You began your film career with Peter Greenaway, a very special director whose films simply cannot be compared to other works. Your first film was “Little Macon”, which stands out for many reasons. How did you experience your collaboration with Greenaway so early in your career?
So Greenaway was my first film. I must have been pretty excited as an actor because the directors told me that I was struggling with my shyness in front of the camera. I don’t think I’m as passionate about the subject now, but getting along with Greenaway was very difficult. He’s a brilliant writer. I don’t know if Baby Macon is his best work, but he really left you alone as an actor to find your own way. I think I probably do better with directing. When you work with Peter Greenaway, I think you have a pretty good idea of what it’s going to look like. There’s a limit to that. Often – and this is not necessarily a good thing – people look at actors as being much higher up in the hierarchy. Not because they have to be happy or because they deserve it, but because it helps move things forward. It’s a hierarchy that is abandoned with some reluctance, and it certainly depends on the actor and his behaviour. This is not the case with Peter Greenaway. Everyone is the same. I like that very much. At the time, he was still making films for a million pounds or a million dollars or whatever.
Shortly after working on a short art film by Greenaway, you found yourself in Legends of the Fall, alongside Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt. He made you known around the world and put you on the map. What was it like to work on a big studio film of this caliber?
(Laughs) It was both exciting and scary. When you have this opportunity, you know that a lot of people are going to assess the quality of the situation. It’s a risk. You have someone who hasn’t had a lot of time in front of the camera. How can I do that? Honestly, we were all wonderfully situated in this amazing landscape, in the Aboriginal territory of Calgary. The studio was a good distance away. Director Ed Zwick had to run home at night and make phone calls because the studio rarely went to the set. We were very passionate about the world we were creating. All the actors – whether it was Brad or Anthony Hopkins – were very nice to each other. Everyone worked very hard. There was a real commitment to excellence and dedication around them. There was also a fear that we all cried too much! (Laughs) That was a big concern. It was a lot of fun. In terms of being in the spotlight, I kept working and I couldn’t even make it to the premiere. I didn’t realize it until a certain year, when it didn’t come out all at once, and that’s when it hit me.
Julia, I’m a big fan of the “First Knight”. It’s one of the best films – if not the best – that captures the essence of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and you are by far my favorite actress in the role of Guinevere. How did it feel to play in such a beautiful and great play at this point in your career?
Oh, that’s very good. I had a very unusual experience. It’s a bit of a strange story, I think, that my connection to acting came through art. I was very much influenced by my grandparents who painted a lot, so that’s one of the things I grew up with. My mother came to see where we were shooting “The Valley of Leonessa”. Jerry Zucker, the director, and Hunt Lowry, the producer, were hunting all over Europe, and they ended up in this valley in North Wales. I showed it to my mother. I took her to lunch, and as I passed her, I told her that this is where we were going to film the Leonessa Valley. She gave it the proper Welsh name and said, “You know that valley well. You came to this valley when you were a child. Many of the paintings that your grandparents did were in this place. It was so cool. It felt strangely familiar. I didn’t know why.
What was it like to face the greatest actor who ever played King Arthur, the great Sean Connery?
Oh. (laughs) I know it’s sad that we’ve lost Sean lately. He and I had a lot of fun working together. He had a really awkward sense of humor that was perfect. He was just really funny. With us, he pushed me a little bit at first, and I pushed back a little bit. I think there was a moment when he felt like I wasn’t seeing him ….but we became very good friends. I really liked him. For me, there was only one thing at the time when there was that connection that broke that idea of him as an actor… and it sounds so stupid to say that now….”Oh, no! It’s Sean Connery! He’s not dying!” He’s not? I remember the death scene we had. Sean is a great man. He’s tall. He was muscular. We had to lift him up. Once he was dead, we had to lift him up and get him out. We had to do it over and over again because he wouldn’t stop giggling. He didn’t play very well. I liked him. He was really fabulous.
Tell us about your collaboration with Richard Gere, who plays the role of Lancelot in the film.
We had so much fun making the film. Richard was so generous. He used to take me to a Van Morrison concert on the weekends. My boyfriend and I used to go out with him then too. We used to go to Joe Coker’s house in Dublin. We had a lot of fun there. I sat between two great male hosts who had very different work styles. I was very lucky. I think sometimes I get a little cranky when I think back on some of the things I said when I was younger. People sometimes say things to me that I said, and I think, “Oh my God, really? I’m really lucky to have had actors with that kind of seriousness and standing. When someone of that caliber treats you well, he does it with art”. Whether it’s Joan Plowright, Sean Connery or Richard Gere, you learn….make other people really comfortable or really unhappy, it’s a job that can be so weird. I haven’t always been happy with everyone. We had so much fun on First Knight because you had Jerry Zucker at the helm to do Airplane. He’s probably the sweetest man in Hollywood. Everybody said the same thing from the beginning. I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about him. He’s just a nice man.
