It’s hard to watch idiosyncratic filmmaker Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” without thinking a superb watchmaker has gone mad, taking the viewer on a tour of the inner workings of one of Dali’s clocks.
“Oh, God almighty,” said Hope Davis when asked to describe the film, in which she stars with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Samantha Morton. “The basic story is about an artist trying to fulfill his true purpose, to say something of importance. It’s also about negotiating the world, feeling like everything’s falling apart. And the house is literally on fire. But I think it’s really about the artist’s journey, ultimately, and how torturous it is.”
That artist, Caden Cotard, is played through stages of increasing decrepitude by Hoffman, who also appeared as Davis’ radical, wayward boyfriend in the romantic comedy “Next Stop Wonderland” (1998). Here it’s she who does the torturing as Cotard’s almost psychotically self-promoting therapist, and she enjoyed it thoroughly.
“After he dumped me so unceremoniously on the street,” she said, laughing about their “Wonderland” entanglement, “yeah, it was fun to really mess with his mind. It was a small part, but I couldn’t pass it up. I just thought it was a strange and hilarious character, an utter narcissist thinking only about herself and what she might say next that might interest her.”
The therapist, Madeleine Gravis (“Just a letter or two from ‘gravitas,’ ” Davis notes archly), wasn’t directly based on anyone but was originally conceived -- visually, anyway -- as resembling conservative commentator Laura Schlessinger.
“There was some very funny stuff that didn’t get into the film about Madeleine’s radio show and how she just tears people to shreds,” Davis said by phone from her New York home. “It’s that same model of the Judge Judys and everybody else who just can’t get enough of themselves. It’s really about their glorification.”
But while the viewer might find Gravis’ advice less than therapeutic, the character sees it differently (and is obviously right, the viewer obviously wrong and foolish for doubting): “I am trying to help him through the morass he has made of his life,” said the actress, channeling the character. “He desperately needs to see a shrink, obviously, and I’m one of the best out there, so my book jackets quote me as saying.”
Davis’ association with Kaufman didn’t begin with “Synecdoche” though. It started much earlier -- perhaps the whole of it could be represented by this snippet: Davis repeatedly saying, “Stupid Meryl Streep!”
“That was kind of a bizarre thing because she was my idol for so long,” Davis said of playing an imagined version of herself, opposite a very real Streep and Peter Dinklage, in Kaufman’s radio play “Hope Leaves the Theatre” in 2005. In it, Davis gets mercilessly berated by her idol (thus the name-calling in the play).
“I got a call from my agent who was saying, ‘Charlie Kaufman wants to call you at home.’ ‘What?! Yeah, he can call me at home!’ And he called and he was really nervous. ‘I wrote this thing and I don’t know if you’d like it,’ and I was like, ‘I’m sure I’m going to like it. I’m sure it’s really, really good.’ I have to say, it was probably the best job I’ve ever had.
“I don’t know why he picked me. Maybe because he’d already entitled it ‘Hope Leaves the Theatre.’ ”
During performances in London, New York and Los Angeles, Davis and others became convinced Kaufman was ready to try his hand at directing a film.
“We all said, ‘Charlie, you’re ready. You should do it,’ ” she said. “He’s so wonderful to work with because, I’m sure you’ve seen him accept awards and what a humble and real person he is. It’s absolutely about the work.
“At the same time he seems nervous about how it’s going to go, he knows exactly what he’s doing, exactly what he wants. Everything fell right into place.”
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Where you’ve seen her
Hope Davis’ range includes various incarnations of dream girl, sexy, frightening, mysterious in the fascinating but inscrutable “The Nines” (2007) and anhedonic nerdiness in “American Splendor” (2003). She played Jack Nicholson’s exasperated daughter in “About Schmidt” (2002) and was in “Arlington Road,” “Charlie Bartlett,” “The Secret Lives of Dentists,” “The Weather Man,” “The Matador” and TV’s short-lived “Six Degrees,” among many others. Her breakthrough performance came in 1998 as the smart, grieving beauty in “Next Stop Wonderland.” Later this year she will be reunited with Catherine Keener in Michael Winterbottom’s “Genova.”
-- Michael Ordona