Interview: Cast of ‘Mother and Child’

Last week I got to sit down with the stars of Mother and Child, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington, and Annette Bening in a round table discussion where they discussed their love for the film’s director, Rodrigo Garcia, adoption, and co-star Sammy Jacks.

First to the table was Naomi Watts who accidentally flashed her bra strap.

What is the difference between creating a character like Elizabeth that Rodrigo wrote rather than someone that is alive, as in your next film where you play Valerie Plame-Wilson?

Naomi Watts: It is a huge amount of pressure playing someone like Valerie Plame-Wilson. First of all who she is and what she’s done is wildly intimidating and impressive. It is just scary to take on that responsibility, and you want to honor her story, an incredible story that affected us all. This character, Elizabeth, in Rodrigo’s script was beautifully written, it was all down on there on the page. It came with it’s own set of fears in that I was afraid of the strength of her. She is often doing things that were confusing to me, like her sexual prowess. I think that she is in a lot of pain and she has been really badly wounded along the way. She doesn’t hold men in the highest regard… not just men but people.

There is a young, happy couple in the film that live next door to Elizabeth. How do you think she viewed them?

Naomi Watts: I think she despised them. I think she thought they were just freaks. She is obviously a freak herself, but they were truly freaky people going about their happy-go-lucky way.

The thing about adoption in the film, especially with women, is that there is no sense of closure to it. Do find ultimately the film is about forgiveness?

Naomi Watts: Acceptance. To me it is hard to sit through a movie and have it not be closed up and squared away because we’re so trained to have that experience in a film, but that’s not really life is it? It was hard because there is not a distinct arc for Elizabeth, it was just this journey, and there were tiny moments of life altering episodes, so it was hard to play.

Was it easy to work with Rodrigo Garcia because he wrote the script and directed you as well?

Naomi Watts: Well I just love that man. He’s a brilliant writer. He just loves women. It is evident. When you are in the presence of him you can just tell he has a terrific understanding of women. He has two daughters, and he loves his wife. His direction was equally as good as his writing. There were things that I didn’t see on the page just came to life on the day. I would love to work with him over and over again.

How much did you and Rodrigo discuss Elizabeth’s back-story, and the specific experiences that led to her being the way she is in the film?

Naomi Watts: I tried to do a bit of that with him, and he was sort of like, “that is your work.”

Part of the back-story in the film was that your character Elizabeth had her tubes tied at seventeen. That is such a shocking thing.

Naomi Watts: It is a wildly dramatic thing to do. At seventeen most people get their ears pierced or get a tattoo or something slightly taboo. But that is what I love about him [Rodrigo Garcia], he’s not conventional. He’s someone who sees people in extraordinary ways, and forgives them for being such. I think it was difficult for me to look at this character and not take her into the arena of the villainess. At times her behavior would make you feel that that was what she was. The more that I stuck with her, and created her background I could see that she just had gotten to a place that she was covering that pain, the endless pain, and she became incredibly controlled. I found her intimidating, in a different way than Valerie. She [Elizabeth] appeared to be so fearless, she was so ready to take anyone on, and so confident, but really it was just a cover. I know that I just said that she wants to control it all, but I also think that she wants to shock her self into something as well, subconsciously, and that’s why she does these really provocative things that could come back to bite her in the butt.

Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Paul, obviously adored Elizabeth, he was ready to give her the world. Did you wonder what Paul saw in Elizabeth?

Naomi Watts: I think he is just taken by her confidence, and her sexuality. I think when a man sees a woman who knows what she wants it can be scary, but it can also be tempting. And she just went at him like gangbusters, and she was hard to refuse.

You shot the pregnancy scenes months before principle photography while you were actually pregnant. What was that like?

Naomi Watts: I get emotional when I see that moment. What happened was we were talking about making the film earlier in the year. I was ten months pregnant at the time or something, and the SAG strike was an issue, and Annette wasn’t available for those dates, and we were just trying to force it because of my pregnancy. I didn’t work out. I got bigger and bigger progressively. Rodrigo said, “Let’s hold the film. While you’re having your baby we’ll shoot Annette and Keri’s stories, and then you can come in January,” which was only eight weeks after I shoot the baby. But we also knew: A) we can’t afford the prosthetic stomach, and B) they never look good so let’s just use the real thing. So he and Xavier [Perez Grobet], the cinematographer, came over and we stole the shot. I knew from being pregnant before that if you want to feel your baby move you drink ice water so I had this thing of ice. You can see the moment in the film. I mean talk about being a stage mother.

