes. You saw birds still covered in oil. After seeing that I would have loved for the head of BP to wake up with dead oily pelicans surrounding him, just like the horse head in Godfather.
When you first read the script, was that compulsion for justice and revenge something that grabbed you?
Of course. The oil spill sits with me, all of us. My heart and soul, my allegiance lies with the anarchists in the film. But I also like playing characters that challenge my world-view. Ideas and allegiances shift. We are all malleable, and we are always trying to see the other side. That’s what the film is about.
James Marsh’s much-praised 2008 documentary Man on Wire skillfully teetered between wonder and disenchantment, glory and vanity, spectacle and fact. Marsh’s latest film, Shadow Dancer, a narrative thriller set during the early stages of the North Irish peace-process, returns the director to similarly protean, ambivalent, and hence very fertile ground. The film follows a radical young Republican and IRA member (Andrea Riseborough) who, after her arrest for a London bomb attempt, is coerced by an MI5 officer (Clive Owen) to spy on her own family and friends. While the double-identity premise is familiar enough, what starts out as a conventional thriller set-up turns gradually into a slow-burning study of loyalty, guilt, and moral quandaries as murky as the Irish mist. Here, Marsh discusses his motives behind making the film, the talents of his two stars, and his love for the revelatory, yet equivocal, twist ending.
There have been other films about the crisis in Ireland––but not for some time. Why did you want to make a film about Northern Ireland right now?
It’s an interesting first question. There’ve been quite a few films over the years about the conflict. But I thought the beginning-of-the-end of the conflict, with the start of the peace-process, was new territory. Also, I was drawn to the female protagonist in the script, the female point of view. And thirdly, it’s an area from the British Isles, where I’m from, where there are extraordinary stories. They’re almost tailor-made for thrillers, but they’re really happening.
It’s an adaptation as well.
That’s right. The origins of the film are in Tom Bradby’s novel, which was written as a fiction but with real events in mind. Bradby was a reporter in Northern Ireland for years so the film derives from real reporting if not from any one particular true story.
Undercover spies and double identities are a staple of the thriller genre. What were you looking to do differently with that conventional premise?
What I responded to was the domestic situation. It’s a spy film or a thriller film; but the spying takes place in someone’s home, within someone’s family. That felt interesting and intense as a dramatic principle: to stage a spy film in the domestic sphere. There’s a film called The Lives of Others that has a different kind of theme but is also about the intrusion into a private space of someone who is behaving like God. I thought it was interesting to consider what it would be like to be put in that position. It’s an extraordinary and anguished position to find yourself in.
The opening scene of the film, when a young Collette witnesses her brother’s death, is so powerful and haunting. It’s a moment of the violence and trauma that belongs to the streets, but the camera never leaves the confines of the home. Was that in the novel or did you bring that domesticity to the scene?
That was just one of those things you do when you’re constrained by money. I couldn’t actually afford to shoot a scene with guns and tear gas and hordes of people rioting on the streets. I didn’t think it would look convincing within our budget. Or maybe it would have. But I wanted to take the force of that situation and displace it into a home environment, to see it through the eyes of a little girl. Her life is going to change because of this event. Her loss of innocence happens immediately when she sees her wounded brother taken in from the streets. That seemed more interesting to me than a more conventional Northern Irish riot in the streets.
The film is often deceptively quiet. Long tracking shots give us mood and texture. It’s very contemplative and atmospheric in its way. That’s not common for thrillers, which tend to have a more relentless pace.
You could argue that the film has a kind of slow unfolding quality to it. But it asks you to pay attention. That could be considered a flaw, but for some viewers, they respond to being respected and want things to develop more organically around character and choice rather than cheap thrills thrown your way. If you invest yourself in the character’s predicament, that slower style has its own rewards and yields shocking revelations. You might realize that what you thought you’ve been seeing isn’t what you’ve been really seeing at all. I love that about films: when they force you to reinterpret and reevaluate what you’ve been witnessing.
