Critics immediately saw Nicole Holofcener’s debut feature Walking and Talking as the emergence of an important new voice in cinema. Over the course of four more films and numerous high profile television gigs (Sex and the City, Six Feet Under), she’s emerged especially as a gifted chronicler of women’s stories. Last year’s Enough Said was one of the best quiet little movies of the year. It featured two beautiful, soulful lead performances, by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini. When Gandolfini suddenly passed away later in the year, it made the film seem even more important. Holofcener recently joined us by phone to discuss the film’s DVD release this week.
Paste: So my wife and I watched Enough Said two nights ago and we were both laughing and crying and everything else—I was really, really impressed with it.
Nicole Holofcener: I wish I could’ve seen!
Paste: Well, we both have really enjoyed all of your films, so we knew that it was going to be good. And I’m telling you, you know, from the time that Gandolfini first came on the screen we were pretty emotional. The film has got so much more of a weight—no pun intended—with, you know, with what happened to him, I don’t mean to be indelicate—and someone told me that they had been told that this role was more aligned with his personality than anything else he’d ever done. Did you find that to be the case?
Holofcener: Well yeah, I mean certainly when I met him I didn’t think he was going to be like Tony Soprano.
Paste: Ha! Right, obviously.
Holofcener: So yeah, that’s why I cast him, I mean, knowing that, you know, he’s a good actor and it’s not like he’s just playing himself when he was doing The Sopranos. But yeah, he was a smart, gentle, self-effacing, normal man. Wonderful to work with.
Paste: Yeah, and that little wry smile, I was told, was a very characteristic thing of his.
Holofcener: Very! Yeah, he had a very dry sense of humor.
Paste: So you did not write it with him in mind, is that right?
Holofcener: No, I didn’t. I mean, I knew one day that I’d like to work with him, but I didn’t write it with him in mind.
Paste: And then when you met with him for the first time, was it apparent early on that he was who you wanted to be in that role?
Holofcener: Yes, absolutely. Once I thought of him and I thought of Julia and the studio said okay, I couldn’t picture anybody else in the part, you know? And I was hoping he’d want to do it—I didn’t even have to change the writing for him. It was really important to find somebody who was slightly overweight, had the gut, but was sexy. And that’s a hard thing to find is a sexy, overweight man, I think, but everyone that I mentioned, “What about Jim?” every woman is like, “Oh, of course. Yeah.”
Paste: Yeah, he’s a role model for those of us who have a couple of more pounds around our waist, that’s for sure.
Holofcener: I know, I’ve been told that I’ve opened some doors for the chubby guy, and I’m happy to have done it.
Paste: I love it, I love it. Well you know, speaking of Julia—something he and Julia have in common, and you talked about this on your episode of Jesse Thorn’s podcast, which I loved—y’all did such a great job on that podcast—y’all talked about how she did such a great job in playing such a different character. I mean, she’s a great actress, so of course she’s going to do that, but she’s so strongly in the public’s eye as Elaine and now as her character in Veep, and yet to create such a distinctive real person there on screen—tell me about working with her to create that. What was that alchemy like between the two of you in creating it?
Holofcener: The alchemy was wonderful, you know—we hit it off immediately, have the same senses of humor, very similar. She’s warm, smart, very hardworking and, you know, interested in making the movie that I had in my mind, and basically I just had to cast her. You know, I guided some things along the way but basically I had to just remove the typecasting fear, that I’m sure she’s had to live with for a long time and know that, you know, this is a really amazing actor and she can do anything. And she can! I think Hollywood tends to just stereotype people and think, “Oh she’s a TV actress, not a movie actress,” or, “He plays mobsters, he can’t play a leading man.” So it’s fun to give an actor that chance. And they work so much harder when they’re so happy to be there; it’s really nice.
Paste: Tell me about your willingness to have her be not 100 percent likeable 100 percent of the time. I mean, that’s your protagonist and yet for probably the middle half of the movie, at least half of me was thinking, “You know what? I hope they don’t end up together because she doesn’t deserve him.” And then by the end of the movie I wanted them to be together again.
Holofcener: No, because she’s so horrible.
Paste: Well the dinner party is especially—it’s hard to keep rooting for her at the dinner party.
Holofcener: Oh she’s terribly cruel, right? Horrible. But then, I don’t know, when she starts saying why she did it in the kitchen, and she’s crying, and she’s fearful, you just see the little girl in her and that she didn’t mean to be so bad. I think that really helps her, you know, her performance made us feel that we loved her and understood her even if we didn’t like what she was doing. I don’t care about characters being likable, but they certainly do have to earn whatever happens in the movie. You don’t want to feel cheated or swindled that it’s not really—that it wouldn’t really happen that way.
Paste: Yeah, no, that’s a great point. Because we’ve all had those moments where we were self-sabotaging and doing really kind of horrible things that are not usually like us and then we look back and go, “Holy crap—did I really do that?”
Holofcener: Yeah I know. And there was a lot of discussion about how forgiving should he be, how quick to let her sit on his stoop, you know. All that stuff was very measured and discussed a lot because we knew how difficult it would be to forgive her.
Paste: I love it when great directors and great actors find each other and just say, “Screw it, we’re just going to keep working together,” and I love it that you and Catherine Keener are like this awesome twosome. And you bring out such great work in her and she brings so much to your films. I’m just curious as to when along the line you all decided, “You know what? Let’s just do stuff together forever,” and also sort of what kind of advantages that brings you when you walk on a set and you’re like, “Oh there’s Catherine,” you know? “Now I know what’s going to come out of that.”
Holofcener: Absolutely a comfort level, and if any other actor’s feeling like, you know, they don’t trust me or they don’t want to do what I say, Catherine will, you know, she’ll knock ‘em out.
Paste: I believe that.
Holofcener: And she says, “Nicole knows what she’s doing.” So it’s nice to have that from an actor—not an AD but from an actor—because the actor has been through it, you know, and she can tell them, “Don’t worry, Nicole is not going to make you look like a fool.” And that’s incredibly valuable.