Jessica Biel’s career has taken some wild turns. Originally a child star on the longest-running family drama in history, 7th Heaven, she had pivotal roles early on in critical darling s like Ulee’s Gold and The Rules of Attraction. She also drew the enraptured attention of the Hollywood sex-symbol-finding machine, and has been a fixture of tabloids and “sexiest” lists ever since. That status has proved to be both a blessing and a curse. It’s afforded her a level of celebrity that dramatically increases her visibility and power in the industry, but it’s also encouraged many to dismiss her as a serious actor. But as she reminds us in this week’s The Truth About Emanuel, which debuted at Sundance 2013, she’s got some great performances in her. She plays a young mother with a troubled past.
I thought your performance was really outstanding, and I had a couple of people at Sundance tell me, “Wow, I’m a little bit surprised, that came out of nowhere from Jessica Biel for me—she was really good and I didn’t realize it.” And I would always tell them, “Did you not see The Illusionist? Did you not see Elizabethtown? She has got a ton of talent!” So congratulations on a really great performance.
Biel: Thank you so much!
So tell me about tell me about coming to the project, and what attracted you to it.
Biel: Well I think a lot of different things—number one of course was it being this really fascinating character who is in the midst of, like, a reality break. I think more than anything I was interested in the human brain and what it does to protect you after a traumatic experience. It’s fascinating how and what our brains do for us when you’ve gone through a trauma. And I think, most of all, I just felt for this woman and I thought, “God, how is this possible that this is something that can happen?” And of course I looked into it and it’s totally possible, and even crazier things are possible. So I think I was mainly fascinated by what was happening to Linda. And, you know, I want to work with great, interesting directors—especially if they can be women. It’s really exciting to work with a female director on a story about women’s experience, and especially a younger woman and an older woman. There were a lot of really cool elements that drew me to this part, to this story.
It’s funny, I just got off of a 90-minute phone call with Forest Whittaker, who plays a lot of characters who are very interior. So this is what I want to ask you about playing this character: tell me about the challenge of playing someone who is so in her own mind, and yet you’ve got to be able to give some energy as an actor to your fellow actors around you as well. Tell me about how you found the balance of that.
Biel: Well first, I’m totally, just, devastated that I’m having to talk to you after Forest Whittaker, how boring for you! I’m so sorry!
Ha! Well he’s a little older than us—you’ve got time to catch up to him.
Biel: Okay. It’s a very good question because, you’re right, he does play a lot of really internally conflicted people. And it’s a constant struggle, I think, when you’re working out how to bring these kinds of people to life. You’re right, you’re so in your own head and you’re really going through your own thing, and yet, if you don’t share and pass the energy back and forth, it’s dead. You’re dead, nothing’s happening, there’s no juice there. So it’s a constant struggle because what’s most important is that—whoever you are portraying, whatever their affliction may be—is that you genuinely believe it.
It’s like a great villain—they don’t think to themselves, “Aha! I’m such a villain!” you know? They just believe in their cause. They’re righteous about whatever the hell it is that they care about. And I feel like that’s what I tried to do with this particular person. She just believes that—there may be flashes of moments where she can maybe get drawn back into reality about this one particular thing in her life—but for the most part she’s in a place where it’s happening, and don’t try to tell her any different, because that’s what happening.
Yeah, the fact that other people don’t believe that it’s happening or don’t perceive it as happening is not a part of her reality really.
Biel: Yeah, it’s not something that she can accept at all. At this moment in her life.
It’s like that great quote that’s been attributed to a lot of different people, that “every villain is the hero in the movie going on in his mind,” right?
Biel: That’s exactly right.
So for her she’s the only one who sees—
Biel: And now she has someone in her life who sees it too, you know? The fact that Emanuel goes along with it—it defines them. It defines them in their lie, in their façade—I mean, she trusts Emanuel, whereas I think she feels that she was so betrayed by her husband. Who just didn’t believe her and just left her to experience whatever she was going to experience, and now she has a person in her life who, whether—I think its totally subconscious—but this is the trust. This is a place of trust and safety.
Which she needs, and she responds to it because she needs it.
Biel: She needs it, definitely.
