Interview for ContentsMode
by Sydney Nash, ContentsMode, August 2019, Photos by Tiziano Magni
Your acting career began when you were quite young, still in high school. What initially drew you to the world of acting?
It was a sort of natural process really. I believe my mother saw something in me as a child, possibly an ability to connect emotionally with people. I was always very drawn to people and their stories and story-telling, in general, and I was deeply empathetic.
When we moved from Maine to NYC when I was in my early teens, she encouraged me to go on a few auditions. This was painful for me as I am quite shy. At the time, I could think of nothing worse, but just on the other side of that shyness and discomfort was something I had never known before. It was a kind of awakening and connection to something that just felt right and incredibly exciting. This was what drew me there, and something bigger than myself lead me further. I was very lucky at a young age to start working and get jobs, so my natural curiosity to learn more lead to an amazing career. I've always been very grateful to my mother for leading me to that place that I may possibly not have discovered had she not given me that loving nudge to go further.
Since the early 90s, you've enjoyed box office success with many of your projects, including Armageddon, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Strangers. Has your definition of success changed over the years?
My definition of success has always been sort of the same I think. It has to do with the experience of the working process, not the outcome of the project. Being the daughter of musicians, I learned by watching their creative process. They would spend months, sometimes years, engaged in the writing process, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends and fellow musicians. I could see that the true magic laid in that place, in the creation. I don't always enjoy the part that most people view as success. Having the world view your work feels great, don't get me wrong, but the true joy for me comes from getting totally lost in the work. Working with amazing filmmakers is the biggest thrill for me.
Your breakout role came as in Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, a sensual and poignant coming-of-age story that you filmed at 18. What was it like to dive into such an intense role straight out of high school? Tell me how your experience with this role shaped your approach to acting moving forward in your career.
This was just amazing, I must say!!! I literally graduated from high school in NYC and left a couple days later to go to Rome. It was summertime, I was 17-years-old and would later that summer have the greatest eighteenth birthday ever. It was an incredible opportunity and one I had worked hard to get (auditioning and screen testing, as well as doing my last two years of high school in one year and a summer), so I felt so excited and ready for it. I was pinching myself because everything was truly amazing. Bernardo is an outstanding filmmaker and the team of people around him was the best of the best. Every person working on that film had something amazing to offer. I learned so much in that time I was on the film. It really shaped my taste and aesthetic for life. I truly think it was the greatest summer of my life, and I knew it at the time, too. I know it may never be better than that! (Laughs) I was deeply grateful and savored every second of it.
In past interviews, you've admitted you were quite a shy kid. Even now, you confess to wanting to stay out of the spotlight and you're more reserved on social media than many of your colleagues in the industry. Is there a specific reason for this? What is it like to use this approach in the industry at a time when the media is arguably oversaturated?
Honestly, I'm a terrible celebrity! I don't like a lot of attention. I hate bragging about my work and what I'm working on, etc. I just see it as part of what comes along with the job. I think everyone has parts they love and don't love about their professions. I do what I must to stay in the game, though I do struggle because it doesn't come naturally to me. I love taking photos, and I document everything so I don't mind a bit of Instagram. Beyond that, I can't stand it. It's something I beat myself up about a lot. I wish I was more outgoing and could be more comfortable in the spotlight and with the attention. I like privacy, and "less is more" has always been my motto in life.
Charity has also played a large part in your life. You were a UNICEF goodwill ambassador for the US in the past and have supported a number of different causes and organizations. What role do you see yourself fulfilling within these causes? Tell me how your involvement has influenced you.
I wish I were doing more than I am doing now. At this point in my life, my plate is so full with my big family. David and I have four children together and our little one's Sailor and Lula are three and four.I feel like I need another twelve hours in each day to make all my dreams come true. I try to learn as much as I can, support as much as I can and to be of service in any way I can each day.
I have a few friends that are doing incredible work I really admire, and my dream is to one day be able to be more hands on in helping with their work. (For example: Topaz Page-Green with The Lunchbox Fund, the David Lynch Foundation, Rainn Wilson with Lide in Haiti, and so many more.)
You've starred in many roles over the years but added a new one in the 2000s: mother. Does motherhood influence your approach to acting and your roles? What was your experience of returning to acting following the birth of your children?
