As the title character in the Academy Award-nominated Rachel Getting Married, actress Rosmarie DeWitt shines as the less-than-lovable sister to Anne Hathaway‘s addiction-troubled Kym. Forced to deal with Kym’s return from rehab on the eve of her wedding, Rachel’s composed exterior quickly begins to crumble, revealing insecurity and resentment that resonates onscreen in a very real way. The film, written by Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sydney), is a brutal and truthful look at familial dynamics and personal struggles that is unlike many others, thanks in part to the thoughtful handheld camerawork of director Jonathan Demme.
This year, DeWitt is one of five actors being recognized by the Santa Barbara International Film Festival for her outstanding achievements. She, along with Viola Davis, Richard Jenkins, Melissa Leo, and Michael Shannon will receive Virtuosos Awards tonight at the Lobero Theatre. Recently, DeWitt phoned in to discuss the unorthodox filmmaking behind Rachel Getting Married, and her new digs – playing a sister to Toni Collette on Showtime’s The United States of Tara.
I know that the selection process for a lot of the Rachel Getting Married cast was a little abnormal. What was your audition like? I had your straight up, old-fashioned audition. I think I was one of the few people who did. I remember sitting on the lawn one day in between takes and overhearing all the actors saying, “I met Jonathan at a bookstore in Maine” and “I waited on Jonathan down in New Orleans” and “I met Jonathan from a pen pal friendship we had when I was in Iraq.” It went on and on and on. And then someone said, “How did you meet Jonathan?” and I said, “I just auditioned. I thought that’s how we usually get jobs.” [Laughs.] But one of the things that he loves to do with his films is just find really great, interesting, creative people from all different parts of his life and put them in a movie together and see how they react and combust.
How did you prepare prior to stepping on set? I just read the script a million times, and I went to a bunch of Al-Anon meetings and some open [Narcotics Anonymous] meetings. I read this really good book by [William] Cope Moyers – the title escapes me right now – on addiction, just to sort of understand what the family’s been going through, and also because I thought Rachel would be doing that, because she was studying to be a therapist. I think this is what she sort of immerses herself in day in and day out.
It seems that whether or not you’ve had to deal with substance abuse in your own family, everyone knows someone who has gone through it. Did you turn to anyone in your life for that firsthand insight? I have four half-sisters, but we didn’t grow up in the house together, so I started asking all my girlfriends about their sisters. Inevitably every single one of them told me loads of funny stories and ended up crying at the end. When you love somebody and you’re that close, it just operates on so many different levels. And I also did have a good friend who has a brother who was constantly battling addiction. She was so generous to help me, just take me step by step through what she – I mean, I knew a lot of it because I have grown up around her – but she took me through some of it. That was probably the person I was most nervous to [have] see the film, because she kind of lived some of it.
What was her reaction? She loved it. I think it was really hard for her. She said, “You know, I didn’t cry in the movie, but as soon as I got in the cab I started bawling.” I think it was just too hard for her to see some of those dynamics, and I think she liked that everybody was right and everybody was wrong at the same time. I think there is no easy fix in those situations.
The dynamic between Rachel and Kym is, at many times, downright difficult to watch. How hard was it to go toe-to-toe with Anne Hathaway for some of those more emotionally explosive scenes? I will say it was surprisingly easy in that : I had such a great time working with Annie on it. Maybe we worked similarly, or maybe we just gave each other enough space to do whatever we needed to do. We didn’t become fast friends before shooting. I think we were afraid we would start having a nice-off and say things like, “Oh my gosh, did I just spit on you-I’m so sorry,” and all that kind of stuff, and that wasn’t going to fly. [By the time we were filming] it started to sort of operate as one unit, where the more she pushed my buttons the more I could push her buttons. So it wasn’t difficult – it was actually kind of fun, in that weird kind of way.
I’ve read that everyone, for the most part, tried to distance themselves as much as possible during shooting. What was your relationship with Hathaway like after filming wrapped? It was almost as if we had never had that dynamic at all. It was, “Here, let’s go get a cocktail,” or “You wanna borrow my dress for the premiere?” I don’t know if we made a decision to work that way. We had one awkward dinner beforehand where it must have been the characters starting to already take hold, and then we just sort of instinctually avoided each other until we wrapped.
Did you know about the desired look for Rachel Getting Married when you first came on set? No. In fact, Jonathan had screened this Susanne Bier film, After the Wedding, and it was sort of a jumping-off point for him; just a film that he really admired and it interested him. And he thought, “I’d like to show the cast this and say that this is similar to what I’m going for.” And I remember thinking, “Really?” because it was very handheld, lots of interesting [shots], maybe the camera would just linger on someone’s hands during the whole scene; lots of just really cool shots. And I kind of thought that, because the script worked so wonderfully well on the page, we were going more for a traditional dysfunctional family movie. And he would never let us go behind the monitors and see what it looked like. So he kind of told us that was what he was doing, but I don’t know that we believed it until we saw the finished film.
What was the cast’s reaction after that first viewing? I think [we were] delightfully surprised because I think that everybody really loved the film. For most of us, the film gets better from a second and third viewing because there’s so much to take in with that shooting style. There’s so many people doing such good work, and some of those people have three lines in the movie, but you can’t watch everybody. It’s good when you can go back and watch a whole different group of people each time.
As an actress, you’ve managed to kind of blur the line between thespian, TV actress, and film star. Was this a conscious choice? Oh gosh. I just feel lucky when I’m a working actress. I think, having been lucky enough to work in the theater starting out – and still – and I just think that everything there starts with the play and the material. I think I just got lucky recently in that the material did span all these mediums, because you get to exercise different muscles. It’s great; it doesn’t matter whether you’re playing a sister to Toni Collette or Anne Hathaway or Diablo Cody wrote it or Jenny Lumet – as long as it’s good and there’s something meaty to bite into.
Showtime recently premiered the first episode of The United States of Tara. Can you tell me a bit about the project and how you got involved? Toni plays a woman who has DID, which is what was formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. She’s got a husband, John Corbett, and two kids, and she’s decided to : go off the medicine so that she can not spend her life “out of it” – you know, kind of doped up and not present – and see if she can potentially integrate all these people living inside her : I play her younger sister who, I think, is that part of the audience who might not believe that this is a real disorder. It’s very rare and very sad and very real, but I think there are people who think, “Well, how do people : ?” [because] they have a different voice and they have a different accent and they think they’re a man. My character, Charmaine, I don’t know yet if she’s in denial because this is her closest family member on the planet, or it’s just too painful for her to acknowledge her disease, or she just really doesn’t believe it. But she’s just really unsympathetic, and she’s highly insecure and fighting for attention in a different way than Rachel – in a much less skillful way. [Laughs.]
Did you draw any similarities between Rachel and Charmaine after reading the script for Tara? No! Interestingly, not at all! And I remember on episode six we started getting a little deeper into the sister relationship, and that’s where I started to see some parallels. And I was like, “Oh geez. I better be able to make these two women different.” Because there were some things that are probably just textbook sibling rivalry, but these are two very different women. Where Rachel is sort of the overachiever who, because her sister was struggling with what she was struggling with, kind of kept everything together, this woman went the opposite way and barely made it through community college and can’t keep a guy and can’t keep a job. They’re really different, but at the heart of it I guess there are some universal truths between sisters.