THE GUILT TRIP
Streisand Brings the Guilt -- and the Emotion
To play Joyce Brewster in all her colorful, contrasting shadings - overbearing and loving, lonely and adventurous, meddlesome and savvy -- Anne Fletcher always believed she needed to somehow bring Barbra Streisand to the role. At first, that desire seemed almost irrational. After all, Streisand, one of the most universally recognized and accomplished personalities in all of show business, had not appeared as the lead in a film since the 1990s . . . and she had a reputation for hand-picking her projects carefully and sparingly. But the upside was too huge for Fletcher to ignore. Not only did Streisand come to mind every time Fletcher thought of Joyce, but she clearly had the rare power to find and bring out the heart and depth in the most quirk-filled of characters.
An Oscar winner as Best Actress for FUNNY GIRL and an Oscar nominee for THE WAY WE WERE, Streisand is of course not only an icon on screen but also an acclaimed singer, film director, writer, producer, designer and author. As a testament to the remarkable breadth of her work, she is the only artist ever to have been awarded the entire gamut of Oscar, Tony, Emmy, Grammy, Directors Guild of America, Golden Globe, National Medal of Arts and Peabody Awards, as well as France's Legion d'Honneur and the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award. Most recently, she's been seen in the hugely popular MEET THE FOCKERS series, playing wife to Dustin Hoffman and mother to Ben Stiller. But this would be something rather different - a leading role that was not only full of comic repartee but also would put her character through a transformation at a time in life when she least expects to have her perspective - on her son or herself -- changed.
"Barbra was genuinely the only person I could truly see making this story something special, the one person I felt could reach both people's hearts and their funny bones as Joyce," says Fletcher. "I knew she was brilliant at comedy and I also knew her abilities as an actor could be mind-blowing."
But first Fletcher needed to get Streisand on board, and that process evolved slowly over numerous meetings and re-workings of the script with Dan Fogelman. "It was a long, but fun, journey," says John Goldwyn. "Everyone wanted to see it happen, especially since Barbra hasn't played a role like this in two decades, but we all understood that she had to come to her own decision. Even Seth Rogen said: 'Give her the room. This is a big commitment and she doesn't need this role, so she has to want to play it.'"
Fletcher recalls that everything changed at her very first encounter with Streisand. "We vibed with each other instantaneously," she remembers. "The thing I remember most strongly is that Barbra right away demanded honesty and truthfulness. I loved that because I'm not someone who can tiptoe around the truth. We talked for about five hours, and her big question was: 'Why would you want me for this movie?' And I told her it was her ability to reach people. I think Barbra has an incredible talent for being able to be funny and at the same time completely sincere. She captures things which are very true to human experience, which is truly rare among female actors. And that's what we needed for this role: a genuine mother."
Dan Fogelman says Streisand was on his mind even as he was writing. "The character is based on my mother and Barbra Streisand is my mother's hero," he muses. "She was a Jewish girl from Brooklyn who grew up idolizing Barbra, so from the beginning that was the dream."
But when that dream became reality, even Fogelman was taken aback. "There is something wildly exciting about seeing Barbra play somebody this real and this opposite from anything she has been seen in recently. She and Seth found an incredible chemistry as mother and son."
Streisand recalls that it was her son who finally convinced her to take the part. "My son fell in love with the script first," she says. "I said no to it for a couple of years because I had just played a mother twice in THE FOCKERS and I thought 'I don't want to play a third mother.' But this mother was so real and personal, and since my son loved it, I thought okay. Also, Anne was so adamant about me playing it and so sweet saying 'I won't make this movie without you.' It was like, oh my God, now I've got to worry about her finding another job! I felt motherly towards her, also."
Once she jumped in, Streisand took hold of Joyce and began to see all her layers, and her vivid unfolding as a woman who hasn't left the comforts of home in years. "You have a woman who lives in a sheltered kind of world, but it's a safe world. It's safe and it's warm," she observes. "It's okay. But it doesn't have passion. So she busies herself with frogs, ceramic frogs, and her book club and things like that. But what Andy does for her is give her an adventure - he gives her a way to expand her world, which really pays off. He becomes a better person so that they both can become better people. It's a transformative relationship without them even realizing it."
