The phone rings. It’s your agent with good news – you’re going to be starring in the latest James Gray flick alongside some pretty heavy hitters. Oh, you know, just Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow. No biggie. Did we mention that your character is the rock, the glue that holds the entire film together, the only corner of the love triangle with her head on straight? Did we also mention that you’re going to receive top billing, your name on the same line as the big boys?
Before you accept the role, let’s review our biology. (i) The amygdala is the part of the brain that triggers our ‘fight or flight’ response when something – anything – happens that’s extremely out of the ordinary. Our nervous systems can’t handle too much stimulation at once, and will do whatever it has to do to keep us ‘safe’ from change. So if you or I got a phone call like this, our response might be one of fear, or even rage. “Screw James Gray! And forget Joaquin! I never liked rap music anyway!”
But not actress Vinessa Shaw. Her amygdala hasn’t missed a day at the proverbial brain-gym since 1981. (The year I was born, consequently, and also the year of her earliest IMDB credit. And yes, we’re just about the same age.)
Shaw’s combination of experience, longevity, consistency and training make the aforementioned phone call shift from amazing to every day. After all, she was co-starring with Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut before Joaquin was even a glimmer in the eyes of the Hip Hop world.
Vinessa and I lounge on a sunny fourth floor balcony of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills on a rare, smog-free Los Angeles day. I usually begin interviews by joking about having to valet my embarrassingly beat up Honda, and apologizing profusely for being the poor actor’s 76th meeting of the day. Vinessa laughs generously at my attempts to win her trust, and assures me that she is “weird.” She loves doing interviews. She also loves this film, where she plays the woman in James Gray’s fresh take on the age old Man – Woman – Other Woman scenario.
All of the characters in Two Lovers seem to have just that – Leonard has Sandra and Michelle, Michelle has Leonard and Ronald, Ronald has Michelle and his wife…do you think Sandra had anyone else creeping around besides Leonard?
Does she ever suspect he’s cheating on her or in love with someone else? At what point?
It’s interesting because playing around in the café scene, James [had us play it] a whole bunch of different ways, where there were parts of the time I had known, I had an inkling. Then there were parts of the time where I wouldn’t say anything and I just would be silent and worried about him. So we played it all different ways and what ended up on the screen was her being just completely openhearted and ready for love.
Sandra is the “every girl” of our generation. You know, trying to play it cool, but really wanting love more than anything. Buying the guy a gift, then acting like it’s no big deal. Playing hard to get but sleeping with him right away. Were you able to draw from your own romantic experiences?
I think everyone can relate to all of the characters in the movie. Like you can even relate to Leonard’s parents, you know, just having a really sweet, wholesome love [between] them. And even being someone who’s confused about two people, and who to choose in your life, and wanting to choose the person that’s perhaps not right for you and isn’t good for you, and then you do it anyway and you fall into that dark world. And then [you choose] someone who’s kind of stable and maybe sort of boring. James really gets all kinds of loves, like the way they all unfold. I think that most of what I feel about it is that everyone has to experience all those things in order to know what you do want in love. Cause you can say, “The one that was bad, I did that. Mistake.” Or, “Oh my gosh, that was the one who got away.” You know, those kinds of things, I think everyone can go through, man or woman, so I think he got all of that in one fell swoop.
Did James Gray’s directing style compliment your acting style?
Well, I almost screamed at him one day. Because James…he’s good! He’s really good and he puts you on your toes. I’m a perfectionist as an actor and he wouldn’t let me be. So, like I was sharing, you could have one way you’re doing the scene and he goes completely the opposite way and has you whisper or something and you’re like, “This is not how the scene should go!” But it’s great because then you don’t feel boxed in to what the character should be like and it brings dimension. Most of what I thought was on the screen I thought would be on the screen.
Yeah, I wondered if there was anything that got cut out that you missed.
No, I think all of it was there. But he wanted to play a lot, and I’m so used to, “We’re [over] budget, we have to get it right!” James’ style is very unnerving at first because you’re not sure where he’s going, but in the end I appreciated it.
It sounds kind of luxurious to get to play around and experiment so much.
Yeah, it was really luxurious. Unfortunately it’s luxurious.
I know, It should be like that every time!
I know, it’s terrible.
Do you have a favorite coach or teacher that you work with to help you meet the acting challenges that come up while you’re on set?
Yes I do, I love her…her name is Kate Lacey. She’s an actress and was a casting director prior to coaching so she knows both sides of the business very well.
What’s the first thing you do when you get a new script?
The first thing I do is really break it down because you never shoot in sequence. I write notes to share what’s happened before, and what will be happening soon, or what she does know or does not know, so that I can keep myself on track. It’s kind of like a map in a way.
What was going through your mind in the scene when he comes in to the party and he’s so late – probably hours late – and he proposes out of nowhere and then holds on to you for dear life and won’t let go?
I think she’s just waiting for this moment. The whole movie…she’s waiting for this moment. I hope that she’s not naïve and just looking at him in [an] idealistic way and thinking that everything is going to be perfect, but I think she’s been waiting for this moment and it doesn’t matter that he hasn’t been there for the whole time. [It] kind of erases any of his bad behavior. I think she’s hopeful. She’s a very positive person. She doesn’t hold on to things. She doesn’t have any baggage. [It’s] remarkable!
She’s definitely the most grounded character in the whole film, for sure. But the cool thing is that if she’s the ‘straight man,’ you still make her layered, very human, interesting and complicated, but healthy.
That’s true. She has emotions. She feels. She cries and laughs and all those things in between. But she does it healthfully.
What’s the sequel? Do you think Leonard and Sandra end up happily ever after?
I hope so. It’s like you kind of cringe at the end and go, “Hold On. Hold on for dear life!” I really hope so because he’s definitely on the right path at the end of the movie. But who knows. I worry more about Sandra. Can she withstand Leonard’s antics [and] his ups and downs? She’s so solid. If I were Sandra, I wouldn’t be able to handle that after a while, but you never know. Perhaps she can withstand all of that; withstand the difficulties, and she’ll be the solid one and they’ll make it.
Are you more of a Sandra or Michelle in real life? (Sandra being the good girl, Michelle, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, being quite the opposite.)
Um….I think I’ve definitely been a Michelle.
No one can say they haven’t been. I’ve definitely been a Michelle. Definitely been a Sandra [too], but could never claim to be a Sandra through and through because as we’re sharing, she’s so understanding. I know myself, if I hadn’t seen my boyfriend for hours and he just showed up AFTER New Year’s, I’d be pretty pissed.
There’s that amygdala, again – defending her from real life bad-boyfriends, and keeping her onscreen opposite the best bad boys in town.
TWO LOVERS is directed by James Gray and stars Vinessa Shaw, Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow. The film opens in theatres February 13, 2009.
(i) Robert and Michelle Colt, Acting Success Now