John Leguizamo, Katherine Waterston and David Ross – Adventures in Babysitting
Katherine Waterston and John Leguizamo in “The Babysitters.”
John Leguizamo, Katherine Waterston and David Ross
Adventures in Babysitting
by Jay S. Jacobs
The hot-button topic film The Babysitters was a low-budgeted labor of love. Written and directed by David Ross, it starts as a star-crossed infatuation story that spirals wildly out of control. A teen babysitter who has a crush on one of her clients somehow ends up a hardened high-school madame.
The movie stars John Leguizamo as Michael, a bored suburban husband who hates his job and has become bored with his wife Gail (played by Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City). Suddenly he notices that his young babysitter Shirley has a crush on him and when a kiss gets a little out of hand he gives her a particularly big tip. When his friends find out what happened, they want a babysitter of their own, so Shirley gets some of her friends to join up. What starts as a simple way of making some college movie suddenly loses control and touches on greed, violence and drug use.
Leguizamo, who has built up a respected career in Hollywood by making such thought-provoking films as Moulin Rouge, Carlito’s Way, Summer of Sam and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar – was so impressed by the script that he became one of the producers to make sure the project came to fruition.
The role of Shirley is the movie starring debut of beautiful young stage actress Katherine Waterston, who had turned heads in the play Los Angeles. Waterston grew up around filming – her father Sam has done many movies such as The Killing Fields and has spent the last several years as DA Jack McCoy on the TV series Law and Order.
Stars John Leguizamo and Katherine Waterston and writer/director David Ross sat down with us at the Regency Hotel in New York a few days before the film’s opening to tell us about making The Babysitters.
John Leguizamo in “The Babysitters.”
So, John, how many more movies are you going to be in [this year]?
John Leguizamo: Is that a complaint? (laughs) Because if it is, I won’t tell you.
No, we just have to anticipate the schedule… In all seriousness, this seems to be like your year.
John Leguizamo: Let’s hope it is. I’ve just got a few more.
So how different was each one?
John Leguizamo: Do you want to come to the next junket, or are you trying to cheat? (laughs) I smell a rat. Let’s talk about this one, and then when I see you at The Happening one…
What was there about this role that intrigued you?
John Leguizamo: I thought it was a great script. (motions to David Ross) He’s the writer and director of the piece, so… Not that I wouldn’t say it behind your back, anyway. (laughs) But I thought it was a great, great piece. I loved the way he was playing with morality issues. I think we live in a really strangely weird time, when morality is very questionable. People don’t know how to really behave and what’s right and what’s wrong. There don’t seem to be consequences for things. With this administration, it seems like everybody can be lawless and get away with as much as they can. It’s all right.
Well, this is coming out not that long after the Elliot Spitzer controversy.
John Leguizamo: There are real consequences there.
Exactly. Why do you think men will put their lives, their livelihoods and their families in danger for such an illicit thrill?
John Leguizamo: Well, a lot of people don’t think they’re going to get caught, don’t they? There’s a little bit of that: “It’s not going to be me.” But in this movie, what I liked about it was David didn’t wrap it up. He didn’t say, “This is what the code is. This is why you have to behave.” But there were consequences to everybody’s actions. What I liked about it was in the end it wasn’t the usual consequences. People didn’t go to jail. She didn’t go to jail. I wasn’t arrested. They had to live with themselves. They had to live with it, knowing that you damaged and hurt people.
David Ross: We made a very conscious choice that in the end, the consequences of having to live with yourself could be so much worse. We wanted to say that there are worse things than just getting caught. Maybe you should behave yourself. Maybe you should live well – or at least live the best you can. However that may be. Because, it’s the right thing to do, as opposed to you’re afraid of getting caught. We don’t want to preach and say, “This is the way to live. Anybody who doesn’t live up to certain standards is evil.” At the same time, I think it is important to at least try and really think about the choices you make and why you make them.
Katherine Waterston in “The Babysitters.”
As you conceive of your characters, where are they at five years after the movie ends?
