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'Total Recall's Jessica Biel Reveals How to Create a 'Kick-Ass' but 'Vulnerable' Character

The actress tells THR it was essential to balance her character's toughness and sensitivity: "If you don't care about the people going through it, who cares?"

Jessica Biel
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Although Hollywood actresses unfortunately often are forced to play love interests to much more active leading men, Jessica Biel has enjoyed a lot of great roles in which she’s kicked at least as much ass as her male counterparts. In Total Recall, which opens Friday, she faces both physical and emotional challenges playing Malena, a resistance fighter who falls for Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell) and is subsequently tasked not only with rescuing him but reminding him that the two of them are in love.

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Biel sat down with The Hollywood Reporter at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con to discuss her participation in Len Wiseman’s remake of Total Recall. In addition to talking about creating a fully formed character in a spectrum of roles that typically relegates actresses only to the extremes, she examines the opportunities – and limitations -- of independent films and studio fare and reflects on the kinds of roles that she’d like to move away from, even if she might be more successful staying with them.

The Hollywood Reporter: How difficult was it to make sure that Malena was equal to Quaid in a physical way and also ensure that there’s a vulnerability to her as well? It feels like Hollywood offers actresses only secondary love interests or ass-kickers, and there’s nothing in between.

Jessica Biel: It’s just constant care and attention. It’s constantly Colin and I, or whoever you’re working with, going, “We have to give this the some time -- let’s do that again and think of how we can make the scene stronger emotionally.” I know we have to shoot the big action sequence, but if you don’t care about the two people going through it, who cares at the end of the day?

And really, it’s your director. If Len didn’t care about a female character that was equally smart, cool, tough, kick-ass and emotionally vulnerable, emotionally sensitive and actually a woman, a real person, then you’re dead in the water. Because he, in the end, is the only person who has the ability to put it all together, and on this one particularly, he cared about letting this person be this well-rounded and real -- in a heightened sense, but a real woman.

THR: Because the film is reliant on the mystery of who the people in Quaid’s life are, how well did you have to define Malena in the first scene we see her in and how much could you hold things back for later?

Biel: It’s challenging because it’s hard to maintain the balancing act, like, “Oh, maybe that was a little too telling; let’s pull it back a little bit, or let's go a little further.” So we spent the whole movie going back and forth like that. But it’s a great treat to be able to know that you don’t have to go, “This is who I am, this is what I know, blah blah blah.” You actually have a secret, and there’s so much you want to say and so much you can’t say. So I think it felt really fulfilling creatively because sometimes the drama gets overshadowed by the fighting sequences -- and we didn’t do that. It was a real joy to work with Len, who made sure we took the time we needed to create the dialogue and the relationship and move it along emotionally and keep it the heartbeat of the movie as we moved through.

THR: How tough is it to find genre or nongenre movies that you feel like offer you a well-rounded character to play? Is it a matter of you simply transforming whatever you take on to make it challenging, or does it need to be on the page from the get-go?

Biel: No, it’s always a concern because if it’s not on the page, it’s a real question mark. The movie is made on the writing, the movie is made on the set, and the movie is made on the editing table -- you can do whatever you want emotionally onscreen, and then someone can just cut it up and chop it up. So the best possible way to start something feeling confident that you will have a well-rounded experience is for it to just be there, if possible, on the page. Because I’m not interested if something is a surface thing; unless I’m passionate about it for some other reason, I’m not moved by it. And I want to be moved. I feel like I can’t be moved unless I believe that this person really exists and the arc makes sense and where they go is interesting. But if it’s a really well-thought-out person, that’s what is exciting.

THR: Is there any difference for you between taking on big movies like Total Recall and smaller ones? Kristen Stewart recently said she learned through the process of making Twilight that you don’t necessarily have to take an independent project to be able to feel passionate or develop something independently. Has that gap narrowed to where it’s no longer like, “There’s my Sundance movie, and there’s my summer movie"?

Biel: Yeah, I think it has narrowed a bit. It really does depend on who your director is. There are some people who are able to do both really well, and they are some people who just don’t, and sometimes you find yourself in an experience where you feel like you do need to go do your independent Sundance movie. But I do feel like the maybe the gap has closed a little bit. I think that’s also because the audience requires a thought-out situation. It’s not just like, “Oh, I can just watch a bunch of action and not a real plot and no real character.” It just doesn’t work like that.

THR: Are you much of a genre fan? Do you like movies, comic books, music or something else that’s particularly meaningful to you that you pursue yourself?

Biel: I’m a huge film fan. I never grew up reading comic books or was really invested in any of the traditional comic book characters -- funny that I’m way more into it now because I’ve been exposed to so many different things. But something that I’m really into? I’m really into snowboarding, and I’m into gear, like my new tent and my new sleeping bag and my new snowboard, what it’s going to be this year and what are the new women’s snowboarding clothes that are coming out? So I’m into that kind of thing, kind of obsessed in that. Right now, I’m super-obsessed with scuba diving. I just got some new gear doing that.

THR: How important is the transformation process as an actor? How important is it to find characters that are totally different from who you are, and how important is it to find a common ground between yourself and a character that might seem totally unlike you?

Biel: The idea of transformation is exactly what I wanted to do as a little girl. When you think about being an actor and when you think about being in films, you think about the fact that you can play so many different things, and that’s where the gut passion comes from. And then you get here and you realize that physically changing every time doesn’t necessarily have to breach only that. I love an internal, mental transformation. I would love to do more physical transformations, but I haven’t had the ability in my career to necessarily have those opportunities yet, as much as I would like. I’m hoping I can do more of that in the future.

But I think it’s massively important, for me at least. To do something that’s similar to yourself, that’s fun, it’s cool, kind of like you start the process with a real safety net, like, “I feel cool here -- I feel comfortable here, so I can really put things on their head without feeling so off-kilter to begin with.” That can be fun, occasionally. But the real joy is being terrified that you are not going to able to do something that’s completely different from who you are.

THR: How aggressively can you venture outside your comfort zone? Is it hard to maintain a balance between the job security of staying within the solar system of characters that you’ve played and taking on challenges that might test your appeal to the audience?

Biel: I definitely feel like you have your wheelhouse that whether it’s your doing or not, somehow you move into a place in the beginning of your career and if you’re successful in that place, people think that “Oh yeah, that’s what you do.” So it is kind of easy -- I think I probably could do horror movies for the rest of my life and scream my head off with blood and guts everywhere and make a good living, pay my rent, put some money away for my grandkids and live a happy life. But it’s just not possible creatively. I couldn’t do it -- I would rather quit than do the same thing and be put in the same box and be told, “You do this really well, and this how you make money,” because when it comes down to it for me, it’s not about money. Even though it’s great to be paid to do what you love, I’m not going to do anything anymore if it makes me miserable. If I feel like this is the worst idea and I can’t believe they’re going to be paying me a shitload of money, I’m still not going to do it. Unless I get in trouble with the IRS or something.