Anne Hathaway knew James Grey’s script for her semi-autobiographical film Armageddon time, in which she played a special version of the director’s own mother. But five specific words really sold her on wanting to take on the role.
“When I heard ‘James Grey, an age-appropriate part,’ I thought, ‘Say yes, we’ll figure out the details later,'” Hathaway says. The Hollywood Reporter. “And then I read it and I found it a piece of honesty. It’s a film about moral regret and the parallels they draw between 1980 and 2022. All of that really spoke to me: wisdom, humor, warmth, sadness, violence, everything. ‘It’s really rare.’ And I met him, and after a few meetings, and after a while, he decided that I was going to play the role.
The film, which also stars Jeremy Strong, Jaileen Webb, Banks Repeta and Anthony Hopkins, is set in Queens in the early 1980s as the country goes through ominous political changes. It follows Jewish American student Paul Graff (Repeta) as he learns about white privilege and racism and is at odds with his parents, played by Hathaway and Strong.
Hathaway speaks THR About why her scenes with Hopkins made her nervous, whether she was hesitant to play a Jewish woman, and what it was like to act with Strong.
Why do you think your critically acclaimed performance resonates with so many people?
What connects us all is that we are all children. If you have reached adulthood, you are a child. And then there are a million complications that connect us, but when I think about the film, I go back to the first time I saw it in Cannes. And I remember being in the audience at the scene when he was at Corona Park [in Flushing Meadows, Queens]And they’re starting a rocket and Anthony Hopkins and Banks Repeta are having a conversation about some kids [saying] Bad words at school. I felt the whole audience’s stomach tighten – there was a collective shift in energy, we were all lining up together somehow. Then they have a straight conversation, which we’re still trying to figure out how to have in the real world. I can feel the audience recalling a moment when they wished they were braver – I certainly was. That, to me, is very much what the movie is about: the idea that you have to be your brave self, you have to stand up to bullies, you have to be a man. And it might not add up to anything, but you have to anyway.
Would you say that particular scene was particularly challenging for you to watch or read in terms of what was happening?
The most challenging scene for me in this movie was my first scene with Anthony Hopkins because I stopped acting completely. Like, I couldn’t talk like a man, I couldn’t talk like an actress, I couldn’t say my lines, I just couldn’t remember My lines I couldn’t pronounce, I worked so hard. I really, really, really couldn’t function. Actually, that day was great because I was feeling so stressed about doing a good job with it, but I just let it go. But, I’m at a point in my life where I’m starting to feel more and more sad. The people I loved so much had changed and I had to change my relationship with them to one in the here and now, there and everywhere. And that’s hard. So that part felt like the most connected scene in the film for me.
Everyone grieves differently and it can hit you when you least expect it.
I now know quite a few people who have lost their mothers at various points in their lives. And I have to say, I don’t think you ever stop grieving the loss of your parents. It becomes something you live with, but I think you’re changed by it. I took it seriously when I spoke to James – I was speaking to him for whom he was grieving.
Since we know the film is semi-autobiographical let’s talk a little about it. What was your conversation like about you portraying James’ mother?
The woman my character was based on died a few years after the events in this film, so I was always very conscious of the fact that I was talking about a tender subject with James. I’m not just talking about a character and how I want to play her. It can’t really have that kind of power. This was a role I was accepting and I found direct questions unhelpful. I found out [myself] Asking indirect questions, like sparking his memory fires – “What was your mother playing on TV while she was cooking?” Asking a simple question like He answers, but then it leads to all these other memories because memory isn’t really linear. It’s atmospheric, and all-encompassing. If I tried to get “information” from him, I didn’t feel like I was doing my job the way I should have at this point. I felt like I had to accept the part, let the script guide me, and then let James’ memory color everything. And then, once I have a real understanding of that, step into her. I remember on the first day on set I had an instinct like her. It’s a really cool feeling because people talk about the director’s power or authority, in this case the son, the power he has that you’re playing his mother; James was never interested in power. He was more of a co-conspirator. And that’s what we felt we were doing.
What kind of preparation went into the role? You mentioned your accent work earlier.