Katherine Waterston: Something I love about the ending is that you do of course sense that there are consequences for these characters, but you don’t get to experience them. I talk a lot about something in Woody Allen movies, like [Crimes and Misdemeanors]… (chuckles) this is weird for me to reference because my dad’s in it, but you often in his films watch the character suffering through their guilt. You experience that punishment with them. In this film, you are left to wonder. You are left to wonder what will happen to them and how damaging or not damaging this will be with time. I like [that] it’s sort of left to you to decide how you feel this will effect them. I love that about it. I don’t really feel like I have an answer for what that will be for her. I love that it’s hopeful – that there is the possibility that you can get through damaging things and come out the other end. There is a sense of hope, I think. Certainly, this is a mark on her that I can’t imagine could ever really go away. It’s her introduction to sexuality, and it’s not a terribly positive one I don’t think. (chuckles again) So, I think it’s complicated.
You have quite an arc involved, you go up and down through a variety of changes – your reticence to get into the thing, then you get into it, then you have to fight it off. Can you talk about how you worked it out in your own head?
Katherine Waterston: I think that there were a couple of really simple things that I was able to follow throughout that kept me kind of grounded, despite what was going on at any moment: my love for this man and my need for control. Then I also felt like the thing that I tapped into from my personal experience of growing up was the… I’m going to be a broken record for John if I keep saying this… but the dichotomy at that agebetween being innocent and also mature. Those things living together in one person. Rather than one and then something happens and you become the other. You don’t graduate into adulthood overnight. It just happens in movies all the time and it’s bullshit. In this film, I thought something so smart about the script is that she’s constantly wavering. It gave me a lot of permission to not judge myself if in a moment I was feeling vulnerable, or scared, or confused. Not judge myself within the moment. I felt I could have authority and be confident and a woman. I felt like it gave me a lot of freedom, in a way to live in the moment as long as I was sure to be loving him and trying to control this out of control feeling.
Did you see it as a sort of role reversal? She is the child at first and at the end he sort of is…
John Leguizamo: Right. Right. Then she becomes the parent.
Katherine Waterston and John Leguizamo in “The Babysitters.”
Did you guys talk about it to work that out?
Katherine Waterston: Yeah…
John Leguizamo: I mean David, to his credit, had a lot of rehearsals prior to shooting. It really mapped out a lot of arcs of the characters. As [well] we talked endlessly about the sex scenes, just because that’s the type of guys we are, but…
Katherine Waterston: I’m a man, by the way… I don’t know if you guys got that memo.
John Leguizamo: She’s a tough one.
David Ross: Made me cry like a baby.
Katherine Waterston: Every day. Off camera.
John Leguizamo: But we really wanted to map out these arcs, man, in that we really wanted them to really be in love. And the stakes are really high. He loves his wife. He loves his kids. But he falls in love and he’s got this middle-aged crisis, which we can all understand. It’s not that simplistic.
Katherine Waterston: (smiles) I can’t…
John Leguizamo: Oh, you can’t?
Katherine Waterston: We can’t all [understand a mid-life crisis]…
John Leguizamo: (laughs) We can’t all, but you will.
You will have your day!
John Leguizamo: Exactly. Don’t laugh too hard, now.
Katherine Waterston: If I make it.
John Leguizamo: I didn’t want to be in scenes that were exploitive and just gratuitous. Not that he would do that, anyway. But I didn’t want it to distract from the story. I thought the story was so powerful. I didn’t want it to be trivialized by it. So we made sure that when we did the sex scenes, it was in the audience’s mind more than what we were doing. So the perversion was in your head.
Katherine Waterston: (laughs) Hey, it’s not us! You perverts!
John Leguizamo: Which I thought made it more funny and clever that way. The only time that she is completely disrobed…
Katherine Waterston: Well, let’s not start… (laughs)
John Leguizamo: … well, halfway… is at the end, when it’s not a sexual situation. It’s more of a getting out of it. They are trying to connect. Maybe this is the only thing they really had. It wasn’t love.
Director David Ross and Katherine Waterston making “The Babysitters.”
