Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock, Sigourney Weaver & Douglas McGrath – Living in Infamy
Sandra Bullock and Toby Jones star in “Infamous.”
Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock, Sigourney Weaver & Douglas McGrath – Living in Infamy
by Jay S. Jacobs
Originally posted on October 13, 2006.
Imagine you have spent years of your life and incredible effort to put together a movie script. You finally get it finished, get interest for the sale of the movie and even get an all-star cast including Sandra Bullock, Sigourney Weaver, Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Hope Davis and Isabella Rossellini. You discover a mostly unknown actor named Toby Jones – a Brit who is best known as Dobby the Elf in the Harry Potter movies in the US – who is absolutely perfect for your lead.
Then, just as you’re about to get the movie started, you find out that someone else is doing another film on the exact same subject. It’s not like you are doing a cheesy movie about meteors headed towards Earth or capsized ocean liners – this is an art film about one of the most famous books of the 20th Century and the talented genius who was both made and destroyed by it.
This is what happened to Douglas McGrath. The respected writer/director (Nicholas Nickleby, Emma, Bullets over Broadway) had finally gotten his dream project about 50s literati Truman Capote red-lighted when he found out that writer Dan Futterman had also written a screenplay about the flamboyant author. Not only that, but it was about the same period of Capote’s life, the time when the author left his New York nightlife behind to go the Kansas to write his masterpiece In Cold Blood with his good friend, author Nelle Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird). Then the other movie was released first and won Oscar buzz – including a Best Actor award for star Philip Seymour Hoffman.
All that could be done is wait your turn and hope there is enough interest in the story to support two varied versions of the story. Infamous is based on an oral history of Capote in which George Plimpton – the famed late author (Paper Lion) and editor (The Paris Review) – interviewed the people in Capote’s life – a book with the tongue-twisting title Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career.
A year later, Infamous is finally ready for release. The studio and director decided to hold it back to try and stem the comparisons. Infamous is significantly different from Capote, an interesting alternate twist on the story that is funnier, more flamboyant and more emotional than the former film.
A few days before the movie’s opening, stars Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock, Sigourney Weaver and writer/director Douglas McGrath sat down with us at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York to talk about Infamous.
When you’re playing real people, how much does it matter that you look and act the way they really did?
Toby Jones: I’ve always thought that our film is as much about biography as it is about one man. It’s based on the Plimpton book, which is so much questioning the form of biography in the way it’s laid out. It’s mis-rememberings and disagreements. It suggests that in some way you get a glimpse of a person in the ellipses between things, rather than people are one thing and one thing only. Somewhere, all personalities are contradictory. As an actor, it’s very useful, because in a way it allows you much more room to interpret. I’ve always thought that a biography is fantastic for an actor, because it allows you many more choices than a sort of straight-forward biography. Anyway, it’s about a guy learning to write a new kind of book. He’s taught by his subject that he’s not writing the book the right way. (chuckles) The version of himself that he tells the world is cracked open by his subject. I’ve always felt it’s so clever – Doug’s script – because I think it’s about biography as well.
Sandra Bullock: [I] have months and months and months to do my job of research in the things that I came up with. You came up with little and you came up with massive jewels. I don’t ever confess to play Nelle Harper Lee. I’m playing a culmination of all that people claimed were facts, [things] that I felt were true compared to what other people had said. If two or more people said something about her that knew her, I went okay, this seems [right]. She had an incredible sense of humor. I heard that once, I’ve heard that several times. Her accent… I know people from Alabama because my dad and his whole side is from Alabama. I have relatives outside of Monroeville, which is very different accent-wise than Birmingham. Very different at the time when she was raised than it was now. How she stood. That she was an incredible golfer. All these things. How she held her cigarette. How she got her hair cut at the barber. You just piece these things together with the help of an incredible person in wardrobe. Lighting, make-up and making your face and body go in a certain way take it right back to what Doug wrote. You have to throw that out of the window and rely on the words. We’re playing the essence of her. Catherine Keener and I were laughing, its taken two of us to play Nelle Harper Lee and we probably still haven’t scratched the surface of who this extraordinary woman is. Two people so far have written extraordinary roles – very different – about this woman who has affected many people’s lives. It all went back to the words. The beauty of it is I kept going back to the script. There is not one word that isn’t supposed to be here… that doesn’t have great meaning later on down the line in the film. How often do you get to be part of a picture like that? Actors, we love to ad lib and go off. There’s no need, you stay right there with what’s said because it affects everyone else in the greater story.