What was so haunting for me about Man on Wire was exactly what you’re talking about. The last two minutes of that film changed everything. To realize that all the people I’d taken for close friends had since grown estranged––that was very powerful. What draws you to the last, sudden revelation in films?
As a viewer I’ve always liked it when you are asked to complete the film, instead of the filmmaker tidying everything up for you. Of course, Man on Wire was also a documentary, not a Walt Disney fairytale. So to be true to the story I had to be true to the end of the story. And that’s what happened: there really was an estrangement. But I also believe more generally that you can achieve amazing things but they’re often quite ephemeral. In the case of Shadow Dancer, I thought it would be interesting to have to reevaluate a character at the end of the film. I also liked the idea of presenting her with the same choice she made at the beginning of the film, but at the very end. I think there’s a big enough audience of people who are intrigued by that kind of storytelling.
What were you looking for in Andrea Riseborough? Her role asks her to maintain such a stoic exterior but with an inner life full of tumult and confusion.
I was looking for those very things. You wanted someone who could carry the burden of this character, someone who could conceal so much from the people around her and I guess from the audience as well. Although the audience is privy to both sides of her story. That’s a very complex task for an actress to carry several layers in several scenes. Except for when she’s with Clive Owen, when she can actually be herself, she has to embody an elaborate lie. And Andrea was brilliant at the role. She’s an amazing actress. In the film there are a lot of close-ups of her face, and she can give you that piece of grammar that lets you speculate what she might be feeling––as an audience member who knows more than the people around her.
And Clive Owen? He has this brand of disheveled, under-slept masculinity that’s very unique. And he was perfect for the part. But unlike his other roles, he turns out to be quite powerless in this film. So he felt both like the natural choice as well as being cast a bit against himself.
Yes that was interesting. That’s why I wanted to cast him. He brought some of that characterization to the role. Also, he has no vanity as an actor. He doesn’t mind being disheveled, looking shopworn and careworn. As you say, he embodies a kind of rugged masculinity. And yet, as an actor he’s very able to give you moments of a more troubled, vulnerable conscience. Which becomes his undoing. And I’ve always been drawn that idea: that our good intentions can lead to horrible consequences. So yes, I think we cast him to bring a certain rugged, disheveled masculinity by virtue of his physical appearance, but as an actor he can give you so many other more sensitive shades as well.
With three new films in theaters and a Calvin Klein billboard the size of a dinosaur above Houston Street, Alexander Skarsgård seems to be everywhere. This is a good thing. For not only does the thirty-six year old actor choose challenging roles in films we actually want to see, he brings an intensity––alternately stubborn and vulnerable––to each character as if he were reincarnating himself anew, and on a tight shooting schedule. First, as a doting step-father in the Henry James adaptation What Maisie Knew, then as a grief-stricken Iraq veteran in Henry Alex Rubin’s networked-drama Disconnect, and most recently as a charismatic ringleader in Brit Marling’s and Zal Batmanglij’s eco-terrorist thriller, The East. It’s on the occasion of The East’s release that I sit down with Swedish actor to see how he’s responding to his omnipresence, his exhausting work schedule, and his experience playing a longhaired anarchist.
Not too long ago, I was walking down Houston Street and I look up and there you are.
I know. It freaked me out. I saw that and I was like, “Whoa, I look like Godzilla!” That’s a huge billboard. It’s a little intimidating.
And you have three films one after the other, all getting released at about the same time.
Yeah I shot these films back to back and they all opened within a couple weeks of each other. So it’s been intense, but it helps that I’m really genuinely excited about all three movies and I really love the people I worked with on Disconnect, What Maisie Knew, and definitely The East. They’re the best people ever. And now we’re friends for life. We’re super tight.
How did you first hear about The East?
It was the Fourth of July and I was wrapping up True Blood. I had Maisie and Disconnect lined up. But then I had October, November and December open, so I was basically reading scripts for that window. And I read a lot of scripts, some good, some mediocre, some terrible. But when I read The East, I was blown away. I’d seen The Sound of My Voice, before. I just thought it was such a beautiful film, and also Brit [Marling] and Another Earth. I knew a little bit about the group, how they work together and help each other out. And Brit’s story, being a banker in New York and then moving to LA and just working on her own indie movies. I thought it was very inspiring. So on the Fourth of July, I was in San Diego with some friends, I called my agent and said, “This is amazing, can I meet the filmmakers?” They were up in LA, so I just jumped in my car and drove up to LA that day and met them. You’ve met them already right?
