Interviews

INTERVIEW: ALAN RUDOLPH AND EMILY WATSON

By • Jul 1st, 2000 •

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These interviews were part of a junket to promote Alan Rudolph’s latest film Trixie, in which Emily Watson stars. In this “screwball noir” (description from the press packet) an assortment of odd and off characters are thrown together in and around a gauche and gaudy nowheresville casino and an unsolved murder, and nobody is what he seems or says what he means. There’s Kirk Stans (Nathan Lane) a tacky show biz impersonator, who always speaks in someone else’s voice, Ruby Pearli (Britanny Murphy), a carefree little sex kitten who lives with her mother and has more cares than meet the eye, Dex Lang (Dermot Mulroney), a James Dean wannabe and not-so-secret klutz, Drummond Avery (Nick Nolte) a silver- and serpent-tongued Senator, and, finally, the madly malapropping yet honest Trixie Zorbo (Emily Watson) who suspects them all.

Although the convoluted plot has some clever twists and turns, to me the most interesting thing about this film was its use of language as a form of obfuscation, rather than communication, and I was determined to learn more about the filmmaker’s take on this.

Well, I did learn something very important. I learned that if you happen to sit in the radio room at a press junket, instead of in the print room, you will very shortly incur the wrath of the surrounding radio personalities for laughing, making sympathetic noises to encourage the interviewee, or having sudden and uncontrollable coughing fits, because you are messing up their sound bites! But even while experiencing the humility that comes when one’s ignorance is exposed, I did find that the interviews reaffirmed one of my hopes and beliefs: that a good and sharing relationship between a director and his actors will lead to empowerment of both, and to a fierce loyalty to and love of the project.

Oh, there’s a bit about language here too. I left out the parts where I was coughing.

Professional Radio Interviewer: I remember being at the Angela’s Ashes junket, and somebody said, “Aren’t you up for a good laugh yet?” And you said, “Actually, I’ve already had one.” Was that this film?

Emily Watson: Yes, I had a lot of fun making this film. Actually I wasted a lot of film because I was laughing my head off.

PRI: The language. Was it hard to use those mixed metaphors?

Emily: At first I kind of struggled, because you don’t want to make anything of it, or comment on it like it’s a gag. So I had to get myself to the position where, to me, it made absolute, perfect sense, so I could say with total conviction, “I’ve got an ace up my hole.” And it wasn’t a kind of comment. In a way, it was rather delightful. I read the script, and I fell in love with her, because in some ways, she’s a bit of a delinquent; there’s something missing. But she does have a great pursuit of justice. She’s fighting for good.

PRI: Can you talk about how you got to that accent and did you find yourself talking like her, even when you weren’t on the set?

Emily: A bit. I had a coach. She works at a theatre school in Chicago–I can’t remember the name–and she was absolutely fantastic. She sat with me for a week and went over and over the accent. You get to the stage where technically you can kind of make the right sounds, but there’s something about being English, and sort of seeing yourself as an intelligent, cultured person that makes it quite difficult to go with that sound. And it wasn’t until I realized that that I was able to let go of ideas of who I was as a person and really go with letting it all hang out.

PRI: There are some scenes where Trixie has to stand up for herself and get very emotional, and as an actress you have to make the scene in the moment, but because it’s such a different dialogue from the way you are used to speaking, how does one make that appear to be impromptu?

Emily: You have to really jump, you have to say, okay, this is risky, and I’m going to really let myself go. You can’t be thinking about the dialect, you can’t be trying to control it, you have to have done enough homework. And I trust that somebody is listening and is going to tell me if I’m going wrong, and just go for it. Chewing gum helps. It’s a great release [Trixie chews religiously throughout the movie, including her many close-ups.]

PRI: Was that your idea, to introduce the gum?

Emily:
No, it was in the script. Actually we sat for a couple of days, doing the dialogue and I thought, “Oh god, I’m not going to get this,” and then I started chewing gum during the lessons, and that really helped.

Me:
Does it have a meaning, that she’s chewing gum all the time? I wondered, because Trixie mentions in the movie that her mother is dead. Did she die of cancer? Is gum chewing a substitute for smoking? [If this is indeed “screwball noir” the gum is perhaps a substitute for the ubiquitous cigarette in the traditional, and I, the interviewer who asked the least questions, thought there might be a dark and moody reason for the transference. But Emily did not agree.]

Emily: (laughs) I didn’t think of that. I just thought, if Trixie really needed to think, she had a brain knotting problem that she needs to work out, she couldn’t think unless she had a piece of gum in her mouth, and then it was like the cogs in her brain starting turning.

PRI: How freeing is it for you to play quote unquote, an idiot?

Emily: Oh, it’s the best, it’s really freeing. In a way the most similar role I’ve played is Bess in Breaking the Waves. She has a similar idiot quality, but also absolutely the same kind of open love. It’s a lovely state to spend the day in.

PRI: It seems that so many of the characters that you have played have been very strong women, even if they didn’t look it.

