"THE VIBE was like a good poetry slam or something," said Rosemarie DeWitt of working on the set of Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married" with its upscale-bohemian, groovy, multicultural backyard wedding. Although the cast includes DeWitt as Rachel, plus Anne Hathaway, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger and Anna Deavere Smith as her family, the guests for the cinematic nuptials were mostly nonprofessional actors whom the director threw together from other associations.
"There was a moment when everyone was like, 'I met Jonathan in a bookstore in Maine.' 'I met Jonathan when he came into my restaurant in New Orleans,' " said the 33-year-old actress. "So all these people who interested him were in the movie, and all these musicians he'd worked with over the years, like Robyn Hitchcock." When it was DeWitt's turn to tell her "guests" how she knew Demme, the screen bride had to confess: "I auditioned."
Into this on-screen love-in is dropped the depth charge of Rachel's fresh-from-rehab sister, Kym (Hathaway), forcing to the surface rich veins of familial resentment. DeWitt and company had to make those currents believable with very little rehearsal. She credits the script by first-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of filmmaker Sidney) with creating much of that air of authenticity.
"That was leaping off the page," she said. "You just want to grab ahold of it and wrestle it to the ground, make it your own.
"I think they would love to be best friends: 'I'd love to pick my sister as my maid of honor -- that's not the sister I have,' " DeWitt says, channeling her Rachel character. "I think the fact that we didn't rehearse and spend time together helped the awkwardness. 'Let's tell the audience these women are sisters. Now let's watch how painful it is for them to try to hug each other.' "
Long an admirer of Demme's work, particularly with such actresses as Jodie Foster, Melanie Griffith and Mary Steenburgen, DeWitt was excited to join the ranks of Demme goddesses. Despite runs on the Fox series "Standoff" and the AMC hit " Mad Men," however, the theater veteran feels she's still learning her on-screen craft. The director's choice of shooting as intimately as a home movie -- often with practical video cameras in the hands of cast members -- first confused her, then deepened her performance.
"The first couple of days I thought, 'I'm finally starting to understand a little bit about the camera, so I want to know, are we in a tight shot? How wide are we?' He'd say, 'Don't worry about that.' It ended up being more like theater, because when you're on stage, they can always see you, and you'd better be alive and full at all times."
Although DeWitt said the dialogue was "about 90%" in the script, Demme often went with discoveries on the fly. In a scene that turns into a dishwasher-filling contest between Rachel's father (Irwin) and groom (Tunde Adebimpe, of the band TV on the Radio), the filmmaker brought in more and more guests until it became a music-filled, crowd-cheering carnival that injected energy into the house and father.
"On the page, that character is deeply sad. Loving, but sad. Bill brought this gregarious fun, big personality to it. Now I can't imagine we'd have a movie without that," said DeWitt, adding that between takes of that scene, Irwin would amaze with his famed juggling abilities.
The director had surprises in store for her as well, springing on her just days before shooting the ceremony scene that she needed to write her own vows.
"We only did the full wedding three times. But the first time, I really felt like the bride," she said. "You know that fear of public speaking that people have in life? Actors don't have it when they have a script. But those really were my words. So there were a lot of amazing moments when, as an actor, you really get to try something. You get to be braver than you've been before."