George C. Wolfe won a Tony Award for directing Tony Kushner’s epic saga “Angels in America” and another for directing “Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk.” When he finally stepped behind the camera, it was for an HBO TV movie called “”Lackawanna Blues.” His only other film directing credit is the Richard Gere-Diane Lane romance “Nights in Rodanthe.” But now Wolfe has sat into the (film) director’s chair once again for “You’re Not You,” which opens today, October 10, in limited release.
“You’re Not You” focuses on Kate, a young professional woman who is stricken with a sudden diagnosis of ALS. Emmy Rossum plays her caretaker Bec, a college drop-out who responds to an advertisement and is just looking for a job. The two women are an unlikely match, but the bond that forms between the two creates an intimate relationship that then surpasses all others in Kate’s life. We sat down with Wolfe earlier this week to chat about turning from theater to film once again, and working with two incredibly talented actresses on an emotional roller coaster of a film.
What made you want to direct a film again?
I was intrigued by this incredible emotional intimacy between two women. I found that really fascinating, that you can form these incredibly intense bonds with people that do not have at their base a sexual equation, but they have everything else. There’s intimacy, there’s support, there are fights, there’s needing, there’s identity, there’s getting what you need from a person and not getting what you need, and I just found it really compelling and fascinating that it happened between two women. I was intrigued simply because of the nature of the story.
I know you have tons of theater directing experience, but tell me about your film directing experience.
The first thing I did was “Lackawanna Blues,” for HBO. Which was great, because I just called about every actor I’d ever worked with in my entire career.
I’m sure they were totally all on board too.
Oh, absolutely! I used about 15 years worth of favors, so I have to go back and do some more theater work so I could call in more favors. Then “Nights in Rodanthe” was sort of fun. It’s very interesting because my theater work is very hard and very political and of a certain kind of scale, but the film work I’ve done has been much more intimate. And I find that fascinating. Next thing I do will be hopefully something completely different, I like to use as many different muscles as I possibly can. Then all of a sudden this thing [“You’re Not You”] comes along. Oh, intimacy! Two women! Disease! I was also very intrigued by how in some strange way when an absolute comes into your life, like illness, it forces you to redefine everything else. All the cosmetic truths you’ve been operating from fade away, because there’s an absolute truth, which is illness — potential death. A brutal, brutal disease. Just by the very nature of the absoluteness can oftentimes bring about personal transformations. That I found intriguing as well.
What of your theater skills do you think helped you in your film directing process?
You use everything you can! With actors, I have very close, intense working relationships with actors in theater. I spent 12 years running the Public [Theater], so I know how to dissect material, and look at material and go “Oh, this isn’t clear and this isn’t clear.” I don’t find it that different. When I did “Lackawanna” I had this sort of theater to film dictionary playing in my head.
Was there anything from your previous films that you brought to this film? Anything you remember where you said “I’m not gonna do that this time” or “I’m definitely gonna do that this time”?
I think unconsciously you do, but not consciously. I have this thing, an audience can tell when they’re in the presence of a truth. If you try to recycle old truths, they can smell it. I try to bring my skill set in terms of working with actors, visuals, texts, all that other sort of stuff, and also my knowledge of just living on the planet for X number of years. But then, I try to make myself as vulnerable as I possibly can to each story, so I can find which pieces of me can show up, and which pieces of me can’t, if that makes any sense. There’s certain projects where my edge, and my “New York get the fuck out of my way” self can’t show up, because the material doesn’t require it. So I think: “which pieces of me will tell this story, and which pieces will get in the way?” That’s how I approach the material: “How can I use this as effectively in the story? Oh and I’d bring this in, but I can’t.”
Tell me how you like to work with your actors. Is there any different approach you take to different mediums?
It’s not that different! You adjust what you do depending on the actor. You evolve a vocabulary and a way of language and talking with each actor. The vocabulary I evolved working with Hilary [Swank] is different from the one when I was used when I was working with Emmy [Rossum]. Each actor, every single time you work with an actor, you have to come up with the language that’s going to serve them. And that’s what allows them to give the performance that you want to nurture inside of them and what you think they’re capable of giving. And you need to figure out what sort of environment or way of talking you need to craft so that they can be brilliant. And I do that in theater, I do it in film. I did a play last year with Tom Hanks, Maura Tierney and a bunch of other actors. For each actor I had — there were 15 people in the cast, and I had about 15 different ways of talking to the actors because they each bring different understandings to the role. I don’t think I have a pattern because I don’t like working that way. I need to find out what’s going to nurture and empower the actor so they can do what they need to do.
How involved were you with casting? How did you go about choosing who was going to play these parts?
I cast every role. Hilary was already involved, and then we went through a process — sometimes it was auditions, sometimes calling and meeting people, or whatever. I was involved in sort of assembling the tapestry of people involved. I’d worked with Marcia Gay Harden in the past, so it was great to work with her. I worked with Loretta Devine in the past who was good to work with. There were a number of people where it was “I know them, I know them, I know them.” It was calling upon actors I’d worked with and actors I’d never worked with before. Like Emmy, I’d never worked with her. But I adored working with her.
Tell me about finding Emmy. Since Hilary was already attached, finding the right person to act alongside Hilary and form the other half of this relationship must have been important.
Tons and tons of people were desperate to do this role because it’s a young, strong, smart, confused woman. [Laughs] And I think it’s a good role. Emmy came in and we talked and worked some, and she was dazzling. There was an interesting chemistry between she and I as a director and an actor. It was perfect, ultimately it was sort of the perfect pairing. I can say that with a certain amount of pride, even though, you know. They were perfect together. And they complemented each other beautifully. And they worked really well together.
Is there anything you like or dislike about each of the mediums? Obviously you’ve done tons of theater and have this handful of film work. Are there any details of each of them you love and/or hate?
It’s fascinating. I remember when I was first doing “Lackawanna Blues” I thought “Oh, shit. I like this.” [Laughs] Theater at the end of the day is about ideas. It’s about very large ideas. And if the play is beautifully written or smartly written, and has incredible characters you follow on the journey, you take home these larger ideas. Whether it’s “Angels in America” or “Lucky Guy” or “Normal Heart,” you follow this moment-to-moment journey as an audience. So in many respects, it’s a very primal, very intimate journey. And that’s really thrilling to be a part of.
When you work on a film, to me the projects I’ve been involved with up ’til this point in time, it’s very intimate and very behavioral. There’s always a push between the idiosyncratic nature of individual actors versus the form of what the thing is. “Nights in Rodanthe,” because a little damn love story, or it’s because there’s a disease floating around. The challenge is to get at the thing that’s underneath the thing that’s underneath the thing, so that you’re illuminating human behavior. So I’m like an anthropologist who’s like a scientist in some respects. The anthropology is crafting this community of actors that are inside of this form that are gonna share this experience with an audience. The other one, it’s taking these fragments and making sure you explore as deeply and in as complex a way as you can.
Do you have plans to direct more film?
Yep, I have bunch of stuff in the works, so we’ll see!