David Ross: Pure vulnerability at that point. Yeah, we said from the beginning that every sex scene that’s in there – especially the ones between Michael (Leguizamo’s character) and Shirley (Waterston’s character) are there for a reason other than just showing sex. There’s something different happening between their characters each time, you know? The tone of each one is just a little bit different, too. The first time, they get together because it’s kind of Shirley and Michael’s first… you know, they’re in their little fantasy world where they go to the trains and they make out – so we have music and the camera is very fluid. Of course, when Shirley actually loses her virginity in the second scene, it’s almost the opposite of what everybody imagines their first experience to be like. There is no music. It’s just kind of hand-held. We always said that the sex scenes are going to be pretty much right up here (gestures to his face) in close-up. And I’m not a big close-up guy. I feel like you have to really save those and they are always just the right moment, because their faces are so close to each other, but at the same time, there is so much that they are not saying. They’re trying to express it through the sex, but…
John Leguizamo: Well, how brilliant is that, that you chose to do the sex scenes in close-ups, you know what I mean? Everybody else is trying to do every emotion in a close-up. You’re doing the sex scene in a close-up. I think that’s pretty incredible.
David Ross: Thanks. (They both laugh.)
John Leguizamo: I do, I feel it’s pretty incredible.
Katherine Waterston in “The Babysitters.”
Did you feel that you really had a handle on your power over them by the end of the film?
Katherine Waterston: Well, I don’t know about power. I think that perhaps that was more of an outcome of something that she tried to do. Tried to be powerful. Tried to control these out-of-control feelings, essentially. I feel like up until she falls in love with Michael she is able to control everything in her life. If something is uncomfortable, she can organize it. She can make it function. Then these emotions come along and happen to her that she can’t control, but it’s all she knows. What I thought about her, all she knew was to organize and control things, so everything was born out of that. Even when she’s trying to be powerful, to control these girls, I don’t think that it was ever about being powerful for her. That was just some sort of desperate tool she pulled out of some hat to try to deal with these things she wasn’t able to talk about with anybody. With him or anyone else… I think that she does sort of let go of that obsession with control by the end. That’s sort of the way the OCD aspect kind of rides on parallel to this coming of age thing. This is something that in a way has to do with her innocence, her control. Of course you can control things when everything is very simple. When you understand the world is bigger and more complicated, you realize you can’t really control everything.
You had mentioned earlier the fact that your father is an actor as well. Did growing up around it make you want to be an actor from childhood?
Katherine Waterston: Yeah. (laughs) I don’t remember not wanting to do it. But, I was a really obnoxious kid and I guess I went through a phase where I didn’t want to be like anyone else in my family. Who doesn’t, you know? So I kind of kept it a secret for a long time. But I wanted to do it.
I’m going to law school!
Katherine Waterston: Yeah, I was such a rebel. I mean I was a photography student. That’s the way that I rebelled. I really went so far away. So, I don’t know. As a child I don’t know if I wanted to do it because I knew there were other options or because at such an early age I thought that was what grown-ups did. But it goes that far back. I can’t remember wanting to do anything else. Except, I was talking about this today, I think I remember at one point I did want to be a back-up singer for Bob Marley.
That may have been hard…
Katherine Waterston: Yes, in many ways at that time. He had passed away and I was white and from Connecticut. My mother had to break it down for me. (laughs)
They’re making a movie of his life. Maybe this is your chance.
Katherine Waterston: I could play Rita. (laughs again)
Katherine Waterston and John Leguizamo in “The Babysitters.”
The difference between your two characters I thought was that Shirley was so fearful about being out of control and then she has this experience and she does go out of control. I was worried at the end that it was possible that Shirley was going to go right back to “See, that’s what happens if you let go of control.” With Michael, I wasn’t sure where Michael is going to go with this experience. If he’s going to go for the next twenty years…
John Leguizamo: Or if he’s going to go for the next babysitter?
You’re not sure with Michael. In the short term he’s going to go back to family. But after that, I don’t know how you saw Michael down the road. He’s been chastened for now, but he’s also known a different kind of love.
David Ross: Once he’s sort of broken that seal.
