Dying Wishes and A Love Triangle; Polley, Ruffalo, and Speedman on “My Life Without Me”
by Wendy Mitchell
The plot of Isabel Coixet’s “My Life Without Me” — a young mother
decides not to tell her family she has terminal cancer — has all the
trappings of a Lifetime movie. But the execution of the film doesn’t stray
into that territory, thanks to Coixet’s guidance and the subtle performances
of the film’s three stars, Sarah Polley, Mark Ruffalo, and Scott
Speedman. Polley plays Ann, a young blue-collar worker that has two
young girls with her husband Don (Speedman). When Ann is diagnosed with
cancer, she stands by her husband but also embarks on a passionate affair
with a stranger, Lee (Mark Ruffalo). Though the film is a tearjerker, it
also has its uplifting moments. indieWIRE managing editor Wendy Mitchell
caught up with the film’s three stars during the Toronto International
Film Festival. “My Life Without Me” opens today from Sony Pictures
iW: Why did you want to take on the role of Ann?
Sarah Polley: I read the script, along with every other actress in
the world. It got sent to me, I just fell in love with it. I read it about
four in the morning, and I had a bit of a breakdown. I just really, really
wanted to play the part. There are always actresses that I could think of
that could play it better than me, but there was something personal that I
could bring to it. I talked to Isabel on the phone, and we arranged to meet
in New York, it happened very naturally.
iW: How do you begin to prepare for an emotional experience like
Polley: It involved a couple of months of preparation, which was
really like a depression for me. Actually doing it wasn’t as difficult, then
it became practical. Ann herself doesn’t feel sorry for herself, she doesn’t
have a long wallow period, she is very practical and she has a lot to do, so
that’s what she focuses on. So my personal wallowing happened before the
film. In terms of preparing for it, I don’t generally like to use my life to
inform a role, I feel like it cheapens your life, it cheapens your
experience. But with this it was inevitable that those connections would be
made with my personal life, whether I wanted to or not, because my mother
died of cancer when I was very young. I’ve seen it from the kids’ point of
view. It was very rewarding and cathartic for me to see it from a mother’s
point of view, and realizing how much hard it is on the mother than it is on
iW: How did you get into that maternal mentality?
Polley: It was a credit to Isabel [Coixet, the director]. I’m
very, very close with my nieces and nephew, they are probably the most
important thing in my life. I spend a lot of time around kids, I love kids.
I’ve always wanted to have kids, so that felt like the most fun part. That
was the most exciting. But I took it seriously, and I was worried that it
wouldn’t be convincing to see me as a mother. I developed strong
relationships with those kids before we started shooting so that really
iW: How do you keep a movie about a subject matter like this from
getting too maudlin or sentimental?
Polley: Because I think the key to Ann is that she’s not someone
who’s going to cry through the movie, she’s going to take action, she’s very
practical. She doesn’t have much time to get things done. As long as we
focused on the pragmatism, it wasn’t going to get maudlin. There’s fantasy
and romance and a fantastical tone to it, so that helped not make it so
iW: How was the shoot?
Polley: It was really fun and great and easy, and I can’t really
explain that (laughs). I find that the more intense and difficult and
heart-wrenching the project is, the more fun the shoot. Maybe that’s because
I’m a sadistic person, but I love this kind of material.
iW: Do you still carry parts of this role with you?
Polley: I didn’t walk away from this unchanged. It adds a kind of
gravity to your life, to just live with the idea for a few months of what
you’d do if you only had two months to live. It inevitably gives gravity to
most decisions you make. It was really formative.
iW: Were you nervous about doing the cancer victim genre?
Mark Ruffalo: This isn’t a movie of the week. It’s really
unflinching and unsentimental and even funny. I read the part of Lee and I’d
never gotten to play a man with such gravity to him. It’s something I’d
always wanted to play. He only has 8 scenes, but he has quite a journey to
make in those eight scenes. The writing doesn’t necessarily demark it as a
journey. It points to one.
iW: Was that a challenge for you?
Ruffalo: Yes, it was an interesting challenge. How do I make what
he goes through play in the limited number of scenes, and make him a living
breathing character? I made sure that he had a little bit of movement in
each [scene]. The character that you see in his first scene is very
different from what we see in the last scene. That’s an interesting acting
iW: One thing I found interesting is that we see Ann in love with
Ruffalo: And they are both great guys.
iW: Yes, and she’s still a good person.
Ruffalo: It doesn’t indict her.
iW: Being married yourself, and believing in the sanctity of
marriage, how was it playing “the other man”?
Ruffalo: People are together for all different reasons and
sometimes relationships stop working. People change, and I have no judgment
about that. Also, she’s dying, she gets a “get out of jail free” card. It’s
odd: when people are dying, all bets are off. It becomes very clear where
you should be and where you shouldn’t be when you are facing your
iW: You’ve faced mortality with your brain tumor. Did that help
you relate to “My Life Without Me”?
Ruffalo: I could understand the movie that way. It was the first
job I had coming back from my illness and I just read it and said, “I get
this. I have to be part of this movie.”
indieWIRE: Why were you attracted to this role of Don?
Scott Speedman: What attracted me to this guy was that he was a
pretty simple man, but there were some traps playing this part. I think a
lot of people were looking at [the character] like he was a deadbeat dad and
not the most responsible fellow but I saw him as a very loving guy.
iW: He has a good heart.
Speedman: I think his fault would be that he may take his wife for
granted a little bit, he thinks she’s gonna be around forever. I think he
thinks there’s no way they won’t be together. I think he’s just been with
her since they were teenagers and he loves her unconditionally. He’s pretty
satisfied living in that trailer. I was attracted to how simple it was.
iW: One thing that I felt was unique about this film was that it
is a love story between you and Ann but then also her and Lee, yet that
doesn’t really diminish her love for you.
Speedman: What she does with another guy isn’t about not loving
me, it’s about the fact that she’s dying and she wants to know what it feels
like to fall in love again.
iW: going into a role like this, do you prepare? Did you read the
short story that the film is based on [Nanci Kinkaid’s “Pretending the Bed
is a Raft”]? Did you talk to Isabel [Coixet] a lot?
Speedman: I tried to hang out with those kids. I did a lot of work
getting ready. I drove up to Vancouver by myself. I kind of spent a lot of
time by myself. I was pretty serious about spending time with those kids
because I thought it was important to get across that we were actually a
iW: What did you learn from Sarah and Mark and what did they learn
Speedman: I don’t think they learned anything from me [laughs].
Sarah and Mark were the real reasons why I initially wanted to do this
movie. I can’t really put into words what I learned from them. I was happy
to have a beer with [Ruffalo] and pick his brain about stuff. I learned a
lot to keep following what I want to do. And acting with Sara — she takes
things to another level. If you have the right actor you can go to another