Sigourney Weaver: I think a lot of it is the script. The script is so eloquent about what’s going on outside and inside the character. Even if – as I did – you play a tiny little screen role. Actually, this might be a more interesting question for Toby, because there was so little I could do about Babe. She was so private. I did meet with her daughter and read some books. But, really, I played the person that’s in the script.
Was there something that you read or something you listened to that sort of gave you a window to the character?
Toby Jones: The first thing I remember… I’m shamefully ignorant of Truman Capote. I knew the name. The name is a romantic name that we don’t sort of get in the UK. We don’t get people called Truman. So, I remember him being sort of an exotic figure. I remember footage of him at Studio 54 in his sort of later, bloated years. I remember reading the script thinking, ah this is just great. It’s a fantastic script, sort of a memento of a thriller. And I didn’t know anything about In Cold Blood or anything. Then I remember they sent me the Maysles brothers. There’s a little half-hour Maysles brothers’ documentary (called A Visit with Truman Capote a/k/a With Love from Truman – 1966) which follows Truman on a promotional tour for In Cold Blood. It’s virtually exactly the right period. It’s about the only bit of footage that I’ve seen where you see him walking further than the wings to the chat show chair. You see him walking in the Hamptons. You see him drinking too much in the Hamptons. You see him pulling out of a bag letters from Perry, which seems a foolhardy thing to do in an interview. Suddenly, as an actor, you can project chinks in the Truman mask through his response to these letters. I found this documentary really the most fascinating document. I sort of had it on a continual loop in the trailer because the panic of playing someone so remote in a way, it needs constant sort of gardening. That was the thing I relied on more than anything else.
Sandra Bullock: You want to find all those clues and then you’re grappling for things here and there. Stuff at the New York Public Library… her notes versus his notes – that jewel but that doesn’t give you what you’re talking about. I looked at it as: what choices didn’t she make? Why did she choose to live her life that way? You go all the way back to her father and her upbringing and that environment. What kind of environment did she grow up in to create this extraordinarily? [It] seems she knows exactly who she is, and she rises above. Who doesn’t go towards fame? Who doesn’t go towards the accolades? [Harper Lee] shuns them completely. You have to look at that. You have to then personalize it. You can’t. Each piece was like a golden kernel but in the end it just comes back to the word. How do you make it alive? You have to personalize it. What is it about myself that I can identify with that person? I’ll never be Nelle Harper Lee and I don’t ever profess to playing her completely. But, I am playing a human being that I admire a great, great deal. Who’s very private and would never ever promote or sell anything of value to her including the reason why she and Truman cease to be friends after a while.
Douglas McGrath: I want to say something about that. I love what Sandy was saying. A lot of guided us about Nelle Harper Lee were the choices she didn’t make. When she couldn’t write something that she liked as much as To Kill a Mockingbird, she didn’t publish it. She could have sold her second novel [for] you could only imagine for how much money, at any point. In fact, as the years went on she could have gotten more and more for it. She could have made all kinds of money doing all kinds of things. She didn’t. That told us a lot about her. That told how centered she was. You compare her to Truman, who when he couldn’t write Answered Prayers, he starts publishing excerpts from it. He’s on TV talking about it all the time and making a terrible spectacle of himself. The real guide for us about Nelle… the best guide… is To Kill a Mockingbird. You think, what person could have written that book, with that kind of humanity in it, that kind of wit in it? It’s very funny. I read it several times during the writing of this because I felt it was the best way I could get at her personality and her style of speech. It’s like detective work in a way, because there are some hints in the works and you just have to use your brain. If she wrote that, she must be this way. She wouldn’t do that, she must be this way.
One thing that Sandy did was a really important part of the movie. [It] seems really small, but the effect of it is so strong. The biggest speeches she has in the movie are the testimonials – the interviews that she does to the camera. In a kind of berserk or cruel decision on our part we decided to shoot those first. That was her first day. As you know, having seen the film, if the film works for you its in large part because of what Sandy says at the end of the movie. So it was just like, okay, you’ll be carrying the whole picture on your shoulders. Start day one… let’s get rolling. She came in with this fantastic idea. She said, “I’ve been thinking about it and I don’t think Nelle should be too comfortable in front of the camera.” I felt, oh please, don’t have some wacky idea about having your back to the camera, wear a bag over your head or something. I’m excited to have you in the movie. She said, “The other people look if you’re the lens. They look right at it because Babe Paley and everybody else – they’re pretty confident. They’re used to being photographed and being seen.”
