A new sort of Hollywood dream team was recently created when Oscar-winner Charlize Theron and hotly-tipped newcomer Jennifer Lawrence paired up to play the older and younger versions of a woman at the center of a complex and intertwined drama. The non-linear tale told in The Burning Plain is also the directorial debut of Guillermo Arriaga, who has risen to fame as the screenwriter of a trio of much-loved films (Amores perros, 21 Grams and Babel) and was shot in Guillermo's native Mexico.
Buzzine's Molly Sullivan sat down with the director and both actresses to talk about working together without ever being onscreen at the same time, dealing with the weighty topic of self-mutilation and the multiple challenges present within directing your first film.
Molly Sullivan: Charlize and Jennifer, you obviously don’t actually have any scenes together in this film, but how much did you talk off-set about your shared role?
Jennifer Lawrence: We met because she was a producer, so she came down for…I don’t know how long you were there.
Charlize Theron: Well that’s great. [Laughs]
JL: She didn’t make a very big impact in my life... [Laughs]
It was like three weeks after, and he [Guillermo] was on the phone... he goes, “Here, it’s Charlize Theron on the phone.” I was like, “Oh my god!” Yeah, she came down for a few weeks, then we met. So we spent some time together...
MS: Did you pick up some mannerisms to both use?
JL: She would have to pick them up from me!
CT: We shot all of her stuff first. Guillermo and I talked about this a lot, he knew the journey he wanted to take. He started the casting process and the first day of casting, he called me and said, “I found her.” I said, “Alright, calm down. I’m very happy for you, but you have three weeks of casting.” He was like, “No, no, no, I’ve found her.” So he sent me a tape, and I’ve never been that blown away by an audition.
Never in my life have I given an audition like that. I think this movie was really blessed. We got surrounded by really good people, and the more we talked about cast, the more we just sent the script out and we got the cast that we wanted from day one. He carries good karma with him… and his writing is okay... [Laughs]
Guillermo Arriaga: When Charlize and I met for the first time, she said, “You must be very careful with the casting of Mariana, because the wrong cast, it would crush everything...”
It was the first day of casting, and great casting directors sent me the tape and I was like, “I want that girl.” Of course, people were like, “Come on, it’s three weeks…” She has impeccable taste as an actor; both of them do... what I like about these two girls is they can tell a story without doing overacting or any mannerisms; just with your face, you can tell that there is a background, there’s a story, there’s a past in them. They have a lot of inner light which I was blessed to have in the film...
MS: Charlize and Jennifer, this film deals with the very serious subject of cutting and self-mutilation in the film. What was your experience in dealing with that in the film?
CT: I have a real fascination with addiction, and I think that addiction is coping: I think that the kind of survival mechanisms we use as humans to cope and survive boil down to the ugly things that we don’t want to look at, which is self-mutilation or addiction.
I think that’s probably what I could have done with my life if I wasn’t an actor, because that kind of human observation is something that fascinates me. I’ve read a lot of books on it and I’ve spent a lot of time wanting to understand that more. I’ve never been a cutter or addicted to anything, but I’ve met people... and I grew up in a house with addiction. I think that grief and pain and survival, just being somebody who is alive and having to cope with guilt... really comes to wanting to numb, and I think that’s what self-mutilating is.
JL: I didn’t think of Marianna as doing it as self-mutilation. I think Mariana’s entire character is completely taking away from herself because she was so disgusted with herself, and I think a huge part of her relationship with Santiago was fascination with their parents’ death. They’re fascinated with each other, and that’s what draws them to each other, it’s just a morbid fascination. I don’t think she’s hurting herself in a way that girls who struggle with that problem do. I think she was doing it to form a connection and a memory.
CT: I can’t really talk about it, because it’s really hard for me to articulate, because my process is a bit of everything. I think I’ve learned, over the years, that you don’t really have the luxury of just relying on one way of doing it, so for me, if I’m emotionally tapping into something and I feel like I have a great partner that I could look to and feel that they’re going to be truthful and they’ll direct me, I rely on a lot of things.
You have to, because some days it’s 16-hour days, and thinking about your own drama and your own life might not affect you. I think acting is fully adapting to your surroundings, to your emotions, to the people you’re working with, to being tired, to wanting to go home, to being happy… It’s adapting: for me it is, anyway. Adapting and trusting... that’s my format, right there.
JL: I’m glad she said that, because I thought I’d have to come up with some elaborate process that I don’t have...
CT: Don’t steal my answer. [Laughs]
JL: I’ll only steal half of it. I haven’t really been acting... that was my second movie. I had no idea what I was doing: I memorized my lines and showed up. I think that, to be an actor, we’re all just annoyingly emotional people. I feel like I can’t really prepare for it.
Now that I do movies, I can read the script and I can know what I’m doing, I can know my lines and everything, but until you get there and you get the wardrobe and you’re on the set and you start talking to the director, that’s when it starts developing. I don’t want to be close-minded enough to already have it set in stone before I even show up to work and discuss it with the director. I have my thought on what I want to do, but it’s also important to be moldable. I have my character, which continues to grow through the filming. Before I start filming, I don’t have all of the answers, ever. It’s developing, adapting, reacting. It’s a lot of different things that happen during the filming.
