Maura Tierney met with director Felix Van Groeningen over Skype to discuss playing Nic Sheff’s stepmother, Karen in Beautiful Boy. The story is based on Nic’s memoir of falling into a dark world of drug addiction — alcohol, weed, crystal meth and heroine. For days, Nic would go off on his drug binges, alternating with stints in rehab for temporary respites. After Tierney was sent the script, she signed on almost immediately.
I spoke to her en route to a Q&A about working with Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet and working with director Felix Van Groeningen.
Read our chat below:
What was your first introduction to Karen Scheff?
I was sent the script and the whole process was a quick one because someone else was meant to do it. I was so moved by it and like you said, the script was so beautiful and the movie is beautiful. I spoke to Felix for twenty minutes on Skype and we moved forward.
What did he tell you about her at that point?
Initially, the role wasn’t entirely flushed out. There was a lot of work that we did and there was a lot of improvising that was done there that helped. He even said the character wasn’t quite finished for him at that pass of the script.
Steve, Timmy, and I spent five days with Felix just rehearsing and a lot came out of that and there was a lot that he wanted from Karen that wasn’t necessarily on the page that we would try to communicate non-verbally sometimes which is the conflict of her and how alienating addiction can be and when someone you love suffers from addiction, it’s like you become invisible and that’s something we wanted to try to portray.
I spoke to Karen several times before we started shooting, so that was very helpful to me.
She’s an extremely kind woman. She’s very smart and has a great sense of humor and she was very honest and open. Even if it didn’t end up in the film, talking to her was very helpful in informing even those quiet moments.
Those were some of the most powerful moments. You mentioned spending time with her, what else did you learn from her?
What’s interesting is that she met David when Nic was four-years-old. She didn’t have any kids of her own and she said, “I was afraid to meet his son. I didn’t know how I’d respond to this child.” She said she was afraid of children. Don’t forget that Karen is an artist, she paints and she said that she and Nic started painting together and they had a connection right away. I think she felt so relieved at how easy it was to connect with this boy because she was very much in love with David. I think she had this combination of gratitude to Nic. She thought he was incredibly special. He is and so it Timmy. I think there was that mixture of gratitude and she did a lot of the mothering, almost as much as his own mother.
You’re also dealing with a real-life person and people who are still very much alive. How do you approach something like that?
We had a ton of pictures and the wardrobe department was really great. There was a whole wall of the family spanning the entire time frame of the film. It was really great to look up at the wall and to see them growing up together. So, that visually was helpful. Karen has a particular style and we really emulated that. Putting on the kind of clothes that she wore. She wore baggy jeans covered in paint because she was always painting. She wore boots. That was really helpful.
I love that Karen is just this rock with Nic and David.
I think she had an extreme amount of patience and love as does David. I think she has a more objective view. It’s not in the film, but I think she knew before David did, or she had her eyes on it because she’s his stepmom. She was in a little bit less denial about how serious the problem was. The thing with her was that she loved him so much, but she had her children who were being adversely affected by his presence. I think there was a constant conflict for her between her love for him and then her love and need to protect her younger children from the havoc he was wreaking on the family. I don’t think she ever picked anybody. I think she managed to maintain the depth of her love without choosing her biological children over him, she hung in there for everybody and that’s hard.
What was it like working with Timothée and Steve?
Steve is everything you think he is. He’s really funny, but he’s very thoughtful and a very committed actor. Timmy is so open and loving so it was easy to love him. He’s really willing to go there. He emaciated himself. We were worried about him because he got really skinny. They’re such committed actors, and they were both really willing to be vulnerable.
Felix is totally open to us improving and coming at it from a different way. He’s really open. It’s not set and if something changed it did and it was great.
Beautiful Boy is released on October 12.