“Trial by Fire” is the true-life Texas story of the unlikely bond between an imprisoned death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham and Elizabeth Gilbert a mother of two from Houston who, though facing staggering odds, fights mightily for his freedom.
Cameron Todd Willingham, a poor, uneducated heavy metal devotee with a violent streak and a criminal record, is convicted of an arson-related triple homicide in 1992. During his 12 years on death row, Elizabeth Gilbert, an improbable ally, uncovers questionable methods and illogical conclusions in his case, and battles with the state to expose suppressed evidence that could save him. Her efforts ultimately fail, and since Willingham’s execution, the disturbing question remains: Did Texas execute an innocent man?
We spoke with the film’s stars Laura Dern and Jack O’Connell about bringing these real life characters to the screen.
The Knockturnal: Congratulations to you both. It’s such a powerful movie. What did you both admire most about your characters’ journey?
Jack O’Connell: I think speaking to Todd, I felt like he had a sense of enlightenment for being incarcerated and having his liberties stripped from him. From what I understood, he really educated himself on not just the legal system and trying to exonerate himself, but also philosophy, language. I think it’s noticeable in his letters that he becomes a little bit more articulate the longer he gets into his incarceration. Personally, I really like that about him.
Laura Dern: I loved that in their friendship … ultimately, her starting to experience what she believed was a case of innocence that she wanted to fight for and represent his voice in any way she could and find people who would help support and save his life. There was also the intimacy of two people longing to understand themselves and be seen in a way they had never been seen before. There were a lot of parallels I think in their personal brokenness and what they maybe hadn’t had in their lives and what they both deserved as human beings and having conversations about man’s search for meaning and how to find joy in what felt impossible. I think that was such a drive for Elizabeth to try to gather to be able to share a laugh with a man who was on death row or to have him consider her day or what it’s like to parent when he’d gone through the horrors that he had was so extraordinary to Liz. I think he taught her about life in a way she never would have without him.
Jack O’Connell: Because she didn’t, when meeting Todd, she didn’t have an opinion one way or another as to whether she thought he was guilty-
Laura Dern: And she assumed he was guilty.
Jack O’Connell: Probably leaning more towards that. It’s quite interesting.
The Knockturnal: Can you talk a little bit more about the excitement/scariness of playing a real-life character. I’m sure it’s both exciting and terrifying at the same time.
Jack O’Connell: In a way, yes, but then I struggle more to play Laura Dern. Does she know what I mean?
Laura Dern: You guys I think you’re doing it right now and you’re doing an amazing job. It’s so weird because we’d decided just before you came in to play each other for this interview. We’ll do it on the next interview.
Jack O’Connell: In fact, I am Laura.
Laura Dern: And I am Jack O’Connell.
The Knockturnal: So method.
Laura Dern: It is terrifying. And we get away with the opportunity to play people who are lesser known, even though the case is known. As Jack spoke so eloquently about in our last interview, there is some invention in this narrative while telling a true story. Even though it’s terrifying, we don’t want to be disrespectful to the family or to Liz.
Jack O’Connell: There’s a sense of responsibility for sure. Maybe people that knew the characters involved knew the people involved, maybe they would watch the movie. So there’s always a kind of responsibility to try and get it right for them. But I think first and foremost is your own kind of take on it. I think just trying to believe in that really is key.