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In Lila Neugebauer’s feature film debut Causeway, Jennifer Lawrence plays Lynsey, a veteran returning to her hometown from time served in Afghanistan after suffering a traumatic brain injury. While home, she meets James (Brian Tyree Henry), an amputee car mechanic facing his own journey through grief, and the two strike up a friendship.
Shooting commenced in New Orleans in the summer of 2019, but was put on pause due to inclement weather, and again because of COVID. A second phase of filmmaking began in 2021, after Lawrence, Henry, Neugebauer, and the film’s writers and producers had a chance to reassess where they wanted to center their story, cutting out all the already-shot Afghanistan flashback scenes and instead expanding the James character greatly, focusing on the budding relationship between the pair. What resulted is the film as it is today: A story of two individuals navigating their way through loss, while leaning on each other for support. THR spoke with the two actors about the process of refocusing the lens of this story and what it taught them about moving through trauma.
How familiar were you with each other’s work before coming onto this project?
JENNIFER LAWRENCE I knew Brian from Atlanta. And when Lila floated his name, I freaked out. I was like, “Would he do it?” She was like, “Yeah, I went to Yale with him.” He was the only name ever mentioned.
BRIAN TYREE HENRY Wow. Let’s see. Jennifer Lawrence, man. She’s been in this game for quite a while, and she has literally changed the game in her own way. I have been a fan of her work, her versatility, for a very long time. When this script was floated to me, Lila, of course, was the first thing that immediately made me want to jump into it. But when I was told that Jennifer Lawrence was the lead, I was incredibly intimidated.
LAWRENCE Shut up.
HENRY I’m not kidding. But I was thrilled because I wanted to get into the sandbox with her, especially with a film like this. Jen cut her teeth and literally dazzled us all with [an] independent film [Winter’s Bone]. To see her coming back to her roots to do something so understated — something so quiet and so powerful — was incredibly intriguing to me. I would have been a fool if I had said no.
Was the first time you guys met on set in 2019?
LAWRENCE No, we met around rehearsals, when the script — it was different [from] the story that Lila was trying to tell. We had a lot of discovery. I think a lot of that’s probably Lila’s theater roots.
HENRY Once we all got to New Orleans, we definitely had dinners, meetings. We were very loose with this because there’s not a lot of exposition. It’s really just about people existing in space and time. We had all this clay, trying to figure out how to make Lynsey’s world.
It sounds like the script changed a lot. And Brian, your character got much bigger. How did those conversations look during your COVID hiatus?
HENRY Honestly, the chemistry between Jen and I was so instant that I don’t know if we wanted to let it go. Jen and I have an amazing codependency that just really resonated onscreen.
LAWRENCE Thank God it wasn’t one-way. I don’t know what I would have done.
HENRY We couldn’t let the story of Lynsey go. And so, at some point, we broke the shelter in place very safely — outside, in a garden, under a full moon, lots of sage — and we just talked. We had the opportunity to go back. We were all different. We had all suffered our own losses and had to confront our own traumas. We knew that James and Lynsey had to be different. We also wanted to make sure that we added that layer of hope.
LAWRENCE Lila had an incredible instinct about telling a film that’s about PTSD entirely in the present. That also came to us after we were in editing, when we had so much footage that was shot of Lynsey’s life in Afghanistan. Once you get into the edit room, and you’re looking at this footage that doesn’t lie … We have Brian, who is just a meteor, and a revelation. And it was just so clear that the strongest part of the movie was when Brian and I were together in the present, so we just changed direction from not going backwards, literally, into time, and into flashbacks, [and instead] staying in the present.
Does that mean that the pool scene, when they have a big fight, was not in the first draft?
LAWRENCE That was in the original script, but when we went back, we reshot it. Because the fight ended up being about something completely different. We were still working out the inner workings of me and Brian’s relationship. The tension had been building. Brian hears me say that I want to go back [to war]. That’s the first time that he hears that, and we’ve just met, so it’s not like he can say, “How could you do this to me?”
HENRY James, being an amputee, has already told himself a bunch of things that he doesn’t deserve to have. Definitely one of them is swimming in a pool freely with somebody after hanging out. What I think the hardest part of that whole scene was, is knowing that because of Lynsey’s disability, which allows her to be tactless, which allows her to be brutally honest, it’s kind of that drop back down to earth for James. This, “How dare I even give myself into the possibility of having a friend that actually is going to be there and see me?” Jen and I spent several nights in that pool, [or] poolside, just trying to figure out exactly how to cut the tether.
What did each of you relate to most in your characters, and what have you learned about grief and trauma from this film?
LAWRENCE Brian’s clearing his throat.
HENRY No, I’m like, “Jen’s going first, so it’s all good.”
LAWRENCE What’s so amazing about making an indie, and not having the studio making these demands of “we need to have this scene,” and having the script at the place that it was, [is] that [it] was so apt to be broken open. That is my favorite part of my job, putting either current pain or past pain into something, and actually being able to back up certain psychologies of your character. I’ve been able to understand people who I didn’t previously understand through that process. Even though I am not a service member, and my life could not be more different from [that], I’ve certainly had my own personal traumas, or betrayal, or just shit that I’ve grappled with and has changed the way that I view myself. I think the thing that I connected the most with in Lynsey is her desire to keep moving, in order to not look at herself. It was interesting timing, because I was also making the commitment to get married. I was engaged when we made this movie. I was making that commitment to stay and to make a family and then, because of all of the elements, we go back two years later, [and] I’m happily married, I’m pregnant, I have a completely different perspective on a home.
HENRY I’ve realized over the course of my career, and the course of my life, that success and grief have been going hand in hand. The more successful I am, the louder the grief has been. Because even a success is also a reminder that there is a loss of the way things were. You’re still trying to figure out how to navigate this new life in a way, and you realize that there’s no way to go backwards. And as much as we want to go back, you just can’t. It’s just not available to you. Causeway not only forced us to drop our walls, but it begged us to do that. When these walls start to crumble, they can be like, “Oh, I am not just my trauma anymore. I’m not just my loss.” I find that most of us think that endings are the scariest part, because they’re so unknown. Endings are always going to happen. The scariest shit is actually the beginning of something. Actually making the decision to start something is truly, truly terrifying. But it is also the most rewarding.
If you were to do another film together in the future, what other kinds of roles would you like to play opposite each other?
LAWRENCE I’d have to do a buddy comedy with Brian. What was that song that you taught me in the car? (Sings.) “Don’t duh duh duh da duh, just sit and putter.”
HENRY Oh, from Funny Girl?
LAWRENCE Yeah, from Funny Girl.
HENRY I was going to say that we should remake Kramer vs. Kramer. It should stay exactly the same. To see me and Jen in a court fighting over a child, I think, would be what the public didn’t know it needed.
LAWRENCE Oh my God. Or we could just guest star on a Real Housewives episode.
HENRY Stop trying to strong arm me into this shit. I’m not going to have Kathy Hilton putting on lip gloss in the back of my scenes.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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