I love the line [after the family watches Private Benjamin], “Judy Benjamin is a liberated woman.” So, I said, “Okay, this is somebody [is a] A child of the 60s, the idealistic head of the PTA. They want to be part of a larger social trend towards positivity. She believes in community; She believes in all these really, really, really big things. Clearly he is interested in the advancement of women. And it’s not lost on me that I have a lot of responsibility as a Jewish woman, and I’m not a Jewish woman. I did what I think we all do, [which was to research]. In light of the fact that we’re halfway around the world, women’s history is still thought of as this niche subject, which is kind of weird. I learned all about Jewish women, like historical Jewish women. I knew she was a home economics teacher, so I studied it. But she didn’t have much material on her. James thought he had videos of her, but they don’t exist. He said he would give me all these photos from this period, but he didn’t. I finally asked him why, and he said, “Because the photo doesn’t tell you how I remember her or how I remember her. Her memory is different, I don’t want you to play photo. I need something else. ” So, we had to create this ether between us, the ether of understanding. I don’t know if that was pretentious, but it felt like it. And filmmaking and acting sometimes feel like that. It was like creating specters around us until they felt real enough to bring a scene.
Were you ever nervous about taking on the role of the director’s mother when you’re not Jewish but playing a Jewish woman?
Yes, I was afraid of how it would be received. I took it very seriously. And even though I wasn’t born a Jewish woman, I felt that I would be admired by the audience for my ability to play this role. In terms of tremors, James was really empowering. Throughout the process, I was really supported by him.
I was more worried about the impact covid would have on the craft. It’s getting better now, but here we are in the fall of 2021, and the COVID measures, while absolutely necessary, and I’m not saying anything against them, have taken at least 30 percent of everyone’s consciousness. By the time you got to all the COVID stuff, you really had to go on set and shoot or you’d run out of time. That left very little time for crafting and its construction. There was no way to rehearse in any kind of satisfactory way, really. And human interactions were to be kept to a minimum. When you are performing a required role [so much preparation], you’re making the whole thing up – she’s so different from me. And there are many small details. I felt the fear that I wasn’t going to make the part work, that it wouldn’t come in time, and that I was going to be an actor trying something and not succeeding. So, yes, I was nervous about it. But I was never afraid of playing James’ mother. He wouldn’t let me be.
Your co-star, Jeremy Strong, is known to be a method actor who goes very deep into his own process. What was it like shooting opposite him and how did the two of you bond?
I think process is another way of saying how you get there and then how you stay there. I like Jeremy’s recent answer, that is [that] The process is really about concentration and the best way you can concentrate. I don’t do well if I have a process that can only be one way because that assumes that everything goes well and that your process has enough space.
I was working on a short TV show Modern love. There was a really big seven-page scene where my character tells someone for the first time that she suffers from bipolar disorder. It was a scene full of really, really, really tricky twists and turns. And for some reason, when they scouted the location, no one noticed that we were shooting at the base of a subway station, which meant that we had a train rolling through the shot every two minutes – that is, to do the scene, we had to stop and freeze what we were doing and hold the emotion and wait for the train to pass and Then take in the scene as if nothing happened – until the next train arrives two minutes later. And we had to do that until the scene was over. If I had a dogmatic approach to my process, there was no way that would happen.
I have a flexible approach to my process that will get you there. I didn’t appreciate being in that position, but I’m an experienced enough actor to know that no matter how I feel about the situation, the work is going to end up on screen, so I shouldn’t really have any opinions about anything. was going on The next best way is to surrender and get over it. And I am very proud of that scene. I think it’s a very good job, oddly enough.
When we talk about process, when we talk about intensity, when we talk about approach, when we talk about all these things, that’s good for me. Nothing seems strange to me. What if someone likes cracking jokes right up until the moment of action and suddenly they sob hysterically? Great! Awesome! If it doesn’t work for me, I keep my distance. I have experienced it a couple of times [where] Someone wants to stay in the role the whole time. Great — no chitchat, we’ll connect between action and cut and that’ll be our relationship and maybe we’ll find each other later. All this is good. I love actors and we’re weird in the best way possible and I’m so thrilled to be in the effort.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, Click here to subscribe.