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Monthly Archives: April 2011
There are at least five good reasons to like “Fast Five” — the latest installment in the cops, crooks and cars franchise that began with “The Fast and the Furious” — and the even more impressive trick is how director Justin Lin takes those five reasons and balls them up into a solid fist that knocks the audience flat on its metaphorical ass.
First, the “car racing and crime” combination the prior films delivered is chucked out the window in the name of delivering a flat-out heist movie. Second, the film gets the band back together, assembling a rogues’ gallery of likable familiar faces from the prior “Fast” films — not just Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Matt Schulze and Jordana Brewster from the first film, but Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson from the second, Sung Kang from the third and Don Omar, Tego Calderon and Gal Gadot from the fourth, approaching the franchise’s past with rowdy respect but never rigid reverence. Third, the film squeezes our crew of noble hard-driving heist artists tightly between Rio de Janeiro’s top drug dealer and a hardass federal agent bent on taking them in — and that hardass is played by Dwayne Johnson, who gives the franchise a mighty shot in its figurative, beefy arm. Fourth, in a summer movie landscape clotted and clogged with superheroes and semi-divine mythic beings, it is welcome to watch ordinary, mortal (but handsome and charismatic) people punch, shoot and drive their way out of trouble with nothing more than nervy skill, bruisable flesh and an ace stunt team on their side.
Finally, Lin delivers the kind of explosive, operatic action sequences you normally associate with Michael Bay — but in the context of a semi-coherent and engaging script, which you normally do not. This is where “Fast Five” truly delivers, because Lin and his crew keep things moving but clear, with the engine of the plot constantly roaring but never grinding its gears. To be sure, there are brief dead moments in the film, and there are scenes where credulity is stretched so thin you can read through it, and some of the dialogue is so fraught with self-important sweaty swagger that it is laughable. But then you do laugh, because you’re having a good time, and that sense of delight winds up letting you absolve all of the film’s many sins.
To be fair, there is a substantial audience for whom this film will have no appeal: If you think all American action films are junk, you’ll hardly be inclined to give “Fast Five” a fair shake. But if you know big-studio action cinema at all, and know how good it can be when it is good, you’ll understand that this film is like the improbable offspring of “Bad Boys II” and Soderbergh’s “Ocean” films — the visceral violence and vengeance meshing perfectly with the clockwork cleverness of the caper. Diesel and Johnson’s scenes are more about charisma than acting skill — I wouldn’t pay to see them do a revival of “Inherit the Wind,” and neither would you. But they know how to be tough-guy movie stars, and when they fight, it’s like half of Mount Rushmore got liquored up and started wrasslin’, two solid slabs of muscle whaling away at each other with great vigor, and to great effect.
Screenwriter Chris Morgan and director Lin handled the two films before this installment, and their understanding of, and affection for, the characters and the actors is a pleasure to watch. There are no small parts here; everyone gets a moment, even if that means that Joaquim de Almeida gets short shrift as the film’s bad guy. And the film’s subtext of family and friendship keeps the script focused on the big picture of the ensemble, even as Johnson, Diesel and Walker topline the enterprise. In a time when too many action films are either soulless, gleaming, CGI hollow shells (“Tron: Legacy,” “Sucker Punch”) or rusty remakes and rehashes of sluggish gas-guzzling past glories (“The Expendables,” “The A-Team”) a film that’s custom-built to combine the swift horsepower of characters we like with the stylish chrome of fresh changes is a welcome pleasure.
During the press day for the better-than-you’d-think Disney high school saga “Prom,” star Aimee Teegarden, who plays prom organizer Nova Prescott, was perched atop a stool in the library at L.A.’s Brookside High School, getting her hair and makeup done while we spoke. (She had an appearance scheduled for later that evening.) And yet for Teegarden, a veteran of “Friday Night Lights” and a star of “Scream 4,” it’s just part of being a working actress.