John Leguizamo: It seems to me that the problems that Michael has in his marriage – I think it might not have been true. It might have been somebody his age, you know… I think they have marital problems. Eventually, maybe that will undo the relationship. It’s like any couples you know – you think they’re together, you think they love each other. Next thing you know, they’re getting divorced. Like, holy shit! Others you saw coming. But you don’t know what’s going to happen. People change. His problems are – he’s kind of in a rut. Emotionally, psychologically, sexually. He’s in a rut.
David Ross: Work-wise.
John Leguizamo: Yeah, the whole thing. What do you do to get out of that?
Katherine, what attracted you to the role?
John Leguizamo in “The Babysitters.”
Katherine Waterston: John Leguizamo. (laughs)
John Leguizamo: I was going to say that, but it would have been brazen, I think.
And we love that. We’re sucking up to him, too. But, I’m curious what you looked at to want to do this role – especially this is a big, leading role…
Katherine Waterston: Well, that’s always nice. That is appealing. David talks about wanting to make films where good people make bad choices. I think that’s really always fun for actors. Always. Then, I think in terms of roles for young women, she’s a really rich character. Really full and really complicated. The answers aren’t just spoon-fed to you about her. I had to go kind of digging for some of it and that’s so much fun. I feel like if I had a lot more options… this was definitely a big break for me, so it was not like I was saying, shall I do this film or this film or this film? It was a great, great gift. (To David) Thanks, by the way… (Back to us) But I think if I had more options, I still would have really wanted to play this part, because you just never see anything like this. Usually I’m seeing the parts more like not on my coffee table as options, but in the theater.
How did you find her?
David Ross: There was a friend of… (to Katherine) You keep telling this story and I keep getting it wrong…
Katherine Waterston: I did a reading of a screenplay in New York.
John Leguizamo: But not this one, a different one.
Katherine Waterston: A different one, at RS Nova. We ultimately used the rehearsal space for this movie. But I did a reading for Amy D’Addario. She’s a screenwriter. She had a meeting later with the producers and she mentioned me. They were working on this. I had dinner with them and they were just awesome. I had read the script and talked about it, and they recommended me to David. We had breakfast. It was all over meals. It was so civilized.
Katherine Waterston filming “The Babysitters.”
David Ross: I was talking to Cora Olson, one of our producers, on the phone. Cora was there at the very beginning. She worked for another company and she was trying to get them to make the film. So they, her and Jennifer Dubin and Jason Dubin, all called me and said we think we could probably raise the money. We were in the process of trying to get everything going, developing the script a little bit more. Cora said, “You know, we’re meeting this girl, Katherine Waterston. We’ve heard really great things. We’ll let you know how it is.” She called me right afterwards and said, “We’re setting up the meeting with her. You have to meet her.” It was a very easy decision after that. Katherine has the right balance of intelligence and fieriness underneath that Shirley needs. Shirley, despite being the lead, doesn’t have a lot of lines. It’s not like she ever comes out and says, “This is how I feel…” Even a lot of the lines she does have, we ended up cutting because you just didn’t need it. So much of it was right there in Katherine’s eyes. The thing that John brings to the character of Michael, who also doesn’t come right out and say how he feels until it’s way too late, is that John has this incredible energy underneath. So, you put him in the suit and tuck in his shirt and have him sit… You see that there’s something underneath – this amazing energy that he needs to get out. That’s Michael. It’s this is still who I am. I still have to express myself. I have to get out and do something. It’s fun when you put two personalities like that together, to watch the way they feed off one another.
When writing the screenplay, did you study current high school life?
David Ross: I did, a bit. The very first thing I did actually was I went back to Michigan and in my mom’s basement I went digging around and I found all the stuff that I wrote when I was around fifteen or sixteen. All the early short stories. Some of the worst poetry you’ve ever seen in your life. And at the same time did the old driving tour of the old hangouts. All these strange places my friends and I used to go. The train graveyard in the film is based on a real place that I visited on my seventeenth birthday. I did things like that to get myself in the mindset. You just want to get through that first draft, just want to get it out there. Make sure you’re hitting all the right beats. Make sure you’re pretty much figuring out the story. Then I just started re-writing and re-writing. I was in school at the time – at the American Film Institute – which was great, because I had these wonderful writing classes. About nine people. And it was the same people for two years. So by the end, everybody knows everyone else’s bullshit. No one is going to let you get away with anything. They were pretty tough on me for the first draft, which was fantastic, because it kept me honest. The more notes I would get, and especially getting female input, was enormous. Beginning there, then from my producers, and then all together from Katherine and John and from the other members of the cast.
