The Fretts on Film Interview: Olivia Williams
It’s hard to think of two characters more diverse than frumpy but indomitable First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson and the impeccably status-conscious Countess Vronsky in Anna Karenina, yet the same remarkable actress embodies them both: Olivia Williams. I had the chance to interview her recently for a New York Daily News story on Hyde Park, and we had a lovely chat about her reunion with Rushmore costar Bill Murray, Eleanor’s sexuality and how exhausting it is to be alluring in Hollywood.
How did you get involved with Hyde Park on Hudson?
It was originally a radio play, and I heard it, and then I heard there was a script, and I read it and loved it, and wanted to be involved, but it was pretty tricky as to which character I would play. Laura snuffled the role of Daisy, and I just asked if there’s any way I could play Eleanor. They thought I was too young, which in technical terms, I am. And I’m not American, and I think Roger [Michell] felt strongly he wanted an American. Then he came to see a play I did in London and I managed to convince him to play American so I was cast. I was very happy. Eleanor is one of the greatest women that ever lived, and I love Roger’s work, I wanted to work with Richard [Nelson] again—I’d done a play of his a few years ago. And I wanted to work with Bill [Murray] again, after working with him 15 years ago on Rushmore. All good.
Absolutely. It was meant to be! Did you do a lot of research once you landed the role? Did you know a lot about Eleanor?
I didn’t. I’m really ashamed to say now how little I did know, and I didn’t have the opportunity. I was in England, in London, in a play so I didn’t get to do enough research. I went on the Internet and found some video footage of her telling a joke. It was easy to find stuff of her reading speeches at the UN and lecturing the general public on various well-intentioned plans of hers, but it was really hard to find her personal voice. There was one very funny clip of her telling a joke to the troops—all these biographies say how shy she was, yet when you watch footage of her she looks very forthright and confident. They sort of showed her public nervousness a bit, and her unguarded voice, which I wanted to try to find. And also she’s also quite mischievous in this clip. And there’s one lovely photograph of her that was in our research pack of her sort of leaning over FDR’s shoulder with her hair falling over her face, where she just looks informal. And the thing I picked up from her is that she wanted people to come to the White House, into her home, and feel like they had a right to be there and they were relaxed and informal and that no one need feel inferior in her presence, and that was what I was trying to get. And then having played her, I went Eleanor crazy because once you start reading about her, you can’t stop. And I now know a lot more about her than when I played the part. You could test me on my Eleanor knowledge now!
It was filmed in England—did you go to the places in New York where the story was set?
I still haven’t been there! Now I’m desperate to go. I have to go and see it, and I would love to go there because all the crazy things I know about the mother’s bedroom, I’ve got to see it in the flesh. And her wonderful house where she made furniture with the lesbians—I think it’s all fascinating—I can’t wait to go.
What is your take on her sexuality? It’s somewhat mysterious what’s going on between Franklin and Eleanor.
Well, I try to treat it as I treat anybody in public life. You just don’t really know what goes on between people behind closed doors, unless they take a photograph of it and put it on Twitter. And so I’m neither going to speculate or judge what went on, but there were a few facts, which she didn’t hide, which is that she chose to move out of her mother in law’s house—understandable—and move in with two lesbian carpenters. That was her choice, and I don’t look to comment, but she had six kids and then found out her husband was shagging her secretary. So if she chose to get her kicks elsewhere, who can blame her?
There is this intimacy, but we don’t know if it’s physical or not, between Franklin and Eleanor in the film. Did it help that you worked with Bill before that you knew him and were more familiar?
I don’t think anyone really ever knows Bill, but we had a comfortable familiarity. It was like Herman Blume and Miss Cross of Rushmore 30 years on. I really want to work with him again—I think he’s a great actor.
So you weren’t surprised that he could pull this off?
Absolutely not at all, at all. When we were doing Rushmore, he was preparing to play Polonius in Hamlet with Ethan Hawke so I think it’s rather serious.
In terms of your physical resemblance—or lack thereof—how much prosthetic work had to be done and did you have an pause about playing a character who’s not known as being the most attractive character in the world?
God bless you for that! A fat suit helped give me that incredible figure—a woman in her 50’s or 60’s who’s had six kids—that hasn’t happened to me yet. She so clearly didn’t give a damn about it. We worked very hard with my own hair, I went grey for it and gave her that wild willy look that she had. I love the fact that she was told she’s ugly by her mother, and she was clearly physically self-conscious because she’s very tall and big. By the time we meet her in this film, you get the sense that she doesn’t give a damn of what people think about her physically, and she’s not interested in clothes and hair styles. Someone whose life is a working life is dominated by those things. It was incredibly freeing. That was fun. We wanted to do it. Being in Hollywood is exhausting because you have to be alluring, and Eleanor Roosevelt had no interest in all in being alluring.