I asked Teegarden if “Prom” gave her — especially since she’s been working for the past 10 years — a chance to enjoy some of the normal experiences that a nonacting teen would have. “As absurd as my quote-unquote ‘half’ of my childhood was, with being involved in this business, I actually got to do a lot of normal things,” she said. “I did get to go to prom, and I got to go to a couple of homecomings and three winter formals, and birthday parties, and sweet sixteens, and all that jazzy stuff. I got to spend a lot of my teenage years working on ‘Friday Night Lights,’ so that was more or less my high school experience. I would definitely have to say, being a part of this with such a young cast and a feisty cast, it was fun getting to relive some of those teen-angst moments and those scenarios.”
While I have scotch in my house older than the 21-year-old Teegarden, she’s Meryl Streep in terms of acting experience compared to the majority of her co-stars. (Nine separate cast members got their Screen Actors Guild union cards from debuting in “Prom.”) Did she find herself being looked to as a mentor? “It’s weird. I’ve been in this business for a long time, but I was always the newbie,” she said. “I was always the baby. Being on ‘Friday Night Lights,’ where everybody had been in the business a lot longer and was a lot older, I always had great people to look up to. Working on (“Prom”) with the cast and sitting through the first script read-through, afterwards everyone comes up to me asking questions: ‘Aimee, do you think I should do this? Aimee, should I learn my lines?’ All of a sudden, everybody was coming up asking all these questions. It was that surreal experience of, ‘Wow, I’m the one who has to dole out advice and people look up to.’ It was actually really cool.”
I asked Teegarden if, between doing highly emotional projects like “Friday Night Lights” and “Prom,” appearing in fare like “Scream 4″ offered a release. She laughed. “Less feelings, more bleeding — more blood. Being a part of ‘Scream’ came out of nowhere,” she said. “It all happened so fast, but I grew up watching the original ‘Scream’s. and being able to be a part of something that’s so iconic and really started that campy horror genre was really surreal.”
I had to ask Teegarden: As a young performer, how often does she get sent bad teen comedy scripts? “On a regular basis — thankfully, my agent is quite good, and typically only sends me stuff that we’ve agreed we’re aiming towards,” she said. “It’s surprising: The amount of amazing scripts I’ve read over the years versus the ones that actually get financed is a little bit mind-boggling.”
In the short term, though, Teegarden intends on enjoying “Prom” season — and seeing how the kinds of kids it depicts see themselves in it. “I would love to go see and sneak out on a Friday night and sneak in the back of the theater and see what real teenagers have to say about the film, if they actually really enjoy it. … I definitely think I will probably get some friends together and go incognito.”
Unlike his co-star Aimee Teegarden, Thomas McDonell wasn’t part of “Prom” as just another step in a long career; rather, it was his first starring role as an actor. He plays rebel-with-a-cause Jesse. I asked McDonell if he had any worries about stepping up to the plate. “No, I had small nerves about it the way that you can imagine,” he said. “I didn’t know that much about how it worked on set, because I was new to it, even though I’d been on sets before. There were small things like that, but I was confident that we could do the job.”
McDonell’s Jesse is straight out of central casting, it first seems — long hair, punk attitude, two-wheeled attitude transport — but, I noted, the character has other dimensions the audience comes to slowly understand. For McDonell, that was a substantial factor in why he wanted to take the part. “Hopefully when you watch the film, it’s, like you said, immediately clear that the person’s one way, but then things are revealed throughout,” he said. “You hope that it’s all inside of the character, inside of the performance throughout, that the story leads you through it.”
Acting aside, McDonell also gets to roar about on a vintage Norton Commando motorcycle. It wasn’t new for McDonell, but it was still enjoyable. “I rode bikes. Not street bikes really, like the one I ride in the film, but more dirt stuff,” he said. “When we were actually shooting, we didn’t do that much riding, really. Some of it was process trailer, some of it was this (effect) or that. In order to prepare for riding bikes, we rode around town and stuff. It was fun.”
McDonell is also hitting the throttle on his career: He’s already been cast as the young version of Johnny Depp’s character in the upcoming “Dark Shadows.” “The way the movie business works in Los Angeles and all over the world, I guess, is fast,” he said. “So I had worked on a couple movies before ‘Prom’ but never in the lead, in the way you described. When I was cast, there was interest immediately, just because people know how Disney works and they know that the brand is good. The director, the other cast members — it was this exciting new project, so from the beginning of working on the film, it has generated new interest in me always throughout.”
