June 18, 2012

INTERVIEW: Rosemarie DeWitt

by Steve Dollar

YOUR SISTER'S SISTER's Rosemarie Dewitt

To say that Rosemarie DeWitt is so good you don't notice her isn't meant as a slight. It's probably the highest compliment you can give to an actor. Few contemporary screen performers flow into character, story and scene as seamlessly as the 37-year-old Jersey gal, who began her career on the Off-Broadway stage before racking up plenty of notable credits on TV (Don Draper's bohemian femme fatale on Mad Men, Toni Collette's sister on The United States of Tara) and tons of indie cred in everything from Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married to the 2011 critics fave Margaret. DeWitt is having a very busy summer. She co-stars with Emily Blunt and Mark Duplass in Lynn Shelton's shaggy-dog sibling comedy, Your Sister's Sister, and also has a part in the gutter-mouthed alien invasion farce The Watch (with Jonah Hill, Vince Vaughn, et al). This fall, she has a key role in Nobody Walks, the third film from indie writer-director Ry Russo-Young, in which she plays a Silver Lake psychiatrist whose sound designer husband (John Krasinski) gets a little too involved with their houseguest, a 20-something filmmaker (Olivia Thirlby) who's experimenting with more than the sound mix on her movie.

DeWitt visited New York in April for Sister's East Coast premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and took an hour to chat over coffee in the upstairs lounge at the Soho Grand Hotel. She was as warm and outgoing a conversationalist as anyone could ask for. My only regret was that it was too early too offer her some tequila, which goes over very well in the movie—as one may surmise from reading Vadim Rizov's review. But we are professionals here, after all.

Your Sister's Sister

In someone else’s hands, this story could have been really clichéd.

She's got a couple of things going for her. She started out as an editor, and these movies are really hard to make sense of without an amazing editor. She has really good taste in the truth of the moment. She knows when it's honest. The premise, same with Humpday, can be a little far out. I know the premise is whacked, but what would really happen in this situation? That's really fun to play.

It was mostly improvised?

Yeah. She comes up with what she calls a "scriptment," which is halfway between a script and a treatment. Often a scene will just say "Iris and Hannah talk in bed about Iris's feelings for Jack." And you'll make up the words from there. Sometimes, there would be a scene that was scripted and that was great. Most of the time, we knew the plot points we had to get to. Sometimes we wouldn't get to them in a scene, or feel it was the wrong place to say something, so it was sort of like a team sport where we'd have to regroup after every scene. we'd huddle up and say, "What did we get across?"

Were you running through single scenes a lot?

We weren't doing a whole lot of takes. The movie was shot in 12 days. We would shoot it until we got something that Lynn was happy with. As actors wearing all those hats—you're in the scene, you're writing the scene—we never knew our names. Our brains were Jell-O at the end of the day. We had to trust Lynn implicitly.

Were you in this cabin the whole time?

I wasn't. They lost an actress a couple of days before shooting, and Lynn called me on a Saturday and asked if I wanted to do this project. I said I'd love to. I hope it shoots on the Paramount lot, because that's where I am the next two weeks [shooting The United States of Tara], and it didn't. It shot in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Seattle. Everybody was there for 12 days, but I had to fly back and forth to L.A., which meant no sleep.

That probably worked well for your character.

It was perfect. The more wrecked I was the better it seemed to work.

It was also interesting, the Mark Duplass Effect.

I like that, the Mark Duplass Effect. Like there's a thing now.

He's everywhere. He's everything. But he's not the usual Matthew McConaughey guy.

He's like a hot Albert Brooks. He really has that self-deprecating everyman quality but he's also utterly charming. You can see how these girls would get into a pickle with him.

Your Sister's Sister

Emily's not someone I'm used to seeing in this kind of film. How did she manage?

She's great. Her first movie, My Summer of Love, was a completely improvised film, so I think she had a yearning to get back to that. That way of working is so liberating for an actor. You have those lightning-in-a-bottle moments that are almost impossible to find in scripted material. I wouldn't have known on paper, we had instant rapport when we all got in a room together.