I have wanted to be a mother for as long as I can remember. It is hands down the best part of my life and the greatest gift. It is my greatest joy and main focus. I'm not going to lie, returning to work after motherhood is challenging. It's very hard to find balance. To split off from my children and go to set for twelve hours and be another person goes completely against my instincts.
I've been filming Harlots in London and that character is a big leap from my true self. She is a woman living in the 1760's in London and going through a lot of very big changes and obstacles. The transformation took a couple hours with wig, makeup, incredible costumes and corsets, etc. I tried to use that time away to really be productive and get as much as I can from my work.
It's so important for your family to see you fulfilled and happy in your life, not frustrated and angry. It's the great balancing act.
You play Lady Fitz in Hulu's Harlots. Audiences were introduced to her as a somewhat reserved aristocrat early in season 2. However, she quickly became one of the most interesting characters of the series with an intriguing storyline. What can we expect to see from her character in Season 3?
Thank you so much. Lady Fitz has been a great character for me to play. I moved to London two years ago with our new, big family in a new country. This project came along at just the right time for me. It has helped me connect to my work, while going through all those changes myself in life. It was so different that it truly took me out of myself, my head, my world, mom life, etc. That's been very good for me.
The first time we see Lady Fitz in the last season, she is like a bird in a cage. Living a lie, completely repressed and struggling to survive in a world filled with pain and fear, and she's very alone. Along comes Charlotte Wells and, wow, that really blows her mind and heart right open. She is transfixed, inspired and terrified all at once. Charlotte helps to set her free. She encourages her to stand up for herself and set herself free. In the latest season, you see Lady Fitz living that life, and she's truly free, independent, in her own home, with her own money, with her daughter born from her incestuous relationship with her sick brother. In season there, she is liberated. She's fully taken the reins, so to speak.
The show is all female directed and written, with a female-dominated cast. Tell me what it was like to be surrounded by women on set. How has this project been different from others you've worked on?
It's been an incredible opportunity to tell these women's stories from this time in the 1700's and to work together with so many amazing and talented woman in the creative process. It was very collaborative and open, and there was a tremendous amount of support for one another. Every writer and director were female, which I believe was very unique in the telling of this story. To see these stories and characters through a woman's eye has been very interesting. There were so many great stories to tell here. The themes are universal and timeless. It is interesting to see how much has changed in the past couple hundred years and also how much has not changed.
You star opposite Brad Pitt in the upcoming sci-fi thriller Ad Astra. You starred in another well-known sci-fi thriller in 1998 (Armageddon). What was it like returning to this space-thriller genre? What initially drew you to the role?
(laughs) It's so funny because when we were filming, that never even crossed my mind. I didn't connect the two at all, the stories are so different.
Working on Ad Astra made me very happy. It was so nice to take a break from filming TV and return to film. I needed that reminder of why I love acting so much and how much I love films and filmmaking. I met James Gray a long, long time ago with friends and have always admired his work and humor. I always secretly wished I could work with him. He is a brilliant director and filmmaker and a rare breed in today's world. It's fabulous to be James' world and in his vision, and Brad is just one of a kind. He's one of the best actors I have ever encountered. He moved me so much with his truth and openness to his character.
Your filmography is extensive and impressive, and you've seemingly done it all in Hollywood. What are some goals that you are still working towards? Are there any projects that you feel drawn to at the moment?
Oh, I have so many dreams I'm cooking up and personal goals to achieve. I don't feel like I've done it all. There is still so much I want to do, and there are projects to come. Right now, I'm just trying to learn how to manage my time between motherhood and my career goals and passions. It's truly a great puzzle and ever changing. I'm so grateful for my family and for the gift of my work. I don't always love the entertainment industry, but I still love storytelling, and I hope that never leaves me.
New York or London?
Both. I can't choose...
You're not on set or filming. Where can we find you?
In bed with my kids, reading bedtime stories
Early bird or night owl?
Night owl wishing I was an early bird!
Favorite vacation spot?
Any adventure with my children. I love traveling with them and seeing their faces as they discover new places. Right now, we are where I grew up in Maine. It's so beautiful here with green grass, blueberries and laughter.
Coffee or tea?
Coffee with milk and honey.
Favorite dish from your favorite restaurant?
There are way too many.
Your next vacation destination?