They’re great. Really exceptional.
They’re really amazing. Just brimming with ideas. It takes three seconds in a room and you’re so intrigued by what they’re saying.
What did you guys talk about during that first meeting?
We just sat and chatted for a couple of hours. It’s always a gut feeling isn’t it? That feeling was so strong after talking I was like, “Please let me work with you guys. I want to be down in the trenches with you guys!” So before I even got to my car, I called my agent and said, “I don’t care what else is out there for the fall, this is the movie.”
Did they point you in any directions to prepare for the role?
The thing is, I didn’t have time to go on the road or train hop or anything. So while I was shooting Maisie or Disconnect, in my trailer or my hotel room I was reading books, going online, watching documentaries. I was very inspired by this photographer Mike Brodie. Have you heard of him? He’s amazing.
Yeah I know his work. He was one of them, right? He wasn’t an outsider to that community.
Exactly. He was train hopping for many years and just took pictures of his friends. Some of them feel kind of like Ryan McGinley, but so gritty and basically just taking pictures of his girlfriend and his buddies. And he’s not part of the art scene at all. He lives in Oakland now as a mechanic, but those images were so inspiring, because it felt like they captured that world, the story we were trying to tell of those people in The East. So just visually, that was a great starting point for me.
His photographs feel really authentic.
He had an exhibition in LA a month ago and I bought one of his prints. I have it in my house to remind me of the experience of working on The East.
So if you went straight from Disconnect, I take it your hair in the film wasn’t real?
[Laughs] No, I wrapped Disconnect on a Friday and then two days later I flew down to Shreveport to start The East. There was no time to grow the beard and the hair.
Have you ever had long hair like that?
Yeah. I’ve had long hair. And I rocked a beard for a while.
When did you have long hair?
When I was a teenager, like 19, 20.
Were you into black metal?
No, it was rock, punk rock. That was really my music, but it was really long until I went to the military in Sweden and then I shaved it all off. But up until then, it was really long for a while.
Before you went to start military service, what kind of kid were you? Did you always know what you wanted to be?
Not really. I was a child actor until I was thirteen. But not like a child actor in Hollywood, with a resume and a headshot. I just did it because my father was an actor and his buddy was a director. But I quit when I was thirteen. I didn’t like the attention. It made me really uncomfortable. I just wanted to be a regular teenager, to hang out with my friends and not be singled out. I didn’t want people to recognize me or anything. So I quit and I didn’t act for 8 years. During those years, I grew up in south Stockholm and just spent time with my boys, played soccer, got drunk, hung out, had a good time.
Now that you are singled out, what’s your strategy for dealing with the attention?
I think it was different when I was younger. After the military, I was in Leeds. I went to university there, and like most people that age, I was trying to find out what I wanted to do with my life. I thought about a couple of different things, maybe architecture, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I felt like I missed being on stage, missed being in front of the camera. I missed the process. And I felt like I should give it a shot before I wake up one morning when I’m 55 and go like, oh fuck, I should have tried it. So I went here to New York, to Marymount Manhattan College just to see how I felt when I was back on stage.
Did your Dad ever give you advice?
He told me that acting was a really tough job. Only do it if you have to, he said, because most of my friends are brilliant, but they wait tables. And even if you’re fortunate enough to support yourself, it’s still a tough job. He was doing repertory theater in Stockholm, so he would rehearse one play during the day, perform at night. You don’t see your family enough. Or if you do a movie, you travel a lot. So he said, it’s fucking tough. Only do it if you have to. When I was 20 I thought about that a lot. I wanted to see if I felt the need he was talking about. And I realized I did. I felt like there were no other alternatives, like that was the only option for me.
Photo by Tim Barber.
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