Was that real tequila?

No. That would have been a good idea!

What's different about this comedy, for you, than the usual thing you see?

I didn't know it was a comedy when we read it, and when we shot it. Lynn gave us a copy of the film to see before we did the festivals. I didn't know it was funny then, either, and then I saw it with an audience at Sundance. What are they laughing at? We were playing it all for truth. I knew Mark was really funny in it. But I didn't know it was the comedy that it ultimately became.

She's known for comedy, right?

Well, she's made three films before and the first two were not. It could go either way. We had probably 40 movies in our movie because we improvised, and she chose to mine it for the comedy and juxtapose the moments against each other, so it became quite comedic.

So you guys thought you were doing this really serious drama?

Yeah. Even now, there are scenes, like the climax of the movie, we're getting all emotional. I can't believe they're laughing at this! We're pouring our hearts out here!

It's all about tempo.

Especially these improvised movies, they're really made in the editing room.

Did you know Lynn before this?

No. What happened was, I heard, that when they were throwing ideas around, Mark said, "If Rose is available she'll do it ... because she accosted me at an airport in New Orleans because she was such a fan of Humpday." Which I was. So, yeah, that's how that came to pass.

The sensibility of the film is a nice rejoinder to the airplane-movie version.

You love the ambivalence of the ending. These characters don't resolve everything. Their flaws are still their flaws. They're changed but they don't change. Sometimes in these very glossy slick versions of these stories, the people magically transform into some perfect person and that doesn't happen here.

The same can be said for Nobody Walks, although it's a completely different kind of film. What attracted you to it?

I really loved her earlier film, and I really loved the script. Usually, it's the whole deal because you never know what's going to work, even when you work with the gods of filmmaking.

Lynn Shelton, Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie DeWitt

Even though it's about an affair, the story feels more like an observation of three women at different stages of life.

That's how we approached it, women at these different moments. For Olivia's character, it's the mess you can make of things when you don't have the vision of what the future can bring.

There's no judgment, though.

That's the real success of the film. It allowed them to be who they were. The moral compass, you couldn't find it.

How did you approach your character?

I had this image when I first read it. You know when you have a thread on your sweater? You want to pull it, but you don't want the sleeve to unravel. This time in this family's life could really bomb the whole system, or they could come out much stronger for it. You don't really know what happens with them.

Do you look for a balance of small, personal films and popcorn fodder?

Different scripts fall into your lap at different times, and usually it's the thing you need to be examining in your own life. I don't make a big differentiation between "Oh, this is a job that is going to pay the mortgage," or something I'm basically paying them to do. Neither of these movies are very heavy, but if you have emotionally taxing experiences, and then you can't help but be drawn to a comedy, which could be a studio movie where you get paid a lot. Your soul tells you what you need next. When you read a script, I don't know why, and all of a sudden you respond to bathroom humor in a way you never have before, it's because you need a break from excavating down in the depths.

Are you very Method-y?

I don't know. Actors end up with a little toolbox they take from and carry everywhere. My training was in the theater. It's interesting to talk about a movie that isn't really scripted because I typically do all my work from the script. With Lynn's movie, I got the job and I introduced myself the next day. "Hi, Mark Duplass, I'm Rosemarie DeWitt and I'm going to be taking my clothes off now and here we go." I'm still learning all kinds of different ways to work.

With or without clothing, the intimacy of these films is one of their big appeals. How did you get comfortable with that?

For that one, we were lucky. We had to take a seaplane, from Seattle to the San Juan Islands, and Mark is not a good flier. I met him on the plane and he was so incredibly vulnerable. I was talking him through it. That was our bonding time, that hour-and-change on the place. Then we sent to set and it was consistently on. That really was one night of shooting, from their introduction to the bedroom.

[Nobody Walks is playing at BAMcinemaFest this Saturday, and Your Sister's Sister is now playing in limited release.]

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Posted by ahillis at June 18, 2012 6:49 PM