What is your favorite movie about King Arthur?
Ooh… I have to say I’m going to be very honest. I loved them all. There are times when I watch The First Knight and I think it’s a bit romanticized. When you’re doing a love story, there has to be something euphoric in the period when you’re in a love relationship. There must be a feeling of vivacity, of sweetness. I like Monty Python’s round table version. When it comes to having fun, that’s what I prefer. If I wanted to have fun, I would watch Monty Python.
I always felt that Sabrina was seriously underestimated, even when she was first released. It was predictable compared to the original, which was bound to happen, but the film is charming and you look very beautiful in the role of Sabrina. Tell us about your collaboration with Harrison Ford and Sidney Pollack on this film.
For me, Sabrina, cinema was in my childhood, and when I was offered it, I think that what I really enjoy as an actor is getting into different genres. Some are more appealing than others. I think part of your flexibility or your reach as an actor could be to act in genres that are not everyone’s cup of tea. What I really, really wanted to do was a kind of comedy. So doing a romantic comedy and getting the offer to do a romantic comedy with Sydney at the helm was just a gift. My agent at the time told me that you were offered the role and now you’ve got it. You did the test on screen, but I want you to understand that this is a remake. In England, the classics are always being remade. I think I was a little confused about that. I wanted to work with Harrison Ford and Sidney Pollack, and I didn’t think it would happen again. Honestly, if I was offered it again today, I would still go to work. I learned a lot from Sidney, from those two. I remember that Harrison can be pretty quiet on set, so you have to break the ice with him. I was very lucky to work on First Knight and the audition for the role of Sabrina was in England and I worked with Sean. Sean said you should let Harrison Ford know that you have a sense of humor. I said, “Oh, my God. Do you have that? How am I going to do it? Thank you very much. He said, “Tell him the joke for me. You tell him the joke, and he’ll tell me the yodeling joke”. He knew that Harrison needed some comfort. Honestly, I feel like I only realized it because Sean sent me with the yodeling joke.
Another remarkable film you have directed is Smilla’s The Sense of Snow. I really feel that this film is underestimated, and in a way it was a harbinger of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I always wished there was a sequel or something like that.
The smile is amazing. I think it’s one of those roles where, in the current casting with different cultures, you end up with someone who is Greenlandic. I feel very lucky to have played that role. It was great working with director Billy August. I was a big fan of Better Intentions and also of Pelle Conqueror. I love working with the kids and the little boy in it. There was something very touching for me in Smilla. Underneath all the harshness and bravery and the postures she does to survive, there was this kind of abandoned child in exile, very vulnerable, who wanted to go back to his mother. People always ask me, if you’ve traveled all over the world as an actor, where you would recommend going, and I always say, absolutely to Greenland. It was just the most extraordinary experience. It’s on top of the world. On one of the preparation trips, they took us on a dog sled ride. They took us down this hill and straight into the lake where the ice was clear, so it was like walking on water. The ice was frozen about six inches under the water, and it was like an amazing story to cross the lake with these amazing dogs as the sun went down in Greenland. It was absolutely… More dogs than people in Greenland, and the feeling of dry air. People were doing their laundry and then spreading it out on the line outside. How do you keep the clothes from freezing solid? Laundry dries incredibly fast.
You worked with David Lynch on a rather innovative film called Inland Empire. What was it like working with him?
He’s a painter, he’s an artist, he’s very, very different. I must say that I had a weakness for David Lynch. He had a kind of elegant old school charm. He also had this fantastic modernity which is a mix. He was quite innovative in the way he filmed. He filmed it over a long period of time. But I missed the fact that I didn’t have a presenter and I didn’t know my character any better. I don’t think I necessarily created my best work under those conditions, but I enjoyed working with him. I liked the experimental aspects and I thought he had artistic ability. And I continued to work with his daughter Jen, which was also great. Peter Greenaway and David Lynch both had the courage to go and see what was a little different. The feeling I have for David Lynch is that he’s holding your hand as he takes you into this dark story. It feels like he’s with you, but with Peter Greenaway it’s a little more brutal. Maybe that’s the difference between the English and the Americans. There is a cultural difference.
You did “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” with David Fincher, another very unusual director. Who did he like to work with?
It was a pleasure working with Fincher. And brilliant. And it’s a revelation to me because he has a reputation for being a hard worker. I was struck by the fact that he was a director. I don’t think people think of him as a director. But he paved the way for character discussions, and I think people like Fincher are hard workers, but everyone knows it’s going to be a film that you remember and you’re happy that someone took you there. If you screwed up, if you screwed up something that you had to practice and rehearse and should have gotten before, then maybe the tension rises a little bit, but when it comes to acting, I’ve never felt that way with him. I felt that he was spectacular, and he had this ability to have this great vision of something, and he understood that so well. It was all extraordinary.
