Face Forward

One of the most talked about performances of 2008 is Anne Hathaway’s transcendent turn as Kym, the drug-addicted prodigal daughter returning home for her sister’s wedding in Rachel Getting Married. The film, written by Jenny Lumet and directed by Jonathan Demme, tackles the human condition of family dynamics under pressure and is by turns hopeful, horrific and fantastically funny. It may not exactly mirror your family, but everyone who watches it sees something familiar.

And all are captivated by Hathaway, who is, in a word, ferocious. Her portrayal—along with those of the cast, including Bill Irwin as dad Paul and Debra Winger as her conflicted mother, Abby—was acclaimed by critics. Hathaway nabbed Best Actress at the Critics’ Choice Awards, in a rare tie with her Devil Wears Prada costar the legendary Meryl Streep. And the unintentional matchup will continue to the end of awards season, as she faces her idol again in the Best Actress race for Oscars. Lumet and Hathaway recently reconnected for an LA exclusive conversation.

Jenny Lumet: I used to think you were a swan. Now I think you’re a big cat—a lioness or something.
Anne Hathaway:Wow! That’s an upgrade. It’s a promotion.

JL: Swans are very beautiful, and they glide, and I was like, All right, she’s beautiful, she’s very interesting, and there’s the gliding thing...But I know some swans who will kick your ass. They’re very scary if you get near their family. And then I realized you were definitely more of a big cat, like a lioness. And this is why: Lionesses do all the work. But you’re also a young woman. I mean, you’re 24.
AH: [Laughs.] Twenty-six, but I love you.

JL: I’m still old enough to be your mother. When you’re 50, you will be a fully grown big cat, and now you’re youngish-er.
AH: I think youngish-er is exactly where I am right now.

JL: I keep thinking about knowing you in the perverse way that I don’t know your favorite color but have seen you in these incredibly intimate moments.
AH: I don’t have a favorite color.

JL: You know what I mean. I don’t know your middle name or if you pick your nose. But I know some very intimate stuff about you by the nature of your work.
AH: Then what’s the difference? Because that’s a great point about the schism of intimacy. There’s the intimacy you gain from close observance over time, from getting to know someone’s head, and then there’s emotional intimacy, which you can have with perfect strangers. That’s the kind that turns me on—when you sit there and you don’t know someone from Adam, and you realize you have joy or pain or disappointment in common, and you can share that and kind of, you know, each come from a different perspective. I’m really bad at remembering people’s favorite colors, people’s names. I have a swiss-cheese memory. But I’m so good at remembering the bond I felt with that person. I never forget that.

JL: I don’t know if you are aware of your own power—and potential. Not in an “I’m older than you, and you have potential” kind of way. It’s not that, because you’re a very accomplished person—and I’m thinking as I say this, She’s a cat, because they have this enormous strength and commitment—but I think it’s safe to say the role of Kym in Rachel Getting Married is the first role where the moviegoing public gets to see your ferocity. Is that a fair thing to say?
AH: Yes, but the thing is, I’m not a ferocious person with anger. The one thing I know I’ve always been ferocious about is my ability to focus on something.

JL: Mmmm. I think you’re a huntress. And huntresses are not angry; it’s just, This is what I can do to get what I need. And I think you will always have the ability to get what you want. You will always get your quarry, always fill your hunger. And that’s a really, really powerful thing. A lot of actresses are willing to sell their hunger for the sake of being palatable to others. Actresses are often like, I’m hungry, I’m needy, I’m winsome, I’m vulnerable, I’m palatable—and I’ve never seen you trade on that.
AH: I’m reeling—I see the enormous compliment there, and I feel so overwhelmed, because it’s incredibly beautiful and poetic and insightful and kind and loving and just, quite frankly in the true sense of the word, amazing. Thank you.

JL: Have you been like this since you were a little girl?
AH: Yes. Whatever whiffs of vitamins are there, I will find them, and suck on them and burn them until I can’t anymore.

JL: I know you’re a truth teller, and I know you’re not a quiet person, that you’re emotionally and intellectually hungry in the best way. You want information. You want to feel things. And I had this whole theory about you: Look at her physically—she’s got these big eyes like violets, and her mouth is large, and she wants to take stuff in—she wants to know stuff. And this character Kym is like that.
AH: But at the same time I am very, very different from Kym. She doesn’t know how to process things slowly, and sensuality requires a certain...

JL: ...in-the-momentness?
AH: Yeah, you must be present, and also you need to be kind of relaxed. You need to be listening. I mean, sensuality is give and take and...breathing.

JL: Kym doesn’t breathe. You poor thing! You had to play that girl.
AH: Oh no, I loved her! But she doesn’t breathe. In some ways, Kym is the most extreme version of me.

