Jim Sheridan Gets Personal With “In America,” Inspired By His Own Family
by Wendy Mitchell/indieWIRE
Director Jim Sheridan looked no further than his own house for inspiration for his latest film, “In America” (in theaters now from Fox Searchlight.) The film recounts the experiences — both tragic and inspiring — of a young Irish family that moves to New York. Sheridan and his own family lived in the Big Apple for eight years in the ’80s, and many of the stories in the movie actually happened to him (spending too much money trying to win a doll for his daughters, hauling a huge air conditioner through traffic to cool the family’s tenement apartment). Of course, not everything is autobiographical; for instance, the dead son Frankie in the film was actually Sheridan’s dead brother, so the father character in the film is more of an amalgam of Sheridan and his own father.
The jovial Sheridan recently spoke to indieWIRE from his home in Dublin about the making of “In America,” as well as what he’s planning next.
indieWIRE: What was it like writing this script with your daughters Naomi and Kirsten?
Jim Sheridan: Of course they were disputing my version of events [laughs]. They wrote a little intro for the script that will be published, saying what I wouldn’t let them put in the story! It was my first time working with them. I felt like I couldn’t really do it without getting them to write their own versions. It was hard for me to know what it was like for them at school and stuff like that. But I think that’s the most successful part of the film, the kids’ perspective.
It’s just taking the vanity out of it. It’s not that I’m immune to vanity. I just thought it would make it look a bit better, and it would be funnier and it wouldn’t seem so vain [if it wasn’t from the father’s perspective]. Although deep down I’m deeply vain.
iW: How does your wife feel about the film?
Sheridan: She loves it, but she’s a little bit jealous of me and the kids in the film. My eldest daughter said, “Of course he prefers those kids over real kids, he can rewrite them!”
iW: After living in New York for eight years, why did you return to Ireland?
Sheridan: I went back to Ireland to make “My Left Foot.” And then my wife wanted my kids to go to school in Ireland, so we stayed. But New York is a great city.
iW: And you went to film school while you were here in New York?
Sheridan: I went to NYU film school for six weeks. In a way that was good enough, either I learned everything, or I just knew enough to know that I knew nothing [laughs].
iW: Let’s talk a bit about the casting…I think American audiences already know how great Samantha Morton is, but Paddy Considine is mostly unknown here.
Sheridan: The performances are amazing. I saw Paddy in “Romeo Brass” and I loved him. I just wanted to cast him from seeing that really. He’s very, very good. Then I met him and just cast him. I didn’t do any auditions. The first audition I did for the kids, I got those two sisters (Emma and Sarah Bolger). They’re beyond good. Martin Sheen went to see it and he said he thought the kids’ performances were the best kids’ performances he’d ever seen.
iW: What’s your attitude in working with children? Do you change your approach?
Sheridan: I think that’s what I exactly don’t do is change the way I’m working when kids are involved. I keep going like a bumbling fool. The difficulty is treating the kids just as adults — giving them the same respect. I get angry when kids aren’t treated with respect. The opening line of the film once was “this is a coming of age story. Unfortunately for me, it’s my parents who are coming of age.” Which is a good line. That’s kind of my belief, that we start out perfect and the upbringing fucks us up a bit.
I was trying to uncover the innocence in the kids. It’s not easy to direct kids, cause you just want to tell them what to do, and you don’t want to give them the freedom. And those kids were fantastic to work with, but once the little one got tired, that was it. Once they reach the threshold there’s nothing left to give. It’s not like working with adults.
iW: Do you miss your own acting days?
Sheridan: I did a little part with not a bad actor recently, a guy named Robert DeNiro. He’s okay [laughs]. He was a bit nervous working with me, but he got over it.
iW: How do you prepare your actors?
Sheridan: I don’t do a lot of actor prep. I give them a lot of freedom, but I’m very controlling at the same time. I’ve already worked out in my head all the different ways it can possibly go. I’ve improvised, and then I let them have their head and I know where it’s going. I don’t believe you can get actors to imitate or do something they don’t have intrinsically.
iW: So how did you cast Emma and Sarah Bolger?
Sheridan: There was an open audition and Emma was the very first girl. I got Emma to read, and I thought she was a bit too good, so I went to get another girl, and Emma pulled my coat really hard, and I looked ’round and she just looked at me with pity, as if I’d crossed the line of etiquette, and she said, “Is she reading my part?” I waited and looked in her eyes, and she didn’t back down, so I said, “No, Emma, nobody’s reading your part. She said, “Good, my sister’s in the car.” I said, “What age?” She said, “10,” but I thought that was too young [the older sister was supposed to be 13 or 14]. She said, “Well, see her anyway.” And I went down and cast her after three minutes. So that was the first two kids out of 300, and I never saw any others.
iW: Why the break between directing 1998’s “The Boxer” and directing this?
Sheridan: “The Boxer” was hard work, I found it really hard. It won’t be as long next time.
iW: What are you working on next?
Sheridan: I’m doing a film about an American family who are involved in politics — which is not the Kennedys. I’m writing that and I’m writing a story about growing up as a child in inner-city Dublin, which I think will be very funny.