Sunday, April 11, 2010
the ghost writer 3
Olivia Williams is undoubtedly the epitome of graciousness, but it’s clear that she’s been run a bit ragged of late when we catch up with her at home in Los Angeles, in between a whirlwind of travel. She’s just returned from Berlin, where she was promoting her latest film, The Ghost Writer, followed by a trip to London for the BAFTAs to celebrate the nominations of two of her other films, Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll and An Education (which honored Carey Mulligan with the Leading Actress award). While not nominated, Williams made quite a fashion statement at the ceremony, wearing a Catherine Walker gown that artfully left little to the imagination in regard to her flawless backside. Tomorrow she leaves Los Angeles again, this time for New York, to promote The Ghost Writer, the brilliant, suspenseful, pensive tale directed by Roman Polanski. “Polanski can’t talk about his own work, so it was important for the actors to talk about their contribution,” states the eloquent Williams, about her director and the upcoming rounds of interviews she is about to face.
Talking with the British actress is something of a challenge, at least at first. Not because she’s difficult, because she’s not, but because she’s so smart and engaging, you can only hope to keep up with her. With no makeup and admittedly exhausted from her travels, she looks quite exquisite, like one of John Singer Sargent’s painterly creations. An actress for nearly twenty years, Williams got her big break when Kevin Costner handpicked her to co-star with him in The Postman. Subsequently, she found herself stuck between two men vying for her affections (Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore), the wife of a man who thinks he’s still alive (Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense), and now as Ruth, the unsettled, frustrated wife of a former Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan in The Ghost Writer). The film is a suspenseful tale shuttered in the bleak environs of an East Coast island in the dead of winter. Obviously influenced by Hitchcock, Polanski allows his tale to breathe and reveal itself slowly, with great trepidation and calculated hidden agendas. Ewan McGregor plays The Ghost, an author hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of the aforementioned former Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Brosnan). Fortunately for him, or maybe it is unfortunately, the last ghost writer traveled to the great beyond, though how he got there is unclear. So The Ghost finds himself trapped in this monstrous shell of a home with a small but motley crew: Lang, his wife Ruth, secretary Amelia (Kim Cattrall), and a few very quiet servants. Despite the fact the previously written memoirs are a mess and need to be rewritten pronto, The Ghost realizes quickly that his subject is not exactly the most forthcoming of men. The Ghost Writer is nothing if not subtle, but therein lies the most masterful of intricacies. Upon viewing, you realize the film is very much like a difficult puzzle — you analyze it, do your best, and walk away. Eventually, when you revisit it, sometimes everything falls into place, and you wonder how you didn’t see it before.
Williams was kind enough to sit down with us before hopping another plane, to talk about Bikram Yoga, her Jane Austen experience, and her amazing, and controversial director, Roman Polanski.
Venice: I’ve read that you’re a big fan of Bikram Yoga.
Olivia Williams: Yes, I am. It’s like the Catholic church — it’s the same anywhere in the world. Wherever I am, I can get my fix, which is good, because I need to be evenly stretched on both sides. In acting, sometimes you’re putting uneven stress on your body and you’re playing characters in extreme states; I take that on physically as I did very often in (the Fox television show) “Dollhouse,” and it was a matter of correcting physically the appalling things high heels do to your spine. [laughs] You have to let all of it go.
Sounds like your character in The Ghost Writer. Ruth Lang is so tightly wound and pulled in so many directions…the battles she faces in this film — with other characters, with herself and, don’t worry, I’m not big on spoilers.
Oh, thank God. Thank you.
I remember seeing The Sixth Sense the first time and that’s what a movie experience should be — surprising, fulfilling, and entertaining! That was the pre-spoiler era.
That’s so funny because more than one journalist has made that connection and said, “What extraordinary lengths did you go to to protect the story in The Sixth Sense?” And the answer was none. I had gotten my first computer during the making of that movie and was just learning how to email and it just wasn’t a problem. Now there’s just so much insanity — scripts with people’s names watermarked across them and not issuing call sheets with the character names on them…
Your character in The Ghost Writer… it seems like it was a really exhausting role. You’re in this desolate, impersonal home on an island in a very strained situation, and Ewan McGregor pops in and changes everything.
