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This story first appeared in the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
They sit atop most prognosticators’ lists of the top Best Supporting Actress candidates, three mothers to remember. There’s Holly Hunter in Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick,” fiercely protective of her comatose daughter Emily (Zoe Kazan), in a fictionalized version of the actual romance between co-writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.
Allison Janney in Craig Gillespie’s “I, Tonya,” the seemingly true story of the pugnacious and scandal-ridden figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and the mother who used verbal and physical abuse to push her daughter toward greatness, regardless of the toll it would take.
And Laurie Metcalf in writer-director Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” a perpetually worried mom engaged in what sometimes seems to be an endless battle with her headstrong and arty daughter Christine, a.k.a. Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan).
All three movies are dramatic, touching and funny, and all three performances peel back the layers of one of the most complex and fundamental experiences of the human condition. As Janney said, “There is no relationship that is more important or more potentially effed-up than the mother-daughter relationship.”
Caution: Toward the end of the story you’ll encounter some spoilers, particularly for “I, Tonya.”
As actresses, you’re obviously often called upon to play mothers — in fact, Allison, you star in a TV show called “Mom.” But I imagine that motherhood isn’t often as central to your characters as it is in these movies.
HOLLY HUNTER I feel like I’ve played mothers my entire career. I mean, I started out wanting to be a mother in the worst way in “Raising Arizona,” and that was very central to the character. I played “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom,” that was a mother who was willing to have people killed for her daughter. Quite central.
LAURIE METCALF “The Piano.”
HUNTER “The Piano,” very much a mother. For me, motherhood and the realm of the female are intertwined, obviously. It’s always a part of the expression when you play a woman: Do you have children or not? So the commonality of us, it doesn’t feel so odd to me. It doesn’t feel particular serendipitous. It feels like life.
ALLISON JANNEY I’ve played a lot of mothers, too, and there are as many mothers as there are snowflakes. I could play mothers for the rest of my life and never repeat one. But I think this one was one of the most complicated and brutal mother-daughter relationships I’ve played.
What was your reaction when you got these scripts?
JANNEY My dear friend Steven Rogers wrote this role for me. We went to the Neighborhood Playhouse together in New York City many years ago. He’s written many roles for me in his other movies over the years, and I’ve never gotten to play any of them because they always were cast with a different actress.
So when he told me about this, he said “Ooh, I’m writing you a doozy of a part right now.” I said, “What is it, what is it?” He said, “Well, you’re gonna play Tonya Harding’s mom, and you get to wear this ratty old fur coat and have a bird on your shoulder. And you’re an alcoholic, crazy, abusive mother.” I said, “Oh, my God, that sounds fantastic.”
METCALF For me, I identified right away with the central mother-daughter battle that was on the page, because I had a teenager at home at the time, and I was basically going through the same thing. So that was very clear and doable. And also Greta wrote in the other side of the character, so that these battles didn’t have to be the be-all and end-all — that every time the mother and daughter were present together, it wasn’t, ‘Who’s triggering who, and who’s passive-aggressive this time?’
Greta found some soft spots, sometimes when they were on the same page together. And those go a long way with the audience in giving a backstory.
HUNTER It’s so interesting in film how little gestures have such an impact. I was very aware of that in “The Big Sick,” not with my daughter, but with Kumail Nanjiani’s character. I knew that any rejection that I made of him in the beginning of the movie would be seismic. This is his story, so any injury that I perpetuate will have lasting resonance.
Holly, you’re not playing the real mother of [co-writer] Emily Gordon, but the character is in a way based on her. And Laurie, there’s obviously some of Greta Gerwig’s mother in your character. Did you try to learn about the real mothers behind these characters?
HUNTER No. For me it’s fiction. I like fiction.
METCALF I met Greta’s mom when we finally went up to shoot in Sacramento, toward the end of the movie. But what cemented the fact to me, weirdly, that I was playing a real person was a rehearsal day at Greta’s apartment in New York before we ever started filming. She brought out a box filled with mementos from her high school years. Her diary. Programs from plays she was in. Pictures of her best friend. Pictures of her family. And it just clicked to me that yes, this is real. It’s fiction on the page until all of a sudden it isn’t.
HUNTER For Ray Romano’s character and mine, it was imaginative. We were the departure for the movie. The farthest that Kumail and Emily went in the story toward fictionalizing people was Emily’s parents. So there are similarities, but one of the cool kind of liberations of the project was that we were all free from any obligation. Which I appreciated, because I like the realm of the imagination, of making things up. Then it’s a different route to reality, I guess.
Allison, you’re not just playing a fictionalized version of somebody’s mother — you’re playing a real woman who was in the news, which is a very different thing.
JANNEY Yeah. And yet she is a version of what Tonya Harding says her mother is like, and Jeff Gilooly also had very specific opinions about LaVona. And other people went on record about how LaVona used to hit Tonya at the skating rink. So there are a lot of different people’s eyewitness accounts, and their versions of who this woman is.
