Published on NewYorkCool.com
Christina M. Hinke Talks With Actress Sandra Bullock and Writer/Director Douglas McGrath for the film Infamous
by Christina M. Hinke
Oct. 9, 2006
Nelle Harper Lee was Truman Capote’s life-long friend and she acted as his research assistant and companion when he traveled to Kansas to write In Cold Blood. Sandra Bullock plays Lee and it is her “roll of a lifetime“ - the most complex character she has played to date. Even while wearing ankle socks, a do-rag and a house coat, Bullock manages to give Lee an air of sophistication and intelligence.
Question: What was it about this role that made you say “yes”?
Sandra Bullock: Just the writing from beginning to end. That person, literally that person (pointing to McGrath).
Question: Which do you prefer, big box office hits or smaller independent roles?
Sandra Bullock: Sometimes the smaller roles…. which I've learned are the ones that end up being bigger and richer in working experience [more fulfilling] than some films where you’re six months on the film….you’re the lead and it’s as fulfilling as a half glass of water. There’s no conscious effort on my part [to choose between big box office hits or small independent rolls]. I’m just lucky enough to strive to want to do different things and fortunate enough to get hired to do them.
Question: Nelle shuns fame and you are a world famous movie star, how do you tap into the desire to never want fame?
Sandra Bullock: Admiration of it. Understanding why she did it. I could be well known, but [I can guarantee you that] no one has any idea of what I am - outside of something I want you to see. I never give away anything I don’t mind losing. Anything I’m sure that comprises most of myself, I would never say [anything about] in a press conference or magazine [interview]. It’s not something I’m comfortable with. I know its part of the job. The last thing I want to do is a photo shoot or put on makeup. But it is kind of fun. I’m going to be here for this day, and enjoy and get something out of it. But I understand the inclination to disappear. But again, if I were an eighth of the woman that she was, with talent and insight into something that I just wish I knew what it was, I would be a happy person. I just have a tremendous amount of respect, admiration and understanding for why she did what she did and I think people need to stop calling her a recluse and start calling her someone who is a great artist who chose to live her life, instead of the public’s version of her life.
Douglas McGrath: There must be some times when the press attention if fun and other times when the press attention is not fun.
Sandra Bullock: I don’t ever find it fun. I’m finding it very easy to do this press junket because I can sit back and listen to you or questions being asked [to you] and you go, “Oh I’m glad you asked me about that instead of when am I getting knocked up,” which is appropriate for a film that has no substance whatsoever, but this film doesn’t warrant that kind of fluff. There is a great sense of relief that there is respect coming your way or Toby’s way or the cast’s way or the film’s way that requires thoughtful questions and answers where you actually have to think. This is easy and you enjoy doing it because you have a conversation and it’s different.
Question: You sound like you don’t enjoy the rewards of being a movie star.
Sandra Bullock: I don’t enjoy press. But you know what I enjoy, when we we’re in Toronto and there’s a bunch of kids and fans out there who are just having the best time and you go over and you spend the time taking care of the people that ensues; that allows you to do what you do. That I have a good time with, because it’s joy and it’s fun. There are no expectations. I love working. But the press is hard because I always try to deflect with humor and sarcasm and as we said before sarcasm stops at the door. It never gets printed the right way and I know no other way of handling it except for that way, where I come out still feeling unsoiled. It’s just a balance.
Question: How did you research and come up with your characterization of Nelle Harper Lee?
Sandra Bullock: The luxury I think I was allowed in this film was (a) to be a part of an ensemble, (b) to 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. Again, I don’t ever confess to play Nelle Harper Lee, I’m playing a culmination of all the facts that people claimed were facts 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, “OK, well this seems like [her]”. She said 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 are from Alabama. I have relatives outside of Monroeville which is very different accent-wise than Birmingham is. [It’s] very different at that 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(s) in wardrobe, in lighting and in make up [to make] your face and body go in a certain way. Take it right back to what Doug wrote and 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, it’s 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, many people’s lives. It all went back to the words. The beauty of it too is I kept going back to the script, I go, “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” and 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.
Question: Was there one thing you heard about her that gave you a window into your character?
Sandra Bullock: I looked at it as what choices didn’t she make. Why did she choose to live her life that way? And 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 extraordinary [piece of work]? She seems she knows exactly who she is. And she rises above. Who doesn’t go towards fame? Who doesn’t go towards the accolades? And, who shuns them completely? You have to look at that. You have to then personalize it. Each piece was like a golden kernel, but in the end it just comes back to the word of how do you make it alive and 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 profess to playing her completely, but I am playing a human being that I admire a great great deal, who is very private and would never ever, ever expel, or promote or sell anything of value to her, including the reason why she and Truman ceased to be friends after a while.
Douglas McGrath: I want to say something about that. I love what Sandy was saying about 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, 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 and she didn’t. That told us a lot about her. That told us 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, terrible spectacle of himself. And the real guide for us about Nelle, because it’s 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, To Kill a Mockingbird. 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 and think, “If she wrote that, she must be this way, and she wouldn’t do that, she must be this way.”
