PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE - Q&A with EMILY WATSON
Movie Interview by Tom Dawson
How did you get involved with PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE?
I was in LA promoting another film in the summer of 2000. Paul Thomas Anderson had been thinking about using me for a while, although I didn't know that. He'd seen THE CRADLE WILL ROCK, which came out in 1998, and so he had had me in mind for a while. We met and had lunch and he said, 'I'm doing this film with Adam Sandler and I'm writing a part for you', and I said, 'Fine'. He asked me what I wanted to do next, and I said I'm not interested in weeping and wailing and crying and dying. He was in a similar frame of mind, because he had made MAGNOLIA.
Does having a part written specifically written for you increase the pressure on you?
I don't think you think like that really. I always think I am going to do my best. I don't think I will be less good because there's less pressure on me. I was a huge fan of Paul's work and I was pretty excited when I got the call. What was interesting was getting to know him. He's an amazing person. When there's really interesting work going on, there's a really interesting human being in the middle of it, and he is that. He's really trying to find something and do something in his work.
What was you initial feelings towards your character Lena Lennon?
I was baffled in a way. In a funny way there's not much there. I am so used to really challenging 'acting' roles, whilst with Lena everything is veiled and very subtle for lots of different reasons. In a way she's somebody's dream, she's not really a real person. The film PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is how you see the world when you're in love. You don't see somebody's psychological baggage necessarily, you see the person walking out of the light. Also her language is oblique and strange and subtle and sideways and often unspoken - take the scene where he beats up the bathroom and they walk out of the restaurant and she doesn't say anything. They then have a strange conversation about a harmonium: to me that conversation is about what an amazing special day it was in Barry's life when both that harmonium landed and when Lena landed in his life. For Lena you have to act a very simple love and an acceptance of somebody. It's not soppy and doey-eyed - it's quite centred and sensible. It's an unusual place for an actress like me, who has always been climbing the walls in her parts.
Is it difficult to build a character, when there isn't much research to do?
Paul and I learnt a lot from Adam - he just opens the door and sees what falls through. He's very instinctive. We had a certain type of chemistry together, where we both felt to each other that we were kind of exotic creatures from another planet. To me he's a very, very American comedian, who speaks a language that I understand not. I am sort of a serious European actress, with no sense of humour and all that! We already had a kind of respect, and fascination and nervousness and curiosity around each other, which already creates an interesting space between you - we weren't acting that. Adam is very in the moment - he is just there. My character Lena is somebody who responds to people in a very simple way. I didn't have to take myself off to a darkened room to concentrate, I just had to try and be open. It's an interesting, subtle relationship. A lot of Barry is Paul, he is a man riddled with doubt and insecurity about his own humanity, and he puts it up on screen for all to see. Paul was unsure at the beginning about the tone and where we were going to be, and quite how he would express what he was going to do. There was lot of unsureness and experimentation at the beginning, which was quite tense. In a sense I had to be like Lena and say, 'That's fine, don't worry, I understand what you are going to do'. And it's because of that experience that we've become good friends.
Were you aware of the film's musical dimension when you were acting?
We did watch lots of fantastic old Technicolour musicals in pre-production, mostly for the benefit for the crew. Paul also made up a CD of music he'd been listening to, which ranged from Fred Astaire to Radiohead, which described the film quite well. We did a lot of work at dawn and dusk - we only had 45 mins when we could shoot. You can't complete anything in that time. You go back the next day and do some more takes. We were watching dailies while we were working. In that way it was like a musician who lays down a track and listens to it, which is what Paul wanted to do from the off.
Why is Paul Thomas Anderson such a good director of actors?
He doesn't tell you what he wants. He lets you battle yourself into doing something. We struggled to communicate at first, I wanted him to direct me, to be an actors' director, he would just say things like these are not the drawings you are looking for. I understood him in a subtle way. You have to give yourself up to this. You have to let yourself be quite stupid, and chuck everything out. You have to be able to let go and see what happens - if you practise that it gets easier. Acting is a very Zen discipline - you have to empty your head of all those critical voices, which is great if you can do it. You have to give yourself a bit of freedom.
Lena seems to be both a fairy-tale character and yet a very down-to-earth figure. Was it hard to strike a balance between these qualities?
She's devoted, but in a really sensible way. I didn't really plan it to be honest. It's the way it came out, which is the thing about Paul. I can put my hand on my heart and say, I didn't know where I was going to put myself for this when I started doing this, and I certainly didn't know where it was going to end up. It's as interesting to me as to anybody else.
How did it feel to be watching the film for the first time?
I watched it at Paul's house in his screening room and I was quite shocked. All the scenes I'm in are when things are going well for Barry, and the flowers are beginning to open and the sun's beginning to come out, and the magic is starting to happen. The first half an hour of the movie which I'm not really in is disturbing and I didn't know it was going to be like that. I had a bit of mental readjusting to do. To me Paul's taken a keyhole surgery camera inside Barry's DNA and it's loud and clunky and fantastic stomach-achy and exciting - it's a way of looking at the world, that is awful and poetic and prosaic and beautiful and ugly, all in a confusing way which is what life is.
How would you compare Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson as directors?
They are completely different in the way they make a film, although they are both swimming upstream as hard as they can, against the tide. They are friends, and I remember the two of them hugging each other and jumping up and down at Altman's house in LA when we found out that we had been accepted for Cannes. It was such a lovely moment. Paul is in a sense a complete control freak, every little tiny detail of what you see has to be finessed and finessed, in terms of the construction of the shots and the lighting. Robert Altman likes to point a camera at chaos, it's much looser. He's opportunistic, he knows how to push people's buttons in an amazing way. I left PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE to shoot GOSFORD PARK - Paul does 30 takes sometimes, it's really, really precise work. Robert is interested in you before you've worked everything out, and when you do something accidental and human and odd and puts that in the movie. It's the time before you've smoothed off the edges out of the character.
Question and Answer Text Copyright of Columbia TriStar