Chemistry is one of the most essential but hard-to-describe parts of the filmmaking process. Actors need to get in tune with their costars, just as directors need to find the right way to communicate with their actors. You can’t really force it. It just happens or it doesn’t.
Good chemistry broke out in a big way at this year’s Envelope Roundtable of supporting actresses. Participants Laura Dern (“Wild”) and Patricia Arquette (“Boyhood”) have moved in similar circles for years, while Tilda Swinton (“Snowpiercer”) and Emma Stone (“Birdman”) met — and bonded — for the first time.
It all made for a conversation filled with genuine curiosity and discovery on such topics as impromptu costume design, adapting to unusual shooting methods, growing up in a household of actors and what the future holds for the next generation.
Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Olsen: Emma, with “Birdman,” the style of that movie is such a big kind of part of the movie itself, the way it’s shot so that it seems like it’s one long, continuous take. How aware were you going into the project that that was going to be so much a part of it?
Stone: You're pretty aware. Alejandro [Inarritu], the director, explained that pretty early on but it wasn’t in the script or anything. Once we got into rehearsals—we had a three week rehearsal period before we started shooting and everything kind of needed to be exact.
Olsen: And so did that create a lot of pressure or anxiety that you could be the one to screw it up?
Stone: If you were coming in at the end of a long take, it was a terrible feeling. But I did screw it up many times — and by many I mean seven. It does increase the pressure, but then the feeling of it all working fluidly is the greatest feeling I've ever had on a set.
Olsen: Patricia, with “Boyhood,” the style of that movie is unusual as well, a movie that took 12 years to make. How was the film first presented to you?
Arquette: Well Richard Linklater, the director, just called me and said, “What are you going to be doing the next 12 years?” And I said I’ll probably be trying to get a job. And he said, “I have this idea of shooting a week a year for 12 years,” and I was like, “Yeah, let’s do that. Sounds incredible.” And so we would show up a week a year and he would call us a few months before and talk about those specific scenes and he would write some dialogue and then we would improvise it and he would rewrite it.
Olsen: What made you want to participate in a project with that much commitment to it?
Arquette: Well, I had a 12-year-old son by the time he called me and I had seen how fast his life had sort of gone by. And I like seeing the life cycle of human beings and how we grow and then blossom and then the blossoms start falling off and we start to decay, and I wanted to see that.
Dern: I have to say one of the things that was so incredible as an audience is how you have to consider your own, not only judgment, but your own hopefulness. Because things occur to your character which, as an audience, you're so invested in her now making the right choice, whatever that means, or changing a pattern or have something new and beautiful. I left feeling so much compassion for what happens to people in life.
Keegan: Laura, in “Wild” you play a character, who the author of the memoir, Cheryl Strayed described as the love of her life, her mother. Was that a big responsibility to play the mother?
Dern: The responsibility was honoring Cheryl’s truth and we couldn’t have done it without her as delicately as we all tried to. So the woman that the story is about was with us 95% of the shoot and I went to Portland where she lives and, you know, sat on her living room floor with her for hours hearing stories of her life and her mother. She was so generous about sharing her mother with us and her mother’s memory. It’s really super beautiful to get to be part of a movie about a mother and daughter having such an amazing love story.
Swinton: What's the story of the film?
Dern: Just after she lost her mother and was going through a breakup and a very difficult time in her life, [Strayed] actually hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, which is a trail that goes from here in California in the Mojave Desert and she hiked it all the way up to the border of Oregon and Washington by herself—
Swinton: Oh, wow.
Dern: Which is 1,100 miles. And the story’s told through her memory, her sounds, music that comes to her.
Keegan: Tilda, in “Snowpiercer” you were playing a role that was originally written for a man. How did that affect the way you approached it?
