This is an unusual interview for me. I'm used to talking to writers, directors, actors, producers, cinematographer, editors... all the people typically involved with making movies. It's much more uncommon for me to hop on the phone with someone whose life has been turned into a movie, the "based on" in the "based on a true story" equation.
With Leigh Anne Touhy, I figured it would be interesting to give it a try. She's presented as such a dynamo in the new film from John Lee Hancock, with Sandra Bullock doing some of her best dramatic work playing her, that I knew it wouldn't be boring.
LEIGH ANNE TOUHY: Hello, Drew, how are you?
DREW MCWEENY: I'm fine, Mrs. Touhy. It’s a pleasure to meet you.
LAT: Well, thank you so much. You’re a boy Drew. I knew a Drew could be a girl or a boy.
DM: Yes. I am a boy Drew.
LAT: You’re a boy Drew. Okay, then!
DM: My parents both attended Ole Miss.
LAT: Yeah? Then you’re a wonderful boy Drew.
DM: And both my parents are from Memphis originally.
LAT: Oh, well, wow. That’s wonderful. So where are they now?
DM: They’ve been in Tampa for many years. They’re getting ready to retire to Ashville.
LAT: Oh, what a great city to retire to.
DM: Yeah, they went looking and I think they really fell in love with it, so…
LAT: You are where?
DM: I’m in Los Angeles.
LAT: You’re in L.A. I mean do you ever go to Ole Miss? I mean, have you been back in years?
DM: I have not been in quite a while. I'd love to visit Oxford for the film festival, which seems to be growing every year. I think since my grandparents both died and they were the last ties to Memphis directly, it’s been a little while.
LAT: Well, you should go because it’s amazing how it’s changed. It’s unbelievable. You really should go. It’s quite a place.
DM: We have deep roots there. The family farm that used to be on the outskirts of town was sold and turned into a subdivision and now it’s McWeeny Street named after the family, so…
LAT: Oh, yeah? Well, you should really go back to Oxford. I mean after the Presidential debate... I mean it was great anyway, but they just spent millions of dollars and the campus just looks... I mean, it’s great. I cannot say enough amazing things about it so it’s a real neat little place, so...
DM: I really enjoyed the picture, and some of the things I liked most about it... I liked the regional flavor of it. The fact that the film is... rather than trying to homogenize the southern roots of the story, it’s very much about that, and I think the way this story unfolds could really only happen where it did. It feels like especially in the way they captured you on film, having not met you, I was only able to judge what I know from my experience in the south, and I thought Sandra did a great job of playing a very particular kind of southern woman that I know very well.
LAT: You had it rough growing up, huh?
DM: There is the alpha-southern mom that I really have grown up around and always admired and I thought the movie did just the right job of not making that a cartoon or playing it too broad, but really getting into how that drives both you and your husband as characters and what would make you open your arms and your family to somebody you didn’t know.
LAT: Well, she… you know, John did his homework. I mean, he spent… you just can’t imagine the hours he spent with us. I mean, two years. Last Thanksgiving he and his entire family went with us to Tupelo, and we have Thanksgiving with the Ole Miss team, and he was in Oxford and I took Sandy to Oxford, and I think they all got it. I mean, if you wanted this story to come off with any authenticity then that had to have occurred. And I think they all, just from the amount of time they spent, they realized what it took to pull this off, and I think they got a homerun with it, because Sandy captured me. I’m very picky and didn’t she do a wonderful job? I’m very pleased with it and I think she got the essence of the strong southern, you know, woman, but yet still southern women are compassionate and endearing, and I think she pulled it all off. You know that little edgy, cocky but yet loving and caring, so...
DM: Did she spend time around you? Because it’s always such a strange thing when you’re playing somebody who is not just a real person but who is a real person and still around.
LAT: Yes, she did. And that was the first time she’s ever had a role like this. I don’t know if she’ll do it again, but yes she did. She spent hours around me, and she observed so much that I said her nickname became "The Shadow" because she was always right behind me, so...
DM: And for you the experience of... because it’s one thing to find Michael, who seems like such a special and unique person, and to have that encounter where you met him and you brought him into your life and he turned out to be who he was, had to be fairly extraordinary. And then to go out and find Quinton to play him becomes that second level of, "Okay, now we have to go find the kid again. We have to go find him and find somebody to play him." Was watching Quinton strange for you as he played Michael?
LAT: Well, you know I didn’t see it on the set, but just a couple of times I had to go over and do things and so until I actually saw the final movie I hadn’t seen it all. And in our minds we forget that Michael used to really be like that because that was so many years ago and Michael is such a different person now, you know? He has all the confidence in the world and so looking back on it, I go wow. You really forget that Michael used to be timid like that and wouldn’t look you in the eyes, because he’s such a strong person now and has so much confidence and so it was really strange looking back. You forgot how it really used to be. And I think one of the determining factors for them with this movie was if they could find someone to play Michael. They were not sure they could pull that off. They did a huge search for Michael. So athletes tried out for that part and they really wanted someone who was not polished and, you know, they looked a long, long time. And so I think they did a great job and I think Quinton pulled it off beautifully. He really had that softness that Michael had at the beginning.
