Jennifer Connelly stars in Reservation Road, a drama based on the aftermath of a hit-and-run car accident which leaves a young boy dead. Based on the novel of the same name by Josh Burnham Schwartz, the Terry George-directed film also stars Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo and Mira Sorvino as the members of two couples trying to come to terms with a single event from very different perspectives.
Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier sat down with Jennifer in Los Angeles, CA to talk about the potential difficulties for a real-life mother of three taking on the heart-wrenching role of a mother who has just lost a child, as well as her (much happier) home life back in the real world...
Emmanuel Itier: This is such an emotionally difficult role: How did you get into character as an actor without getting in too deep as a person?
Jennifer Connelly: It was very confusing, and it surprised me because I´m someone who… I really believe you create a character, and it doesn´t really have a bearing on your life and they stay separate. And this really threw me because I started to feel it physically.
I started quite analytically by reading books. I got myself this big old textbook, I believe it´s called Grief, Death, and Dying, as well as a number of handbooks. I did that because I was certain there would be manifestations of grief that I would be able to imagine, that people would have physical and emotional responses that I wouldn´t have expected, so I wanted to look at case studies and how people did respond.
EI: What surprised you about what you learned?
JC: I would say the shock and the literal inability to process, literally, that went on sometimes for days or even longer. Obviously, rage or disorientation, inability to function doing everyday tasks, inability to assign meaning and to have understanding, literally things like making a cup of coffee or routine ritual behaviors people often find very confusing and difficult to carry out, which I never would have expected. Numerous things like that.
Restlessness, agitation, the fury, of course the relationships falling apart, sometimes abandonment of other children, just a lot of things. It was useful for me to think about those things and consider, okay, what works for Grace and what works where? And at what point do I think she´s at which stage of grief during the film? So I did that, and I looked at some websites and chat rooms of people who´ve lost children.
EI: So your approach was to look at the grief as a process: Were you able to stay on the technical side?
JC: Yes, but it´s very devastating looking at something like that, but also confusing because part of me felt that I was being respectful of people who´ve lost children because I´m trying to portray this as truthfully as possible and listen to what they are saying and their experiences, but also I felt very quickly like I was trespassing into some sacred kind of community and I was violating it. So I stopped doing that. And of course, what do I do with the elephant in the room, that is I am a mother of a ten-year-old boy, and I was almost suspicious of my refusal to think about my own kids, especially my own ten-year-old boy.
And yet, I could feel it. My jaw locked up and I had a hard time sleeping and eating and having horrible dreams, and I was constantly in a perpetual state most of the film, even though I really struggled not to be. Because I think, in the end, it´s so much who I am, being a mother, and so much of what I´m made of, and it motivates so much of what I do every day, certainly in a project like this. Of course, it´s made out of my love of my kids, even though I refuse to think about them constantly.
EI: Did you think about that beforehand?
JC: No, because it was so beautiful and I´m so used to being able to separate my life, you know? I´ve played a drug addict. I usually have no problem with keeping things very clean and separate, and it was just something about the subject matter – and again, it wasn´t conscious thoughts, it was a feeling I had. I just found it very disturbing. It was horrible.
I got superstitious about it. I did. The fact that I was working on it. And was it horrible to be working on something like that, and did it mean that things would happen to my kids? It was horrible! And I didn´t think about it before I said yes, because I loved it, because I loved the material. I loved the script. It was just beautiful and it grabbed me emotionally. But then I didn´t feel angry, I didn´t resent having been taken down this road and sort of being involved in a devastating story, because it became very thought-provoking.
It was very provocative for me, this sort of looking at what happens and how do people respond, and what do I think about vengeance and revenge and how people who think themselves immune to this kind of loss – how do they respond? What is that instinct and what would I do? What does our country do? It´s very thought-provoking and I found it very interesting, and it was after the fact – I got a few days into the project and I thought, what am I doing here? How am I going to get through?
EI: How did you ultimately learn to deal with it?
JC: I have no attachment to it, so I have no interest in holding onto it, so as soon as I can physically let it go, I let it go. I´m not someone who tries to manipulate myself into feeling bad before or after doing a scene, especially in something like this. I just try to surrender to the physical reality and then it´s there. I try techniques. Running is sort of a big thing for me. I don´t run now because I injured my knee from running too much. I just had surgery a month ago so I´m just coming back, so now I can´t run at all yet, but I will soon. This summer I was running compulsively. I love it. 8 to 12 miles. I found a great running partner, so we have a lot of fun. It´s a friend of mine who is a real athlete, so I think I tried to rise to the task! I don´t quite have the quads that she does, so I blew my knee out...
EI: Was this film even more difficult for you because you have children?
JC: Yes, it is and it isn´t. I think that one can… it was more uncomfortable. I don´t think that it affected my ability to work on the film professionally, I just think that personally, it made it more uncomfortable for me.
EI: How did your real life change with motherhood?
JC: The quality of everything in my life became better when I became a mother. I just became kind of engaged in general as a person, I think. I think sometimes I do things I don´t think are very good at all. I think I should revise that statement. I still have done things after my son was born that I think, “That could be better,” “That´s not fantastic and I´m not 100% proud of… ” but overall, I think as a person, I feel more responsible, I feel more involved and committed and connected to most things in life–acting included.