Fletcher would later send to Streisand a collection of photos and videos of Fogelman's actual mother to help her dive into the character even more deeply. "She really almost channeled her," says Fletcher, "and at the same time she was channeling everybody's mom. I don't think you can walk away from Barbra's performance as Joyce without identifying with something in her."
Lorne Michaels felt similarly. "Barbra is someone who is always very real, even in a comedy, and she has a way of being strong without having to show it all the time," he says. "She's so comfortable in her own skin that she could take on this role with ease. She plays Joyce with a strength and vitality that are ageless."
Adds John Goldwyn: "She gives a performance like you haven't seen from her in a long time: Intelligent, nuanced, really funny . . . and then, she sneaks up on you and breaks your heart."
Once on the set, Streisand's rapport with Seth Rogen only strengthened. "You just never know what's gonna come out of either one of our mouths, you know?" says Streisand. "It was fun, because we were both very much in the moment. We work alike in a sense and from the first day, we knew that this was going to be wild. "
She goes on: "I think anyone who is very in the moment is more than just a comedian, is more than just funny. So Seth has that and he has that realism that comes from within."
Fletcher especially loved the way Streisand played off Rogen's improvisational style. "What's great about the two of them is that Barbra cannot be thrown off her game. She is ready to play 100 percent. She knows her character and no matter what gets thrown at her, she'll go with it. There were only a couple of times that she broke up during an improv moment -- because Seth took it so far, she couldn't help but burst out laughing - but she really thrived off of it."
Rogen, too, was surprised by Streisand's improv savvy. "She really can go with the flow in an amazing way and she came up with some very funny stuff," he says.
Adds Evan Goldberg: "On the one hand, Barbra is an absolute perfectionist when it comes to character, taking everything through a process. But then when the camera starts rolling, she is simply dead on. She's got all the right reactions and knows how to land a joke or move you."
For Lorne Michaels, the rapport between Rogen and Streisand was enhanced by Fletcher's willingness to let it evolve organically in the moment. "Anne knows a lot about performance and that's where her energy goes," he observes. "Barbra and Seth are completely different in their approaches but Anne managed to get out of both their ways and yet always be there for them. She knows what she wants and is unwavering but also patient. She created an environment where they were safe to explore the comedy and the level of emotion that is in this picture."
Streisand continually surprised Fletcher, even in her demeanor when the cameras weren't rolling. "She's such an icon that you start to think she might be a certain way, but she was beyond down to earth, and so much fun to be with," the director comments. "She connected with everyone in the cast and crew and was always genuine."
One of Streisand's most challenging scenes comes when Joyce suddenly steps into the spotlight with an attempt to chow down a 50-ounce steak at a Texas steakhouse - plus side dishes --in an hour's time in order to get a free meal. Fletcher says Streisand attacked this gastronomic adventure with gusto.
"Barbra is a true foodie. She loves food with a passion," the director notes, "and she had so much fun with this scene. We used a lot of different things to stand in for the steak so she wouldn't get too sick of it. We had a skirt steak, then we had grilled watermelon and ahi tuna. But throughout, she just went for it. She was so committed and I think that moment brings out the classic, physical side of her comedy in a beautiful way."
Laughs Streisand, "I usually go more towards pasta, vegetables, fish, things like that. As a matter a fact, I had thought 'I can't do this scene' at first. I thought, 'How am I going to eat this much steak?' But they were very clever in disguising other things, and in the end, it was worth it. With me, there's the filmmaker part and the actress part. The actress didn't really want to eat the steak, but the part of me that's a filmmaker knows that this was the best scene for this movie, so those two sides argue . . . and then the filmmaker wins."
Another favorite scene for Streisand comes when Joyce learns of her son's ulterior motives and, distraught, heads off for some drinks in the hotel bar. "I've never played drunk before," notes Streisand, "and I've never really been drunk, so it was a lot of fun or me to play that scene."
But most of all, Streisand enjoyed playing Joyce because she's so reflective of the funny, poignant ways we all struggle to be seen for who we are with our family members. "Sometimes you resent the people you love and need the most," Streisand concludes. "Love is so fascinating in all its forms. And I think everyone who has ever been a mother will relate to this."
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