One thing that Sandy does that I think is a really important part of the movie, and seems really small, but the effect of it is so strong are the speeches. 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. And 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. And so it was just like, “OK you’ll be carrying the whole picture on your shoulders.” “Start, Day 1, 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.” And I felt, “Oh please don’t have some whacky idea about having you put your back to the camera, wear a bag over your head or something, I’m excited to have you in the movie.” The other people look right at the camera lens because Babe Paley and everybody else, they’re pretty confident and they’re used to being photographed and being seen. If you watch, most of the time she just dartingly looks at the camera lense and the rest she modestly directs to the side. But 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. And the one that always gets me is in that first long testimonial, because by the end she gets a little better, but not much better about looking at the camera, but in that first one when she’s telling about the Christmas pageant and she says, “They said they’d be by the cannon in the courthouse square and we’re walking toward the cannon and then we got to the cannon and I could see him straining to see them.” And then she takes this beautiful pause and she hasn’t looked at the camera in a long time and then she looks in the camera and said, “They have not come.” And 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.
Question: Why did you choose to have monologues with the cast?
Douglas McGrath: The script is based on George Plimpton’s book, which is an oral history, so it’s just a series of interviews, its just people talking about Truman. It seems the perfect way to make a movie about him and a book about him because his life was so much about people talking about other people. So, I thought it made sense thematically. But it also did a couple things that I thought made it helpful for the film, it allows you to get direct information to the audience without breaking the structure of your movie, by which I mean I wanted to keep the movie set ’59 to ‘65. I didn’t want to have flashbacks to early parts; I wanted to keep that momentum. And because they’re interviews you don’t actually feel you’re leaving the time. And what they can tell you, like in Sandy’s quite amazing first testimonial when she talks about the Christmas pageant. I felt that was important information to get to the audience because it makes Truman sympathetic and it tells a lot about their friendship, but it also changes how the audience feels about him at that point. Because up to that point in the movie he seems, if you don’t know him, a little odd. It would be very hard to get that information in a normal scene without quite a lot of work and it would have been poor Sandy having to say, “Remember that time your parents abandoned you?”
And the other thing I just wanted to say is I always felt that Truman’s story was n emotional story. He doesn’t strike me as a cold or aloof character. One of the things I think endeared him to people, even at times when I didn’t always like him, was his emotions were so evident always. In a way he’s like my son (who’s eight), [he is ] incapable of conveying anything but exactly what he’s feeling. I felt the film needed to have an emotional quality to it and I felt those testimonials gave it that because the actors look at the camera, which really means they’re looking right at you. And so it makes a real connection between the actors and the audience and thus I felt or hoped would close the gap so that you would feel you’re watching something far away, but thought you were closer to it.
Question: How much did you want to stay true to the story?
Douglas McGrath: I did mostly. I had a lot of sympathy for Truman; you’ll notice I wasn’t entirely condemning of him. There was a slight difference between what he was doing and what I’m doing, which is I’m not presenting mine as a documentary, as the truth. .He kept bending over backwards to tell people how true his book was and yet he muddied the waters for himself by calling it a non-fiction novel. It took almost a year to write the script. I thought about that phrase a long time and it’s never made sense to me because as Sandy says in the movie, when he says, “I’m going to use the techniques of fiction to tell a non-fiction story,” she says, “What techniques? The ones where you make stuff up?” Those are the techniques of fiction. And she’s the one who sees through him. That’s part of their relationship. They had known each other since they were little and they could speak to each other that way. But I’m guilty of it to; I might get a lesser sentence because I’m not presenting it as a totally factual film.
Question: Why was the title changed?
Douglas McGrath: The title was changed because my friends in the Warner Bros. legal department, a very vigorous and active division of the studio, were genuinely afraid that if we called it Every Word is True someone could sue the studio because every word in it isn’t true, even though it was meant with the utmost irony.
Ssndra Bullock: Exactly. Every Word is True, “wink, wink”. But how do you convey that in a title.
Question: Wasn’t is Tru, T-R-U?
Douglas McGrath: It was not. Irony stops at the door.
Sandra Bullock: Sarcasm stops there too.
Question: How did it feel that people will compare it to Capote?
