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Florence Foster Jenkins director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Nicholas Martin first encountered the real Jenkins on YouTube.
“Someone was playing [a video of her singing] when I walked into a room, and I said, ‘What’s that?’ And it was Florence,” Martin told The Hollywood Reporter at the film’s New York premiere Tuesday night.
Jenkins was a New York City society woman in the 1930s and ‘40s, known for her love of music and her patronage of the arts. However, she is most famous for renting out Carnegie Hall and giving a concert, even though her vocal technique was not exactly conventional.
“It breaks your heart,” Frears said of the heiress-performer’s vocal musings.
Martin added, “The word ‘unique’ is bandied around, but she is unique. There is no one like her. There’s this combination of hilarity and heartbreak, which I found very compelling.”
The screenwriter wrote the script on spec, but he always had Meryl Streep in mind to play the role of Jenkins, and when the actress signed on, Martin was floored by the amount of dedication and research she brought to the film.
“She wants to talk about the writing, and she’s involved with the writing,” he explained. “Every day we would go through what she was going to be shooting that day. It’s quite something to be able to sit with someone who says, ‘When I was making Sophie’s Choice, we had a similar difficulty and this is how we approached it.’ That’s quite something.”
For Frears, working with Streep was quite easy, but he did have some daunting demands for his actors.
Specifically, Streep and Simon Helberg, who plays Jenkins’ accompanist Cosme McMoon, had to perform all of the music live.
“It was a sadistic thing Stephen Frears did,” Helberg said, with a laugh, of the live performances. The Big Bang Theory actor said working with Streep was wonderful, intimate and vulnerable, and the two had about a week and a half to rehearse the music before shooting began.
“We had to throw ourselves into destroying the greatest pieces of coloratura in the canon,” he said. “So we held hands and jumped into the volcano.”
And Tony winner Nina Arianda — who plays Agnes Stark, a society girl who first mocks Jenkins and then comes to support her — can relate to Jenkins’ fear of a bad review.
“I hide them from myself. I don’t want to know anything,” Arianda said of critics’ assessments. “I don’t think it serves what I’m trying to do, so I ask people not to talk to me [about the reviews].”
But for Hugh Grant, who plays Jenkins’ husband St. Clair Bayfield, the story is less about the music and more about his character’s attempts to shield his wife from the public’s perception of her performances, and although Bayfield doesn’t live with Jenkins due to her syphilis, he’s devoted his whole life to protecting and caring for her.
“I just thought it was a celebration of the oddness of human life and in particular the strange deformations that love can fall into,” Grant said. “Although it comes in a very odd shape, this is really a story about love.”
Florence Foster Jenkins hits U.S. theaters on Friday.
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