In “Supernova,” Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth play Tusker and Sam, an intellectual couple who are facing down the deteriorating oblivion of memory loss: Tusker, a novelist, has hit his 60s, and is suffering early-onset dementia, while Sam, a concert pianist, can’t do anything but watch his partner fade away. It was the actors’ 20-year-long friendship, coupled with the erudite direction of filmmaker Harry Macqueen, that made grappling with such difficult subject matter easy.
“We love each other. We’ve been friends for 20 years. We’ve experienced each other’s pain, and we’ve watched our kids grow up together,” Tucci said. “There’s a lot of water under that bridge, and that bridge has only become stronger still. It’s the kind of working experience that could make or break a friendship. But in our case, it strengthens it.”
The actors met on the set of Frank Pierson’s WWII drama “Conspiracy” playing Nazis; since then, Tucci said, they’ve share that ineffable, alchemical connection that defines so many platonic relationships. Thats why it was nearly effortless for them to push it into a romance for “Supernova.”
“I did get very lucky,” casting director Harry Macqueen said. “Stanley happily fell in love with the characters. We got on really well, and I really hoped that whoever played the roles, we could find two people that at least had a shared history, or were friends, or who had worked together before. When Stanley suggested Colin… and told me that he was his best friend, it was a home run. You can’t buy that chemistry. Well, you can, but it takes a lot of time, and Colin and Stanley have so much trust in one another.”
In the film, Sam and Tusker are on a road trip in the winnebago across the English countryside with their dog, heading to see their family for what is probably the last time. Originally, Firth was to play Tusker and Tucci was to play Sam, but the actors — unbeknownst to Macqueen — decided to swap roles.
“We kept looking at the script. Something didn’t sit right with me, and then Colin came to me one day and said, ‘Stan, I think we should switch roles.’ And I said, ‘I know, I know. I’ve been thinking the same thing.’ I didn’t want to say it, but he said, and I am glad that he said. We told Harry, and poor Harry blanched, and thought, ‘Oh god, what have I gotten myself into?'”
Tucci said it was something about the rhythms in the speech, and the “teasing jocularity” of Tusker (who is American) up against the British Sam that compelled them to want to trade places. Tucci, in the role, exhibits his trademark wry, sage sense of humor, but also with a deep pathos the actor hasn’t had the chance to showcase in a long time — likely not since “Julie & Julia” — as a seasoned sidekick in big-budget movies.
Director Macqueen had spent time working at a dementia specialist hospital prior to shooting “Supernova,” which is his second feature as a director after 2014’s “Hinterland,” and he ended up handing the majority of his research over to his actors. Tucci, without ever overdoing it, conveys the physical experience of dementia in subtle ways: in one moment, he can’t quite remember which arm goes into what sleeve as he tries to pull a sweater over himself.
“I looked at footage of people, documentaries and such, of people with this condition, and that, for me, was crucial, how they behaved. In particular those who were in earlier stages, or middle stages, of [dementia]. They were vital to me,” Tucci said. He also said that what’s most vital about “Supernova” is that it does the double work of not only normalizing a gay couple (their sexuality is never commented upon or questioned), but also normalizing portrayals of dementia on the screen.
“Dementia is hard because it’s abstract, in a way,” Tucci said. “Not only abstract in a way for the person who has it, but for the person who’s taking care of them, because you can’t tell: the person looks perfectly fine. From one moment they’re fine, and from the next moment, they’re not, whereas with other ailments, like cancer, there’s a physical manifestation that is very evident, and that is something that’s harder to sweep under the rug.”
Tucci also said he could look to a personal experience to draw from the wells of pain and sadness his character, and Sam’s, experiences. “My first wife died of cancer, and there were certain points where you’d say, ‘How can that person be sick?’ And there were other times where you’d look at her and say, ‘That is a very sick person.’ With dementia, in the early stages, it’s very hard to tell, and then because it flips back and forth, you don’t know until it reaches a point where it manifests itself very distinctly in erratic and disconcerting behavior.”
There’s a harrowing scene late into the film where it’s revealed how Tusker plans to finish the inevitably numbered years of his life. Tusker and Sam have a measured confrontation that’s among both actors’ best work to date.
“Accessing any of that stuff is always hard, but of course, that’s your job. You chose to do it,” Tucci said. “You have to access or create whatever it is to be truthful in those moments. It makes it much easier if you’re with a person whom you love and trust.”
“Supernova” is now in select theaters, and premieres on digital February 16.