Douglas McGrath: It’s inevitable, that part, there’s no avoiding it. I'd do it if one of them wasn’t my movie. But I had one thing that was important to me, which was to tell this story because I felt that I had my own view of what happened to him. I came at the story because I felt that something terrible had gone wrong in his life. If you look at it after In Cold Blood, which up until In Cold Blood was success and happiness and everything going his way. In Cold Blood, his greatest success, and then just down, down, down. And I gave a lot of thought to what happened to him. And that kiss for instance, I did not choose that kiss to be provocative or frivolous, I believe there was some brief single moment of intimacy which I thought would unhinge him eventually for the rest of his life. I just knew that was my point of view, it wasn’t a stated point of view in a book, and so I thought that I had my own way of telling it. And all that mattered to me is that I get to tell it. If there’s another movie with their point of view, that didn’t matter to me. I didn’t want to keep people from seeing our film; I don’t want to deceive you. But the tragedy for me would have been not to make the movie. That would have been an ugly spectacle that I don’t even care to go into the possible scenes. You would have passed me on the street in front of the Waldorf talking to myself. But to tell it and to tell it with what turned out to be all the right people. You hope when you cast someone that they’re going to be right and usually they are because you try to have good instinct and you’re guided by a lot of people, but sometimes the part is at a distance from someone, they see it differently than you do. And in this case I got everyone I wanted and everyone I wanted turned out to be right. So to me that’s the joy of it.
Question: How did you find Toby?
Douglas McGrath: I have to say I was advised about Toby. So on the day I finished my script and sent it to Sam Cohn, the great agent, and to Alan, 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.” And I remember, I’m so rarely certain, “Well if there’s anything I know is that we’re certainly not casting the guy from The Play What I Wrote.” I’ve since learned that I’m not that certain, that I’m sure that if I know one thing, I’m just completely wrong. It’s never even halfway wrong, it’s completely wrong. Because a year later who did we cast? We spent a whole year, I’m not blaming Warner Bros. 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 been 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.
Question: Like whom?
Douglas McGrath: Gary Cooper.
Sandra Bullock: Gary Coleman.
Douglas McGrath: He was willing to do the make up and everything. (Laughs.)
Douglas McGrath: 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.
Question: 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, “Oh, 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 it is 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 actors doing a good impersonation of Truman, but they never completely lost themselves, you could always see some part of them.
Question: Like Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Douglas McGrath: Pass. I really can’t comment on Philip’s performance because I haven’t seen the film yet, principally for a lot of reasons. I know those people and I would like to give that film the best viewing I can and this isn’t the right time to give it the best viewing. When everything’s all done. Also you might be surprised or might not be surprised, but after you put this much of yourself into a movie about someone’s life you’re really not burning with curiosity to see how another person did it. I mean that nothing against anybody who does it, but I made all these choices and if they made different choices, and that doesn’t mean their choices are wrong, but they’re different than mine and I may have chosen not to go that way for a reason. So, I wouldn’t necessarily be the best audience for the film.
At any rate we put all these people on tape and nobody was quite right. I was going to England to put two other actors on tape and this woman from Warner Bros, Laura Kennedy, who’s the head of casting there, said, “You should see this guy Toby Jones.” Toby Jones, I didn’t know about Toby Jones. I was a little late to take credit for it as my idea since I’m the one who kyboshed it. So we sent him the script and I went to meet him the day before the audition we were going to tape everybody on the Harry Potter set. I didn’t know if he knew anything about Capote and I thought I should give him a chance to explain about the voice and talk to him. And I said to Alan Lewis, he was going to meet me in the lobby of my hotel, “How am I going to know who he is?” He said, “Well don’t worry about that, you’ll know who he is.” And sure enough, I came down and I was looking for people who might look like Truman Capote. I was kind of like, “umm, no, umm, no. Uh! Oh my god! Oh my god!” I thought it was a joke. Really. We should have done this a year ago.
Question: Was he wearing the fur?
Douglas McGrath: Fur and moccasins and a pill box hat. I remember I thought please don’t look this good and not be good. And we had a nice talk and the next day he came to the set and then he’s all slicked down and really looking like Truman with glasses and the banker’s suit, and the big old burly English guys, who were standing around with the lights, when he came on, because he was the third one after the two would-be people came in, they gasped and you could see they were thinking, “Hey nice move, getting Truman Capote to play Truman Capote.” And his test was perfect. It was a beautiful test. He did two scenes, the scene at the Dewey Christmas and the scene of his mother’s suicide.
Question: Why did you choose to dress him in a more flamboyant way than in the Capote? Even though you haven’t seen the other film, your version of Truman is more flamboyant.
Douglas McGrath: That’s the spirit. In fact he was that way. He had two styles of dress, we noticed through our research. When he went out with his lady friends, with the Swans, he always dressed down. He always sort of wore banker’s suits, grey somber conservative suits because he was known in those circles already, he didn’t have to announce himself. But there are times, and I realized it was always when he was going some place new, where he needed to announce himself. You’ll notice in New York he doesn’t wear those clothes, he wears a tuxedo, he wears dark suits. It’s when he goes to Kansas. It’s his way of saying, “Here I am, get over it.” He wanted to get that out of the way. And in fact that outfit was described in George Plimpton’s book. He’s wearing moccasins, and a sheepskin coat and a scarf that went around his neck and almost to the floor and something that looked like a pillbox hat. And that had to be a psychological thing; a way to announce himself. Not that you would miss him, even in a banker’s suit, once he starts talking. But it’s his way of saying, “Look, here’s the whole package. Let’s get this over with.
Copyright 2006 Christina M. Hinke. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.