Very true. But he was also a victim of happenstance.
The film is so subtle in its telling and the suspense is really allowed to breathe and build. But further, wasn’t it sort of mentally exhausting working with a director like Polanski, in the sense that you want to do a really, really great job?
I’m not saying it was a relaxing experience, especially when the shooting was supposed to happen on grey days and then there would be these incredible bouts of sunshine when it came to my scenes and Polanski would just be incensed! But the people I worked with — the cast, like Ewan, who is incontrovertibly a lovely guy, and Pierce is, well, just charm itself, so in essence, it wasn’t that hard. [laughs] And Kim (Cattrall) was utterly sort of opposite the screen persona we all know from Sex and the City; she was very gentle and quite vulnerable, and just as nervous as the rest of us about working with Polanski. He’s a piece of work — he is unlike any other director — but once we got to know each other — it was never easy or sort of comfortable like a pair of Uggs, but we got along and found each other’s measure, and once that happened everything fell into place. [Working with Polanski] is like having that slightly eccentric or wayward teacher; their criticism is more common than their praise, but when you actually do get that praise it’s like nectar. He thinks nothing of stopping a take and that’s a stab to the heart and the self-esteem of any actor. But when he eventually says, “Great, great,” it’s really hard-earned and appreciated. I think the cult of the sensitive actor has hampered directing… that we are sensitive creatures and any sort of bright light, or sudden movement might make us dissolve into tears. But Polanski tells you what he wants and how he wants you to do it; how you get there is entirely your business. You’re as functional as a lamp stand, and once you understand your position in the greater scheme of things, you’re a lot better off.
But isn’t that frustrating?
No, I just hadn’t gotten the hang of it in the beginning. I was under the delusion that he wanted some sort of contribution from me; and once you understand that’s not required, you just have to get your head around it. It’s a very different way of working. In a way it’s more complementary to the actor; you don’t need to be molly coddled; he’s not going to interfere with how you get to this point — he just wants you to do it. It’s the ultimate test. It’s so interesting to be such a pawn in the greater game — to see what you’ve brought. When you’re shooting you’re unaware of what you’re going to achieve, but for him it’s so clear. It’s pure vision. You just want to help him get it right.
The house in the film is not a cozy home. It’s almost like it’s another character.
It’s like I was saying: in the bigger, Polanski scheme of things, the actors are actually only a small component.
I find that so hard to digest. I guess maybe that’s just the sum of its parts, but in a way the location is almost the main character.
Well, there is one scene where I’m lying in bed and he spent about 20 minutes positioning me and the sheet, and smoothing the sheet and then ruffling it, over and over. He did the take, and then he did one of his most angry “No, no, no!” moments and he came at me and then slightly adjusted the pillow behind my head, and all the while I’m thinking, ‘What have I done, what have I done? I’m just lying here!’ But it was the pillow that had screwed up, and every time, he was right.
Would you say it was one of the toughest films you’ve ever done?
Yes, but as I said, I felt flattered by his expectations of me. I do think it’s one of our jobs [as actors] that, as unfashionable as it is to say, to transform and to realize the director’s vision — I have said this before I worked for Polanski as well — that a lot of directors don’t like it when you say to them, ‘What do you want me to do’? They want you to know it, but I could approach it from six different directions, so you kind of have to tell me. In this piece, it was really important, not to play the subtext, as it was in The Sixth Sense, because you give away the plot. I had a function to perform, and if you don’t play that function you screw it up!
This is an ensemble cast, but to me, you seem to rise to the position of main character.
That wasn’t evident at all while we were shooting, or in the script; it hit us all with the same amount of surprise. That’s just the way it edited out. I think it is a huge tribute to Ewan, who was playing the right sized cog in the greater machine. He played every bloke, and we all know he can grandstand —
And be naked.