DM: When you were first approached... and I’m not actually sure how the process worked, but when Michael Lewis wanted to write about your family, did he approach you guys? Was it a story he had been chasing down?
LAT: Michael Lewis was writing that little book called Coach that he had written. And I think the book was going to be used for our... there were like 250,000 of them going to soldiers Christmas Care package. They were asking to put together like a little feel-good book, so he was putting together that book called Coach. He and my husband had not talked for like 25 years, and he said he was coming through Memphis and could he come by and interview Sean for this book? So, Sean… I remember him coming home and going, "A guy I went to high school with is going to come by tonight, there’s nothing you have to do, we’re just going to be in the living room talking." And this was probably Michael’s sophomore year in high school. And so Michael Lewis comes in and he’s in there talking to Sean and our crazy survival mode for the night was in play. You know, Michael would come in at 5:30 and between 5:30 and 6:00 he would shower and at 6:00 he’d come downstairs and while he was eating dinner, I would call out Biology terms or whatever had to be memorized that night. And then the first tutor would come at 7:00 and the tutor came and the next one came at 8:00 and all of this was going on. I think Michael Lewis finally called a full time-out and went, "What’s going on in here?" And Sean said, “What do you mean?” and he goes, “Who’s the black kid and what’s going on?” And Sean said, “Oh gosh, I didn’t even think about telling you about that. He’s staying with us and blah, blah, blah." Sean kind of fills him in on the story and he was commissioned or whatever you call it by the New York Times at the time. He would write a piece once a month for their New Yorker insert on Sunday. And I think he had one more that was due to them and he went home and was telling his wife about this story and she was like "Why don’t you make that your next piece for the Times?" And he went, "Oh, they might not want to do that." She goes, "Oh it’s, you know, such a good little feel-good story and you hadn’t done one like that." So he called us and said, "Can I write an article?" And we said, "Don't ask us. Ask Michael that." So Michael said, "Well, yeah you can do that." And so this started out being a nice little article for the Times and he wrote it and then the Times came back and said “Gosh, everybody loved this story. Can you expound upon it a little bit and do a little book out of it?” They really wanted it to be a book and so he spent 2-1/2 years doing this book. And then all of a sudden—boom—here we were and the book sold and they made a movie out of it and we’re like going oh wow, you know? So, it was supposed to be a little newspaper article and now it’s gotten to the big screen, but we fully believe that this was intended, you know... God’s hands has been on this and this is the path that He’s wanted the story to go and it’s amazing. It’s been an amazing journey.
DM: It’s interesting because although Michael’s story is so specific, I’m adopted and just as a story about opening your family to somebody, I think it’s got a universal subtext.
LAT: Right. Being adopted then you can totally understand that. I mean, there’s tons of people that need to be adopted and so we’re hoping that through this movie that the kids that are out there that need to be adopted into foster kids, you know will just… somebody will step up and realize that they need homes and they’ll open their hearts and homes to them and could have a life-changing impact on a lot of children. You know, it’s really our prayer through this.
DM: I just wanted to say how much I was touched by the film and it’s so difficult sometimes with inspirational stories to find that fine-line on how you play it on film. It can easily become too sweet or too saccharine or you know there’s a million pitfalls, but I really feel like you guys were in the right hands and John has really pulled off a….
LAT: Didn’t he do a great job? I mean, after I met him 4-5 years ago—the first time we met him at a luncheon—and I just left there and told Sean, "You know, I don’t have a good feeling about doing this but after meeting him he seems like such a guy with integrity and character and I’m just so at peace about it. I’m just not worried about this any longer." And we’re just so proud of the final product that he produced because I think he did just an amazing job with it, so...
DM: Well, I understand that Michael has not seen the movie yet?
LAT: No, Lord. He’s a little busy right now.
LAT: He will. He’ll see it again and again and again, but it’s just the timing. He just hasn’t had the opportunity yet, so...
DM: I’ve got to think it’s got to be such a strange personal experience to sit and see that play out.
LAT: Oh yeah, I’m sure. You don’t like to see anything about yourself. We never do. We don’t like the way we sound on the phone. We don’t like the way we look in pictures. That’s just human nature, so he’ll have the same thing that we did and eventually he'll realize the good it’s doing and it’ll be more accepting, you know, like we all are so it’ll be fine.
DM: Well, I wish you guys well with the film. I hope it’s a big success and continued success to you and your family, Miss.
LAT: Thank you. Thank you so much for having the interest in talking to me. I so appreciate it.
DM: All right. Take care.
LAT: Right, bye-bye.
* * *
Thanks to Leigh Anne Touhy for her time and Warner Bros. for putting us together.
"The Blind Side" opens in theaters nationwide tomorrow.
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