Interview: Judy Greer on ‘The Descendants' and Alexander Payne's 'intimately hands-off' approach
Wins for both Best Picture and Best Actor at the Golden Globes Sunday, coupled with George Clooney’s victory at the Critics' Choice Movie Awards last week have solidified Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” as an Oscar frontrunner (if consistent critical approval hadn't already). Clooney stars in the film as Matt King, a man who must confront his wife’s infidelity as well as (to the best of his somewhat limited ability) his own inadequacies as a husband and father as she lay dying in a coma.
In addition to the precursor attention the film, director and lead actor have received, 19-year-old Shailene Woodley (who plays Clooney’s hybrid wild-child/precocious teen daughter) has been an intermittent presence in the supporting actress field (as well as a consistent one in the young or up-and-coming star arena). But for many cinema-goers, there is a third performance in the film that resonates long after the lights have come up. Judy Greer’s short-lived but palpable turn as Julie Speer, a woman who has the misfortune to discover that her husband Brian was having an affair with Clooney’s wife Elizabeth, is both grounded and evocative.
Greer’s final scene has the most visceral impact. With deeply conflicted desires, her character goes to pay her respects at the deathbed of the woman who, had she lived, would have sought to destroy her marriage. Greer is, by turns, compassionate, heartbroken, enraged and magnanimous, gracefully traveling through a nuanced range in a very short time period of time.
“My goal was to try and fit in as many emotions as possible,” she says now. “It was like one of those word games where you have to make as many words as possible in a certain amount of time out of nine letters. I thought there is no one emotion happening here for my character. She’s not just mad, she’s not just sad, she’s not just betrayed. She’s everything.”
In fact, it is as though her character is living through the trajectory of the film as a whole in one remarkably condensed moment. Her release allows Clooney to, in essence, come to his wife’s defense and find his way to forgiveness, which is, for Greer, is what the film is about. One of the more unique aspects of the adaptation is that the reckoning that takes place between Elizabeth King and those her life has touched is resolved via one-sided effort. We (very briefly) see the character on a jet-ski as the films open, but for the bulk of the story she is an inert, bed-bound woman who can never truly be confronted. As a result, she becomes the projection of whomever is speaking of her, or to her. In the case of Greer’s character, the story of “the other woman” is colored by the reality that said woman is completely vulnerable and, as such, inherently in a position that inspires our empathy.
“That’s a choice that Alexander made,” Greer recalls. “She’s in flashbacks in the book and in one version of the script (which I did not read) before Alexander did a draft. I love it because I get to make up my own mind about her. Everything we see of her is so exposed and defenseless, but what people say about her is kind of awful, with the exception of her father. She can’t ever defend herself against her daughter or anyone in her life and it’s so interesting because this whole human character is created through the verbal descriptions of others.”
Payne’s choice entrusts us as the audience to allow Elizabeth the full range of her humanity. The question of whether she was “in the right” or “in the wrong” is ultimately irrelevant. It is in the ability to move past the limitations of those distinctions that the characters in the film find freedom. “Fox president Tom Rothman gave a speech where he said this is an adult movie made for adults,” Greer says. “He’s so right and that’s rare. There’s not a tone of meaty grown-up roles that are real and raw. But that’s how Alexander’s movies are. All of his characters are flawed."
Greer has primarily been associated with comedic, quirky side-kick characters, so for many viewers this portrayal represents a break-out performance. “I can understand why people see it that way and I appreciate it,” she muses. “But I don’t really see it that way because I was there having the experience. Most actors feel they can play any role, I don’t feel that way, but I do feel I can play other characters. And I have played other dramatic parts but no one saw them because the movies were kind of crappy!”
The actress does experience some measure of frustration over the industry’s bias in favor of drama, a bias which is, interestingly enough, not entirely playing out this awards season. “I do feel that when people cry they get rewarded,” Greer says. “Probably because I’m a comedic actress, I get a little defensive about comedy and the actors who thrive in it. That being said, I do get that it’s hard to cry for two days in a row and it is depressing. And the stakes felt higher just in that it was a dream of mine to work with Alexander and the script was so good, I felt like I didn’t want to mess it up.”
The initial challenge for Greer was intellectually understanding why her character would choose to enter that hospital room. When she finally surrendered to the reality that we as people are often driven by a kaleidoscope of motivations that we can’t fully rationalize or articulate, she found her way into the role. “I get when actors say, ‘I have to believe my character is right,’ if they’re playing a terrible person or something,” she says. “But I just realize that what’s going to be best is if the scene is truthful, and if the truthful moment that I’m in is that I don’t know why she’s going there, then maybe that’s the truthful moment that she’s in. She goes for a million reasons, and she isn’t really sure why she goes, so that’s what I played.”
Greer describes Payne’s directorial style as “intimately hands off.” Once she secured the role, he instructed her to simply do what she had done in the audition. “He’s there for you, he’s close to you,” she says. “Literally he stands by the camera. He’s not far off in video village somewhere in another house, on another block, he is right there. But he lets you have your way with it. He doesn’t love to hear himself talk like some people in this business. He’s very measured with his words and his direction and even on a huge movie set it felt like we were all doing something private, something we all cared about, whereas sometimes it gets clock punchy when you’re working. I don’t want to sound like I’m giving myself a compliment, but he says that he feels like he casts perfectly and then he lets the actors do their work.”
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