It’s easy to take Anne Hathaway for granted. She’s that smart tall girl who always does her homework, raises her hand, and knows the answer. She’s been in demand in Hollywood since her 2001 breakout in “The Princess Diaries” and she’s been rewarded for her doing her best: She earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her recovering addict in Jonathan Demme’s 2009 drama “Rachel Getting Married, and she won the Supporting Actress Oscar in 2013 for her moist and skeletal singing of “I Dreamed a Dream” in “Les Misérables.”
And then, social media slagged Hathaway for her goody-two-shoes perfectionism. At last week’s Elle annual Women in Hollywood tribute, Hathaway admitted that her time in the virtual hate box left scars. “Ten years ago, I was given an opportunity to look at the language of hatred from a new perspective,” she said. “For context — this was a language I had employed with myself since I was seven. And when your self-inflicted pain is suddenly somehow amplified back at you at, say, the full volume of the internet — it’s a thing.”
Now the winds are in Hathaway’s favor with her supporting role in writer-director James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” (October 28, Focus Features). Gray admired “Rachel Getting Married” and wanted Hathaway to play the part based on his mother. Set in 1980, “Armageddon Time” is carried by Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, and Sir Anthony Hopkins as the Jewish parents and grandfather, respectively, of sixth-grade rebel Paul Graff (Banks Repeta, “The Devil All the Time”) as the younger filmmaker.
Hathaway delivers a delicate, searing performance as Esther Graff, a beleaguered working wife and mother from Flushing, Queens who loves her family, but — like most parents — does not always do the right thing. A third Oscar — and a sequel, according to Gray — could be in the offing.
“[Anne] literally looks, talks, and acts exactly like my mother,” Gray told me in Cannes. “She had that ridiculous hair and wore those Sears and Roebuck leisure suits and was trying to make good and join the school board. I always felt that her skill set was not taken full advantage of in many films that she had done. Anne and I talked a lot about Anna Magnani; my mother reminded me of her soulful sort of depression.”
How did he draw that out of Hathaway? He told his actors never to “nail” a scene: “I want to see a person.”
“He was asking for real transparency,” Hathaway told me on a Zoom call. “I never felt like I owned Esther. I felt like I allowed her. It’s a little poetic.”
Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Long-term careers like Hathaway’s only happen when someone lets poetry inform their choices. Hathaway selected her team of reps early on, she said: “The goal was always to become the best actor that I could become. I made sure that I was choosing people that understood that I wanted to be an actress first. And that would mean taking risks. And that would mean taking small parts with the greatest director that would have me, because that’s where I was going to learn, to grow. For me the goal is longevity.”
That means bravely hosting the 2011 Oscars with deadbeat James Franco, singing songs with Barbra Streisand on her studio album “Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway,” and juggling mainstream leads in “The Witches,” “Get Smart,” and “The Intern” with indie movies (“One Day”) and character parts like Jack Twist’s rodeo-rider wife Lureen in Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain.”
“I try to schedule it so I can do both,” said Hathaway. “But I’ll probably choose the indie every day — if I’m available, if I can, if there’s no other outside forces that that say, ‘I actually do very much need to do this movie right now.’ I’m always on the lookout for things that could be [commercial]. But it’s not like I do something because it has commercial appeal. I don’t think I would do very good work under those conditions. Because if I’m not feeling it, there’s nothing there. If I can’t bring my passion to it, I don’t think I’m very good.”
Hathaway’s resume boasts a powerful mix of well-regarded box-office smashes like “Interstellar,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” and “The Devil Wears Prada” (clearly the film of which she is most proud), and quite a few commercial flicks that don’t wow critics but make scads of money anyway (Hathaway’s bold character roles popped in both “Alice Through the Looking Glass” and Oceans 8″).
That’s how Hathaway earned her movie star status. Not in the sense that she opens any movie (today, no one does), but territory by territory she is bankable all over the world. (Gray recently told a Writers Guild West audience that he owes everything to his “ability to get and convince and con actors to do it. Nobody would make this movie with an unknown cast.”)
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Bankability is “a great asset to have in your career,” Hathaway said, delighted that her name on a sales pitch can push through movies from indie succes d’estime “Colossal” to writer-director Rebecca Miller’s recently wrapped “She Came to Me,” co-starring Marisa Tomei and Peter Dinklage, produced by Killer Films and financed at Cannes by Protagonist Sales.
“I love [Miller],” Hathaway said. “It’s the sort of movie that made me fall in love with movies in the first place. I don’t want to put myself out in front of it, but I’m a big reason why it got made. And I’m proud of that. It’s bullshit that Rebecca Miller had to fight. She doesn’t need me. She shouldn’t need me. Those are messed-up metrics. That’s not okay. And I’m not saying that it is. So I’m grateful that I had whatever currency that people do understand that does work in the current marketplace.”
The toughest challenge of “Armageddon Time” was shooting the sprawling and messy dinner table scenes. “It was like we were all on a board that was floating on water,” said Hathaway. “And we all had to jump on it at the exact same time. And if one person didn’t jump, the whole thing was gonna tip. And we all went: ‘Okay 1 ,2, 3 jump!’ And we all jumped. And we all held. And then we tap-danced together on top of it. And somehow it didn’t tip.”
Hathaway said getting Gray to open up about his mother was a challenge. It forced him to return to a painful part of his childhood, when both of his parents hit him. “It was a character that I feared risking cliche,” said Hathaway. “I’m asking about the very essence of who he is. So I wanted to proceed with the greatest care, the greatest respect, while also still getting what I needed from him. And I found that if I approached it as information, it wasn’t so helpful.
“I couldn’t be direct with him,” she said. “I couldn’t say, ‘Tell me about this,’ because there’s almost a bruising that you have to be careful of. It had to be the lightest touch. I found if I asked indirect questions like, ‘What was the music that was playing?’, when… I applied [those details] to the script, that’s when she happened for me.”
Despite Esther’s choices, Hathaway said feeling compassion for her wasn’t hard. “There’s violence in the film, and there’s violence that she commits,” she said. “I wonder who she would have been if her life had been easier. So much of her pain was driven by this very real fear that it was all going to go away. That her children were not going to have a future. That there wasn’t going to be enough money. That there wasn’t going to be any food on the table. She had a lot of dreams, and her life was hard.”
“The Piano Lesson” star Samuel L. Jackson recently said that if Broadway paid as well as movies, he would do Broadway all the time. Hathaway doesn’t agree. “Oooh, I love movies,” said Hathaway. “I would love to continue to do both. My thing about doing theater right now is just, my children are so young. And so the idea of taking a whole year off, I miss a whole year of bedtimes. I don’t think I can do that.”