MS: Charlize, what was it about this character that resonated with you, why did you want to make this film?
CT: It was this fellow [Guillermo] right here. I’m a fan, obviously, of his writing. When he called and said, “I’d like you to read this and I’d like you to play Sylvia”, there was an instant excitement, because I was a fan and I feel like his voice is authentic to what I like, so the script didn’t disappoint. Then I thought, I’m probably going to meet him and he’s probably going to be a real asshole... [Laughs]
Then we met, and he wasn’t an asshole: he was just really clear about what he wanted to do with this. I really believe that the success of trying to make a good film is chemistry, and that’s chemistry with a director as well. I felt like we had the right chemistry... that we would take each other’s hands and jump off the cliff, and really set out to try to make the same movie.
MS: Charlize, how has your process of choosing a film changed from day one to now?
CT: When I started, I was ready to pay my dues. By no means did I think I was just going to walk in and do challenging work. I think, in the beginning, there was a part of me that knew there were going to be a few frustrating years, and that’s what you do. You get yourself out there, you work hard, and you hope word of mouth carries, and one day somebody will actually step up to the plate and say, “I believe you can do this.” I was very lucky. I was incredibly blessed.
The first film I did, Two Days in the Valley, was an incredibly creative experience, and by no means can I say it was just a job. I feel like there were a couple of years there where I had to hold out a little bit, where people kind of accepted me in that role of the femme fatale and so there was a lot of like, “We want you to do exactly what you did in Two Days in the Valley…” So I think it was a conscious effort on my part to hold back, and I didn’t work for a couple of years. I waited and really fought for roles like Devil’s Advocate, The Yards, and Cider House Rules. I screentested and flew myself out, and stalked and almost went to prison, and didn’t wash my hair to break this idea of what people thought of me. I got to work on really good material, and I look at my career and how I’m doing it now, and I think there is something authentic in that process that I still try to not manipulate. When I feel something, I try to listen to that.
MS: Charlize - you seem to go toward the darker roles, might you want to lighten up any time soon: Is there a romantic comedy in your future?
CT: Guillermo and I are working on that right now...
JL: ...a documentary...
GA: When you see the making-of, you will see the romantic comedy, or at least the comedy.
CT: I’m not saying this is how it is, but I don’t think of them as dark roles. Obviously, I like conflicted women because I feel like we get so little of that. I guess I like picking people up at a crossroads, where you find them at a place where a lot of my characters could either make a choice that could work out okay for them, or it’s really going to be not good.
Sure, I think every director that works with me always comments on the fact that it is quite ironic that I haven’t done comedy, because I’m very zero-drama. I think what he said earlier about taste really applies to comedy even more than drama. I think sense of humor is a very personal thing. I don’t know if I am talented enough to do romantic comedies. I don’t think I could do the justice of a lot of other really great actresses that get that genre. I don’t know if my comedic skills and timing would be good for that. I love what the Coen brothers do. I love that kind of character that Gus Van Sant does with comedy. I would love to do something like that. Spread the word!
MS: Guillermo, why did you want to present this story at this time: who is the audience?
GA: The audience, I hope, will be larger than Transformers...
I have a respect of audience. I think people now are more sophisticated than we think, and much more intelligent than we think.
People ask me why the stories run intertwined and they’re not linear. I have never listened to someone tell a linear story in their life. Life can be linear, but the way we express it is jumbled. The audience is people who like to be challenged and like to be moved. I think people will not go out of the film being indifferent to this film. I think it will be a very moving and very emotional film, and that’s the kind of audience that wants to be involved with the film and who wants to participate.
Not everyone likes to have everything digested. There were even parts of the film that I didn’t note to myself and I didn’t want to write it because I like the audience to feel those times.
MS: Why this particular story?
GA: Most of the stories I have come from very ancient stories that have happened to me. When I was nine or ten years old, we were playing soccer in the street and a kid came running and said, “There’s a fire in the neighborhood.” So we all run to the fire and we were watching, and all of a sudden, someone said, “There [are] people inside burning,” and that changed the whole perception of the event.
It shocked me to the point that I’m writing this right now. A fireman told me, “No, there are no people inside,” but you never know if he was lying or not. So that story has been haunting me for many years. This is not the first story I wrote about a house on fire. I wrote one that is not yet produced — a comedy about a house on fire, and now this one.
MS: What are the challenges of being a director? We already know that you are an awesome writer, but what about the challenges of directing, actors, working with a cinematographer and with a team of people?
GA: The reason I didn’t direct before was because I thought I didn’t have the technical knowledge to do it. But there is a line from Einstein that says, "Imagination is more important than knowledge", so I said, “Okay, I’m irresponsible, so I’m going to direct.” And then I began reading about directing, and none of the books worked because every actor is different and every situation is different.
I was very fortunate to have these very intelligent women. You cannot say to Charlize, “Hey, you have to do this and this and this…” It’s absurd. There is a dialogue with the actors, and you’re constructing, and there was a playful thing with Jennifer. We tried a lot of things, and I was surrounded by a great team. I have always insisted that this is not my film: this is our film, the team in front and behind the camera was incredible.
2929 Entertainment's 'The Burning Plain' is playing in theaters now as a nationwide limited release.