Real-life roles offer dramatic, ethical challenges


In April 2005, Angelina Jolie was in Namibia, pregnant for the first time and awaiting the birth of her child.

It was a period of enormous emotional upheaval, not only because of the imminent baby, but also because Jolie had invited Mariane Pearl to stay with her. And now here she was, huddled with Pearl, director Michael Winterbottom and producer Brad Pitt, all developing a movie version (released by Paramount Vantage) of Pearl's memoir, "A Mighty Heart," about her husband's abduction and death at the hands of terrorists.

Looking back, Jolie remembers how difficult the experience was for Pearl.

"It was hard having to make her talk about so much of it and watching her walk off to her tent, looking at her and realizing: This is a woman's memory of the worst time in her life," Jolie recalls. "Watching her and watching (her late husband Daniel's) boy run around -- it was very heavy, and we all grew up with it."

Growing up is an inevitable part of the acting process and comes with any true immersion into another person's life, whether fictional or not. But it happens to an even greater extent when the role is real.

This year, a number of actresses have taken on the challenge of playing real-life people -- from Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in Picturehouse's "La Vie en Rose" to Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I in Universal's "Elizabeth: The Golden Age." Others, like Emmanuelle Seigner in Miramax's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and Jurnee Smollett in MGM/Weinstein Co.'s "The Great Debaters," have played lesser-known characters, but that has not in any way diminished the challenge they've undertaken.

Speak to these actresses and the first thing they mention is the moral responsibility involved.

"Of course there's a great responsibility," Jolie says. "The heaviest pressure was really their son, knowing this little boy would one day see a representation of what his parents were like together."

"You feel like you don't want to betray anyone," affirms Seigner, who plays the common-law wife of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of French Elle magazine whose story is told in "Diving Bell." Because of that, she says, "it is absolutely different" from playing a regular role.

Unlike Jolie, who spent considerable time with Pearl, Seigner chose not to meet her real-life counterpart, Celine Desmoulins, the jilted partner who stays at her ex's side as he lies in a hospital bed, paralyzed.

"I didn't want to meet the person I was playing, because I was afraid that I was going to imitate somebody," she explains. "I wanted to do it my own way, like if it happened to me."

At the same time, Seigner feared that if she got to know Desmoulins, she would skew her acting away from the real, whitewashing her character. "I didn't want her to be bitter, but I didn't want her to be saintly, either. I took the freedom of playing her like that because I thought it would be more interesting."

Seigner had the advantage of having known Bauby himself, thanks to the number of times he had put her on the cover of Elle. "I didn't know him well," she says, "but when (director Julian Schnabel) contacted me about doing the part, that made it very moving."

It was even more so when she did meet Desmoulins at Cannes.

"She is very different from me; she is dark and very skinny. It was very moving because she was crying, and the kids are now like adults." Desmoulins not only thanked her for the portrayal -- so did her mother, who wrote to Seigner to express how well she had captured the pain her daughter felt.

Unlike Seigner, Smollett embraced the opportunity to meet Henrietta Wells, the woman she plays in "Debaters" (renamed Samantha in the movie), who had been part of an exceptional group of African-African youths who had taken on Harvard in a debate.

"Once I'd landed the role, Denzel (Washington, the director) and the producers put me in contact with Henrietta," she recalls. "They flew all of us to meet her in Houston, and while we were filming, I went back to stay with her. I sang in her choir at church; I made her breakfast, and she made me breakfast. And I talked to her about (Melvin) Tolson, her debate teacher, and about her life. She graduated valedictorian; academically, she was clever enough to attend Harvard, but because of the times she would have never been able to go there."

Over and over, Smollett found herself drawn to the same question: How did this extraordinary woman manage to overcome all the obstacles placed in her path? "What surprised me," she remembers, "is that she said: 'We just did it. We weren't playing. We were serious, and we studied, and we were disciplined.'"

Smollett was lucky that her source's memory was "sharp as a tack. She kept everything, all her yearbooks; it is amazing to me how she is able to remember all of these small details -- like how she had to have a chaperone at night in college or she couldn't go outside. That helped me overall shape this multilayered character, not just someone who is trying to debate."

At times, though, what she learned collided with reality. A love story between Smollett's character and one of the other debaters that is a strand of the movie turned out to be fictional. Smollett admits that, at first, she was torn between the competing demands of historical truth and the screenplay. "But my director, he's done a lot of biopics before, and he definitely encouraged me to build my own thing and not worry about anything being the bible, whether it's in the script or in real life," she says. "You have to make it your own."

In making the French sparrow, Piaf, her own, Cotillard was also helped by the film's writer-director, Olivier Dahan, who seemed to be entirely in sync with her. Because of that, she says, she managed to get over one potential stumbling block that any actress playing a real-life role must confront: whether the screenplay's interpretation jibes with her own.

Rather, she had to face her own difficulty in accepting Piaf's flaws.

"There was something I was not very comfortable with, which was her very tyrannical side, and when I first read the script, it was hard sometimes," Cotillard notes. "It was an interesting part of the working process because I really had to understand her to accept that. I tried to avoid this: 'Oh no, she couldn't have been like that; it's so mean.' But by understanding her dark side, I understood a lot of things about her. And to finally have the feeling that you understand the character is really, really enjoyable."

In order to understand Piaf, Cotillard immersed herself in biographies, listened to Piaf singing and also listened to the music that Piaf herself liked -- notably Beethoven and singer Jacques Brel. Before that, "I never listened to Jacques Brel in my life," Cotillard laughs.

