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Claire Danes as Temple Grandin Tonight on HBO

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I have been waiting impatiently for about a decade now to see the spark in Claire Danes' eyes that I saw way back when she played Angela Chase in My So Called Life. She's been in a bunch of movies and has been lovely and usually very good, but no where near great.

Finally, she has a found a role where she is beyond great, she is stupendous. Claire Danes is revelatory as Temple Grandin animal behaviorist, best-selling author, autistic and expert in autism. This is a fascinating movie and I learned so much about this woman and about autism. Temple did not speak until she was four and if not for her mother would have probably ended up spending her life in an institution. What a loss that would have been.

I was riveted in many ways by the film especially the scenes about how Grandin related to animals, especially cows. I couldn't believe it when I learned that she has designed over 50% cattle slaughterhouses in the country and they are all designed to promote humane treatment of the animals.

But it is Danes who is a revelation, and I really hope that this will convince her and others that she has the range to dig into meaty roles in the future.

Temple Grandin spent a couple of minutes on the phone with me talking about the film, her work and her life.

W&H: First I want to talk a little bit about your mother. The film shows how your mother never gave up on you. And it's almost a love story between the two of you. What was your father's role?

Temple Grandin: Mother was the one who kept me out of an institution. My father, like a lot of dads, had very little input. He would have gone along with the doctors. Back in the 50's you sort of did what the doctors did. In a lot of families where they have a severely handicapped kid, it's the mothers that take care of it. I go and do a talk and autism meeting and there are a few dads there. But for every dad there are ten mothers.

W&H: What was so magical for me was your relationship with animals.

TG: When I was in high school I thought everybody thought in pictures like I did. The movie showed how I thought in pictures brilliantly. The other thing that I really liked about the movie was that all my projects that were in the movie. They were all actually done and they were all made. The squeeze machines were built off the drawing. Those were all built exactly the way I did them.

W&H: You said in the press notes I was reading that you described autism as "the far side of darkness"

TG: I need to get that off the website. My first book was called Emergence: Labeled Autistic. And about seven or eight years ago I wrote a new forward for Emergence and I said Emergence was a good title because you gradually emerge. There aren't sudden turning points. Now there were certain things that were very important to me: The early education intervention, Dr. Carlock, these mentor teachers. You take these geeky, quirky kids, and a mentor and/or teacher can really turn them around.

W&H: Do you feel that the sexism that you experienced in the cattle industry because of your issues related to autism that you didn't...

TG: Being a woman had a lot to do with it. There were no ladies working in the feed yard. The only women working in that industry in the early seventies were the secretaries in the office.

W&H: Do you think that you reacted differently than somebody might have in that situation because of your autism?

TG: I didn't pick up subtle social signals. So if they didn't actually throw me out of the yard then I was happy. I wouldn't have picked up them rolling their eyes and the more subtle stuff.

W&H: So you probably got further as a woman because of your disability?

TG: That's right. I was just so obsessed with it. And as long as they would tolerate me and not physically remove me from the premises, then I was happy.

W&H: Did you ever expect that your work and your life would move so many people? And that you would have such an effect on the autistic community, as well as the work you've done in the cattle community?

TG: No. I never dreamed that.

W&H: What does that mean to you today?

TG: People ask me how it feels to get recognized in the airport. I said it's a responsibility. I want to make sure that the information I give out about autism and about livestock or whatever, is accurate information. There's a lot of controversy in the autism field about different kinds of treatments and things. I take a middle of the road approach.

W&H: Have your symptoms, the things that have set you off, decreased as you aged?

Temple: The sensory issues were decreased by the medication. I'm on anti-depressants. The movie was pre anti-depressants. What they did for me was stop the constant panic attacks. I was panicky all the time. That was stopped with medication. There is a lot of controversy about anti-depressants but I didn't take them for depression. I took them to stop anxiety. People on the spectrum often need tiny doses. If you give too much they're going to have insomnia, agitation. The thing is when the medication works - it was like magic. That's why there is a chapter in Thinking In Pictures called a "Believer in Bio Chemistry." There's an old DuPont saying, "better living through chemistry." And I had better living though chemistry.

W&H: Doors are an important image for you.

TG: Doors are still kind of an important image. I have to have an image in order to think. I can't think without an image. But now I have so many experiences in so many places that I don't need to use a door anymore. I can just refer back to other previous experiences.

W&H: A lot of the conversations on autism is surrounded around boys much more than girls.

TG: There are more autistic boys than girls. It's 4 to 1.

W&H: Why do you think that is? What have you discovered?

TG: It's true for a lot of disorders. It might have something to do with brain lateralization. If a lady has a stroke on the language side of the brain she'll often recover speech. A guy won't. The brains more lateralized.

W&H: You're a professor now?

TG: Professor of Animal Science. I teach a short course I teach on livestock handling. I do a lot of guest lecturing and a lot of different classes. I also do lectures at the vet college.

W&H: I was blown away with the influence you've had over the humane treatment of cattle and how you've revolutionized that industry.

TG: The thing is when I first started I was all about equipment. Just build the perfect system. But you know what? I couldn't get people to run the equipment correctly. And now I'm spending most of my time on developing auditing systems for monitoring how people handle cattle. I developed a very simple scoring system and it involves mooing. If more than three moo going into the stunning box or restrainer or during stunning, they fail the audit. You're allowed three mooing cows out of a hundred. And this has worked really well. I've also figured out ways to make some older junky plants actually work with simple things like non-stick flooring, putting plywood up for solid sides and changing lighting and adding lighting. It's amazing how you can control them with lighting.

W&H: Your thoughts on Claire's performance?

TG: Fantastic! Watching her was like going into a weird time machine back to the sixties and seventies. You would never know it was Claire. Right now I'm looking at a magazine with beautiful Claire on the cover and I'm going how did she turn into me? It's like really, really weird.

W&H: And she sounds like you.

TG: She spent all this time with a voice coach and movement coach. And she had these old ancient videos I sent her. I probably gave her five hours of ancient video. The oldest stuff I could find.

W&H: What do you want people to get out of this movie?

TG: Different kinds of minds are really capable of doing things. I think that's really important. Get people involved in the humane treatment of cattle. The importance of a mentor. Another one of my big concerns is science education in this country. We don't have enough science teachers. I read in the paper that Google was starving for talent. Well, these geeky, quirky kids, we need to get them interested in science. They're not going to get interested if they're not exposed to it. I think the movie shows the sensory issue very well. It shows the visual thinking. I want to emphasize, not every person on the spectrum is a visual thinker. There's also auditory thinkers and pattern thinkers that think in origami and chess. That's more how they think. And then there's some on the spectrum that are just a word thinkers.

W&H: Do you think a lot of people are misdiagnosed or not diagnosed?

TG: The thing is a lot of older people are doing just fine where their work life is going really well but their married life is really screwed up. For those people you probably don't want to get a formal diagnosis because who knows what it's going to do to your health insurance. Read the books. Diagnosis is not precise. It's just a behavioral profile. You can read the books and figure out if you're an Aspie or not. That's what I recommend.

Originally posted on Women & Hollywood