Nonetheless, shes never done anything quite as superb as her work in Love After Love, in which she stars as a woman coming to grips with the death of her husband, and the tumultuous individual and familial upheaval created by that loss. As Suzanne, MacDowell exudes a bracing mix of vulnerability, tenderness and longing, as well as a healthy dose of misery and bitterness that comes to the fore during her many scenes opposite Chris ODowd (as Suzannes misstep-making son Nicholas). Its a tale of grief, dysfunction and survival that heralds its first-time writer/director Russell Harbaugh as one of American cinemas finest new artists, and reconfirms MacDowells standing as a Hollywood star of formidable charisma and complexity.
Coming amidst the ongoing #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, Love After Loves portrait of a middle-aged woman rediscovering herself in a male- and youth-dominated world couldnt be more timely. Nonetheless, its the intricate personal drama of Harbaughs indie that marks it as 2018s most impressive big-screen debut to dateas well as makes it a fantastic showcase for its leading lady, whose nuanced expression of Suzannes internal chaos (and revival) is downright award-worthy.
We sat down with the actress to talk about her attraction to the role, Hollywoods dearth of adult projects, her feelings about #MeToo and her experiences with Harvey Weinstein, and her much-discussed Love After Love nude scene: You need to see it; its part of the characters story. Its not just to have tits and ass.
Actresses over the age of 30 often struggle to find lead roles as rich as this one. In your experience, has it gotten tougher as youve gotten older?
I just dont think there are a lot of roles for mature women, period. Its not a matter of finding something Im drawn to; its just that theres not enough to go around. Im very willing to play smaller rolesI just need to figure out how to get them. But this one was a huge, complex, interesting woman. When I read it I thought, I cannot believe I am going to get to do this, its fantastic. Theres not a lot of material out there that calls on the audience to be intelligent, and I do think this calls on the audience to be open to a journey where theyre going to have to digest stuff for themselves, and be smart enough to understand whats happening! [laughs]
Its not Spider-Man, or something simple. Its about many complex subjects. Its not just about death and loss and grieving. Its also about relationshipsand the boundaries Suzanne has with her children. I dont know if they were that broken before he [Gareth Williams father, Glenn] died, or if it became magnified. I imagine it became magnified, because Suzanne no longer had this touchstonethis person that was everything to her emotionally and physically. For her kids, I think this father must have just been such a powerful figure. Even seeing him read the poem in the beginning, I feel he was a magnificent man.
Once hes gone, their relationshipsand how they treat each otherare broken. How Suzanne relates to Chris character, and how he relates to her, is crazy! You see us laying together on the couch with that tenderness. Was that there before? I doubt it. I think it was all because of the death of this man that theyre floundering as humans. They dont even know how to behave. They certainly dont talk about the loss
Not constructively, at least.
No. They go on and suffer. Really, true suffering. And people do behave like this. We do! When crazy stuff happens to us, we act crazier!
It felt like Glenns death was a destabilizing event for everyone.
Yeah. I can go back and think, I have done so many peculiar things in my life. Really strange. I look back and I go, What were you doing? But its usually because something else had happened and I was not emotionally prepared. So you act crazy.
Its often only in hindsight that you understand the reasons for your crazy behavior.
Right. And you have to forgive yourself. I hope these characters learn to love each other. People have been asking me about the films title, Love After Love, and I hope the characters learn to love each other in a kinder, sweeter way than what theyre doing.
Does this sort of sophisticated material primarily now exist in the indie world?
Ive always thought that, since I did sex, lies and videotape. Ive done a lot of great independent movies. I did a movie called The Object of Beauty with John Malkovich thats a beautiful independent movie. Sometimes you do independent movies and theyre just pure trash, I have to say [laughs]. But you can get lucky. And usually, its the script. Like this script. I read this, and it was great, and I loved the characters. Its hard to make a good movie with an imperfect script. Ive done it, and usually in the back of my mind, Im hoping theyll fix it along the way, but it usually never happens! Its always about the writing; its the most important part. It doesnt matter who you put in it or who you hire if the writings not there.
Im trying to figure out movies now. I think the business has changed a lot. And Im worried about this movie, because I dont know if we have enough money to advertise it. I think good independent movies can be seen, and people will notice them and give them credit if theres a lot of money for advertising. If theres not, and there isnt someone behind it pumping it up, it can go unnoticed. That makes me really sad. I dont know if its that less people are going to the movies and more people are watching television. But the dynamic has changed. I dont know how many intensely smart, personal stories are out there. Im trying to figure it out myself.