JL: Do you think Kym makes these weird instinctual moves and then justifies it afterward? You know I’m just pulling this stuff out of nowhere. I’ve never talked about this character with anybody. Seriously.
AH: I know. I don’t really talk about her, be-cause she’s so specific. I feel if any-body starts to judge her, I shut down. So when people come back and say, “She’s so selfish!” I’m just like, You didn’t get it.

JL: But she would give you the shirt off her f--kin’ back.
AH: Oh my God—totally. She has the most tender heart of anybody.

JL: [In the movie] you never knew what drugs Kym did. People always ask, “What happened to Kym after the thing? What did Kym do right before the thing?” I say, “I have no idea, but I bet Annie knows.”
AH: I worked that. It was important for me to know where she was, because it got darker after her brother’s death. I figured she probably started smoking weed at 12 or 13. And then what would happen in four years if you started modeling? You’re around drugs, and you’re this person who is so hyper and so curious and so yearning—and so isolated. If I was Kym all the time, I would be exhausted. I tire more easily than Kym. [Laughs.]

JL: That’s true. You can’t stop this girl. You would have to lock her in the house.
AH: I think Kym’s mother kind of knew that, and her father just believed the best about her. To be honest, this is hindsight. The first time I read your script, I was like, Got her! I broke her down in certain ways, but I didn’t analyze it. I just went with it. I held on to that feeling for a year. I wanted to sink my claws, not my brain, into it. I sunk my brain into researching the addiction. But as for who Kym was, I did not think about it for one second. It was just all heart.

JL: So smart.
AH: It was so liberating. I have wanted to do that since forever.

JL: What do you think Kym gets from her father, and what does she get from her mother?
AH: She is her father’s creation. And that’s one of the reasons his heart breaks so much, because he looks at her and thinks, If only I were the addict. And Bill Irwin—amazing. Bill and I just really stuck. I mean, we were like magnets. I get...oh, I’m gonna cry now. Talking about this experience makes me so emotional.

JL: Me, too!
AH: Bill is pure. It’s hard for me sometimes, when I’m around people I worship, to actually talk to them. The thing about Bill and me, we never agreed to play the mirror game, but I see it in our performance. The way he smiles and laughs is the way I smile and laugh. And I didn’t know we were doing that.

JL: There’s a whole other movie that’s just Annie and Bill, and I didn’t write it. There were 15 scenes you and Bill made in the moment—and that’s the stuff you want to write, but you can’t because you’re just not that good. Well, I’m not. Did you guys talk about [the dynamic]?
AH: I didn’t know what I was gonna do until literally three seconds before every line came out. It felt like theater. I was processing it as I was doing it—but also just being free to do it. And right before each line happened, I was thinking, Just be right. [Laughs.] Every single person in this movie is right. The only one who approaches the situation wrong is Kym’s mother, Abby [Winger], because she won’t talk about it.

JL: One of her kids is responsible for the death of her other child—her only son, her youngest baby—and she feels responsible, and she’s showing up at her daughter’s wedding. I couldn’t do it.
AH: I could not talk to Debra Winger!

JL: I couldn’t either because I’m so blown away by her genius—and she couldn’t care less that everyone worships her and that she’s a genius, and I’m thinking, like, Debra! But you had her all to yourself. You guys did some work!
AH: I was so intimidated. In terms of me, I did nothing. I just felt stupid and dull. Not that she made me feel this way, but she would say these things, and I was struck dumb. I don’t want to know what Debra must have thought. We had a nice chat afterward, where I was able to talk more, but on set I just felt as if my tongue got cut off.

JL: You were relentless. I’d watch Debra’s face when you were talking, and I’d think, Oh God, Annie, f--king stop. She is warning you.
AH: Kym hangs in there longer with the painful stuff, more than anyone I’ve ever met, to get to that kernel, core, center of truth. A lot of it is magic, and that’s the infuriating part, because sometimes she’s insightful and brilliant, and other times she’s...she’s like the Energizer Bunny of me.

JL: I think you would have a really fun time teaching my 7th and 8th grade drama class—or be in it.
AH: I’d actually want to do that.

JL: It’s so much fun. Would you want to do the teaching part or the participating part or both?
AH: Both. I think it would be fun to teach them and have them teach me.

JL: You seem to be a hopeful person—focused and hopeful.
AH: Yeah, that’s something Kate Hudson and I have in common—that level of focus and nerdiness. She and I were doing press for Bride Wars, and we were talking about weddings. And the fact is I am not a girly girl. I’m missing that part of me. Kate’s a girly girl, very in touch with her feminine side. So, I was talking about this character in Bride Wars, who is what I imagine to be the ultimate girly girl, and I had never gotten to do that. And Kate looked at me in disbelief: “You made The Princess Diaries. That is the girliest movie ever!” And I said yes, but from my view as the 17-slash-18-year-old girl playing that role: Here’s a girl who’s facing huge responsibility she’s not ready for, but she’s a goal-oriented person. For me, it was always that coming-of-age part—great psychological storytelling. She was a good character who was more complicated than just a girl who wanted to be pretty.

