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The way Mamie Gummer tells it, there could be no other way — she was always going to play Meryl Streep’s daughter Julie in Jonathan Demme’s new film, “Ricki and the Flash.” It was an easy fit, really, because Gummer just so happens to be Streep’s daughter off-screen, too.
There’s no doubting the pair’s relationship — Gummer is the spitting image of her mother, and she speaks in the same calm and thoughtful tone that Streep often uses — but it wasn’t some kind of gimmick, because Gummer doesn’t just hold her own against her mom in the film; she steals the show.
In the Diablo Cody-penned dramedy (with generous dashes of musical elements), Streep plays the rocking Ricki, a middle-aged cover band chanteuse who left her family behind to pursue her on-stage dreams — a plan that didn’t really work out for any of them. When her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) requests that Ricki return to Indianapolis to help heal up their recently heartbroken daughter Julie (Gummer), Ricki doesn’t really have a choice.
What Ricki finds back home is a devastated, dirty and really pissed off Julie, a shell of her former self who isn’t very interested in whatever her erstwhile mom is selling. It’s a tricky role, one that required Gummer to temper her humor and embrace her own demons, and which she pulls off with real grace.
Indiewire recently sat down with Gummer to chat about the film, an interview that she started in an appropriately Julie fashion: in a bathrobe.
Gummer spends most of the film in a ratty set of pajamas, and while Gummer’s bathrobe was a product of necessity — the room where interviews were being held felt similar to an icebox — it did seem to remind her of her wardrobe in the film. “It was so liberating, really, to just fully embrace the mess. If I could, I would go about life in a bathrobe,” Gummer said.
“It’s sort of harder to be your most free and honest self when you’re feeling restricted, which is so often the case when you kind of have to be coiffed and corseted, pulled tight.”
Eventually, Julie does clean up a bit, though her makeover comes with an unexpected new accessory: Long, shellacked and bedazzled acrylic nails. Gummer loved them. “It’s a perfect metaphor for her state of mind,” the actress said. “She’s got her kind of metaphorical claws out, and she’s just sort of pushing boundaries and testing. She wants to see what she can do.”
Those details help round out the role, but Gummer also had her own experiences to bring to the part. Like Julie, Gummer went through her own divorce at a young age. “There are some personal, overlapping things, and it felt really nice and liberating to just sit in it, to live with it, and to acknowledge it,” Gummer said.
But while she didn’t balk at bringing those experiences to the film, she discovered that she didn’t necessarily need them. “I found that the more I tried to really call up my own life and inject my experiences into it, kind of the further that I went from her and from that reality and that story. I didn’t do anything deliberately,” Gummer said.
Julie is a big, meaty role for Gummer, and one that pushed her to subvert her initial reading of the material. “It was funny, because I really killed it in the read-through, really got a lot of laughs, was high-fiving myself under the table. Then, the first day I showed up to set, Jonathan told me, ‘Don’t be funny,'” Gummer said. “When you read a Diablo Cody script, it’s very quippy and sharp, and he gave me the note to kind of blunt some of those edges, which was challenging, but I think was a really strong choice. It made it more frightening.”
As the film winds on, it becomes obvious that Julie’s depression isn’t only rooted in her impending divorce, pushing Gummer to embrace the more frightening aspects of the part. “It’s always tricky when you’re dealing with someone who is really traumatized and really depressed,” she said. “There is a responsibility not to take it lightly, to really go to the dark depths of that.
That part of Julie’s personality only ties her more closely to Ricki and, as Gummer observes, helps cement their bond, whether they want to acknowledge it or not. “The more you learn about Ricki, the more you can infer about Julie. I think that they have more in common than Julie is willing to admit, in term of being perhaps just a little unhinged,” Gummer said.
Still, that bond isn’t immediately clear during the film, and Demme worked to keep his leading ladies at odds with each other during filming, all the better to heighten their initial discord. “Jonathan has definitely a dogme approach to filmmaking. He’s allergic to artifice,” Gummer said.
“He did try to maintain the relationship dynamic between Ricki and Julie on-set, so we were kept at opposite ends of the house where we were filming, we didn’t have a whole lot of interaction aside from the scene work.”
That such a dynamic could work between the pair — who appear to be very close in their off-screen lives — is a credit to the film’s casting, which is due in part to Streep herself.
Streep initially got the script from producer Marc Platt, who worked with the star on both “Into the Woods” and “Ricki,” and the star was already on board before Demme was even attached to direct the film (Gummer bills him “a perfect fit”). When it came time to cast Julie, she had some ideas.
“I found out later that she thought, well, why should anyone other than Mamie play this role?” Gummer recalled.
“She’s had lots of other lovely, young blonde actresses play her daughter, but the way that the timing and everything kind of aligned, it just felt like the right thing to do. Then she called Marc, and he admitted that was always his dream.”
Gummer, however, wasn’t so quick to spark to the idea, if only because she had no idea what her mother was trying to lead her to do. “I was over at her house, and she handed me the script to read, just like, ‘This is what I’m doing next, let me know what you think of it,'” Gummer said. “I was like, ‘I’m really busy! Good for you, that you’ve got this great job, it’s really exciting, can’t wait to see it, but I myself am trying to get a job.'”
Streep was insistent. “It’s really good, Diablo Cody wrote it,” Gummer recalls her mother saying. “I’m like, ‘Fuck, that’s amazing. But, again, I’ll read it later,’ and she’s like, ‘I really think that you should read it now.'” Fortunately, Gummer finally got the hint, and then she got the part.
Perhaps it was just in her blood, because Gummer has known from a young age what she wanted to do, not because her parents are so successful (her father, Don Gummer, is a sculptor), but because they were so fulfilled. Growing up, “what I saw was two people, both my parents, who loved what they did,” Gummer said. “I saw the satisfaction and the joy that they got from it, and they made it look pretty appealing. I thought, ‘I want that.’ So the writing was sort of on the wall.”
So is this the role that will get the actress to that kind of satisfaction? When asked if she feels as if “Ricki and the Flash” is her big breakout, Gummer was resolute. “It’s certainly the largest and most significant role that I’ve had to date,” she said. “It feels big. It feels kind of profound.”
“Ricki and the Flash” is in theaters on Friday.
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