With its unusual premise and star Brit Marling's striking yet unvarnished good looks, the sci-fi-oriented Another Earth ended up on the indie hot lists early on after its award-winning Sundance Film Festival debut this January. Now that the film is about to be released in theaters, it is getting further scrutiny by critics and industry insiders alike.
Talk now includes not only the hosannas for Marling and director Mike Cahill, but also for veteran actor William Mapother, who plays John Burroughs, the film's tragic centerpiece and the Earth-rooted counterpoint to Marling's more spectral character Rhoda.
As the really experienced cast member, Mapother has to shoulder some serious thespian duties for Marling to react to. It is he who embodies the tragic launch point of the film, for it is his character's family that the teenage drunk-driving Rhoda (Marling) kills, landing her a four-year prison sentence for negligent homicide.
The film's focus shifts from the tragedy to the revelation that a twin Earth has somehow appeared and moved close enough to our solar system that it can be easily viewed in the night sky. The story mutates as well from a simple tear-wrencher to an intellectually provocative challenge.
And once the final narrative wrinkle kicks in -- that there is going to be a manned launch set to visit Earth's doppelgänger -- the story shifts again.
Having a track record that spans lots of television, major features (which includes Mission Impossible: 2 and The Grudge), his own entrepreneurial efforts (as a founder of Slated.com) and various indies, the 46-year old Kentuckian brings a nuanced performance to a character that could have oozed pathos in every scene. And he discusses it at length during a recent roundtable interview at the Crosby Hotel.
WM: I do. I can be a bit of a science geek. I tend more towards reading about brain science, neuroscience. I was an English major, so I love discussing possibilities and alternate theories. Aside from the science aspect of it, the philosophical possibilities are so interesting.
It's interesting: Brit, Mike and I all went to Catholic universities. I went to Notre Dame. I don't know if that has any relevance, but maybe we all had a little too much philosophy and theology.
Q: How have you been shaped by that experience -- you are Catholic?
WM: I would not call myself Catholic anymore, but I went to 16 years of Catholic school: grade school, high school and college.
Q: They beat it out of you [chuckle].
WM: They beat it right out of me [laughs]. Or they beat it into me and educated it out of me. I don't know; that's an interesting question. The Catholic schools required work, so I think that may have been where the work ethic came from, in answer to the question of how my character may have been shaped.
I don't think that necessarily I was encouraged by the nuns and the priest to consider alternate possibilities to the universe.
Q: How did you come across Mike and Brit?
WM: Summer 2009, I was here in New York for the Shakespeare Lab at the Public Theater. In the Shakespeare Lab they bring in 12 actors every summer, and bring in some of the best classical acting teachers in the country and they teach the actors about Shakespeare soup to nuts.
For instance, we had classes in eight areas, and our acting teacher is the head of NYU Graduate School for Acting, and our text analysis teacher is a Rhodes Scholar in Elizabethan drama. We had fantastic teachers.
So I'm here, and not being one for missed opportunities, I made a list of the casting directors in New York and mark off the ones I've already met over the years. The few remaining I asked my agent and manager, "See if you can set up some meetings while I'm here."
I met with a few, and one of the offices I met with was James Calleri and Paul Nelson. They're in Chelsea. It was a fourth floor walk-up, the elevator was out, it was dusty, it was loud, they were sharing an office with somebody. Very unassuming, 25 minutes, in and out, very friendly.
Two weeks later, back in LA, a script arrives. "Would William be interested in doing this? We have a director who's never made a feature, a lead actress who's not in SAG, and it's like SAG minimum."
I read the script and thought, this is a really interesting concept, I've never played a character like this. Then I said, "I'd like to meet with Mike and Brit."
We met in a deli in Santa Monica and got on like a house on fire. I said, "The only requirement I have is that I think my scenes could do with a little bit of work."
So the three of us met at my house for a week and a half and workshopped and rewrote and rehearsed everything, which was a godsend.
I feel, and I think they do as well, that we really strengthened it. And the other advantage is that when we got to New York and started shooting, we already had a working relationship, a bond, we had a comfort. A lot of people have said they've seen that on screen in my relationship with Brit.