Swinton: I think it still is actually written for a man. I don’t think it ever changed. The reason I did it was because Bong Joon-ho who is a master filmmaker said to me, “There's nothing in it for you this time.” Then he said to me, “Could you do something with this mild-mannered man in a suit?” And the only thing I could think of was to have a bit of a laugh [with the character] so that was the approach. We just decided to whip up a monster but to have as much fun as we could in the process.
Olsen: I think anyone who sees the movie, they walk away loving the way that Minister Mason looks. How did that come about?
Swinton: We did it really fast, sort of irresponsibly fast. Our producer came to Scotland to see me and we just dressed up for about 20 minutes. I know it was about 20 minutes because I put a pie in the oven and I said, “It’s going to be ready in 20 minutes so let’s go and dress up.” And we raided my daughter’s dressing up box and I'd always wanted to play a character with its nose like this [pushes her nose up]. So that was my first condition. [laughter] And then we got some little glasses and, I don’t know, I think I stuffed some loo paper in my mouth.
Stone: This was in your kid’s costume box?
Swinton: Yeah and old dog blankets and whatever. But we wanted to make this monster. Minister Mason is the politician in this, um, we can't say post-apocalyptic world, but I wanted to look at what happens when people get the bit between their teeth with power and just go for it, with no editing. You know, no one’s going to be around to tell Mason not to wear that wig or not to pin medals onto herself. Like, by the way, most dictators do. Every time we did something kind of extreme, we looked at all the images of Gaddafi, of anybody in power in all the democracies we live in. And they all look pretty ridiculous and we all tend to turn them into clowns one way or another, we all like to laugh about them.
Keegan: How much does something like a physical aspect — Emma, I'm thinking of your tattoos in “Birdman” — help you find a character?
Stone: Alejandro really wanted her to be dressed in a way that would make any father crazy, so lots of—you know, everything was ripped. But the tattoos, we sort of came to a conclusion that there are a lot of young girls now—in L.A. specifically, I've seen it—that get tattoos all over their hands at a really young age. So we covered her hands in tattoos because the sort of commitment of that, and how flippant she is about something so permanent. Everything was a symbol in some other language of finally finding some peace in her life …
Dern: Oh, it’s so heartbreaking.
Stone: Yeah, it’s impossible for her.
Keegan: Meanwhile, you have one of the greatest screaming at Michael Keaton scenes.
Dern: Oh my god.
Keegan: I mean, you really unleash on his character. What was that like to shoot?
Stone: Wonderful once it was working. Because if it wasn’t going right for the first eight minutes of the take, you would just hear Alejandro’s voice in another room going, “No!” [To Patricia] How did you feel when you first sat down to watch [“Boyhood”]?
Arquette: Well, it was weird, I mean, I've seen my face so I know I've gotten older. It wasn’t a giant shock to me that I'd aged but—and if you’ve been an actor long enough, the world does recall your youth and the moment they found you or the age they want you to remain at. So you'll turn the channel and there you are and you're young and like, “Whoa, that’s weird. I was so young there.” But to see it kind of all happen quickly, it’s a little bit shocking. Wow, it went fast. It goes fast.
Olsen: And, Laura, you were also in “The Fault in Our Stars” this year and it’s sort of a similar but slightly different mothering role, and that’s also a film that has been a huge commercial success, kind of a little movie that could.
Dern: Yeah, it feels luxurious because it was certainly made with a studio’s support but still a very small, independent film. It’s like eight times the budget of all the movies I've done with David Lynch. But it’s still a very small movie. And people love John Green and he's such an incredible author and luckily people connected to the movie and longed for the movie because they loved the book so much. So that’s sort of a luxurious setup, much like “Wild,” a beloved story that people are waiting for. I pray for more of these movies to continue to get made over and over again.
Swinton: But it’s so encouraging because what you're saying is that it’s the audience that wants to go to see these films and not just to wait for them to come out on video but to actually go to the pictures and see them. What would you say, Rebecca, why would you say that a film like “Boyhood” has had the success that it has?
Keegan: It’s so different. There aren’t eight other things that you can see like it. It’s very specific in particular.