You have a second role in “Son of the South”, and it’s a very current film. It is signed by Oscar-winning producer Spike Lee and director Barry Alexander Brown. What attracted you to this project and what was it like to shoot in Alabama?
I really liked the script and I really enjoyed meeting Barry. He wrote a film that was not your typical white hero, which fascinated me as a hero. It’s about the vision that the white man in the South has. I’ve been a big fan of Spike Lee’s work for a long time, and there was something so competent about Barry, and I really liked the story. We actually worked in real story buildings. There’s something provocative about being in those places where we filmed in a house, the real house was nearby. There’s something oppressive about everything that happened at the time, and I’m working against human trafficking in slavery, and Congressman John Lewis was a very, very special person with whom I had contact early on as a goodwill ambassador. It was pretty cool to make a film where someone was playing the role of a young man at the beginning of his extraordinary life.
I saw your last movie, Reunion Island, and I’m glad I saw your other movies before I saw this one. You made two films with David Lynch’s daughter, Jennifer: one is called Watching and the other is called Chain. These films are much darker than, for example, Legends of the Fall or Sabrina. These films appeal to a different demographic. Reunion Island is really an emotionally painful journey. You are no stranger to this genre. I would even say it’s a genre. It’s like a sub-genre of a film. It’s not really horror. It’s something else. Would you say that working with Jennifer Lynch on these two films prepared you to work on something like Reunion Island?
Yes! I think it’s great that you’ve seen so much. For me, the pleasure of being an actor is to bring variety and to shoot characters that have a pretty wide range. I understand that there are independent films, writers and art directors. I would say without hesitation that … The first film I made was with Peter Greenaway. It was a bit like being thrown in the deep end, shall we say. (Laughs.) It’s something else with art, and Jake Mahaffey, the director of Reunion Island, and the crew around him, and the cinematographer, for me as an actor – whether it’s an art film or a studio film – there’s always a logic that actors have to understand that even if that part of the film doesn’t make sense to the audience before Act 5, You still have to stick to what the actor does, and I think what I would say about Reunion Island is that you get a license in an independent film. I don’t think I would have been chosen to play Ivy if Reunion Island had been a studio film, and I wouldn’t have played Ivy like I did if it was a studio film. That’s interesting. The other thing about making art films or independent films or making a horror film like this is that you can’t stand up and say that we had “X” people on our team, that we had so much time to do it, that it was a budget compared to other films. It was incredible what the crew did. They were very attached to Jake and his vision. He had a real passion for telling this story and how it should be done. I think I would say that when you play a character like Ivy, she puts you in the skin a little bit. People always say it’s a lot of fun for actors to play characters that are cool or dark. I have to say that’s what got me. In the end, I couldn’t bathe enough to wash away what the woman I was playing was like. There was something stuck in the bones. He delved deeper into what was happening. It was really hard for me. It can be very isolating. Emma Draper, the main character in the film, was a godsend for me. She was just fascinating.
You mentioned the word “joy”. The word “joy” is in my notes. Joy is important because I feel joy in the performances and the atmosphere, the sparkle and the charm of films like Legends of the Fall or Sabrina, for example. But when I watch something like Reunion Island, I always ask myself, how do you find joy as an actor and as a creator to do something that is intrinsically depressing? How do you find joy in such a story if you are an actor?
Good question. I think the older I get, the less disconnected I feel from things at home and other aspects of my life. I think the person to ask this question would be Emma herself. She was pregnant when she made this film. That would have been too weird for me. She drew from a meditation that I found so beautiful and so necessary to take you through a process where you create a kind of creative and emotional boundary. And within that framework, you can work in a safe, secure space. I learned a lot from Emma because there was something about the way she did it. I think that if you go somewhere, it would make me emptied of my sense to play that kind of character. It’s gray. It’s gray, and it’s joyless. These are other things that give me joy, that give me stability. I think where I find that kind of character, I like to make jokes on the set, we have these great makeup people that I like to laugh…. with. We just try to find that sense of funny moments on the set. At the end of the day, you take more and more of them and it becomes internalized. I don’t know how internationalized the character becomes, but this character has come to such a point for me that even when I finish the book and fly home, I can’t put it down.
Julia, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. It was a pleasure.
Not at all! It was nice to have such an interview! You learned enough, which is not always the case, so thank you! Take care of yourself!
***Réunion and Fils du Sud are now in selected movie theaters and on demand. ***
David J. Moore is the author of The Good, the Hard and the Deadly: Action Films and Stars and Madness: A Guide to Post-apocalyptic Films.
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