Katherine Waterston: Female.
John Leguizamo: I tried to give as much female input I could… (laughs)
Katherine Waterston: Well, he’s a New Yorker.
There was one scene that was really good. Michael and his wife (Cynthia Nixon) are having dinner with the boss and she makes a wrist-slitting gesture while listening to him drone on. That was where I saw how they got together. How did it come about?
John Leguizamo: Yes. You got it. (claps)
Katherine Waterston: Yay!
David Ross: It was John’s idea. (Katherine laughs) We were doing rehearsals and we were talking. It might have even been in an email. He said, “You know what? Can there be a scene where Michael and Gail have a great time together, so we can understand all of that.” They are together for a reason. When we first see them in the beginning, they’re having a small argument. We didn’t want that to be too nasty. We never wanted this to be about… you know people swearing at each other and calling each other names and throwing stuff around the house. You’ll say, well it’s a terrible marriage. It should end. As opposed to, this is mostly working, but at what point do you say this will never work again? Get out. So, that scene was very important for that reason. Also, because it just makes it that much harder for him. Things are starting to really go downhill.
Cynthia Nixon in “The Babysitters.”
John Leguizamo: It can’t be that easy.
David Ross: Cynthia brought a lot of that stuff, too.
John Leguizamo: It could have easily gone to exactly what he’s saying – the yelling, over-dramatics, some actors trying to show off all their range. It would have wrecked the whole thing. She’s so contained. She chooses her moments so well. Brings humor.
David Ross: She’s so easy and funny.
John Leguizamo: But we did need somebody who… we needed Michael’s obstacles to be really strong. It couldn’t be that he was pushed to that girl. It had to be a moral dilemma. Somebody he loves, betraying them. Actually falling in love. Messing her up by paying her and not being able to communicate. He’s fucked up that way.
He did that because it’s a way to distance himself from it.
John Leguizamo: Of course. This guy – he’s got a lot of problems, man. This guy is fucked up. She’s kind of fucked up. That’s what brings people together. Two fucked up people.
Katherine Waterston: It’s collusion, you know. We got in that together and we said, yeah, let’s make all the wrong turns. I think there are some moments where we’re like, yeah, let’s do that. It’s so stupid. And then, there are the moments where you’re like, “Wait, I’m going through that.”
Did it remind you a lot about high school and what high school was like for you?
Katherine Waterston: Absolutely.
Katherine Waterston in “The Babysitters.”
Was it that screwed up?
Katherine Waterston: (laughs) Hopefully not. I mean I am an actor, so obviously there was some damage done. (laughs again) Well, I mean, it was complicated. That’s why I love this character. It wasn’t one thing. It was bad choices and good choices and being vague intentionally. I feel I made it to that thing, looking back on those years for me, and thinking: wow, I thought I was being an adult in that situation and I was being a stupid kid. But it felt like what a stupid kid thinks adult behavior is. This performance of adulthood – trying it on for size. I don’t really think that some of the typically dumbest teenage things that you could do, like even parties and doing as many keg stands as possible is in a weird way saying, “I am making my own choices. I’m an adult. I’m free to decide what I want to do.” People often think, God, this is childish behavior, but I don’t think people often think consider that these teenagers aren’t trying to be kids. They’re trying to be adults. Prove it to themselves. Prove it to each other. Prove it to their parents. And I did that sort of thing. Not really keg stands… Not very ladylike.
Do you think you could have written this movie without the help from classes and input from cast and crew?
