Tell Anne Hathaway and Jonathan Demme the central character in their new film is as much fun as “a colonoscopy without anesthetic,” and their faces ignite with pride.
It’s an odd reaction, especially given the often fragile egos that come designer bubble-wrapped to the Toronto International Film Festival, but it was entirely sincere: Discomfort was what they were after in Rachel Getting Married.A cinema-verite styled family drama about a young addict just out of recovery (Hathaway) and her awkward first weekend back home to attend her sister’s nuptials, Rachel Getting Married has been riding the buzz train since it premiered in Venice earlier this month, and here in Toronto, the momentum and Oscar chatter just keeps building thanks to an incredible assortment of performances from the entire cast – including an achingly understated turn from Debra Winger in the role of an emotionally reclusive matriarch – as well as a smart script from first-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet, daughter of famed director Sidney.
“One of the things I love about (my character) Kym is people’s reaction to her,” says Hathaway, still beaming at the colonoscopy comparison.
“Kym’s the sort of person I would be friends with and am friends with. So for me the hard part was making sure I didn’t feel compelled to make her likable. I didn’t concern myself with whether or not the audience liked her, only that they understood her . . . I wasn’t concerned about making sure she was sympathetic, only that however she is, she’s absolutely being herself. So whether you like her or not, that’s up to you, she’s just being herself.”
Hathaway says playing a self-absorbed substance abuser was easily the most fun she’s ever had over the course of her career, but it wasn’t something she necessarily relished.
“I know everyone wants me to relish it . . . because it makes for good copy. And not to sound arrogant or cocky, but I’ve never defined myself by the way other people did. It’s not what they tell you to do in all the Lifetime movies anyway,” she says, laughing.
“It’s always about be yourself. Well, the person I am is an actress. And I’m really excited that I feel like with this movie I’ve earned that title. I’ve certainly been striving for it since The Princess Diaries,” she says.
“So I just feel happy now that I don’t have to have this weight on my shoulders (when it comes to) my attitude about myself about being a performer, that I actually did something that I’m proud of and all the intentions I had for the character made it onto the screen. For me, it’s really the realization of my dreams.”
Demme takes a sidelong look at his leading lady.
“Wait, now, can I ask a question?” says the director, who – at one time – was also a member of the fourth estate.
“Are you saying it wasn’t cool to do something completely different?” he asks, hands cradling his face.
“Well, of course it was cool to do something completely different, but not for the reasons he (the reporter) asked me about. It wasn’t cool because I’d done Princess Diaries. It was cool because you’re a f-king great director . . . and Kym is an amazing character. It was cool on its own merits.”
Demme looks dissatisfied, like he wants more.
“But it can be scary to do something completely different,” he insists.
“No it wasn’t!” counters Hathaway, with equal conviction. “That’s what I signed up for. I was never scared. I don’t know what that says about me, but I was never ever scared. Everything always felt right and I felt so protected, and I had so much trust in you and (cinematographer Declan Quinn). So if I got scared on this one, I was just a coward,” she says. “Everything was as good as it could be.”
Demme still looks a tad skeptical, but that’s not because they had earlier conversations. The director and the actress barely spoke at all on-set.
“This is us getting to know each other,” says Demme.
“It’s true,” says Hathaway. “We didn’t talk. I would give a scene everything I had and then Jonathan would put his head on my shoulders . . . and I’d do it again differently.”
Shot with multiple cameras on digital video, Rachel Getting Married feels in many ways like Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, or Alan Cumming’s The Anniversary Party in its attempt to put the viewer in the beanbag chair, where all you can do is watch, helplessly and somewhat uncomfortably, as the ambient dysfunction rises to an angry head.
Demme says the decision to shoot lean fit the whole family moment concept.
“I was trying to bring a home movie feel to it – like The Blair Witch Project, only this is the wedding party version . . .” he says.
“Yeah, the wedding party where the witch actually showed up,” laughs Hathaway.
Though Demme says he used to despise the flat, untextured look of digital, he’s now a convert to the code thanks to more sophisticated camera technology, but largely because it allowed him the freedom to create extremely long takes and immerse the entire ensemble in the unfolding drama.
The low light tolerance and mobility of the cameras also gave the director a chance to capture the lesser dramas unfolding in the corners of every frame, as well as make everyone look real – and flawed.
“We all have warts,” says Hathaway. ” . . . Not physically, you bloggers,” she clarifies.
“We all have faults that are difficult to handle, and we’re so often compelled to pretend we don’t. I think we could give each other more credit to be ourselves and to be more accepting of each other,” she says.
“That’s the thing I just love about Kym. She has so much more going on. And when you know how hard she has worked to stay sober, you put up with her acid one-liners and her misbehaviour because she’s dealing with an epic struggle,” says Hathaway.
“That’s why this character changed my life and the way I view the world: I think we can give each other more credit for our bad moments without cutting each other down.”