EI: Did those feelings confict with the extent to which this role is passive, with portraying suffering...
JC: I disagree. I don´t think she´s passive. I think she wants to fall off the earth after her son dies and she retreats, but I think she´s incredibly brave. So there is a huge hole in the middle of your life because your son is gone, and then she looks at her daughter who is still alive and she realizes she has to move around it. She has to confront it – not through denial, not through obsession of revenge.
She´s not going to hide. She is going to try to find a space to put her feet down and move around it and deal with that, and survive and be a good parent to her daughter and be a good wife to her husband, and I think it takes incredible tenacity and bravery to do that. I think a lot of people would just choose to fall apart, choose to surrender, choose to find something else to get through the day. And I think that she tries to be living with that loss, and I don´t think she´s passive at all.
I don´t think she´s passive with him either. She´s very proactive with him. She isn´t initially – she becomes proactive. I think she tries to get him back. I think she really fights for him. She really fights to get through. She really confronts him. I think she makes mistakes – she´s fumbling through, but I think when she´s out on the porch and she´s going through her son´s things, and she´s giving things away and they have that big fight, I don´t think she´s passive. She´s the one trying to cobble together some way of moving through it.
EI: How was it undertaking that journey alongside Joaquin Phoenix - you´ve worked a little with Joaquin before?
JC: Sort of… barely… a little bit. It was really nice to see him. I´m very fond of him and he was extraordinary. In something like this, working with someone like this, it couldn´t have been better, working with someone who is so available and so… he´s never striving for anything other than that moment, each moment as it´s passing. There is no vanity, there is no, “Oh, if I do this I´ll look cool.” He´s just trying to be there. He´s so extraordinarily committed to the truthfulness of that moment. It´s very easy to work with someone like that. It´s this huge privilege. Then you are in a scene together. If I can be there, then you´ve got two people in the same moment, and to me that´s the part I like best. That´s what I love most in making movies. When that can happen, when you can be building something together, and it´s always different and it´s exciting.
EI: Talking of loving your co-stars, do you still put on plays at home?
JC: We haven´t done a play in a while. We used to make little movies and we haven´t made one in a long time, I have to say. There is a lot of music that goes on at home. My older one plays guitar now, and the other one, I think, is born to be a rock and roller, but he hasn´t taken up an instrument yet. He has a guitar, but…
EI: Wasn´t your son directing you?
JC: Yeah, he´s unspeakably precocious. We took him out to dinner with us last night while the movie was playing. Focus and Random House hosted a dinner, and just watching him, how remarkable and he´s just such a cool little guy, and he´s so contained and I´m so impressed by him. Yes, so we haven´t done any plays in a long while.
EI: Will you work with your husband [Paul Bettany]?
JC: I would like to. We haven´t found the perfect thing to do together and we´ve circled around a few things, and that´s not happening. He´s now doing a movie called Young Victoria over in London that he´s almost done with. And believe it or not, I´ve been doing a comedy called He´s Just Not That Into You, so we´ll see how that goes.
EI: That is quite the change of pace for you - did you find it hard to jump into a comedy?
JC: I wanted to. And it also has lots of women in it, which I´m also so attracted to. I always play wives or girlfriends. It´s like a great group of women, and I just thought, wouldn´t it be fun to be surrounded by really fabulous, strong women? Drew Barrymore is in it. Jennifer Aniston is in it. Ginnifer Goodwin… it´s a great group of… there are great guys in it too. Ben Affleck is in it, and Bradley Cooper and other boys, but it was really the women that brought me to it.
EI: Was it a different experience for you?
JC: It was an entirely different set, being a comedy and being a different kind of thing. And yes, it´s different, but you are not sure how it´s different, but I like it. I don´t know what it is, but I think maybe it´s just the flavor of the film is so different.
EI: Do you play the one he is 'into'?
JC: I´m married, but my husband is kind of into someone else in the film, unfortunately!
EI: Sounds like you will soon walk down a red carpet again - that is something that has seen you become something of a fashion icon: Can you talk about your own fashion sense and how it has evolved?
JC: I used to be more self-conscious on the red carpet. Now I often go to things with my husband. I don´t know, I get kind of shy and self-conscious, but then I´m thinking, "You know what? It´s so often there are so many circumstances where I think I can do better. Why have a negative attitude towards something?" So I look at the other side and think what is fun about it and what is positive about it.
My husband and I always try to have a nice time and try to look at things in a positive way. So I don´t have a negative reaction to it, although I once did. I used to think, Oh my god, all these people looking at me, and I feel shy and I feel insecure. And my relationship with fashion – I like nice clothes. I am not a huge shopper, but I do like interesting design. And yeah, I think I really like design. So I appreciate most of it.
EI: Do you think much about what you´ll wear?
JC: Not really. I think I´m pretty decisive once I see something I like. I have a good friend who is a clothing designer, so I often just look through his things first, because he´s a great designer and I love him as a person...
'Reservation Road' opens in limited theatrical release from Focus Features on October 19, 2007.