Q: You're the most experienced actor in the main cast -- did that put an extra responsibility on your shoulders?
WM: I do like taking on responsibility, sometimes too much. But I was aware of that early on and it's something that came up in the previous set of interviews, and that is the actor‛s contribution.
If you think about filmmaking as an entire spectrum, starting with the writer and ending with maybe the marketing department, the actor's contribution is a rather slender band. People wonder why actors can sometimes be neurotic.
It's because you have no power. You give them all the material and the cinematographer, the director, the editor, boy what they can choose... You better hope they like you because they can slice and dice and make you look like a damn fool when your face and body are up there on a 30-foot screen.
Look, we all know how hard it is for us to -- I'm going to speak for myself -- find a still photo of yourself that you like. Like how many times do people send photos and you're like, "Oh burn it."
Well, you're in a theater and it's 24 shots a second, your face, your body, your voice, and it's your craft, the way you earn your living, and it's indelible. It's not like writing a script -- I write as well -- I can't do another draft, it's done.
Generally a wise actor will be very careful about the person to whom he gives that power. But Mike and Brit had already shot footage, so I could see that Mike knew what he was doing and Brit was very, very good. That allayed a lot of my concerns.
Q: They had shot footage for the film like early test footage, which you saw?
WM: They had shot a lot of the scenes before I came on board. Scenes of Brit sometimes walking in the snow, scenes with her family. They had looked for a while and couldn't find an actor that they wanted for my role.
Q: Your character could have chosen another course than his reaction to her when he finds out that she's betrayed him and was the one that killed his family. Did that seem like an inevitable reaction in your mind or in the collective mind?
WM: I don't think it was inevitable, particularly because the scenes prior to that covered a large period of time -- I think six months. We had a couple [of] scenes that covered maybe January, and then there were a couple of scenes in March.
It wasn't as if the action was at a conclusion of a sequence tightly timed and filmed in which the action led naturally to that. There was some leeway. The character could have forgiven her. He could have reverted into violence at that moment instead of collapsing inward. There are a lot of alternate possibilities.
Q: Just speculating...
WM: You make the creative choices, and it's interesting. Sometimes you make them back in Los Angeles in your home and they don't feel right on set a month later across the country, and sometimes they still do.
Fortunately, we were shooting with a very small crew with a digital camera, which meant very little time setting up lights and moving a huge crew around, and that meant more time for takes and for exploring.
A couple of times, a scene wasn't working. We just said, "Let's stop for a second and talk about this," which is unheard of in filmmaking. But that's the advantage of low budget filmmaking: you have time.
I remember when I was working on Mission: Impossible 2, John Woo said, "In Hong Kong, there's not much money and a lot of time. In Hollywood, a lot of money, not much time." Personally I'd prefer not much money, a lot of time.
Q: Your character has this musical background as a composer and performer. How did you work with Mike and Brit as far as this informing the character's emotional journey?
WM: A lot of that was up to me. How that was manifest in his external actions, his external behavior -- a lot of that I made decisions on my own. Then [I] would discuss with them when we were workshopping and say, "I think his reaction here might require a couple more months."
The fact that he was in the arts -- as opposed to finance, for instance -- suggested that he's perhaps a more sensitive person, and therefore to me that made his level of grief at the beginning a bit more believable.
If he had been someone accustomed to sealing off his feelings and not expressing them, it probably would have been more likely that at the beginning of the movie he would have pulled himself out of grief in the four years.
Then obviously, his returning to music as he does when she comes in and sees him playing is a signifier that he's starting to heal. And then his way of expressing his feelings for her with the song made perfect sense.
I remember somebody telling me an anecdote from Beethoven. A woman came up to him after one of his performances and said, "That was beautiful. Can you explain to me what that meant?" And he said, "I'm most eloquent in music. If I can't explain it to you in music, how can I possible do so in words?"
Q: His being a musician helped to explain how you had time to wallow in yourself. If you had been, say, a stockbroker, you would have been forced to go back to work.
