INTERVIEW: Rosemarie DeWitt

Posted by · 10:01 am · November 18th, 2008

Rosemarie DeWittRosemarie DeWitt is excited.

It can be difficult to gauge emotion in the formal, slightly removed context of a phone interview, but DeWitt’s warm, clear voice betrays an eagerness right from the get-go, articulating thoughts at a pace that occasionally exceeds my shorthand. Only when addressing the heady buzz of awards season does she finally pause to reach for words.

“It’s crazy, seriously crazy, but more than anything, it’s just really flattering,” she says.  “This is the best job I’ve ever had, and I’m so, so proud of the film. Anything more than that is just…” A moment passes as she takes a breath, and considers the matter. “Wow,” she concludes simply.

The film in question, of course, is “Rachel Getting Married,” Jonathan Demme’s barbed family drama that has been widley declared the filmmaker’s return to form after some years in the wilderness. The buzz, meanwhile, is for DeWitt’s subtle, complex turn in the title role, which has garnered considerable plaudits for the hitherto low-profile 34-year-old actor, a frequent stage presence only recently receiving her due on screen, both big and small.

Best known until now for her tart, sexy portrayal of Midge, Jon Hamm’s bohemian city mistress in TV critics’ darling “Mad Men,” DeWitt is calling from Los Angeles.  She’s just finishing work on another cable series, “The United States of Tara,” a dark, high-concept comedy created by Diablo Cody and starring Toni Collette (an “absolute genius,” DeWitt gushes).

All of which would be enough to get excited about without Oscar talk being thrown into the mix. But as Rachel, the older sister of Anne Hathaway’s self-destructive addict Kym, DeWitt’s attentive, commendably unflattering performance finds itself right in the thick of the Best Supporting Actress competition. Hers is, for me, the most resonant performance in a film that doesn’t want for thespian fireworks, largely because DeWitt never pushes Rachel into the stock character of the saintly, long-suffering sibling.

It’s an area DeWitt was keen to avoid. “I loved the fact that Rachel could be so loving and generous in one moment, and then incredibly small and cruel in the next,” she says.  “Real life is like that; people are like that.  Jenny (Lumet, the film’s freshman writer) could have just written this as a story about the good sister and the bad sister, but that’s not how families are. She made it a lot more gray than that. That‘s what really drew me in.”

For DeWitt, the ambiguity extended to her on-screen sibling too: “It‘s interesting that seeing the film afterwards, I found myself so moved by Kym’s plight, trying to find a way to deal with this brittleness in her sister. She can be terribly narcissistic, but through that, you see how hard it is for her to forgive herself and her whole family. I was so sad for her, I started crying.”

In fact, despite her character’s ostensible “goodness,” DeWitt admits to wondering, early in the process, whether the cards were overly stacked against her.

“I was a little bit worried, when I read the script, that she seemed like such an unlikeable character,” she says.  “On the page, I just saw her yelling over and over at her sister, and I thought, ‘Oh God, do I really want to be her?’”

With Demme, however, they worked on finding softer notes to play in Rachel’s anger.  DeWitt liked the character more and more as production went along, Rachel ultimately revealing an “inner radiance” to the actress.

“I think that’s the sort of person she is,” DeWitt says after a moment’s pause.  “She‘s someone who is very, very good at her own life, but within her family, is constantly pushed into the background. That’s a fascinating thing to play.”

In the film, Rachel is a trainee psychologist completing her Ph. D., something DeWitt considered a crucial inroad into the character. “What I found really interesting about Rachel is that she’s chosen psychology as a route to fixing herself and her family, and she’s gradually beginning to realize that it’s not the right route, that you can’t fix everyone. And I think the film shows her journey towards letting go of that that idea.”

(from left) Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt in Rachel Getting MarriedIt’s the latter discovery, in particular, that DeWitt found most relatable in the character.  “I don’t identify with the facts of Rachel’s life, of course, but we definitely have some shared experiences. I could relate to that theme of letting go, and that messy, complicated kind of love that the film deals with. All families have that, I think.”

Meanwhile, as DeWitt describes it, the shoot was as happily messy, complicated and fluid as the story they were telling. “Jonathan just loves people,” she says with a chuckle. “You can see it in his early films, he has this big heart. And here he was interested in everybody at once. So he had Declan (Quinn, the film’s D.P.) just moving the camera wherever he felt the most interesting thing was happening in a scene. We didn’t really know what to expect. It was all really spontaneous, which made the experience quite a lot like working in theatre. In the end, it was like we were all just playing on a big playground.”

The spontaneity that DeWitt describes is evident throughout the jaggedly structured, loosely choreographed film (more than a few critics have made comparisons to the Dogme film movement), but despite its limber, casual tone, she insists it was much more disciplined than it appears. “Jonathan keeps saying it was actually 90% scripted and 10% improvised,” she says, rather to my surprise. “Those dinner scenes feel really loose and flowing, but it was pretty much word for word what was in the script. That’s a testament to Jenny’s writing.”

