True Blood star Anna Paquin talks about her role in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret
Anna Paquin burst onto the movie scene in 1993 at age 11 when she won an Oscar for her performance in Jane Campion’s The Piano. Her filmmography since then has encompassed everything from indies to blockbusters and has featured films from a long list of great directors including Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Noah Baumbach, Cameron Crowe, Franco Zefferelli and Gus Van Sant. She’s also been busy on stage and on television, most recently as Sookie Stackhouse on HBO’s hit series True Blood. Paquin completed shooting on Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret back in 2005, but the film reportedly got stuck in the editing room with the director unable to trim the film to an agreeable length for the studio and the studio unwilling to continue funding a film that might not ever get released.
Luckily, hope was not abandoned, a cut satisfactory to all parties was finally achieved and Margaret was released in the Fall of 2011. Somewhat lost in all the controversy surrounding the film’s journey to the big screen is what a terrific piece of work it is. There are a couple of wonderful supporting performances from Jeannie Berlin and J. Smith-Cameron and a remarkable star turn by Paquin who really shines. Her character Lisa is a somewhat privileged New York 17-year-old who is precociously intelligent but not at all emotionally equipped to cope with a very adult tragedy she finds herself wrapped up in. Paquin tears into Lonergan’s finely drawn, full-blooded character with the fearlessness you’d hope for from an actress who has been working at her craft for the better part of two decades.
Paquin recently took a few minutes out of her busy schedule shooting the 5th season of True Blood to talk to Awards Daily about Margaret.
Craig Kennedy: How frustrating was it for you to have this film you worked on and sweated over be sort of put on the shelf for six years before anyone had a chance to see it?
Anna Paquin: At first it was unclear when and if it was ever going to happen, but I’ve been pretty busy the last six years and I kind of just stopped thinking about it. I knew ultimately there was going to be some conclusion to that particular story, but I didn’t really know what it was going to be. Part of the thing about only acting in a movie is you get to sort of walk away when it’s done and, not forget about it, but move on to other things. That’s pretty much the same for me regardless of how long it takes a movie to come out. You sort of go on to the next job, literally.
CK: Did you have any sense before seeing it that you had something special here in terms of your performance and of the movie itself?
AP: You can tell when you’re reading a script if it’s something special and Kenny Lonergan’s script was extraordinary. We all worked incredibly hard and sweat blood for the movie. There wasn’t anyone who didn’t show up ready to go and it was the kind of a job where I left every single night just feeling exhausted and totally exhilarated and so excited for the next day. Generally, when you have that kind of feeling and it’s consistent, it means there’s something happening that’s working. Margaret was an amazing experience.
CK: Is the character Lisa and the experience of being her still fresh in your mind all this time later?
AP: I was reminded of a lot of stuff when I watched the final film before it came out last fall. It’s one of those things where you don’t think you remember the details and then you watch it or see a photograph and you suddenly remember absolutely everything.
CK: Lisa is a difficult character for an audience. She’s an intelligent young woman, but she’s not well equipped emotionally to handle these very adult problems. She acts out in ways that make her not always likable. How do you approach a character like that?
AP: You say “difficult,” but an actress says “exciting.” It’s a challenge. I’m not someone who is burdened by needing to play incredibly likable people all the time. I’m not really hung up on that as a viewer either. I tend to like characters who are real and real people have flaws and real people react to real life events and traumas in ways that are not always necessarily socially acceptable. Lisa is this girl who is kind of just living her life with the incredibly all-consuming problems of a 17-year-old like: “What am I going to wear on my horseback riding trip with my dad this summer?” And then she’s shocked into reality by this horrible bus accident that killed a woman and she knows in her heart she partially caused it. For all her incredibly articulate ability to describe and argue politics in the classroom and to sort of take people on verbally, she has absolutely no tools to deal with what she’s coming up against and what it means to her. She does what she thinks is the right thing to do, which is to try to be honest about it and to say what really happened in the hope that some kind of justice is done, but nobody is particularly interested in listening to her or acting on it. It’s incredibly shocking to her because of that naivety of being the kid and thinking that people should do the right thing simply for the sake of doing the right thing. She hasn’t been disillusioned yet. Even though she lives in the big city and feels very worldly, it’s a pretty rude awaking, that jump from childlike thinking to the adult realization that the world is not a perfect place and sometimes the bad guy gets away and nobody cares. She’s pretty brutal on everyone around her while she’s going through it, too. Some people self-destruct inwardly but she self-destructs by taking out everything else around her. Her behavior and all the choices she makes after the bus accident, it’s all just a big cry for help but it’s so aggressive it gets a bad reaction from people.
CK: For all the extremes of her situation, Margaret at least is allowed to grow up and to make mistakes in private. Being in the public eye since you were 9 years old, you’ve had to make that transition in a spotlight. How did you navigate the challenges of maturing with everyone watching you?