WM: This is a horrid generalization, so I'll probably get hate mail from stockbrokers. I would have been forced to get back to work, and would have been less accustomed to being in touch with my feelings and allowing my feelings to drive my decisions and behavior.
Q: There's that push and pull, because she has this knowledge that she's withholding from you and that eventually you'll know, but it happens later in the film. Was there a point where they were developing it with your two characters, possibly some awareness before that moment?
WM: That's something that Mike, Brit and I had conversations about. Part of the fun of film -- and this film in particular -- is that it's open to individual interpretation. Mike wondered if John was aware, or had any inkling, of Rhoda having been the cause of the accident before she actually confesses to him.
He thought that he might have conscious or unconsciously [known], and he asked me. My thought of it was, "No." Generally, you want your character to be as blindsided as possible. Not all the time, but often you want your character to be thrown off balance.
If the question was did we want to delay the revelation?... Yeah, you want to delay it as long as possible because the audience knows that that moment is coming and you want to make them wait for it. They have to suffer a bit.
Q: Thankfully, it was explained why he didn't know it was her. It wouldn't have worked if you didn't explain it.
WM: I'm crazy about that kind of stuff. I write, and when see a movie in which it's supernatural, some other worlds, or some other aspect to our world that we're not aware of, and [they] don't explain what the rules are, that kind of stuff drives me crazy.
I wanted the audience to understand how John wouldn't have known, and so we found out that in a lot of States, minors' identities aren't revealed.
Q: When you first read the script, was part of the attraction for you that the film takes a more human approach?
WM: You mean was I attracted to this project because in this movie we don't attack another planet?
Q: They didn't do that in the film, obviously. There's a glimpse of a green faced guy walking down the street, but if it's happening right now there would be a more serious investigation if the government was going to attack another planet. This film has a more intelligent approach. Was that part of the attraction that you felt?
WM: I think it did. It would not have appealed to me as much if they had had that different approach. It was part of the appeal, and it seems to be more fitting for the characters.
What's going on in the outer world obviously, in the big picture, is a mirror in a sense of what's going on with these two people's lives. A discovery, and a mystery, and in that sense it seemed to be more fitting with the theme and all.
In other words, if our relationship was the same and our Earth was engaging in a strategy of attacking the other one, it would have thrown the movie off balance.
So aside from the fact that I personally think that the approach taken in this movie is a better one. I think that for the movie itself it kept the movie in balance.
Q: You're a well known actor, but your cousin Tom Cruise is an internationally recognized actor. Does that affect you in any way?
WM: That's one question I'm not going to answer -- I don't mind you asking -- only because whenever I answer questions about my cousin, it ends up getting spun and misinterpreted. Not by you guys, because I know you'll present exactly what I say, but someone else will take out pieces and you know... It's happened too often.
We're very close, he's a great guy. I've been burned before with things I've said, so I'd rather not answer questions about him.
Q: You seem to have been in all of these procedural TV series like Criminal Minds...
WM: If you're going to do a guest spot on television, they need bodies on those procedural TV shows. You've got to keep working, and that's where a lot of the work is.
Q: For a while, you were also on Lost. Do you expect a lot of very, very convoluted science-fiction questions from fans? Like fan mail? Do you feel like people are going to look at you like some sort of expert?
WM: I hope they don't look at me as some sort of an expert.
Q: Are you ready for comic conventions?
WM: I'm ready for conventions. You know what's interesting, the sort of questions that Lost raises are of a different sort from this movie.
In other words, Lost is about figuring out the world of the show, whereas this one seems to raise questions about the world that we know. But I'm happy to entertain both.
One of the great things about having been on Lost is people coming up and feeling so enthusiastic about the show and saying, "Oh it provided us so much entertainment," or "It inspired conversations."
So I'm looking forward to people coming up and talking to me about this one [Another Earth] as well.
[If you want to learn more about the film before it opens this weekend, director Mike Cahill and star Brit Marling will be doing a Q&A at the Apple Store in Manhattan's Soho district, Thursday, July 21, at 7:00 p.m.]
For an extended version of this interview go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com