This week we attended the press conference for Paramount Pictures’ latest release “Florence Foster Jenkins.” The event was held at Ritz Carlton Hotel in the Emery Roth Ballroom. Participating Talent included: Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), Hugh Grant (St. Clair Bayfield), Simon Helberg (Cosme McMoon) and Director Stephen Frears.
Is ignorance truly bliss or can you love someone without it being real? Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg explore those ideas in Stephen Frears’ latest film Florence Foster Jenkins, a film about the world’s worst opera singer to sing at Carnegie Hall.
Streep shines as Jenkins, singing well, well, terribly. It truly shows her moment of triumph as she continues to stay delusional about her musical talents, providing all the more auditory comedy and visual gags from the characters’ reactions. Grant’s portrayal of Jenkins’ husband St. Clair Bayfield truly questions whether love is enjoyed intimately or expressed through genuine caring. But the true star is Helberg as his hilarious reactions to Streep’s singing– or lack thereof– provides the comedy that whole cast leans on.
See it for the history, see it for the costumes and set decorations, but it’s a definite must go for the characters alone. Check out what the cast had to say below:
Did you agree with what St. Clair Bayfield did to Florence?
Hugh Grant: No. I liked him, and admired him actually, both in the script and deeper when I read his diaries here at Lincoln Center. He charmed me. He loved her and she loved him and it was a very moving 35 year romance. Was there any level of self-interest for him? Probably, yes, but I’m not sure it was conscious, probably subconscious. But the truth is without her and her world, he is an out-of-work actor, no family at all and sort of lost in the world. But there definitely is real love and I think that, above all, is why he protected her from the truth.
Cosme has a lot of onscreen reactions to Florence and St. Clair. Was it difficult to convey all of these emotions tacitly?
Simon Helberg: Well I was born with a hilarious face, that’s why I was cast. And thank God we do this press conference afterwards, because I would have been so self-conscious about my face, because everybody keeps talking about my face. It’s wonderful, but no, I was conscious of who this guy was and why he was there and getting through the music that we were playing. And because every take was so new, I think Meryl and I were both locked in and surrendered to never knowing what will create this funny experience.
Meryl Streep: We originally were told we were going to pre-record as in most musicals, they play it on the set, since the consistency in the musical helps them cut. You can’t really cut into things that take a completely different time signature from take to take. And we really did record the whole thing and then Stephen [Frears] didn’t use it. We did the whole thing live and that made us feel very alive because it just changed each time.
Talk about that decision to sing live.
Stephen Frears: Well it’s the performance is so essential to it all. Florence doing it, that’s what really mattered—that moment. So that’s what you really wanted to capture. Not some sort of mechanical. Everyone kept saying it, “I’ll do it live.” Ok.
Was it hard for you two, doing it live?
MS: Way, way more fun. It was more terrifying, especially at the Carnegie Hall sequence when we shot the audience first and we set ourselves up to fail. Big time. We filmed with all these arias that thankfully are not in the film, so we don’t have to hear, but they did and so the audience reaction is really their reaction.
SH: And our terror is real. Makeup kept coming in to put more sweat on my forehead.
MS: It made us symbiotically attached and if I would brace up to deliberately screw him up and then just kind of stop him. And he was amazing to be able to play and act. It was astounding.
You have an amazing voice, so was it difficult to be so bad?
MS: No. I have a very clear understanding of what my voice is, it’s a B voice. It hovers around B minor. I have great friends who are wonderful singers and I know I’ll never be able to do that. But singing through a character is something that I liked finding what it was in Florence’s recordings because there are recordings of hers that remain very popular. So she’s there for all to hear and it’s not just how bad it is but how aspirant it is. You hear her breathing wrong in all the wrong places and it led me to understand her and her exuberant will to sing right.
St. Clair had these diaries that you mentioned led you to your performance.
HG: Well the two things that I remember most standing out were very tragic entries when Florence died. We wouldn’t want to put that in anyone’s piece because it would ruin the film. I don’t know why I mentioned it. There’s another one, where, it also involves her death. Just pass over that part.
Is there something any of you were very passionate about that you tried that just didn’t work out.
MS: A lot of things. I really don’t like golf. Like I really don’t, because I tend to like things that I can do right away, and if I can’t do it right away, I really don’t like it. So skiing I really like because if you’re sort of coordinated and reckless, you can lean forward and go. But golf, nobody can do that.
HG: I’d love to see you be bad at golfing. I’d love to see you be bad something.
MS: I never hit the ball ever. And my husband kept saying “you’re coming up at the ball” and I would scream “I’m not coming up!” And I went home. I don’t like it.
What was the appeal here with playing people who actually lived? Like with Florence, who was a joke, did you want to reclaim her?
MS: Well that was in the script, this sort of tender look at her and of how ridiculous she was. But I said yes because Stephen said he had a project and I wanted to work with him. He said “I have a film for you,” and I said yes and he sent the script and it was about Florence and I knew about her. And then we started.