I urge you to watch her performance again and just look at this aspect of it. Most of the time, she just dartingly looks at the camera lens. The rest, she modestly directs to the side. The places where she chooses to look at the camera lenses; it is the exact right place every time, because she’s saying something that is important for her to connect with you with. The one that always gets me is in that first long testimonial, because by the end she gets a little, but not much, better about looking at the camera. When she’s telling about the Christmas pageant and she says, “They said they’d be by the cannon in the courthouse square. We’re walking toward the cannon and then we got to the cannon and I could see him straining to see them.” Then she takes this beautiful pause. She hasn’t looked at the camera in a long time and then she looks in the camera and said, “They have not come.” It’s just awful. It’s awful enough as a story but then to have her look at you like that – it just doubles the effect of what it was.
Sigourney Weaver: Amanda Burdon, Babe’s daughter, was kind enough to have a drink with me. She told me a couple of things, one of which was Babe always completed all of her make-up – put her face on, as they used to say – before she even left her bedroom. Her husband and her children never saw her without make-up. The idea of this, for someone like me, who kind of rolls out… take me as I am… that was a real acting challenge. To imagine playing someone who felt she had to be this – as Truman said, “The problem with Babe is she’s perfect.” That perfection must have had its cost. Especially when your life isn’t as perfect as your image; that was the secret she was trying to keep from the world, if not from Truman. I thought that her daughter was very eloquent about her. That helped me understand the mom.
Toby is rather unknown in the US. How did he become the choice to be Truman Capote?
Toby Jones: It’s quite a long story how Doug heard about me. I think it’s all rooted in – I was in a show that was in London, it was a big hit in London, called The Play What I Wrote, about this double act. I was like the third person. We brought this to Broadway – Mike Nichols brought it to Broadway. We did four months here. For a start, it was lucky that I got (to do it). I’d won an award in London. That, I think, got me the visa. It’s not straight-forward. We did the show here. I was asked by Lewis Allen whether I was interested in reviving Tru, you know the Robert Morse thing (a play about Capote). I watched this show and we talked about it a bit. Lewis’ wife (Jay Preston Allen), who wrote that play, her agent, Sam Cohn, basically recommended me to Doug. I think the recommendations came from a few other places as well. Although, I must say, anyone who ever saw that show would not think from that, “He’d be good as Truman Capote!” Because that show was so vacant and so paper thin. (laughs). It was all about shtick, really, and rhythm. A whole different set of skills, really.
Douglas McGrath: I was advised about Toby. On the day I finished my script and sent it to Sam Cohn, the great agent, and to Ellen Lewis, my casting director, they both called and said, “”Oh it’s too bad you can’t use this guy from The Play What I Wrote.” I remember [thinking], I’m so rarely certain, if there’s anything I know, it’s that we’re certainly not casting the guy from The Play What I Wrote. I’ve since learned that [if] I’m that certain, I’m just completely wrong. It’s never even halfway wrong. It’s completely wrong. Because, a year later – who did we cast?
Toby Jones: Got there, sat down, I met him. We had to do a speech. The great thing about the part is you get to do – there’s amazing darkness at the end of the script and there’s comedy at the beginning. So, one of them was a very comic scene, where he’s at Christmas with the Deweys. The other thing I had to do was the long speech where he explains about his mother. Explains about suicide.
Douglas McGrath: We spent a whole year. I’m not blaming Warner Brothers in the least, because they backed the decision entirely when I found Toby and brought him to them. But in the beginning they weren’t opposed to the idea of having a person whose name people had heard more than once before that day. There were a number of actors who were attracted to the script who wanted to play the part.
Douglas McGrath: Gary Cooper.
Sandra Bullock: Gary Coleman.
Douglas McGrath: He was willing to do the make up and everything. (laughs) No, I can’t tell you who they were. It wouldn’t be polite. Because these people who wanted it enough to put themselves on tape and it wouldn’t be nice to say that they did it and didn’t get it.
Matthew Perry as Truman Capote?
Douglas McGrath: (Laughs). We did have agents call with rather wild ideas. I hope I’m not going too far. I’m giddy in the moment. An agent called and said, “What about Aaron Eckhart?” I said, for what? I mean would you think of Aaron Eckhart for Truman?
Sandra Bullock: Well, I would let him audition. I wouldn’t put it past any actor to be brilliant in something we don’t expect.
Douglas McGrath: All I said was; you know its Truman Capote, it’s not Harry Truman. He didn’t seem in the Truman mold to me. Anyway we had a number of very good actors come and put themselves on tape but we would look at the tapes and they just always felt like good actor doing a good impersonation of Truman, but they never completely lost themselves you could always see some part of them.