Next was Kerry Washington who did not flash her bra strap, but, in an effort top her co-star, offered to.

This is your one day-off from Race. Is it invigorating to be in a hit Broadway show? Is that an actor’s dream? Or is it hard doing eight performances a week?

Kerry Washington: Kinda. I would say “C – All of the above.” It is really fun and really exhausting. I feel like I’ve been hit by a car every night, that’s how I feel emotionally after the show. But it is a complete dream come true. For me growing up in New York all I ever wanted to do was Broadway.

In this movie your character, Lucy, and her husband, Joseph (David Ramsey) split. Is it that Lucy wants a child so much is she willing to sacrifice her marriage, or is it that she discovers that her marriage isn’t what she thought?

Kerry Washington: I think that they are two people that love each other very much that want very different things, and I think that happens sometimes. On the road together you realize there are things that you can’t repair, that you want different things. I’ve heard people say like, “He’s such a horrible person.” I think it is actually very responsible of him to be honest with her at that point to say, “I don’t think this is something that I can do.” I mean how much worse would it have been for that kid if the kid was dealing with the issues of being an adopted child AND the abandonment of a father. I think it is really great that he takes responsibility for who he really is. I think up until that point he’s really trying to be what he thinks is the right thing, but you can only be who you are. I think it is admirable for him to admit it. But that is me speaking. Lucy has much more complicated thoughts about it.

Lucy is a little bit of a neurotic. What did you take to the character in terms of your own level of anxiety?

Kerry Washington: When I read the script I called Rodrigo and I said, “Am I wrong because I think Lucy is funny.” There is something about her massive anxiety that was funny to me, and I wanted to play in that a little bit. There is something about how tightly wound of a perfectionist she is. We meet this woman and everything in her life fits in a box with her pearls, and her bakery, and her very attractive husband, and her perfectly cropped hair, a person that for all of her life she has gotten what she wants, and this is the first time that she is being faced with the idea that she doesn’t control the universe. So we see a woman that comes to terms with that. A lot of what her journey in the film is about is learning to take life on life’s terms, and to be grateful for what you have as opposed to what you think you have.

In the scenes with Lucy and the expected mother that is going to give up her baby, Ray (Shareeka Epps), do you think your character lets go of that control?

Kerry Washington: I think the scenes with Shareeka are very important because you see her character let go. Lucy thinks she’s still in control because she is surrendering to get what she wants, but you really see the power shift in those scenes. Which is why we were so lucky to have Shareeka because we needed a young woman who could be in complete control of that room. I think there are very few actress of Shareeka’s age that could command that kind of grounded, centered control. I am very excited to see what else she does in her career.

Speaking of command, you have a lot of scenes with Cherry Jones in the film.

Kerry Washington: Most of my time I was like, “What can I learn from Cherry?” I loved working with Cherry. She was such an inspiration and support for me in those really pivotal scenes. This is the kind of cast that constantly your work is being elevated by them.

With most of the characters being affected in a somewhat negative way by the process this movie seems to say that there is such trauma associated with adoption.

Kerry Washington: I think my character has the most modern take on it. It wasn’t until I started doing press that I even realized that it was a film about adoption. I thought it was about three women who go through dramatic transformations of character because of relationships in their life. Which, by the way, for three actresses it is amazing because we don’t normally get to be the people who go through massive transformation, we usually get to hold the hand of the people going through the massive transformation. That’s what this film is about. None of us [at the end] are the woman you meet at the beginning of the film.

I have to say, everyone talks about how wonderfully the women are written, but I think a big part of that is how the men are written. You have two men – by the way, two men of color – Sam Jackson’s character and Jimmy Smits’ character who bravely love these women unconditionally. These men are dreamy. The moment where Sammy Jack walks in and says, “I will drop it all” I don’t know a woman who did go, “OH MY GOD!!!” It is really beautiful how the men are written.

Did you talk to any mothers that have gone through the adoption process?

Kerry Washington: I did talk to a lot of women who when through the process. I actually did a lot of research on women who had been through infertility procedures because I felt that this was where we met Lucy. She’s been through this other really difficult journey about trying to be a mother biologically, and we meet her at the end of that, which is a huge journey for a lot of women. And the decision to end that that is big.

What is next for you? There were some rumors about Spike Lee’s new film?

