When Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy” debuted at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival last May, the reviews were hardly glowing.  The Twitterverse was full of salacious tweets of crude acts by an Oscar winning actress and snarked about over-the-top Southern campiness – all out of context, of course.  Even In Contention’s own Guy Lodge seemed torn over the film seemingly want to like it, but only rewarding it with a B- (and that was one of the more initial positive reviews).  In fact, so few of my peers seemed to champion it (and those who didn’t like it hated it), that I tossed it in the back of my mind as a disappointing misfire for Daniels.  Financier Millennium Entertainment decision to distribute the picture themselves seemed to be the final nail in the coffin.  If no mini-major was going to take the time to acquire a “sexy melodrama” starring a mostly shirtless Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack and Matthew McConaughey it wasn’t worth rushing to see, right?

In the months that followed “The Paperboy” made the cut at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals, but by September this pundit was distracted by awards season and Daniels’ latest wasn’t seriously on anyone's radar.  Press screenings were missed and before you knew it, “The Paperboy” wasn’t even in theaters anymore (at least in the LA area).  This was just going to be a film I’d have to catch on a long flight across the Atlantic or on a premium cable channel next year.  So, when a screener for the picture arrived before Thanksgiving weekend it piqued my curiosity.  Millennium must believe in this picture more than I thought.  A few hours over the holiday break were reserved to view the now infamous “Paperboy.”  And ever so humbly I'll admit I made a huge mistake in not watching it earlier.

Hardly a misfire, and obviously not for everyone, “The Paperboy” is an original American melodrama soaked in an anger and passion for the deep south of decades past.  It’s a grand genre experiment filled with superb performances across the board and it has a swagger and confidence you can’t get out of your head.  Moreover, the praise for Kidman in particular appeared warranted.   Her performance as the sexually charged Charlotte Bless is 180 degrees from many of the uptight characters she’s been pigeonholed as by both Hollywood and the indie film community. Kidman is raw and uninhibited without one forced note through some incredibly challenging material. And in a perfect world, she’d be right up there for consideration in the best supporting actress race.  "If" it was a perfect world.

Cue a phone call direct from France on Thursday afternoon…

Q: Hello.

Hi Greg, it’s Nicole.

Q: Hey there, thanks so much for taking the time after a busy day on set.* I’m embarrassed to say I finally caught up with “The Paperboy” on screener and was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

Well, a lot of people didn’t see the movie, so that’s part of the reason I’m doing this, y’know? To support it.

[*Kidman is currently shooting “Grace of Monaco” in France where she plays legendary movie actress Grace Kelly.]

Q: When it played at Cannes were you surprised by some of the reaction? Or did you expect it based on the material?  I have to be honest, it felt like a movie that would have gotten a stronger reception at a festival like Sundance.

It’s out of the box, but a lot of the films I do are like that. It’s a different kind of movie and probably Cannes was not the right place for it. Probably somewhere like Sundance would have been much better for it, but that’s all sort of Russian Roulette in some ways. You just never know. I’m just glad that screeners have been sent out and that people have been able to see it. I think it’s very much an actor’s piece. I think Matthew is amazing in it. I think Zac is amazing. I think John Cusack is so good in it. I mean, Lee wanted it to look like it was shot in 1968.  I’m just glad people are seeing it.

Q: Y’know, with material like this I could easily see how any number of accomplished actors might not be able to hit the tone your director was looking for.  As a cast, how did you all get on the same page?

I think because we were all down in Louisiana. It was like we were in a bubble together. Strangely enough, John and I never spoke as John and Nicole. We only related to each other as the characters.  I suppose all of us—Lee is a very particular personality and he has a very particular way of directing.  And it’s very rough and very, kind of, spontaneous and that’s really exciting as an actor.  I mean, you’ve got to make it real. There is a lot of improvising.  There is a lot of just shooting. He just shoots and shoots and shoots. It feels very much like renegade filmmaking. And when you’re doing it together you all get in the same rhythm.  You’re all sort of like, ‘Let’s just go for it.’  

Q: Does he rehearse or…?

Nope, we never rehearsed. It was just basically all of us in character. We rarely stepped out of character. And we were shooting in extreme heat because it was the middle of summer in Louisiana and that helps. All that stuff – it’s hot, we’re shooting fast because we have no money and so it has this sort of abandoned quality to it which is good, I think. It makes it very raw.

Q: How did Lee explain how he envisioned Charlotte to you?

He made me sit down with five different women who had relationships with men in prison and I had to interview them and that was really confronting.  And they were really honest with me and it was hard to hear some of this stuff but it was amazing for the character. Prior to that it was like, ‘How do I get into the psyche of this woman?’  And then as soon as I entered into these really intense conversations with these different women I was like, ‘O.K., O.K., I get it now.’  That’s probably how I went, ‘I just have to step into her skin and never step out of it.’ And that’s really how I could do some of the sexuality of the role. I haven’t done that before and, y’know…I’ve only seen the movie once.  I was like, ‘O.K.! I didn’t know that’s where they had the camera!’  And I never looked at the monitor, I try to stay away from all that.  I’ve made so many films and I don’t even know that much about lenses.  I know very little about the technical side of things because I feel as an actor that’s unnecessary.

Q: So, you won’t look at the monitor ever during a shoot?

No, no. Unless I’m made to by the director -- and some director’s make you --  I don’t.  I feel as an actor so much of your job is about trust. It’s not about controlling it’s about letting go.  Some directors love that and go, ‘Oh, I need you to move your head this way or do that,’ but my choice if I’ve given the choice is not to look.  I don’t want to be aware. My whole thing is not to be aware is to be “in” and to “feel” and to “be.”

Q: Do you usually only see your films once or was it just this one in particular?

I love the process and I tend not to be as focused on the actual film. Even though on some films [such as] ‘Rabbit Hole,’ I produced that film so I saw it so many times.  And, ‘Moulin Rouge’?  Baz wanted me to see that film so I must have seen it 15 times. And then there are other films I’ve only seen once. Occasionally, I’ll be flicking around on TV and go, ‘Oh!’ (Laughs.) And I’ll watch a little bit of it, of something. I have made a few movies now I realize.

Q: I’m sure for some of them you’d go, ‘Wow, I don’t even remember that day.’

‘Wow, I don’t even remember that film!’ (Laughs.) No, I remember them all. But, there are times when I sit down. Like I sat down and watched ‘The Others’ recently and went ‘Wow, Alejandro really did a great job with that.’ And then I’m like, ‘I’m so glad I was in that.’ (Laughs.)

With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios and has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times. A co-founder of HitFix, Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.