Anyone who says that actors are an afterthought in a Terrence Malick film are doing a serious injustice to the director and his work. It would be somewhat surprising to find A-listers queueing up to work with the filmmaker if he wasn’t someone who worked well with his performers, and one doesn’t have to think very hard to come up with memorable turns in his pictures — Sissy Spacek in “Badlands,” Richard Gere in “Days Of Heaven,” Jim Caviezel in “The Thin Red Line,” Q’orianka Kilcher in “The New World,” Hunter McCracken in “The Tree Of Life” — even if the landscape and imagery is just as important.
So it was no surprise to learn when we sat down for roundtable interviews in Toronto earlier this week with Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams, the female leads of the director’s latest film “To the Wonder,” that both actresses had clearly loved working with Malick. Both are impressive in the film (which we loved, bad buzz be damned), and it’s clear from speaking to the pair that they adore the director and his methods, even if much of their dialogue ended up on the cutting room floor. Read on for highlights from the interviews. Mild spoilers follow, but of course, plot is hardly the point in a Terrence Malick film.
Malick gave McAdams a personal tour of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, helping her flesh out her backstory in the process.
One of the ways that “To the Wonder” impresses is in how it’s able to sketch out backstory and its main narrative in a minimal manner. Which is not to say that it all wasn’t carefully worked out in advance. “I had spoken to Terry for maybe two years before we started,” McAdams said. And when arriving on location, the director gave a little tour of her character’s old stomping grounds. “He drove me through Bartlesville one day,” she told us, “and said ‘Maybe,’ and I love that he said maybe, not definitely, ‘Maybe you grew up in that house, you went to that high school, that’s where you met Ben Affleck‘s character. If you like that idea.’ So I got such a sense of the character and where she came from and where she was going that I could take ownership, and go out there and,” she added with a self-aware laugh, “wander the fields and see what comes.”
McAdams’ role is fairly small, and she gets as little dialogue as the rest of the cast, but she says she knew what she’d be in for. “Terry told me the role would be smallish,” the actress said, “so it freed me up to go in and have a good time, and not expect too much in that way… I think he’s a lot like a sculptor, he brings a lot of clay in, like way more than anyone would ever need, and allows the story to reveal itself to him. Which I think is beautiful, and brave. I think he’s just collecting. Collecting great things.”
Though her character is a rancher, McAdams is severely allergic to horses. But she believed that the animals were crucial to the understanding of her character, and pushed on through.
Crucial role of how to be an actor and land jobs: never say that you can’t do something. Terrible fear of heights, but need to jump out of a plane? Just say yes. Auditioning to play a getaway driver, but never sat behind the wheel in your life? Cross that bridge when you come to it. And so it was with McAdams, whose character runs a ranch full of wild horses. “I’m quite terribly allergic to horses,” the star admitted, “so it was one of those things where I was like ‘Yeah, I love horses! They love me! It’s gonna be great!’ And then I got out there, took a lot of anti-histamine and prayed that my eyes didn’t explode. My first day, I was in a corral full of wild horses, who’d never been touched by humans.”
But McAdams ultimately felt that there was something of a connection between her character and the animals. “Terry never said this to me, but to me, she was represented by those wild horses: a bit skittish, bold, brazen, but also careful, having been hurt before, and timid at times. And so full of life and love to give. And lonely. But also meant to be that way, I think, as well, in that situation by necessity, but also making a life for herself too, and being strong. So I felt like the horses were my character.”
Both actresses have their theories about what the film means.
Some early critics and audience have been left a little baffled by the film, and McAdams sympathizes. “I definitely get confused. But I like that feeling, because it forces me into something else. You’re working different muscles, you’re being asked to participate a bit more than other times, when things all make sense, and it’s all wrapped up for you, and you don’t have to ask any questions, and you don’t have to feel confused, and you don’t have to feel angry because you don’t know what something means,” she explained. “And I think it’s a really interesting way to watch a film. I think we’re out of practice with it a little bit.”
And she has her own theory on what the film is about. “I took for it to be about different kinds of love and faith,” McAdams said. “I think Javier Bardem‘s character says something along the lines of ‘Where did it go? It was just here!’ And it was so profound, and lived so deep inside, and one day you lose that, you lose your grip on that, and you lose your connection to it. And love can be the same, so often. There’s something in there about the frustration of that, seeking to get it back. I feel like maybe ‘Tree of Life’ was a different kind of relationship with God and faith and love, and maybe this is a little bit more of a microcosm, more about the love between lovers, rather than family. But I feel like they’re in the same zone.”
Olga Kurylenko also believes that the film revolves around love and loss, and offers a few more insights. “It shows love in all its forms,” the actress said. “It makes us ask questions, about what love really is. Is it a duty, a pleasure, a necessity, our destruction, an order? At some point, the priest says ‘Love is a duty,’ and that maybe it’s waiting to transform itself to another level. It almost makes you think that maybe we shouldn’t abandon it too fast, we should try and see the bigger picture, and try to open up to something bigger, and not suppress our feelings. That’s what Ben’s character understands in the end, but it’s too late. Maybe at that moment he starts living, but he has to go through a destruction. Sometimes you have to go through a lot of pain to learn about a bigger, beautiful truth, and how to live life. It’s learning it the hard way. People that have easy lives, they don’t really learn anything.”
Filming of scenes in Paris was interrupted by autograph hunters.
But “To the Wonder” is just about love being soured. The film’s opening moments with Affleck and Kurylenko in Mont Saint-Michel and Paris, are among the most out-and-out romantic in Malick’s filmography, with an easy intimacy between the two stars. As Kurylenko says, much of this was down to the director. “That was under Terry’s supervision that was the way he wanted us to touch,” she said of the body language with her co-star. “He told me that my character had to be candid and insolent at the same time, for him that was important. He also told me that I was shy, that I was almost afraid to touch someone I loved. He always told me, ‘Try to avoid looking at him in the eyes.’ “
Still, filming in Paris had some headaches that came with it. “Those scenes on the bridge, the Pont Alexandre III, nothing was blocked, nobody knew we were gonna come, they just put the camera on the shoulder, and we walked through crowds of tourists. How we pulled it off, I don’t know, there were 400 people screaming for Ben’s autograph, which is so disturbing. But we just did it.”
Malick encouraged Affleck to be cool towards Kurylenko even when they weren’t filming in the rockier periods of their relationship.
Both actresses say that they were unaware during filming of any of the alleged parallels with Malick’s own life, and Kurylenko says that she’s lucky enough that she didn’t have to draw from personal experience from the part: “I’ve been lucky, I’ve not had the same experience. Although I lived this movie, so I basically did. The ground was really made by Terry, he made it so real and so present that I didn’t really have to go look somewhere, it was right there.”
Indeed, Malick went to Method-like lengths to make it real and present. “He made Ben be so cold and distant with me,” Kurylenko shared, “that it was just heartbreaking. All the time, we stayed in character all the time. You never known when it’s coming back, you have to carry it constantly in you. You don’t know when the next fight is going to be, when the next time he’ll push me away, or not pay attention, and I had to constantly seek for his love, look for his love.”
“To the Wonder” is still looking for a U.S. distributor.