JL: I liked Ella Enchanted. It was a great lesson for all people.
AH: I’m acting too much in that one. In the beginning, I’m trying too hard to be, you know, tough. If I had just relaxed a little bit. Actually, it’s funny, because David Frankel, who directed The Devil Wears Prada—wait, there’s a whole genesis to this. Basically, I was their first choice, and I said, “I’m just gonna hang back, and please come to me when you’re done with the script.” So they finished the script, and Meryl Streep got on board, and suddenly it was, “Is Reese Witherspoon available?” I went from being first choice, deal in hand, to having to wait for seven girls to turn down the part before it came to me. I was sick with worry.

At my initial meeting with David for Devil Wears Prada—he wanted me for the role, and I don’t know why, because I wasn’t quite myself at that time in my life—he said, “I just love you in that Princess Diaries movie.” I kind of thought he was just blowing smoke up my ass, and I said, “Oh, thank you very much. It was a big honor to get to do it.” I didn’t realize he was paying me a sincere compliment. But he added, “Then I saw Ella Enchanted. What happened?” So I told him how there was so much offscreen drama in my life. All of a sudden, I was shocked into opening up about it, and he said, “Yeah, I totally got that. You were so free in Princess Diaries, and you didn’t have that in Ella Enchanted

JL: It was a great lesson.
AH: Well, the thing I like about it is what’s going to free us from our belief that we’re compelled to do certain things, fated to do certain things, cursed into doing things, is actually what’s going to make us stronger. What I loved about it is not our own will but our desire to protect other people. To protect love, to protect other people—that is actually the transcendent emotion.

JL: Absolutely, positively. One learns that as a parent, or you learn it whenever you learn it.
AH: Jenny, you could have been an awesome therapist.

JL: I would have been a terrible therapist. I would have said, like, “You’re okay! You’re just bored!”
AH: You know what I don’t like? And this is one of the reasons I wanted to make Bride Wars...I always assumed that “girly” couldn’t mean deep, couldn’t mean interesting. It was pink. I always had such a visceral reaction to pink. I know that doesn’t really sound smart. I just feel that the color pink is such a definitive color. It says so much. It’s such a touchstone. So I kind of went in the complete opposite direction and rejected it. One of the things I loved about Emma, my character in that movie, was she’s the girly girl who lets herself freak out for the first time in her life about the girliest thing ever.

JL: Have you been a good girl in your life?
AH: That’s what everybody thinks I am. But have I ever played that? Not overtly—never overtly. I’ve never played the rock. Emma is the rock to the world around her. But before she’s a rock, she needs to be a woman. The thing that throws this into disarray is that without her best friend, she’s given an opportunity to look at herself from a new perspective. She’s pitting reality against a lifelong dream of what she’s gonna be like as a bride, realizing that the only way she’s gonna be the sort of bride she wants to be is if she’s the sort of woman she wants to be—and she’s not that. So she’s basically in the middle of planning a wedding and having an identity crisis. And I thought, What a fun movie to make!

JL: If you divided the planet and wanted to play a game of capture the flag, there would be people who are about stillness and people who are about motion. You are definitely about motion—a transformer. You will immerse yourself in a role, but it seems you’re never the person of stillness in your moviemaking. Are you a still person in life?
AH: No, I need to move. But I allow myself greater stillness. Because if I don’t do that for myself now, I will go past every single reasonable limit and just go absolutely bonkers. I was at the gym earlier, and I was watching The View, and Meryl Streep and Amy Adams were on [to promote Doubt], and I was reading the subtitles, and Meryl was talking about how she felt to be part of that cast and how they got to go to the very end of feelings.

JL: Mmmm. That’s a beautiful thing to say.
AH: Oh, Meryl’s a poet, an absolute poet. And by the way, the poetry she writes is astonishing. That phrase knocked me mentally on my ass. And I thought, that’s what playing Kym was, because I got to shoot toward the end of feelings, and right now I just feel like I’m floating. I’m floating through all of the feelings. And that means sometimes I sink down to it, but then I’ll rise up when I need to. And sometimes I’m up in the air. I’m not going toward the edge of anything. I’m just simply being led to things. I’ll have these unbelievably dopey moments, and I’m just fine with it.

JL: Of course you are.
AH: What I’m struggling with right now, more than anything, is being relaxed and comfortable for the first time in a really long time. Maybe ever. This is slower. I feel like I’m missing things. I feel like I’m not living things to the fullest. I’m so afraid it’s going to keep me from moving. Because I know how to move. That is what I know how to do.

JENNY LUMET is the award-winning screenwriter of Rachel Getting Married. She has a 13-year-old, a newborn, 38 pairs of shoes, a husband she has known since sixth grade, parents named Gail and Sidney Lumet, a grandmother named Lena Horne—and a black belt in tae kwon do!

Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World