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Robin Wright

The balance between compassion and conviction

ROBIN WRIGHT - Feature Image

An icon of the balance between compassion and conviction, Robin Wright has offered  some of the most complex and layered portraits of women on screen. Friend and  collaborator Erin Dignam catches up with the actress in Santa Monica, to discuss the  integrity of performance, beauty in failure, and Robin’s major move to the director’s chair.

ERIN DIGNAM: Let’s start at the beginning, all right? Do you remember when we first met?
ROBIN WRIGHT: I had read your script. I was on a soap opera at the time: Santa Barbara. I went up to the Pacific Palisades where you had rented a house. You were standing out on the bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I stopped in the sliding glass door frame, and you just turned around, like you felt me. We went right into each other’s arms and hugged for the longest time. We had never met before.
ED: I remember turning and I couldn’t see you because of the sun. You were brimmed in light. You were so loving towards me from the first moment, and I was very grateful for that. It was my first film. Shooting that first film wasn’t easy, right? We had no money.
RW: It wasn’t easy, but it was the richest acting experience I had ever had up to that point—probably since then, to tell you the truth. You used to teach acting, and you were an actress before becoming a writer and director, so you’ve had a lot of experience. I remember you had us rehearse, and not just “rehearse the scenes,” but we had to do exercises to discover our characters. I remember one of the exercises. You said to the other actor, “Lay on top of Robin, and don’t let her up.” I was facedown on the floor. He was lying on my back, and he was so much stronger than me. You said, “You have to get up, Robin.” It taught us about the power dynamic of the relationship.
ED: When you throw actors together, they don’t know each other, and you need a shortcut where they can experience the reality of the narrative. It was fun because you learned so quickly. I can see that also holds true in your direct- ing. You learned extremely fast.
RW: Being an actor, I’ve gained a lot watching directors. I know what is beneficial to me, and what is a hindrance. I catalogue these things as I go along. I come up with analogies and metaphors that I can throw at the actor. You can’t play a direction like, “Give me more energy, we need you to be more sad.” They’re not playable actions. It’s about quickly coming up with those analogies, metaphors, and stories, even while the camera is rolling. Like you said—a shortcut to the reality.
ED: Yeah, you can make a thousand decisions to ensure that a film looks a certain way, sounds a certain way, and moves a certain way, but between the words action and cut, the actor is in total control of all of that.
RW: It’s so true, wow, I didn’t think about that, yeah.
ED: I found a lot of times, directing you, that you didn’t need anything. Your instinct is so strong. You find the reality.
RW: What I realized from season two of directing House of Cards was: “Robin, just shut up. You don’t have to run in there after the first take, they’re going to discover it.” But basically it’s having faith and trust in the actors.
ED: In the film that we did together, William Hurt said to me, “Erin, I can feel you worrying.”
RW: Are you serious?
ED: Yeah, he said, “I can feel you worrying. Can you get on my side?”
RW: It’s so true. You can feel directors shaking their heads right in your eye-line thinking, “Oh my god. This is so bad.”
ED: Yes, I realized he was right and even if he was going somewhere I didn’t want at that moment, he was never going to align with me unless I rooted for him. We had to find the story together, down the road.
RW: It’s a marriage. Everything is a marriage. With all the departments you have to have an understanding—camera, sound…talk to them about how they work, then give them trust. With you, there was so much trust and mentorship going on. I was young, and you took me under your wing. You were the first real director I had with specific ideas of how you wanted me to inhabit the part. I gave myself over to you. Then there was that day I couldn’t get it. I just couldn’t get it, so I shut down. And I said, “Erin, I can’t do it.” The camera was rolling, and you said, “Yes, you can. And you’re going to do it. Now.” You scared the shit out of me. You basically said, “I’m not allowing this because you have it in you.” It made me break through a barrier that was a consistent pattern of mine, where I would just give up if I couldn’t be perfect at something. You said that it doesn’t have to be exact, or perfect, but do it. Now. You said it in front of the whole crew. I was up on a roof. You wouldn’t let me come down. It made me break through a barrier. And you told me to go ahead, fail, look ugly, do it wrong, because I’d get something from that failure.
ED: You’re an actress who has really held yourself to a certain standard. You reject doing something that doesn’t feel true. This has forced you to become very precise. You possess a unique interior space and retain a certain mystery as a person and actress. Audiences are interested in what you’re thinking, not just what you’re feeling. You know yourself as an artist. At first I thought that directing was a passing curiosity, but you’re doing it and you’re doing it well. What are your influences?
RW: I’m inspired by Anthony Minghella. I responded to his methodology. He didn’t say “This is who you are, and this is the way you get there. He was not overly directive. He wasn’t abrasive in terms of his direction. .” He enveloped you with story. He helped you embody the story around the character that you were playing. You realized after you shot the movie “Oh, I see now what he was doing.” I loved working with him for that reason.
ED: You definitely don’t lead with your ego. Minghella sounds like a perfect model for you.
RW: I also admire Paul Thomas Anderson. I love what he does. On the other end of the spectrum is Wes Anderson. Budapest Hotel is one of my favorite movies. Fox Catcher and Whiplash are just beautifully done. I’m done with the hand-held, beer commercial look and style. I just don’t respond to it. I like the stillness of frame. Being David Fincher-educated on the House of Cards has certainly influenced me. We aren’t allowed to use a hand-held camera or a steady cam. That’s the style template. You tell the story while seeing the environment that these people live in. I love the 18 lens versus the 32. I just love the wide-wide.
ED: And what kind of film would you like to direct?
RW: Sleeper is one of my absolute favorite movies. I love the quirkiness of Harold and Maude. I love Deer Hunter, and anything that falls in the range of these movies.
ED: Well, you are one of the funniest people I know. I think being a mother is going to benefit you. You have the free time to be able to direct now. Your kids have grown up. I did it the other way around. I am now raising my children. I recently realized something—I became more ruthless when I became a mother, I’m protecting the child.
RW: As a parent, you learn what is constructive, and what is productive. It’s about taking tactical measures, just like being a parent. What’s the right thing to say? You know, you can destroy them with a line.
ED: It’s all about being careful. In terms of future projects, is there a particular film you’d like to direct?
RW: Yes. I have optioned a book, which I want to be in pre-production by 2016.
Photography: Brigitte Lacombe for NeueJournal

Guest Photo Editor: Janet Johnson