Of course, there was also the prospect of being turned into eye candy — like the scene where a carpet-lugging Jesse gets to show off his biceps. Is it, I asked McDonell, a little embarrassing to watch that scene now? He laughed: “I remember what it was like to film it: I was supposed to be in (a certain kind of) shape — not a big guy, but an active young man. I was maybe not exactly quite at that level, so I remember (director) Joe Nussbaum saying, ‘Is there any way you could, I don’t know, this sounds weird, but flex more?’ So I’m there squeezing this carpet thing. It’s funny to watch, now; it’s silly.”
In director Kelly Reichardt’s haunting, tense “Meek’s Cutoff,” a group of settlers (including Michelle Williams and Will Patton) traveling the Oregon trial in 1845 aren’t just facing the need for water and food in the unknown territory of the American West. They also have to come to grips with the fact that their expert guide, Stephen Meek, may be far less expert and knowledgeable than he said he was. Played by veteran Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood (“Star Trek,” “13 Days,”"National Treasure: Book of Secrets”), Meek becomes one of the year’s most complex — and unforgettable — characters.
According to Greenwood, the making of the film wasn’t especially far off from the hardship it depicted: “It felt as though we were in the middle of nowhere the whole time, because we were staying at a little place called the Horseshoe Motel in Burns, Oregon. The town itself is tiny, too, so you never really felt as though you’re close to much civilization. The actual, physical experience of being out in the Oregon high desert was really something. It’s incredibly dry and alkaline. Then as soon as the sun goes down, it’s blisteringly cold.”
Greenwood also explained how even he wasn’t sure what Meek did or didn’t know — and that director Reichardt wasn’t about to tell him: “She wanted that to be, I think, ambiguous for the audience, and in terms of letting me in on whether she felt it was one way or the other, that’s not the way she worked with me. I think she’s the kind of filmmaker where she wants the questions to be abundant, and the film in some ways is more about the questions it makes you ask than the resolutions that it provides.”
On a more shallow note, I asked, did Greenwood have to actually grow the giant beard that Meek wears in the film? “Keep it to yourself, but no. We pasted that on. I didn’t have the luxury of having a year to grow a great, scraggly grizzly (beard) like that.” I explained that when I saw the film in September, I had no idea it was actually him behind Meek’s facial foliage. Greenwood laughed: “That was one of the big appeals for me, aside from working with Kelly and Michelle — to play a character where you get to physically, really hide behind all this stuff. It allows you to swing to the fences a little bit.”
Given his career of playing presidents and American historical icons like Meek and JFK, I wondered aloud if Greenwood thinks his Canadian background gives him some perspective. “No, I really don’t,” he said. “I don’t separate them. I just think of the characters as people more than as icons of a nationality. Even if there may be, from role to role, a peculiar Americanness to one role or another, I don’t really think of them in terms of being American or being Canadian. Perhaps I should, but I just don’t. I’m more drawn by the characters themselves.”
Meanwhile, Greenwood’s enjoying the accolades for “Meek’s Cutoff,” and he’s getting ready to return to J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” franchise: “I’m looking forward to getting back with J.J. sometime in the fall, yeah. Anything could happen, but we’ve had a couple discussions about it, and I’m really looking forward to going back. It’s a great group of people.” And, I noted — thinking all the while of William Shatner — he’ll be maintaining the “Trek” tradition of having a Canadian on the bridge. Greenwood laughed: “Just to fold back on your original question about being Canadian … I think you’re absolutely right: Without a Canadian on the bridge of the Enterprise, it’s missing an element that can’t be replaced.”
Best-known for directing Michelle Williams in a career-highlight performance in “Wendy and Lucy,” director Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, “Meek’s Cutoff,” presented her with the challenge of filming all the trappings and traditions of the Western … with an indie-film budget. I asked Reichardt if making “Meek’s Cutoff,” with its period-accurate wagons and costumes, ever felt like making the world’s biggest Social Sciences diorama. “It was like being in sixth grade,” she said. “My costume designer and my production designer and I, it did really feel like we were on a sixth-grade field trip, meeting re-enactors and people who restore wagons, and it just led us to a bunch of characters we would have never have met who are obsessed with the period.”