Emily: Yes, well, I think I’ve had my unfair share of good roles, and a lot of actresses say, rightly so, they don’t write good roles for women. I’m not complaining. I’m thankful. I’m incredibly grateful to Alan Rudolph for seeing me in this role. Because I think it took a bit of imagination. He’s just that kind of guy. He says, “Good actors are good actors.” There’s no way that a studio would have given me this kind of role.

PRI: Did you have to do something special to convince him?

Emily: No, not at all, he just offered it to me. He’s like that. If he likes someone, he will work with them. He seems to be a great believer in just a fortuitous coming together. And actors always end up feeling you will die for this film. This is the little guy who doesn’t compromise, who doesn’t pander to the establishment. He’s got no money, no time, but he’s making the movie that he wants to make. And that’s such a special thing; actors just adore that.

Alan Rudloph entered, wearing a light cast on his arm. After we went around the table and introduced ourselves, he explained his injury.

Alan Rudolph: I broke my hand.

PRI: You broke your hand?

Alan: I hit Nick Nolte in the groin.

PRI: (laughing) Do tell.

Alan: I broke my hand. I hit a banker in the heart. No (he removes the cast)ÉI’m going to take this thing off. I only use it so that I don’t have to shake hands.

PRI: One of the things that Emily mentioned about this film is that even though it’s funny that you personally wouldn’t classify it as a comedy.

Alan: It’s a serious farce. It is simultaneously serious and humorous. I watched it by myself yesterday. I just got back from Germany [where he’s shooting another film] and I thought, I want to watch this movie again. And it was great. I was the only guy sitting in this room, laughing my ass off. And yet I think the purpose is to make you think. To make you laugh while you’re thinking.

PRI: Somebody said this is autobiographical?

Alan: Right. I used to be Trixie. No, somehow it’s written in there (he points to the press packet) I don’t know how it got in there. No, I can identify with her. I can identify with the salmon swimming upstream. The first time any of my films had public exposure someone said, “People don’t talk like that.” And it hasn’t stopped. I don’t know how people are supposed to talk. So I accept it. I identify with Trixie, being someone who doesn’t have a lot of support, doesn’t really give a damn, is after their own truth. Feels that everywhere you turn, someone is selling something false.

PRI: How do you stay hopeful in this business, with everyone seemingly against you?

Alan: It doesn’t really bother me. I wish I had some money, but I’ve had more articles written about me: “How does this schmuck keep going? His movies don’t make money!” Eat your heart out is all I can say.

PRI: Have you found that in American comedies of the past twenty years, it’s a matter of joke, set-up, joke, set-up? A series of gags as opposed to situations?

Alan: Well, humor is best if you mix it. My best friend is Tom Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) and he gets it smart and silly at the same time. People talk about reality, about realism [in movies]. And yes, it gets to you if it’s something you’ve never seen or it has manipulation appeal, but in the final analysis, anything that is creatively dramatic is a take on realism. I can’t seem to take any of the circus seriously. Every time I’ve flirted with an idea for a film about gangsters or criminals, I can’t take it seriously. It’s not that I don’t believe they’re out there, but I can’t make films about them, because I know it’s just a silly movie. It has nothing to do with reality. The Godfather is DeNiro and Pacino… So, when I do it, it’s all the biggest joke. That doesn’t mean it’s frivolous. Life’s a big joke.

Me:
Lot’s of these characters in this film seem to have a death wish. Is that something that…?

Alan: A death wish?

Me: A death wish.

Alan: Well, they don’t get their reward do they, except for oneÉNolte said about politicians, that they all want to be assassinated. [Alan obviously didn’t want to expand on this intriguing idea and neither did the PRIs. But I swear, the characters do have a death wish.] But in fact, some of the lines of his character in the script were actual quotes from politicians. And he said, “Oh, that’s just great, let’s do it all that way.” I think ninety percent of his dialogue ended up being quotes from actual politicians. Dan Quayle and George Bush are well represented. The Republicans are well represented, and not just in language, I’m afraid.

PRI: Can you talk about choreographing that love scene [passionate and nearly acrobatic groping between Dermot and Emily] that was so hysterically funny?

Alan: One take, too. Ummm. No. There’s nothing to say. First of all, Dermot was great. And Emily is, I hope she doesn’t know how brilliant she is. Both of them don’t care about the self-centered side of acting. They care about the behavior and the moment and the truth behind the moment. The trouble with actors is everybody puts them in a category, it’s a narrow perspective. And yet by definition they are supposed to embody the entire range of emotions, and circumstance and behavior, I mean this is what their lives’ occupation is.

But what actors these are to work with, huh? Nathan Lane? He’s really special. There’s something very exhilarating about him, something a little sad, a guy who knows something, and endures, he’s been through a lot; I mean I don’t know much about his life, but as a show biz veteran…

I would say it was a privilege to get to work with these actors and a thrill to get paid for that privilege–but I didn’t get paid.

I love this film. I mean, that’s my job, but I really do love it. It’s because of the actors.

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