Better still, she found two people who had known Piaf well: Songwriter Georges Moustaki, who wrote "Milord," and Ginou Richer, who had met Piaf when she herself was 16 years old and who remained Piaf's best friend until her death at age 47 in 1963.

"She told me that (Piaf) was a very happy person," Cotillard recalls. "She was. She loved life, even if all those tragedies killed her. She loved to have fun, to laugh. She was not that dark. All this information and what I learned by watching and listening to her, by reading all those things about her life -- everything built the character inside me."

On top of this, Cotillard worked with a coach, but that work was far more about psychology than imitation.

"I really think that the most important thing is trying to understand, not trying to imitate," she says -- a point Seigner and others also emphasize. "I never tried to sound like her or move like her; I was not interested in that. I thought if I worked on the voice, on the behavior or the body language, instead of working on the inner person, I would miss something. I guessed that by watching her, by eating and drinking Edith Piaf for days, without trying to imitate, but trying to understand, it would create something alive."

Creating something alive was the very essence of what Blanchett tried to do, which was complicated, of course, by the fact that nobody had seen Elizabeth I alive in 400 years.

"Elizabeth is endlessly fascinating, but nobody really knows anything about her," Blanchett reflects. "We know a lot about her ideas and very little about her heart."

There was documentation Blanchett could turn to, but in doing so she found that she only circled the queen, rather than finding her essence.

"Elizabethan history was written by her courtiers; you can look at that, and she also wrote some poetry. The cultural blossoming of England did arise from her patronage, and that reveals something about her," she says. "In the end, you go to your imagination."

Much of the research prior to that imaginative act had been done by Blanchett when she first played the role nine years ago in "Elizabeth." She says she watched that film once more before embarking on the role in "The Golden Age," but in no way sought to imitate what she had done before.

"She is entering a new phase in her physical life where she is having to leave her youth behind and yet needs it as part of her diplomatic arsenal," she says. "It's quite different."

All these were issues she wrestled with. And then, of course, there were those times when the screenplay veered in one direction and her own reading of Elizabeth in another. But rather than regard that as an obstacle, Blanchett saw it as an opportunity.

"The actor's job in this instance is to work out what is being omitted and try to bring it into the subtextual, subterranean life of the character," she says. "Often, when you play against the line, that's when it really works."

Unlike Blanchett, Jolie was able to soak herself in the real Mariane Pearl.

From the very beginning, she felt a strong connection with her, not least because Jolie herself had spent time in Pakistan, where Pearl lived with her husband until his death. Jolie was there, working with refugees in the weeks before Sept. 11 -- and, indeed, received a warning from the State Department that she should leave because of threats Osama bin Laden was making.

When Daniel Pearl was abducted, it never occurred to Jolie that she would one day play his wife.

"I was watching anything happening in that region, as an American," she says, "and I was very affected by her when I saw her interviews and, like everybody, wondered if he'd make it home."

In those early days, "I couldn't understand how she had such grace under pressure. I couldn't understand how she was holding herself together. I hadn't yet had a child, so I didn't know the strength that can give you to carry on. But I found her fascinating; I saw her as so clear, and she had such a voice of tolerance in a time that was so dangerous, when there was so much hate. To have this woman, who had this horrible thing happen to her, speak about how there were also Pakistani people being killed and dying -- I was so happy she said that. And that was my introduction to her."

Sometime later, Jolie received a note from Pearl suggesting their children have a playdate. "I don't think she'd seen any of my films, but she had read an article about my work with refugees and thought maybe we should meet," Jolie says. "But we are both terrible at organizing things, so it took forever."

She was unaware that Pitt had bought Pearl's best-selling book; she would only find out when they worked together on 2005's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith."

"He had the book before I met him, and he and I had both become somewhat friends with her before he and I met," Jolie explains. "It was kind of odd; it actually drew us all together -- it was nice. But I had no intention ever of playing her on film. Then this idea of the film came up, and she talked to me about doing it. It didn't seem real; it was just an idea that was out there. And she had become my friend, so I found it that much more, not uncomfortable, just, I held her in such high regard that it was difficult to imagine taking it on. It became very personal."

Jolie's doubts that the movie would ever come together lifted when she and Pitt saw one of Winterbottom's films and felt he would be the right director.

"It seemed he would not make it precious, and he would make it honest and raw enough that it would feel like Pakistan -- and the situation wouldn't be that horrible (thing where) the camera comes close and a tear drops," she says.

Soon, Winterbottom was on board, and the team was hard at work in Namibia, discussing the screenplay and the character and feverishly putting the project together. A few months later, Jolie was shooting in India (and later in Chicago after a widely publicized incident involving Jolie's bodyguards and the paparazzi forced the crew to relocate).

"The hardest thing was trying to detach myself and study her from a distance and analyze it without emotion," Jolie reflects. "I got all her tapes when she spoke, during the kidnapping and after his passing away, and tried to study her voice -- it's a further complicated accent because she is French and Cuban. I felt it is difficult to find a balance: She is such a strong woman, and sometimes, when she first did her interviews, there were people who had the opinion that she should have been more emotional. I came to understand that: If you begin to cry, you can't get up anymore. Part of me really wanted people to know her as she is, but I also had to be that other person who is very strong and focused."

Pearl never came to the set. But a few weeks after the movie was finished, Jolie heard she was ready to see it. A producer took the picture to her in Paris.

"I got an e-mail from her about a week later that was just the most kind, gracious (note)," Jolie recalls. "She was happy. Happy is a strange word, but it was what she had hoped it would be, and that is all we ever wanted. It was a great relief."