I have another parallel. I had a conversation about a month ago with Alice Eve, and I talked to her about something that you and she have in common I suspect, how for Alice, you know, she’s done this really amazing work in some serious, smaller movies. But because she’s genetically blessed, because she’s very beautiful, as are you, there’s a strong current in Hollywood of big, big pictures to say, “Okay, she’s going to be the hot chick in the romantic comedy or the hot chick in the horror movie.” And I’m curious—you know you were talking earlier about women’s stories and especially told by women—and I’m curious as to what your experience has been in trying to find meaningful stories to tell in a culture that sort of relentlessly tries to push you to not meaningful stories.
Biel: Right. I think every actress has experienced this feeling. And I think it’s even less about actually the physicality of women—I mean, I think that’s part of the story and will always continue to be part of the story—but there’s something about the fact that this culture doesn’t want to hear or is less interested in women’s experiences. And that’s what bothers me even more, you know, than when you see a beautiful woman and you’re like, “Man, she has nothing to do! Why didn’t they give her something to do?” You know? For example, one of my favorite movies this year is Out of the Furnace—did you see that?
Yeah, with Christian Bale.
Biel: Yeah, I loved that film, and I thought Zoe Saldana was so great in it. And I also thought, “She has nothing to do!” You know? I was like, “Come on! Like, give her something!” I wanted to say, “Please give her more, give her more, there’s something else coming, there’s something else coming.” You know, it’s hard. It’s hard being a woman, to watch your peers who you look up to and you admire and the women you want to be like and the women whose parts you envy and whose careers you envy. It’s just so hard for everybody. It’s hard for everybody, I think, to find those substantial parts where it’s less about being somebody’s girlfriend or less about being somebody’s wife, but you’re the lead in this script.
It’s, it’s—I don’t know. I don’t understand why it is, but it is that way, and I feel like every actress I talk to feels the same way. I don’t know if someone like Meryl Streep would feel the same way because I feel like I watch her career and I’m like, “Wow, she just does it.” She finds those parts and she pulls out another incredible performance every time you watch her do anything. But my guess is that everybody feels that way, and it’s less about the physicality and more about just being a woman. Which is so maddening!
Which is strange because generally, in most couple households, when you go out to see a movie the woman has more influence than the man over what movie you go see, generally. And so you would think that the money is out there for more people to see women’s stories, I mean, the audiences are out there. Never mind women’s leads—that’s just one of the reasons I love Jessica Chastain so much. I mean, look at what she’s done with the leads that she’s gotten that are incredibly compelling for men and women alike.
Biel: I know. I agree, you know, she’s a great example—just because it’s a woman in the forefront, doesn’t mean it’s any less interesting. Or if you see August: Osage County, I mean, that is a powerhouse of women’s experiences and it’s irreverent and it’s perverted, it’s fucked up, it’s mean, it’s nasty—it’s like everything that you’d think of men would die to watch. And, I mean, I’m not saying that the movie’s not going to do well or, you know, men aren’t going to like it—I’m just saying, like, there’s a lot of interesting stories out there with women as the driving force.
Biel: It’s funny—I don’t know why our culture is like that, but hopefully it’s changing. Who knows?
Well I think you need to hop in there and produce some of those stories, that’s what I think.
Biel: Well I am trying to work it out, my friend, let me tell you!
Last question: can you tell me a little bit about Shiva & May and Devil and the Deep Blue Sea? Those are the two you’ve got coming up, is that right?
Biel: Sure. Devil and the Deep Blue Sea—its so funny how information sort of becomes bigger than it actually is—it’s a project that my producer partner Michelle and I have been working on for about six years. We haven’t even shot it yet! So it’s on our slate for this year but it’s really funny how everyone’s asking me about this. I love this project, it’s amazing, and hopefully we’ll shoot it this year and I’ll actually have something to talk about.
Okay I gotcha, I gotcha. And how about Shiva & May, with the great Kate Burton?
Biel: Oh Kate—god, what a dame. I love her. Shiva & May is a really, really interesting, also another really small, woman’s experience story about these two women that meet each other and totally change each other’s lives. They flip each other’s lives onto their asses. And Diane Bell directed, so another female director which I loved working with. She did Obselidia, I don’t know if you ever saw that at Sundance.
Oh I know Diane! She’s wonderful!
Biel: She is wonderful. I love Diane. She’s amazing.
Oh, she’s got such a great energy.
Biel: She’s the best. I’m really excited to see how that turns out, you know, another little, tiny character piece. So we’ll see. I’m excited about it.