Since we didn’t have the luxury of finding her or being able to interview her, Steven wrote some things that we don’t necessarily know are true — but, you know, artistic license. And then I stepped in. In some ways, I was glad I didn’t talk to her. I think I would have been afraid to talk to her.
I tried to find footage. I used whatever I could, and then just took off from there and worked on those scenes as if it was a totally fictional character. I just had to figure out what caused her to act the way she did, and it was, “I want my daughter to be the best that she can be, and I don’t care what I have to do to get there. I know that she performs at her best when she’s pissed off.” And that was a concept that I understand really well, because I perform well when I’m pissed off. If someone says, “You can’t do that,” I’m like, “Oh, yeah? Watch me do it.”
I want to ask about specific scenes from each of the films. Laurie, in your case, you have that amazing scene toward the end of the film where you don’t say anything — you’re just driving out of and into an airport.
METCALF I was kind of left brain/right brain on that day. Half of me was just trying to get the emotional part of the little story in the drive-around. And the other half was technical. The camera’s mounted on the hood of the car. I can’t quite see around it, but I’m really driving. Other cars in front of us, police cars on either side to keep people from cutting us off.
And then trying to tell the silent story of what’s going on about leaving your daughter behind in the rearview mirror. So it was challenging to meld those two things together. But in film, it’s always a mix of keeping the emotional story present and hitting that mark.
Holly, let’s talk about the scene in the comedy club where your character shuts down the heckler who’s going after Kumail.
HUNTER That was not originally in the script. That was a collaborative process of figuring out what we needed at that point in the story. They said, “We need to go back to the comedy club.” And I said, “What am I gonna do in the comedy club? My daughter’s in the hospital. She’s going to have surgery. Why am I going to the comedy club?”
But they needed a set piece — it was time for the movie to return to the comedy club.
Your character shares the same reluctance to go — it’s part of the build-up to the scene.
HUNTER That was one of the scenes where Ray and I brought ourselves to it. Ray really wanted to go, and I really didn’t. OK, the characters love each other. He didn’t want to be alone, I didn’t want to leave him by himself. All those compromises felt like the history of a couple that had been together.
Allison, there’s a scene near the end of “I, Tonya” where LaVona comes to see Tonya after the Nancy Kerrigan incident, and we think we know exactly where that scene is going — it’s going to be a reconciliation where we see that mom loves her and is sorry for the way she treated her.
JANNEY Yeah. Yeah.
And then we find out that LaVona is secretly taping Tonya to get an admission she can sell. It completely short-circuits our expectations. JANNEY That was a really hard scene to play. I played it a couple of different ways, and I finally decided that LaVona goes there to get her daughter to admit that she did it on tape. And in order to do that, she has to show a side of herself that she doesn’t ever show Tonya, which is the side that says, “I’m proud of you, you did good.”
I think she actually does mean that. But coming from an abusive family herself, she doesn’t know how to show love. So when Tonya hugged her, it made her so uncomfortable that she didn’t know what to do with her hands, so she just reached in her pocket and turned on the tape recorder and asked her the question. I mean, it’s a twisted scene.
You’ve all done a lot of television. Do you find that there are more and better roles for women over, say, 45 on television than in film?
HUNTER Well, I will say this: I did the television series “Saving Grace.” It was a great role. Loved that part. It was a celebration of a woman over 50 who never even mentioned her age. She had sex with anybody she wanted to. I was an ageless female on screen, and it was so much fun for that not to be part of the conversation.
And when I finished the show in 2010, I had a rude awakening when I went back into the real world. The feature film world was like, “Yeah, we don’t need you, honey.” It was difficult to realize how there was no demand for what I had to offer. And to a degree, it’s still like that. Let’s face it, the world of feature film is not forgiving to a woman over the age of 40. And I’m almost 60. Television offers women far more content. And then something comes along like “Lady Bird,” or “The Big Sick,” or “I, Tonya,” or Fran McDormand in “Three Billboards.” You get the richness of women over 40 expressing things. It’s enriching to the culture.
JANNEY Right now, especially, there are so many great roles for women on television. I was just talking to Nicole Kidman about “Big Little Lies,” and how she and Reese created that because they weren’t getting the roles they wanted on film. It’s an unbelievable time for women on television.
And I think, thanks to certain directors — I’m thinking of Paul Feig, who I love so much, and Judd Apatow — who realize the gold mine there is in female-driven movies, hopefully that will become a reality in movies just as it is in television.
It does feel as if we’re at some sort of tipping point …
JANNEY Yes, it does.
… where the dangers and abuses that can happen in an industry in which men have all the power are becoming increasingly apparent.
JANNEY I do think we’re at a point where things have to change, especially in light of everything that’s coming to the forefront now. The abuse of power is pandemic, not just in Hollywood, but all over the world in every industry. It’s something that has always been a reality, and to think that we could be on the precipice of great change would be incredible. I hope we can move through it and change as a culture.