Do you think people will view FDR and Eleanor in a different light after this movie? It looks at a very small slice of their lives, but it humanizes them in a way that maybe we haven’t seen before.
Seeing these biopics shows everyone in a post-therapy life—what did your parents do to you and how did they screw you up? And I think this is doing that for them. It’s looking at the psychology of how they were. And disability and all those things that were unmentionable in another generation. But it has the utmost love and respect and I don’t think it lessens them. And also, there’s an element of fantasy in this movie. Roger said so beautifully in one of the Q&A’s it’s kind of like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of those heavy moments in history, a hot summer’s night. And what you have is these people thrown in this pot together on this night, and with all their strange sexual proclivities, and what happens, and throw in some world politics in an imminent world war—it’s not meant to be a historical docu-drama—it’s a bit fantastical, which is what I love about it.
What do you think the British perspective brings to the story? You and Roger are British, and the King and Queen are major characters and the fact that you shot it in England—how does that alter the storytelling perspective?
I just think it’s a tremendous relief, and what I love about the story. Richard Nelson writes about British and American interface—that’s his thing—and so often, as Brits we see movies as sort of taking the piss out of foreigners who can’t get the hang of our very strange manners, and laughing at them for choosing the wrong knife and fork. And I think it’s really interesting and funny in this movie to watch British people who are obsessed with manners not knowing how to behave—they really can’t cope with the formality, and lack of structure, which knife and fork you pick up. And I love that about the film.
How do you feel about the fact that you’re coming out after The King’s Speech? How do you think that’s going to affect the perception of this film?
I’m so into this one now. And people’s memory’s are terribly short. I hope what will happen is what Roger said, that The King’s Speech will provide people with some knowledge about the subject and make the film enjoyable, but it’s such a different angle. It’s a piece of drama, it’s about a particular 24 hours in history. If you’re looking at two works of art, every Renaissance painter painted Mary and the baby Jesus, and one’s Leonardo da Vinci and one’s Raphael.
What was your relationship like with Laura Linney? There’s some tension there with the characters. You said Laura snuffled the role?
To snuffle is an informal way of getting something. She had already been cast.
Did you become friendly with her? Your characters aren’t supposed to be…
No, no. I don’t think she works like that because there was no sign of that on set, and I certainly know once someone is cast, I don’t really go to that way of working. Actually what’s so strange is you often get to know actors the best when you’re promoting, after you’ve made it. We would do our scenes, and quite often, Laura’s sitting half a mile away on a chair. We didn’t actually interact a lot when we were filming, but it’s been really fun getting to know her and her husband promoting the film at film festivals. We can all relax. So yeah, we get along very well. She’s delightful. I’m making a movie and I have to have a Southern accent, and she’s helping me out.
We’ve also got Lincoln out at the same time as FDR. Do you think there’s room for FDR and Lincoln and Mary Todd and Eleanor Roosevelt all at once?
It’s hard. To say I don’t have an eye on awards would be a lie, but I don’t look for myself, on this occasion. I’m obviously looking out for Bill. But if you asked me to choose between Daniel Day Lewis—it’s undoable. I can’t. I don’t know is the answer. Obviously these things have a lot to do with how much money is spent on promoting a certain project, and occasionally, a small jewel is taken up. But you never know.
You also have Anna Karenina out right now. Is there something that draws you to period pieces in this stage of your career?
Well, now I’m driving around a flatbed truck in Atlanta with Arnold Schwarzenegger [for Ten]. No, it’s what comes along—and that was just an extraordinary summer—they were actually made at the same time. I was actually one day putting on my fat suit to be Eleanor, and the next day putting on the tightest bloodiest corset I’ve ever had to play the countess. And I was about as happy as an actress could be. Two phenomenal projects, phenomenal directors and actors. But they were such different worlds. You know, that incredibly theatrical state [in Anna Karenina] a world made of manners, of convention. And then going onto Roger’s set where it was trying to explode all those formalities. I had the best acting summer, I think of my life.
Even though Hyde Park on Hudson is a period piece, do you think there’s something timeless or contemporary about its depiction of politics or diplomacy that we can learn from today?
God, yes! If you want to talk about that, you won’t be able to get off the phone. Eleanor’s joke that she tells the troops is about how during war time, American’s hated her and FDR more than they hated the Japanese. I think it’s impossible for a first lady to achieve what Eleanor did because she made such an impression on politics. The political world is on the lookout to make sure that no other unelected woman ever becomes that powerful. And Michelle Obama has very wisely stepped into the background. But I there’s lots to learn about soldiering on and trying to get things done, despite public resistance. These people really did seem to believe in the greater good and that everybody deserved the same respect and treatment, and those are things that seem very, very relevant right now.
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