MOTHER AND CHILD
In the beginning there was no plot, only a vague idea about two strangers who longed for each other, and how that longing had shaped and misshaped their psyches. It was to be a story of the complicated feelings and intertwined destinies of two women, then three. None of it was based on my personal experience but I suppose it was born of every parent's fear of being separated from a child by time or illness or accident.
I don't know how actors work. I have never acted myself (beyond a couple of school plays) nor studied acting. I have only a daydreamer's idea of the kind of things actors must do to develop roles—the conversations they might have with themselves, the unnerving realizations that may come as they search in a character's soul for themselves.
Annette Bening speaks of the screenplay, of the repercussions of any action, of the roots of Karen's emotions, with such clear-headed authority that it's fascinating for me to stand on the set and learn about characters that I thought I had written. That's a mesmerizing part of the process: to discover that's how Karen moves and that's how she talks and dresses and laughs and lives. Sometimes I want to ask Annette how she came to map such a remarkably precise and moving journey for Karen's feelings, to find such compassionate understanding for her prickliness and frustration. Sometimes I don't want to ask her at all. I don't want to see the secret compartment where the rabbit is hidden.
Months before principal photography we shoot Elizabeth watching Naomi Watts' belly. I've met Naomi only once before but she's remarkably at ease practically naked, exposing her real pregnant belly for Mexican strangers to photograph. She has a delightfully bawdy sense of humor that puts us all at ease, too. Bless her for that. Half a year later, during production proper, Naomi has fully developed an Elizabeth that moves with feral autonomy, with hard discipline and naked ambition—as well as with disguised frailty and fear. Naomi's Elizabeth is dangerous and heartbreaking and absolutely endearing to me. I had no idea I would be so infatuated with her. I could be Kerry Washington for twenty-four hours but at twenty-five I would crumble.
A film and stage career, political work (a fearsome debater!), charity work, the friendship of world leaders, directing, commercial endorsements—Kerry carries it all without breaking a sweat all the while doing the hard work of an artist. On what flight, in what hotel room, before what television appearance, in between acts of what play reading did she dream her dreams of Lucy? She taught me that Lucy was petit bourgeois and a perfectionist and that her desperation could be funny and that her fears of failure were agony. Lucy's happy destiny is, thanks to Kerry, completely earned and satisfying to me. We ask a lot of actors: to stand in front of others and undress and display their skin for a character—the beauty but also the bruises, the abrasions, the goose bumps—the
landscape of flesh exposed to direct sunlight. Nakedness like that is the stuff of a nightmare to me.
Often, when actors do and say the things that I wrote, I cringe and retract in the shadows behind the camera, hoping that no one will look at me at that moment and realize that Karen/Annette and Elizabeth/Naomi and Lucy/Kerry and Paul/Sam and Paco/Jimmy are so close to me that I'm blushing with shame. Thanks to actors I can indulge my dreams of storytelling and of living other lives. How else am I going to learn what it's like to be another human being?
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