While also assuming the most compelling draw — from casting to the just-aired fifth episode — on the second season of “True Detective,” actress Rachel McAdams forms the emotional bedrock of Antoine Fuqua’s newest film, the boxing drama “Southpaw.” A tale of a father trying to regain custody of his young daughter, it owes this to Jake Gyllenhaal and McAdams. Both play Bronx-bred orphans who grew up together, fell in love, and now operate as an efficient team — he as the boxing pro, she as the strategic brains behind the operation.
Fair warning: a glance at the trailer is quick to spoil why McAdams isn’t around for long, but rest assured it’s a plot point that’s earned in the actual film. Regardless, you can catch plenty of McAdams elsewhere in one of her diverse projects over the past few years (“To The Wonder,” “A Most Wanted Man,” “Passion”), or one of her intriguing roles in future (Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight”, a possible spin in the Marvel universe). We got the chance to speak with McAdams recently in Los Angeles about all of this, starting with that pull between character and story in the genre-heavy narrative of “Southpaw”.
At its core “Southpaw” is a classic sports narrative, and it could be easy to see your character, Maureen, as a plot device, or simply a catalyst for Jake’s journey. After seeing the film you realize that’s not the case, but how was it opening up that role with Fuqua?
It definitely expanded. We got in there and realized just how important her role in the family life was going to be to propel the action in the film. It kind of grew as we rehearsed. But there’s so much to jam in; I was thinking “Southpaw” really seems like three films. I sort of understood along the way that Maureen needs to be in it a hell of a lot longer, or it almost needed to be a little more succinct, unfortunately. But that was the nature of how much there was to cram in — I loved the character but I also knew there was a certain practicality to what needed to be explored.
You took a step back several years ago to reconsider the kinds of projects you took on. Do you feel you’ve been hitting that variety you wanted?
Yeah, I mean this year has been particularly interesting. I’ve really gotten to play a lot of different things, starting with “Southpaw.” For “Spotlight,” I got to play this amazing journalist, Sacha Pfeiffer, who worked at the Boston Globe when they broke the story about the sex scandal in the Catholic Church. I got to spend some time with her. In the midst of that I also got to do my first animated film, “The Little Prince,” a book I adored, and then I went straight from “Spotlight” into “True Detective.” And to even be dabbling in TV was really exciting. I hadn’t done TV in what felt like a million years.
How was it then riding straight into “True Detective”?
Really liberating. It was so creatively satisfying that I was kind of on cloud nine when I went home every night. Rather than taking the darkness home with me it all sort of stayed on the playing field. Colin [Farrell] and I talked about that a lot, that we were just like little kids enjoying the process, and pleasantly surprised that we weren’t wallowing in the muck every day.
Speaking of that, when was the last laugh that you remember having on that set?
Well, my character spends the bulk of her time with Colin in the first episodes, and he’s just a delightful guy, really playful. So with him, definitely. And Nic [Pizzolatto] is actually a very funny guy — he enjoys keeping it light, too. It was the antidote. You kind of had to find the levity every day.
When you first spoke with Pizzolato about your character [Detective Ani Bezzerides], what was the scope of his explanation? Did he explain a specific arc to your character?
He had tons to tell me, which was such a blessing. Usually you find the character as you go along, but he had so much to give me to start with. He gave me this great summary of Ani that was really extensive — it was two pages, single-space typed, an overview, but so detailed, specific, and rich. And then that was just the tip of the iceberg. After that we had many conversations about who she is and how she became that. He talked a lot about her solitary ways, that she’s a real island more than anyone else.
When did you enter the show?
I was just finishing up “Spotlight” in Toronto — I finished it on a Tuesday and started “True Detective” on a Friday. So I was missing rehearsals unfortunately, which I hate, and why I never like to work back-to-back. But Nic called and said, “It’s too bad that you’re missing this, we’re really getting to dig into this with everyone. But I also feel like, in a way, if any one of you was going to miss rehearsals, it would make sense for it to be you, because Ani doesn’t connect to people. Maybe it works this way.” And it did — I came in and felt like I was behind and a little bit of an outsider.
We also talked a little bit about Ani having such a moral compass, she was kind of the one really seeking out pure justice, and trying to not to complicate that. Ani holds herself to higher standards than she does the rest of the world, and those standards are already almost impossible to meet. We talked about the guilt and shame and reactionary behavior that she inflicts, mostly upon herself, to deal with that. Those are just a few of many, many points.
Did he mention any characters or situations from reality that tied in with Ani’s situation?
That, I think, he wanted to keep to himself. That’s just a guess, I don’t know for sure. I didn’t ask if she was based on any particular people. But we talked a lot about her full name, Antigone, and I probably read further into that than I maybe should’ve. He always keeps a little bit of mystery too, which allows you to make the character your own. He always holds back just enough that you can take ownership.
“Southpaw” opens in theatres on July 24th.