AP: Dumb luck (laughs). Look, I don’t think you can engineer a life that is perfect were nobody finds out about your personal ups and downs. I think it’s luck. It’s not like nothing unpleasant or difficult has ever happened in my life. It’s just that nothing has ever happened in a way that the whole world had to find out about it. Some of that has to do with the choices I’ve made, but also I feel like when I was a teenager, the whole tabloid culture with the obsession over every single minute detail of people’s private lives just didn’t exist in the same way that it does now. To a certain extent, if you weren’t dancing on tables in a nightclub, nobody was going to bother you. There weren’t paparazzi camped outside my school. I was just going to school and going to work and not really doing anything massively exciting. Today, there are photographs even of young actresses who don’t have anything controversial about them and they’re hard working and smart. To me that’s a little weird. I feel grateful that wasn’t the realty that I grew up in.
CK: Do you view Lisa any differently now at 29 than you did when you were a bit closer to her in age?
AP: At the time I was 23, I wasn’t 17, so there was a bit of distance even then. Now, I do feel like I have a bit more actual objectivity about being a teenager as opposed to that thing where you’ve just gotten out the other end of your teens and you feel like you have objectivity and you can make very profound sounding statements about “when I was a teenager…” yet it was only two years ago. Now that I’m about to hit 30, I can make generalized comments about adolescent behavior and what one is like during that time with more authority. I’m an adult now. I’m not a post-adolescent young adult. There’s some distance, but I have the same affection for her. She’s a fantastic character.
CK: These kinds of parts just don’t come along everyday, do they?
AP: Especially for women and for really young women. That’s not to say there are no great parts, obviously there are, but I feel like I read more scripts where I think “Damn, this would be amazing if I was the 28-year-old dude. I really like his part.” It’s changing slowly, but it’s so exciting when something lands on your radar that is written like that and frankly there are very few scripts I’ve ever read that are as well written as Margaret. Kenny is one of the most gifted writers out there. I love the way he tells stories. I love the way he uses language. I love his characterizations and he’s an amazing director.
CK: You worked with him on the London stage in 2002 with his play This Is Our Youth (Paquin co-starred opposite Jake Gyllenhaal) so you must’ve already had an idea of what kind of a director he’d be. How does his background in theater and as a writer affect his directorial style?
AP: Writers are always very specific directors because obviously they have that extra level of connection to the material. That’s not to say you can’t have great connection with the material if you’re not a writer, but with a writer it’s even stronger. Also, there’s this disciplined work ethic that is kind of expected in theater whereby everybody rehearses. There’s none of this, “No, I’d really rather not rehearse, let’s keep it fresh.”
CK: So rehearsals were a big part of working on Margaret?
AP: Absolutely. We were shooting in New York, which is challenging in various ways especially if you’re shooting outside or in public buildings. Time is limited with locations you have for certain amounts of time so we kind of worked it like a play. We arrived ready to go so that the performances were being fine-tuned on the day and we were still getting to play with them, but we didn’t have to discover the bigger beats of the themes and the overall arc of the story. That stuff was worked out in the rehearsal room ahead of time just like you would with a play. Everybody works differently. Some people don’t like rehearsing and I respect that. It just happens to be my preferred working process. I feel like the more I’ve thought about everything going in, the more free I am on the day to just let it all go and exist in the character.
CK: Looking back over your career, you’ve worked with all different kinds of great directors and co-stars and you’ve been in every kind of project from small indies to comic book blockbusters and from stage to television. Have you had a guiding principle in the projects you’ve chosen? Is there one thing you like better than another?
AP: I like good material and I like to work with talented people. I don’t really perceive there to be a hierarchy of form and medium. I’d rather be doing good television than a bad film. I’d rather do a good piece of theater that 5 people are going to see than a movie that doesn’t satisfy me on any level. I like to go to work and feel inspired and I’ve been incredibly blessed to have had opportunities in all mediums that have been like that, which I know is rare.
CK: How is it different working on a weekly series like True Blood as opposed to a film like Margaret?
AP: It’s not that different. When they say “It’s not TV it’s HBO,” it’s kind of true. We shoot multi-camera and on film. It doesn’t feel like there are corners being cut because we’re on a TV schedule. There’s more time and money than probably 80 percent of the movies I’ve worked on. HBO is incredibly good about giving time where time is needed. If there’s a big day with an ambitious scene, they don’t try to cram it into an impossibly short amount of time. They take care of their creative product which is why their network is great. They kind of leave us to do our thing. There’s no rehearsal period like with a movie or a play, but you’re five seasons in. You can kind of – wallow is the wrong word – but you can spend more time in your character’s skin and in their world than you do in film. In that respect, it’s completely different creatively and exciting for totally different reasons. There are also the challenges of trying to keep a weekly show interesting and alive. Both are exciting creatively.
CK: As an actress, you had incredible success right out of the gate. You won an Oscar at 11 for your very first role. Looking back, how do you think that success has colored how you approach your career or your expectations of it?
AP: I know it’s afforded me opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise had, but I was way too young to really know the difference at the time it was all kicking off. I also don’t have any other experience to compare it to. You can’t go back and experience what life would be if you’d taken a different course. I’m sure it’s all been colored in ways I’m not totally aware of, but I don’t feel like I really have a lot of expectations. I do my work and I love what I do. It’s been a huge part of my life, the last half of my childhood, my entire adolescence and everything since then, but it’s a little hard to be objective about how it all started.