And yet, Reichardt noted, the historically accurate gear helped shape the tone and tenor of her film: “There were many things in the production that mirrored what the immigrants would have gone through. We were dealing with all these pieces of equipment, and it really does make you slow down. Everything has a process; there’s not an immediacy to everything. It really does change your idea of time. (Cast member) Paul Dano said that the most intense thing for him was when he and Zoe (Kazan) left the film (set) and in two minutes flew over the desert they’d been walking through for the past month.”
That, to Reichardt, was part of “Meek’s Cutoff”: reclaiming some of the truths of the West from Hollywood’s legends. “Being a horrible student, so much of my impression of the West is from Westerns — and then you start reading these journals, and you get this female perspective which you don’t get in Westerns, much, and you realize, ‘Oh, it’s the opposite of the Western, where everything’s a heightened moment.’ In fact, the sense of time and space is such that it’s a trance you enter, walking across the country for six months. It’s the accumulation of these non-moments that bring stress, because you’re in this unknown area … and it’s almost more stressful than knowing there’s a shootout around the corner — it’s much more mysterious than that.”
While the film’s portrait of leadership gone awry could have all kinds of current parallels, Reichardt doesn’t think hunting for allegories is the best way to watch her film. “It should be categorically resisted — at least from our point of view,” she said. “The truth of the matter is the things that were appealing about the real Stephen Meek story — ‘Hey, here’s this blowhard guy who finagles a group of people into following him into the desert without a plan, and without a knowledge of the land’ — without a doubt, there’s something that felt very contemporary and in-the-moment about that. But as we were making the film, the political landscape changed so much — there was an election, Obama was elected — and I realized when I was cutting, almost anything that was going on, I could project onto the film; that’s just the mythology of the American West. I showed a rough cut to my colleagues, and a filmmaker said, ‘Oh, I get it … this is about Obama in Afghanistan.” And I was just like ‘What?’ I think it’s a story that’s easy to attach a lot of allegory to.”
In his new documentary “The Greatest Story Ever Sold,” Morgan Spurlock sets out to finance a documentary about product placement solely with product placement. It’s a self-referential trip down capitalism’s rabbit hole with Spurlock as the lab rat. Slightly safer than “Super Size Me” (which saw Spurlock eat only McDonald’s food for 30 days), the shockumentarian’s latest gonzo effort includes him not just supporting various brands, but wearing them, making promotional appearances in a suit emblazoned with the film’s sponsors. “I’ve pretty much already reserved the understanding that I know I’m going to be wearing this suit on-and-off for the next six to seven months, so it’s totally fine,” Spurlock noted via phone. “I don’t mind so much. It’s not like I’m walking around the house in my NASCAR chic — it’s only during magical promotional times. It looks like somebody took Jeff Gordon to the prom.”
Just as he’s blending the lines of art and commerce, Spurlock feels like his film works for both the audience’s brain and funny bone. “I think it plays much more like a comedy than it ever does like a doc,” he said. “I think people appreciate that. I think that people get a lot out of the film. It sparks a tremendous amount of conversations. I have yet to be to a screening where, literally, people didn’t want to keep talking in the Q&A for hours on end afterwards. It’s exceeded all of my expectations.”
Spurlock was adamant that none of the companies placing products got to see the finished film prior to release, or alter his cut. Still, I asked, have any of the sponsors, upon seeing the film, said “Uh …”? Or are they just enjoying the fact that by ironically marketing, they can look like they’re anti-marketing while engaging in marketing? “I think ultimately it’s the latter,” he said. “No one has come forward and asked us to change anything. I think at the end of the day, all the brands do come off looking good. I don’t think they come off looking like they were the butt of a joke. I think it does make them look much smarter than that. They realize even by funding an anti-marketing film there is a tremendous amount of marketing opportunity just by being a part of this conversation right now.”