David Ross: Yeah, I think that any time you’re writing something, you need some kind of feedback. You need some kind of support system. Sometimes it’s just the smallest things you’re missing that you take for granted. Like, I mentioned the first draft, there was so much that I knew about Shirley. I knew what she was going through. I figured it was getting across and there were some very important things that weren’t coming across. So, the first draft was just about a girl who goes and has sex for money for no apparent reason. Anytime you do anything creative, especially if it’s for an audience, I think it’s important to at least workshop your idea along the way. That doesn’t mean you have to take every single note you are given. That doesn’t mean you can try to please everybody.
John Leguizamo: It’s hard. What you’re trying to say is basically, not to give in to opinions but to make sure you’re communicating what you want to communicate.
David Ross: Yeah, exactly. It’s finding the right kind of people who are going to say, “All right, I think I know what you’re going for. This isn’t quite doing it.”
John Leguizamo in “The Babysitters.”
It mentions in the press notes that in the first draft the story ended with them all going to jail. Why do you think it is important to the story for them to get away with it – at least legally, though there are obviously going to be repercussions in all their lives?
David Ross: Because I think that them having to live with it can be just as hard – if not harder. Look, how many people go to prison for doing something terrible and then… and I’m not even talking about people who may be mentally ill or whatnot, I’m talking about people who are intelligent and can make decisions… they go away for a little while, they get out and they just do something else again, because they’re like, “Well, I’ve paid my debt. That’s it, I’m gonna continue to do wrong by others.” It drives me nuts when you see somebody get in trouble and they go, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” You were doing it up until the moment you got caught. I don’t think these two characters think they got away with anything. They just didn’t need the law to slap them on the hand.
So talk about that, how you guys felt about the way it ended… Did you think of other options? How did you two perceive the changes?
Katherine Waterston: It’s interesting, because we talked so much about all the scenes together, but I don’t actually feel like we really discussed that…
John Leguizamo: Yeah, we didn’t talk about that.
Katherine Waterston: I think that was probably intentional, because we were separating ourselves from one another. But, I was very happy with the script.
John Leguizamo: I think we liked it and that’s why we didn’t talk about it.
Katherine Waterston: I like the fact that you don’t get any answers about either of them. I even love that you don’t get to see them… you know they’re off in their places. You’re talking about those films where you see someone suddenly understand what it all meant.
David Ross: Yeah, the epiphany.
Katherine Waterston and Louisa Krause in “The Babysitters.”
Katherine Waterston: Exactly. I love that – I think with both of us, I don’t want to speak for you – but I feel like with both characters we didn’t have that moment onscreen. I don’t believe that it happened. It’s just like the flip of what I was talking about, with the teenager suddenly becoming an adult. It doesn’t happen in one moment. It’s just because we have two hours in a film that that happens so quickly. (chuckles)
John Leguizamo: What’s cool towards the end because Michael and Shirley started out a little bit ineffectual in their lives. Here at the end, they are back at that same place where they can’t motivate something. They can’t really articulate it. They are back into this world where they can’t make decisions. I thought that was great. That’s who they essentially really are. They are back to that again. No matter what happened with the two of them, they are still basically these two people who feel a lot but don’t let it out. They are like most of us. We go through life experiencing a lot, [but] there are only a few times that you really are heroic or villainous. The rest of the time, “Oh, I don’t know… What do I do?”
One thing I thought was interesting was that you just didn’t make bad choices, but you were really dumb about your best friends. Her best friend is way scarier that we thought. And his best friends are really capable of violence that I don’t think you saw either. They were kind of dumb about a lot of things.
John Leguizamo: That’s what I like about these characters. They were like average-aroonies. They weren’t the starters. They weren’t the best at everything. Michael was sort of the middle of the road kind of guy.
Katherine Waterston: But, also, I think it’s sometimes common to have friends that you can live vicariously through – that make you feel better about who you are, because they’re worse than you. They’re really fucked up.
David Ross: Especially because both of these characters have that need to break out and do something else, so they both need someone else like that…
Katherine Waterston: … to get them to act that way. We didn’t do it.
What has the reaction been to the morally ambiguous ending?
John Leguizamo: You didn’t have anyone walk out, did you?