[Laughs] And be naked. A lot! One of the most amazing things you don’t really realize at first is the fact that Ewan’s character doesn’t have a name — he’s the ghost. He is… the blank page, the impressionable surface upon which all these things are imprinted. He is the sponge. That is a very different role to play, and one that not a lot of A-List actors, would do. But Ewan is in this state of charming bewilderment and good humor and I thank God for what he brings to the film…he is wonderful amid all these unpleasant people who are being so very nasty. Again and again, he’s both cynical and naïve. And just trying to make a buck.
And oh so gullible.
I think the fact that you say that Ewan’s role doesn’t emerge as the starring role is the biggest compliment you can pay to him. He allowed himself to be the ghost.
Let’s talk about another one of your films from the past year — An Education. I love that your character’s name is Miss Stubbs, because until Jenny (Carey Mulligan) goes to visit her at home, she sees her teacher as this sort of pinched, staid, lonely individual. Yet when we see Miss Stubbs at home, it’s a very different story. She’s a real person, not just a teacher — something that many students can look beyond.
She has her independence and I think that’s a huge thing.
The time period of the film — we’ll soon be going into the hippie days — and Miss Stubbs’ flat is very bohemian, compared to the starkness of her classroom.
I’ve done a lot of independent British movies, and if there’s anywhere I really feel at home, it’s in that world. But I’ve been a huge Nick Hornby fan for years, so when I heard there was a small part — I did it in two days — I said, yes, even before I read it. So many people have said to me, ‘I love your character,’ and that I reminded them of that strict teacher in school that has inspired them. And I think it really affects Jenny when she sees how stupid Miss Stubbs thinks her choice is; the headmistress makes her rebellious, but Miss Stubbs makes her feel a bit queasy.
She’s very much of a Jane Austen character almost. And you actually played Jane Austen!
In my 20s I wanted to be Jennifer Ehle, and I was desperately sad –
But you did end up as Jane Austen.
Well, that was again — FINALLY — after missing two generations of remaking the entire works of Jane Austen — they have done two rounds during the course of my professional life.
You did play Jane Fairfax in “Emma.”
Just. I made it in there. Once. In the year there were two Emma’s! Jane Fairfax is by far one of my favorite Jane Austen characters and in many ways most similar to Jane Austen herself, so that was not accidental I ended up playing her – but – put yourself in my position. A huge Jane Austen fan, and watch the entire canon be made twice and not get the role of Elizabeth Bennett or Emma. It fucking hurt. My reward came with playing the author herself. Playing her at the age she was — or close to it — when she died; there seemed to be a justice in that. I’m glad my success is coming a bit more now — I can go out in an absurd dress that shows my ass and the nice remarks make me happy and the nasty remarks, I don’t care about it. I’ve given birth twice to an audience of medical students; I don’t care who sees my butt. That level of scrutiny in my 20s — I would’ve been under the surgeon’s knife by now. These award shows — you have to take it in the spirit it was intended and have fun.
One last question. Let’s talk about the seduction of Hollywood. I love the fact you have chosen not to really live here full-time and to spend a good portion of your life in the UK.
I said I wouldn’t live here when I was single and childless because it was all about work. When you’ve got small children, it doesn’t matter where on earth you are — you’re just moving from the morning routine, to the lunchtime routine, to the bedtime routine. This is a really nice place to bring up little ones at this point in my life and that just puts all the rest of it in its place. But, after a few months here you start to think, “Ooh, maybe just a little pick up around my forehead” or what have you, and that’s when it’s time to go back to London and kind of refill your reality. Most of my great roles have come out of the fact I don’t look like someone who has had their teeth done, or their eyes done, and that is where my career lies. So to fuck with that would sort of, throw away my income. That’s not the look that I have. I’m not judgmental about people that go that route; perhaps it’s what their career demands, but it’s not expected of me. ▼