I also asked Spurlock if, for a generation that grew up with attention-deficit disorder and a touch of Internet-aided narcissism, documentaries have become a medium for exploring that. Spurlock laughed: “For exploring ADD and narcissism? I think you’ve just given me an idea for another movie.” All kidding aside, though, I did note that at a certain point, Spurlock makes the decision to be his own star. “I do sign up. The original idea with ‘Super Size Me’ was I was just going to direct that film and somebody else was going to eat all the food,” he said. “I was going to shoot this guy, whoever this person was, to be the human guinea pig. The more we started talking about it, the more I realized that I couldn’t trust that when that guy went home at night, he wasn’t going to be sneaking bok choy or cauliflower. Ultimately, the whole reason that I ended up being in ‘Super Size Me’ to begin with was because I couldn’t trust that somebody else would just stick to the diet plan. At some point, I will gladly take a back seat.”
Until then, Spurlock intends to keep prodding. I asked him if there were any companies he wouldn’t work with on “Greatest Movie.” It turns out, brazen bravery goes a long way. “Listen, I called all the gun manufacturers,” he said. “When we were finishing the movie, I called Remington; I called Glock. I called all these guys, because I was like, ‘The guns get a bad rep. Wouldn’t it be great to have the greatest rifle ever made?’ They didn’t want to be a part of it. I called British Petroleum. If anyone needed a makeover, it was that company. Those guys need some real positive identity. Didn’t happen. We called all the cigarette companies. Who else am I going to call? Somebody who actually makes a pill that gives you cancer? Who’s the last one?” Spurlock laughed: “Is there a crack manufacturer I could call?”
Last week, as part of a group of journalists invited to see selected scenes from the upcoming “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” — as well as sit down and talk with director Michael Bay — it was hard not to feel strange. While the prospect of behind-the-scenes insights into the making of what’s sure to be one of the summer’s biggest hits was enticing, there’s also the fact that “Transformers 2″ was an easy movie to not like. Oddly, what made the day a lot easier was the fact that Bay turns out to be of the same opinion.
“You all saw what I said about ‘Transformers 2,’ right?” Bay asked within seconds of sitting down. (If you’re out of the loop, Bay’s been candid about his problems with the film, as he told the Los Angeles Times’ Hero Complex, “It was kind of a mess, wasn’t it? … Look, the movie had some good things in it and it was entertaining and it did very well, but it also failed in some key ways.”
In the moment, Bay pulled off a nice mix of humility and self-celebration as he elaborated on what he felt the writers strike did to “Transformers 2″: “You don’t make that much money on a movie — and it doesn’t become No. 1 at the American box office that year — if people hated the movie. Do you know what I’m saying? Yes, people might have been turned off a little bit by it, we might have gone a little bit south on the direction — but it was a terrible writers strike, and it was a s— position to be in. You promise 1,000 people jobs, and then all of a sudden it’s ‘Uh-oh.’ A small group is on strike — three of our crew members — and how do you keep the ball going?”
This time, Bay swore, things would be different: “This one, we had time — we talked about — with (screenwriter) Ehren Kruger — what we liked about the first movie. You’re never going to match the innocence of the first movie, the wonderment — when the robots came out, it was new technology; the genie’s out of the bottle there. This one, I think it’s a more mature story line, it’s definitely darker: When people see it, they say they feel the emotion in the end. The stakes are higher because it takes place in an American city. You’re not as disconnected as you are in Egypt, with the Pyramids.”
Bay spoke about shooting in 3-D, and all of the technical challenges that offered, and I asked him if this was part of a plan to make the third film bigger. “I didn’t want to say that it’s bigger, because what I like about it is — I’ve said this with Ehren — (when) we were talking about concept, we use the term ‘Black Hawk Down’ in just that it’s a small group, and you follow,” he said. “There’s no cavalry coming. It’s a standard thing in movies: The cavalry comes. We tried to make the cavalry unable to come. It’s more fun to watch our heroes in this epic ending, just a small group, which makes the movie more intimate.”