Swinton: But that’s always true. All films are different, well, except for the films that cost a fortune — that go out of their way to not be different—
Olsen: A lot of it is that people have seen the film, it touches them in a very genuine way, and I think this is a rare project where genuinely you have not seen a movie quite like this before just due to the nature of how it was made. And that it really touches people and they go and they tell their friend. I mean, it was playing in theaters here in Los Angeles for an astonishingly long time.
Dern: But that speaks to something interesting too, which is that these beautiful films are out for two weeks and then they're gone. It’s just so heartbreaking, you know, I've watched it with my parents, they make something so beautiful and people are like, “Ah, I wanted to see the movie but it left the theater after, like, three weeks. I never got to see it.”
Olsen: “Snowpiercer” as well really hung around in theaters for quite a while.
Swinton: We were very, very fortunate that that worked out so well. Because for a long time there was a whole discussion of Bong Joon-ho’s film not being seen by English-speaking audiences and thank goodness, we have seen it. The very fact that that’s done as well as it has is also incredibly encouraging because it means, yes, that’s what people do want to see. They want to see something that complex and that original and that unusual and weird.
Dern: What's amazing is, obviously this character you played, but that we’re sitting here having a conversation where even maybe just five years ago the conversation was about "women in movies." We haven’t even talked about that yet. So, I'm really excited that there's been a huge shift, right? In the way women get to sit around and talk about the roles they're getting to play or their movies making money or people wanting to go see them.
Arquette: Or all of these different structures. I mean, [Emma] when you're talking about your movie it sounds like live theater. All of these different ideas from filmmakers and, what is so beautiful about making a movie, when it’s great, is the collaborative experience of making it together. And I feel so lucky to be able to do that for a living, when it’s great. You know, when it’s horrible, it’s really a drag, you're like, “This is like a bad divorce I can't get out of.”
Keegan: Laura, one thing you and Patricia share is that you come from households where acting is the family business. Was there anything that your parents told you along these lines that helped you out?
Arquette: They told me don't do it.
Dern: Yeah, mine wanted me to be a lawyer. Why is being a lawyer—?
Swinton: Are both your parents actors?
Arquette: My dad [Lewis Arquette] was, my mom was when she was younger, but then she was a therapist. So, she was always talking about, that person is narcissistic, or this is the archetype, and that's passive aggressive. So, I always kind of look at my characters with both of those things. The things my dad talked about on acting and my mom, who taught mythology and was a therapist. So, both of those kind of stories.
Dern: And I just have to say, and I'll answer your question, but wait till you see [Emma’s] movie. Speaking of critics and narcissism and fame and oh my god. It's so uncomfortable. But in terms of my parents, god, yes, I mean, there's certainly the same warning, particularly from my mom [Diane Ladd] as a female. I think she had a lot of worry about self-worth and all these questions of how to get a real sense of self when there's so many reflections and things.
And I have to say, with your generation too, Emma, the fact that now there's so much emphasis—I even watch it, you know, in a car with my son and a group of 12 years olds, like, “Oh, my god, look how many followers I have. Oh, look who Instagrammed me. Oh, look who wants to follow me on Twitter.” It just seems—it takes you so outside of self. I was so lucky to be raised by actors and my godmother [Shelley Winters] was an amazing actor. They're all about their work and the craft and my mom and my godmother, I never saw them going out with make-up on, they just didn't care. They went to work and there weren't all these movie magazines and there certainly wasn't the internet. It gets worse and worse now for all of us that there's so much emphasis on presentation — even though I'm really thrilled to borrow this outfit. [laughter]
Swinton: It may flip around though. I mean, I imagine that Emma's generation —and younger — will grow some kind of antibodies that will mean that, you know, by the time your child is 26, everybody will have been in a movie. So, who cares? It'll all just level out. One would hope.
Stone: There's an increase in cynicism, that's for sure. It's a very cynical generation.
Swinton: But that's going to be passe in a minute.