HG: Well I was busy doing other things in life and then Stephen presented me this script, which to my great surprise was funny and moving and had a rather complex and nuanced part and was directed by him, and he’s regarded as classy, or was anyway. And it’s more of a matter of Meryl. So although I wasn’t particularly immersed in show business at that point in my life, I felt I would be no kind of man if I said no.
SH: It took a lot of convincing for me. Meryl who? Hugh? Let me IMDB these people. I was very excited and I would have said yes without reading it, but I did read it and I was just blown away by the story and these themes. It’s a very fleeting moment in life. Usually in childhood when you have no judgment or cynicism and you’re fully immersed in your passion and I think it’s inspiring to see it carried through into grown-ups. Cosme was not exactly a grown-up, but was on his way.
How would you describe the kind of love that St. Clair and Florence have?
MS: Well I haven’t been really successful branding love, especially when peering into people’s relationships. It’s never what you think it seems. I think it’s an accurate portrayal of realistic, delusional love. It’s realistic because it is what it is, and there is illusion in it that they both prop up and keep aloft. One of the genius things that Stephen did was that in margins you feel the war, you feel some blaring headline about something horrible happening. Figuring out what makes life worth living and love and art is right smack in the middle. So the compromises that people make is all in that.
HG: To me the interesting question to that, how comfortable were Florence and Bayfield with their arrangement? I have that scene with Cosme where I tell him we have an understanding. And I think Bayfield did convince himself that they had an understanding, that things were fine, but clearly they’re not fine. Clearly deep inside, they’re troubling. But you have cut him a little slack because poor old Florence did have syphilis, and that’s tricky. It’s a bit of a passion killer.
All of you have worked with some very fine directors and some terrible directors. Where does Stephen Frears fall into this?
HG: He comes into the category of the silent directors, and oddly enough, they have been some of the most eminent I have been lucky enough to have been cast by. So by Stephen, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and Ang Lee–
HG: I’ve never heard Stephen speaking. This is the first time I’ve ever heard him. They’re all very minimal in their approach and that may be a sign of great directing actually. Because people always expect, perhaps from the French idea of the auteur, that it’s endlessly an intense dialogue between his actors and what he wants, but what I found is it’s the opposite.
MS: Absolutely. It’s a sign of brilliance or cowardice.
For Florence, how does this film relate to class and with her spirit of money?
MS: I’m not sure I agree with it because that spirit shouldn’t live with anybody. You can’t buy out Carnegie Hall, but you certainly can sing in the kitchen and not give a damn if anybody doesn’t want you to. Specifically speaking to that time, women of privilege and education, there were not that many opportunities to put it. So they found their ranking in their importance in society in these clubs. And Florence was part of 60 of these clubs and gave huge amounts of money away and that was society. They weren’t in law, they weren’t in business—except for a few outliers—and this is where they shined. And she had a dream and she was silly and she wore ridiculous clothes but she was happy and she enjoyed her life. And I think they were happy—you told me, he was founder of Actors Equity. One of the founding members.
HG: Yeah, he was worried about the price of bit-part actors, which is what he was. It’s where it all started.
MS: It was one of those marriages, yes, underwritten by her father’s wealth.
Simon, you said before that you had nerves coming on to act with Meryl since she is such a formidable force, and Meryl, is there a way you calm those nerves when people act with you?
MS: It goes away very quickly because I can never remember what I am supposed to say, thankfully Hugh had all my lines down pact. *Mimics a British accent* “You don’t say that there.”
HG: Well I didn’t say anything when you didn’t remember lines on the first day. That would have been rude.
MS: I used to be really good and then you would have been really afraid of me. My memory’s crap.
HG: We had neighboring dressing rooms and we could hear each other moaning with anxiety through the partition.
SH: I am always in a heightened state of anxiety but I was intimidated until I met Meryl and Hugh, and then I was just moderately nervous. But both of them, to make things as great as they do, you have to even out the playing field to figure out how to tell a story. When I first met Meryl, I think she touched my face and said, “Oh there you are. We’re so lucky to have you.” And I turned around and said “Who are you talking to?” and it was it. We were just trying to play these songs.
MS: Yes it was a long script and a short shoot. So there wasn’t any fawning.
HG: But I became gradually aware that I should be afraid of him, because I knew you were in the sitcom, but I didn’t realize how gigantic it was and that really, you’re probably the richest man I’ve ever met.
Both actors showed up to the screening with a gaggle of nieces and nephews. Director Stephen Frears, who flew in from London and was also staying with family, showed up with his son, director Will Frears, who lives in Bellport. Hamptons first timer, Simon Helberg admitted to purchasing a pair of white pants to “fit in” with the crowd. Amongst additional hosts who attended the evening were renowned opera director Robert Wilson, who was joined by Candice Bergen, Bob Balaban, Edgar Bronfamn Jr., Walter Bobbie, Dick Cavett, Peter Duchin, Anne Eisenhower, Volker Schlondorff and Terry George.
The film hits theaters this Friday!