While asked to not share too much of the exact nature of the clips we were shown, we did get a mix of 2-D and 3-D footage — plus a brand-new trailer — and a mix of low-level light comedy (involving new love interest Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and conspiracy theory from Ken Jeong) and wide-screen action as the city of Chicago is brought under siege by, yes, evil robots. Some of this stuff looked big and bold and brawny — the distinctive action style that some fans of the director term “Bay-hem.” At the same time, while it’s hard to say without having seen the final film, a sequence involving a Chicago skyscraper undergoing major, and swift, architectural modifications thanks to a huge saw-mouthed robot looked impressive — and yet still seemed like the climax to every other ‘Transformers’ film, where a large machine tries to destroy our heroes while they run to get to the glowing whatsit that determines the fate of the world.
After the footage, I asked Bay if shooting people walking away from a ruined urban center felt odd in the wake of events, even given 10 years’ passing and the movement of the culture. He shrugged: “It’s a fantasy action movie, so it’s what it is. Alien-invasion movies are nothing; they’ve been around a long time.” And Bay loves the challenge of coming up with more and more fantastic ideas: “I love what I do. It’s really fun to imagine. When I work with writers, I create a lot of my own ‘This is what I want to do; this is what we haven’t done.’ That’s how I inspire myself. I came up with this crazy scene you’re not going to believe. I was in the gym doing all these dumb stomach crunches. I’m like, ‘This building scene … that’s what I want to do …’ I don’t know where I think of these scenes, but there was a reason why they had to go into the building, and I figured what I wanted to do to that building after. It’s like anything you can imagine with ‘Transformers’ makes it fun. It’s interesting, because when you do a ‘Bad Boys II,’ there’s only so many things cops can do.”
Such as, I pointed out in reference to one of the movie’s more over-the-top scenes, invade Cuba. Bay had the good grace to laugh at a little bit of mockery aimed at his over-the-top sensibility: “When you think about it, OK. When you’re doing ‘Bad Boys,’ it’s like, ‘OK, they’ve got to be funny. What can we do?’”
But does Bay feel like he’s done what he can with the Transformers? Is this the end for the series? “I think so,” he said, “but it can still be rebooted — not with Shia (LaBeouf). He’s turning grumpy in his old age. He’s like a little brother to me. I’m like, ‘I’m never going to work with you when you’re older.’ He says, ‘Why?’ ‘Because you’re just a grump.’ You put him on a wire, and he just turns into this evil monster. Other actors are like, ‘This is really fun.’ He’s the opposite.”
But Bay doesn’t think he’s slackening his pace as he approaches the finish line: “I’ve got a lot of scenes you’ve never seen before and a lot of action stuff that I’ve never done before that’s pretty cool. One agent said, ‘Bay’s a competitor.’ What he meant by that, a lot of people (for) the third (installment of a franchise) will check out and just get a paycheck. I’ve been working every day for two years, every single day, because I want to make up for the second (‘Transformers’), and I want to leave this franchise as best I can. I’ve had a great run, fun time doing it.” And when asked point-blank if the controversial “twins” — robots Mudflap and Skids, whose heavy accents and manner suggested racially charged caricature — would be back in “Transformers 3,” Bay leaned back smiling, a man who had learned at least a few lessons: “Yeah, we got rid of them … they’re not even in it.”
Sara Gruen’s best-seller “Water for Elephants” offered its director and cast challenges — recreating a lost past, depicting romance in a real way in a fantastic setting, working with a 9,200-pound elephant in the title role and selling audiences on a film made not for the teens who love co-star Robert Pattinson in “Twilight,” but, rather, for a more mature audience. And yet, the finished film is remarkably successful and a gorgeous romantic tale full of life, love and beauty, as well as a celebration of old-fashioned show business.
For co-star Reese Witherspoon, playing acrobat and circus star Marlena, the challenges of both her part and the film’s world were a big part of taking the role on. “It’s definitely conceptual when you read the script and you think, ‘OK, that’s interesting.’ When you actually meet the elephant and I watched the stunt double do what I was supposed to do in the movie, and Francis Lawrence said to me, ‘I want you to do that all by yourself,’ I (said), ‘Are you kidding me? I’m not going to be able to do that.’ He (said), ‘I want you to try.’ I was like, ‘Ugh.’ I’m a sucker for ‘I want you to try.’ I’ll always try. It ended up being this incredibly fulfilling experience, really challenging but really worthwhile.”