Kerry Washington: I don’t even know. What is this Spike’s movie? I have no idea what that is. And I talked to Spike this weekend, and we didn’t even talk about it. I should have asked him. I have a film that was at Sundance, Night Catches Us, and another film I did called The Details.

How much longer are you in Race?

Kerry Washington: The play has been extended until June 13th. It may get extended after that.

Would you want to go to London or L.A. with it if it goes?

Kerry Washington: You know I really love the play, but I’m missing parts of my career. If we took a break then maybe, but I miss working on camera. I will want to return to stage again. When “Race” finishes it will be about eight months. So it is almost a baby.

Finally Annette Bening sat down, and we all refrained from talking about Warren Beatty.

Your character Karen is so fierce and unlikable at the beginning, but you never lose interest.

Annette Bening: I really felt it was all there on the page, there is only so much you can do as an actor. It is either there in the narrative or isn’t there. I thought what Rodrigo was trying to write about was this woman who, because of what happens to her, gets it wrong. When someone tries to talk to her she doesn’t know how to respond. And there was something about that which intrigued me. I began to get this image of this woman that you might see at the grocery store, who you might run into at the bus stop, and she’s just cranky. She doesn’t know how to take care of people emotionally, and it is a self-destructiveness that comes from being cut off. I think it is true of people like that, I certainly believe this is true of Karen, it isn’t that she doesn’t want to; she wants to connect to people, but she is ill-equipped. That’s what I was trying to get across. Especially where Rodrigo took the story I thought it was going to be more gratifying at the end, hopefully, given where she starts. It is a fine line because at the beginning people don’t like her.

The thawing of Karen comes from her relationships with the housekeeper’s daughter, and then through Jimmy Smits’ character Paco.

Annette Bening: And that’s how Rodrigo weaves the story. That for me feels like life. When things begin to change part of it is fate, part of it is that person that walks in the door and says, “Do you want to have a cup of coffee.” That’s your moment of – do you say yes, or do you say no, or do you blow it or do you not. I think Karen has spent so much of her life not knowing how to cope, not only with men, but just in general. But because of these things something kind of opens. Suddenly she is confronting herself. I think Rodrigo is writing about then when things change for people – some times they do and sometimes they don’t change – but for Karen things do change, and I think he managed to do it organically. Because she begins to get it.

What kind of back-story did you think about for Karen?

Annette Bening: I thought a lot about that whole history of Karen’s. That was something that was fascinating to learn more about. When I was in high school I knew girls who got pregnant. I knew girls who suddenly disappeared. There was just this one specific girl who I knew since I was very little. She was adorable, and very vivacious, normal girl and she suddenly disappeared one day. It was like, “What happened to so-and-so?” And then the rumors, but no one ever sat the kids down and said “Okay kids, this is what happened.” It was all hush-hush. Nothing was dealt with in an open way. So for Karen I felt Rodrigo really built this history of having given up this child, and the experience that those girls went through.

How do you feel this film views adoption?

Annette Bening: This is a story that involves adoption, but I was thinking more about it recently I was thinking that because adoption is such a charged subject it is a way of talking about human nature, and it is a way of bringing out what we are as human beings in a really pungent way, and that is how Rodrigo got himself involved in the story. I know it took a long time to write; I think it took him ten years to write. It just a really a way of placing people in this really highly charged situation that you can talk a lot about human nature and talk about how we connect or don’t connect to each other.

You have another film where you play a mother coming out, The Kids Are Alright. Is it a similar character to Karen that you play in that film?

Annette Bening: The Kids Are Alright is a very different kind of movie, and different characters. I don’t have to play someone with a complicated past. I really loved that actually. I’m very sane in that movie. I could have gone on playing that character for a long time, I just love her. And actually where Karen gets to is a place of peace. Doing the beginning part of this movie you have to brace yourself, and do those moments, and knowing where you are going and where we get to makes it worth it.

With these two movies coming out this year do you think of it as an Annette Bening comeback?

Annette Bening: [Laughs] No, because I don’t experience it that way. I have four kids so I work and don’t work, but I work a lot in Los Angeles, I do plays. So from my own selfish point of view I don’t look at it that way. Since I had children I have taken huge amounts of time off. In a way it’s a really good thing, in this business especially, to have lots of private time, having lots of time to be in the world to observe people and read and take care of my kids helps me to come back into work with a thrill. With this picture I loved making it so much. At the beginning there was a lot of pain at the beginning of the film for Karen, but the process of making it was a joy. It was a labor of love.

Official Mother and Child Site:

Interview by: Paul Myers

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