Joining the red carpet premiere of Luce were actors Marsha Stephanie Blake, Naomi Watts, screenwriter J.C. Lee, and director Julius Onah.The cast spoke about challenging experiences with teachers of their own, and the ways in which they connected to the role they play in the film.
How did you and Julius Onah come to work together on this project?
J.C. Lee: “Julius and I got partnered to work together on Imagine. Julius had read my play and in the pitch meeting, he [kept saying] this play, I love this play. And I kept thinking, does this guy even want to do this movie? He keeps talking about this play. And then he spent the next three years basically hounding me and trying to make this a film and I was like no dude I’ve seen so many plays that turn into bad movies and at a certain point Julius was like: ‘what if I take a crack at it?’ And then he did and then it was incredible and we just started collaborating back and forth. We established a really clear working vocabulary— there’s a lot of trust between us. What’s beautiful about a project like this is how complicated it is. You need to work with people you can trust, who understand the vision and who are trying to make the complicated, beautiful story that you’re interested in making.”
For you, what is an essential factor in accepting a role in a film or series?
Marsha Stephanie Blake: “If I read the material and right away I have an emotional reaction, like highly emotional, truly emotional. It’s more internal than anything else and that’s when I say this is something I feel like I want to do. Also if I’m scared about doing it, if the character actually scares me that makes it something that I think I should push myself to get past, the fear. That’s a big part of it actually.”
What was the personal connection you had with the character you play?
Marsha Stephanie Blake: “I have been exposed to mental illness in my family in a way that’s not quite as extreme as Rosemary’s. When you’re doing research, you’re pulling from all over the place. You’re pulling from personal experience, you’re pulling from everything else you’re reading. I spoke to doctors, I watched videos. I did a lot of research because I wanted to get it right or as right as I could get it. Not only in portraying someone with mental illness, but that I’m honoring people with mental illness and that I’m not exploiting in my portrayal. So I pulled from a lot of places.”
Naomi Watts: “I connected with the story most importantly. I heard that Octavia was already attached to it and that made me instantly read it. And when I got to read it, it just blew me away. So dynamic, so highly charged with so many different, important themes that felt very relevant and I loved that the characters were all flawed and complicated. I loved the shifting of judgment and who we’re backing. No one is a monster or an angel; we’re all flawed. We’re all capable of behaving badly or making mistakes and I love that it’s all open for your interpretation and that the audience has to participate in a really active way.”
What elements from the play were important to preserve when transferring the script to film?
Julius Onah: “The most important thing to me was the integrity of the questions that the play was asking. This is a play that never was didactic, that never was prescriptive. I think it was really about what Jason created. He took these complicated people and by extension of that these complicated issues, and as opposed to trying to hand the audience the answer, he said no this is about what you think, this is about what you believe. And that was always my guiding principle in the adaptation, both from the writing stage and from directing on set, making sure the actors were never over indicating. There was a phenomenal group of actors as well so they didn’t actually do that but sometimes you just want to be careful with that. And also the editorial component of it. So all of those things came together to help preserve the integrity of the play and make the movie what it was.”
Can you tell us about a time when a teacher challenged you?
Naomi Watts: “I think that’s why ultimately I tend to back Harriet, Octavia’s character, because we have these fantasies that your children are going to have an amazing relationship with their teacher that will have an enormous impact in their life. And I do remember having one or two great teachers. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that school experience where I was in one place for one time so I didn’t get that kind of luxury, but I do remember some teachers that were hard on me and gave me tough love experiences, but in retrospect I can see what they were trying to do particularly with my acting teachers.”
Marsha Stephanie Blake: “You know what, I invited my teacher but she was on her way to Vegas and I was like Mrs. Hunter, you [should] come to this movie I’m in. She usually comes to my premieres. She was my 7th, 8th, and 9th grade teacher, English, beautiful woman. I mean, I think we were all attracted to her because she was just physically beautiful and had the best clothes ever but also she was just one of those people who saw potential in everyone and she pushed us and she made us believe that we could do anything. And it wasn’t just a few of us, it was our entire class, we were just in love with our teacher and it was great that we had her. She was our homeroom teacher for a good three years and to this day we’re all friends with her on Facebook and we try to hang out with her as much as we can. She doesn’t have any kids of her own so we are her kids.”
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