So, I asked, was she always conscious of standing next to what was essentially a living truck, or, at some point, did Witherspoon get used to working with Tai, the performing elephant? “No, I think you’re always aware of it,” she said. “She’s a gigantic animal. She really instills trust with you and she never steps out of line or anything, but she’s big and intimidating. Sometimes people stand awfully close to her and not pay any attention. I feel like ‘That’s a giant animal; any moment anything could happen.’ But she was wonderful and very composed.”
Also wonderful? The film’s recreation of a lost era.”It was very magical going on the sets. They were out in the desert, we had the tents set up and the mountains were in the background. Every day, (with) people dressed in period costumes or performers on their lunch break, doing their routines, and animals everywhere. It really transported you to the time period.”
Witherspoon’s character is torn between her ringmaster husband, August (Christoph Waltz), and ex-veterinary student Jacob (Pattinson). Was there, I asked, a difference between working with the two? “Big difference,” she said. “Christoph is an actor, obviously: He’s been working for so long, and Rob and I were both in awe of his professionalism and his ability to create a character that was so multifaceted and dynamic, considering that it could be very much the villain. He played it with such vulnerability as well, because he really saw different aspects of that character. Then working with Rob, it’s lovely to work with somebody as terrific, at the precipice of a gigantic career and so excited to be there, so eager to work hard. I found him incredibly endearing and really hardworking.”
I also asked Witherspoon if the film’s ’30s costuming got a little overwhelming. “I think the guys’ costumes are amazing. But I was so lucky, I got to wear all these beautiful gowns and sparkling leotards. I have to say, I spent my entire career consciously avoiding bathing-suit shots, so I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to spend this whole movie in a leotard.’
Looking every inch the classic circus ringmaster in the red coat and top hat of the trade, actor Christoph Waltz — best known as Col. Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds” — is one of the great pleasures of “Water for Elephants.” I asked him how he played the part: if he researched circus ringmasters or just hammed it up in general. The German actor smiled: “Not any more than I usually do. No, I find it intriguing to study. I never went to university, so I have an inferiority complex about that, and now I try to catch up. I get interesting stuff to do, like playing a ringmaster in a circus in 1931 — that’s enough work for a few years in terms of study. I’m not too worried about running out of subjects.”
I also asked Waltz about working with Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, and what it’s like to work with young actors who have been doing this for a while and yet still have youth and energy and classic movie star glamour. “That’s in a way like asking a chef, ‘How is it to turn on the stove?’ That’s what we do. We’ve all — thankfully — reached a fabulous level of expertise and professionality. We get on with it. That’s what we do for a living. We don’t really marvel at each other the whole time: We work. We’ve got a lot of stuff to do. An actor’s life or work looks very glamorous from the outside, but on the everyday job, so to say, it’s hard work. We appreciate each other’s presence and we demand each other’s professionality. We don’t think about each other’s glamour.”
And for director Francis Lawrence, casting Pattinson — who is world-famous for his work as a vampire — was less odd than it sounded. “In all honesty, before meeting him, I was wary,” he said. “I was wary because I only knew him from the first ‘Twilight’ — it’s the only one I’ve seen — and only wary of that because it’s such a specific movie and he’s in such extreme makeup and he’s wearing contacts and his hair’s a certain way, he glitters, the performance is stylized in that movie. You’d be hard-pressed to see what else he’s capable of because of that role — at least I was. But when I sat down with him, I thought, ‘My God, this guy’s actually a lot like the character.’ That’s why I cast him, because I felt like he’s humble even with all this crazy stuff that’s happening to him, and he still has a purity — and he’s not really that cynical, he loves animals, he looks at these elephants with wonder, and he’s really romantic and, God, he really knows how to look at a girl. I think it’s great, because he’s so different in this movie. If it works — and I think it does — then people will be surprised, and I think surprised in a great way that I think is fun.”