Denial, Aidan Quinn says, is a persistent force that's hard to fight.
That's true whether it's one man looking at his own life - or the government of France, confronting its role in the Nazi atrocities of World War II.
Both come into play in Sarah's Key, in limited release today (7/22/11), in which Quinn plays a man who learns a secret about his mother. The film itself is about journalist, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, who becomes obsessed with the fate of one victim in the French round-up of Jews in Paris in 1942.
Her investigation eventually leads her to Quinn, as a restaurateur in Italy, the son of an American father and a French émigré mother. She tells him facts about his mother that he violently rejects because they seem so far beyond the realm of possibility of who he thought his mother was.
"I think something like that would be absolutely staggering," Quinn says in a telephone interview. "It would be mind-blowing. Your whole construction of who you are, your past identity - to have it be so far away from the truth would be devastating.
"That's why it's rather hard for him to get on board. He can't even allow himself to think these things about his mother are true until his father admits that they are."
Which raises the question: If your mother turned out to be someone completely different than you thought, who does that make you? Does it change who you are as a person if her past turns out to be a lie?
"That's an endless debate," Quinn, 52, says of the nature-vs.-nurture question. "Genetics play a huge part in who we are. But we also have free will. In terms of this character - particularly in the novel the film is based on - it turns out to be a vehicle for self-discovery, asking those questions.
"Really, most of us just focus on what's in front of us. We're too busy putting out the fires of everyday life."
Though his role was small, Quinn took the film on because "it's a phenomenal story. Working with Kristin Scott Thomas was attractive. But really - it's a great story that illuminates something about us as people on this planet."
The catalytic event in the film is the notorious 1942 Vel d'Hiv round-up, in which Jews were rousted from their homes in Paris - not by the Nazis but by the French police, working for the Nazis. They were collected at a stadium and kept there until they could be transported to Nazi concentration camps. It was only in 1995 that French president Jacques Chirac apologized on behalf of the French government for that particular incident.
"That whole period is something we should continue to question - how do we allow that to happen?" Quinn says. "It took France until 1995 to recognize its role. That's 53 years. I don't think denial in the long-term serves anyone."
Quinn is currently working on a new TV series, Prime Suspect, based on the popular British series, to star Maria Bello in a role originated by Helen Mirren. TV, Quinn says, keeps him busy.
"There's certainly more work for me in TV these days," he says. "I get to do interesting roles and make a living."
He got a taste of that in 2006, in the critically acclaimed but short-lived NBC series, The Book of Daniel, in which he played a drug-abusing minister who had regular conversations with Jesus. The show - hailed for its blend of brains, humor and provocative drama - quickly drew flak from the religious right and, as a result, was cancelled.
"We became the No. 1 target of the Christian Coalition," he says. "Their goal was to get us off the air and they succeeded. They sent 10,000 letters and threatened a boycott of our sponsors. That convinced NBC; it was a done deal.
"I think the show was probably a year or two too early. If we'd come along a couple of years later, we might have been OK. But this was in the throes of the Bush administration. These days, the stuff we did that caused problems is commonplace; it's the norm."
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hollywoodnfine