Which is not to say that there wasn’t some room for maneuver and experimentation. “Oh, we improvised a lot of scenes and situations that weren’t actually filmed,” DeWitt reveals. “We tried out this one bit where Rachel and her friend Emma are spooning on a bed together, just goofing around. We never planned to use those in the movie, but they really helped deepen our understanding of the characters.”

Interestingly, there was less initial bonding between DeWitt and Hathaway — DeWitt says the two women only had one social dinner together before filming began. It was, however, a calculated decision to distance them, and DeWitt believes it is accountable for the authenticity of the fractious sisterly relationship depicted in the film.

“It was important for the movie that we didn’t get to know each other too well beforehand. I think we actually kind of avoided each other for a while, so we could maintain that tension between Kym and Rachel on screen.  As it went on, we’d do more chummy things together — going for pedicures and stuff — which sort of fit the course of their relationship. It sounds funny, but we definitely became a lot closer afterwards.  She’s so incredibly present. As an actress, she really listens. I‘m incredibly happy and excited for her.”

I move on to an aspect of the film that has generated a significant amount of interest — the broad ethnic and cultural diversity of the characters in the film. It‘s something that, ironically enough, would not be so remarkable but for the fact that it goes completely unremarked-upon in the film itself. Was that always the intention?

“I don’t know that it was,” she says, after a moment of consideration. “Nothing about the script was really racially specific, or gender-specific either. At one point, Rachel’s friend Emma was a guy, Emmett. And at one point, Paul Thomas Anderson was going to play Sidney.”

It’s an intriguing thought, but of course, the character of Rachel’s fiancee Sidney, wound up being played by Tunde Adebimpe, the African-American lead singer of alt-rock band TV on the Radio. “Yeah, and then Tunde came on board,” DeWitt laughs, her tone mock-ominous. “And so then all these musicians came into it, and we just had this great big melting pot of artists. That’s really what made it such a great time — there was just so much going on.”

“Melting-pot” is a telling term for a film that some say offers a snapshot of a country in the midst of momentous social change. Does DeWitt see that in the film?

“I don’t really know,” she admits. “It’s obviously not an accurate portrait of all of America, but for many of us, I think if you look at your life, you’ll find it looks a lot like that. I don’t think people classify their own friends and family in such strict cultural terms anymore. There is a change going on, and I guess after the election, people might see a bit of that in our movie. If they do, that’s incredible.”

It’s one of several “incredibles” with which DeWitt peppers her conversation, not least when discussing the present state of her career. “I guess everything’s kind of connected lately,” she says modestly.  “‘Mad Men’ came along last year, and I knew that would be great. And then ‘Rachel,’ and now ‘Tara…’ She trails off, but rapidly picks up again. “Working in film can be a bit of a risk: I mean, in theater, you know something will be great with all the work-shopping and rehearsing, but with film, that all has to happen so much quicker.”

So, with her profile on the rise and potential awards hardware on the horizon, what sort of projects in DeWitt hoping will come her way? “Oh God, who knows?” she asks. She suddenly laughs at a recollection. “I remember at the wrap party for “Rachel,” I got really drunk and just went round saying to everyone, ‘I’m not Rachel, I’m not Rachel.’ I just keep looking for work that’s really different. I’ve been incredibly lucky with the material.”

Maybe so. But one suspects that Rosemarie DeWitt knows how to make her own luck.

→ 5 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Featured · Interviews

5 responses so far

  • 1 11-18-2008 at 10:52 am

    Speaking English said...

    Aw, what a warm, genuine woman. It sounds like she’s having the time of her life, and I’m glad I got to experience her movie and feel that same kind of joy.

  • 2 11-18-2008 at 1:08 pm

    nick said...

    She’s fantastic in Rachel and was perfect on Mad Men.

    Extremely cute as well; I am a BIG fan.

  • 3 11-18-2008 at 6:26 pm

    McGuff said...

    “And here he was interested in everybody at once. So he had Declan (Quinn, the film’s D.P.) just moving the camera wherever he felt the most interesting thing was happening in a scene. We didn’t really know what to expect.”

    This was without question, my biggest complaint about the movie. In integral scenes, rather than stick the camera on the movie’s real stars — DeWitt more than anything else — we get jerked around, and in emotional scenes, I was constantly distracted by the hyperactivity. This is no complaint on DeWitt, though, who is stupendous, and comes across very sweet in this interview.

    But by far the most shocking note of the interview:

    “And at one point, Paul Thomas Anderson was going to play Sidney.”


  • 4 11-18-2008 at 9:16 pm

    Matthew said...

    I finally got to see Rachel Getting Married last night, and though I wasn’t amazed by the film as a whole, I absolutely adored DeWitt. She was just so wonderful, and created such a beautiful subtle character.

  • 5 11-19-2008 at 1:33 pm

    Lance said...

    Yeah, I like this actress too, but I HATED this movie! It was as if a friend came back from a wedding and made you sit through their boring video of it.