Certainly, when you go to the multiplex on a Friday night, the main offerings are often adolescent (or adolescent-targeted) fantasies.
Correct. I think its really hard. I think smart movies are suffering, and thats why everyone is going to television. Thats what I think about when it comes to how I want to work. I want to be on smart television now!
Well, you just were on The Hallmark Channels Cedar Cove
I was on television but I havent really created my fantasy.
Which is what?
My fantasy would be to play a character like this: a woman who is fascinating, and sexual, and beautiful, and mature. Its so hard to find a character like that! And when I have this fantasy, its more for television because I feel like I dont even know how to fantasize about being successful in movies anymore. Unless you get hired on the kind of movie youre talking about, to play the mature woman in a young, big fantasy movie. And Id be thrilled! But what are the chances of me getting that? I dont know.
Its true that there are only so many of those parts.
I would be really, really thankful if it happened, and Id work my ass off. But I dont knoweveryones going to be young except for a couple of characters, so then you have to get really lucky to be the couple of older characters in the young movie.
Love After Love is Russell Harbaughs first directorial effort. Was there any hesitation on your part about his inexperience?
I dont mind. I worked with Steven [Soderbergh, on sex, lies and videotape], and nobody knew who he was. I was very, very lucky, so Ive always been open to the idea of working with someone whos never directed before. Russell is a fascinating guy; he was unlike any man Id ever worked with. Hes one of the sweetest men Ive ever met. And I know thats probably not something a man normally likes to have said about him in our society, but I think things are changing, and hes already there. Hes past the need to play some kind of fake idea about what a man should be. I dont think he feels the necessity to put on that mask. I think hes comfortable in his skin, and hes an evolved person, and extremely intelligent.
He gave us this whole list of movies to watch, and for me, that was like going back to school. I felt like I was in my twenties again, that someone was asking me to do this. So we watched all these movies, like [Maurice Pialats] Nos Amours, which was the one we all went to see togetherand how beautiful is that! Loulou and The Godfather and Cassavetes and Bergman. Since my acting coach in New York, I hadnt had anybody do this. So I revisited all of these films, and it was really helpful to get into that space. Also, for me, I watch a movie and I walk around for days feeling like Im in it. Does that happen to you?
Sure, sometimes a film lingers long after its over.
Im still in there! It just stays in me. Its fascinating, and I love that. So it was very helpful. We would start a scene improvising, move into the dialogue, and then keep it open so we could keep it going. Everything had this fluid feeling. It was so much fun.
Given that the material can be quite intense, was it a demanding shoot?
It was fun. I think Im a highly emotional person anyway, so its not far from my nature. Im a highly creative, emotional being. So the access is really easy for me. FantasyIm always in fantasy. I dont know what that is, if that means Im completely nuts? But I think it really suits me for this job. My problem is that I have all this shit and I never have any opportunity to use it. Thats my problem.
So here you had a vehicle.
Here I had a vehicle to use all my insanitymy ability to fantasize and play characters, which are always there. I just think its who I am. When I was a little girl I went to a play, and I know this sounds clichd, like every actress is going to say, When I was a child, blah blah blah, but I saw these people on the stage playing make-believe, and it was the correct place for me. That is me. And I still do it; its just the way Im put together. Fantasy for me is gigantic. And I get paid to do it.
At one point in the film, Suzanne has a confrontation with a younger actress, which then segues into a conflict with a male colleague whom she subsequently dates. Those power dynamics struck me as extremely relevant given the ongoing #MeToo movement in Hollywood. How do you feel about the changes taking place in the industry?
We have a long road to change the roles that we have played. For women, we have been submissive and subservient, and that has been our role for such a long time. Even though we think we have evolved, we have not evolved. The fact that we havent had a female president says a lot about the state of affairs for women. We have been less-than for so long that its going to take some time.
I think the #MeToo thing is really important, because I know what that feels like. I have been treated like a piece of meat, and its been okay for men to treat women like that. But its even deeper, and #TimesUp has been the further step because its not just about sexits about every other part of what it is to be a woman: to not be equal, and to be expected to play this kind of less-than role that weve been so well-trained to play. It is time, and its going to take more time, because its a really nice position that men have been in. Whether they have the wherewithal to realize it, and shifttheyre going to have to give up a lot.
When I spoke with Steven Soderbergh a few months ago, he recounted his experiences with Harvey Weinstein during sex, lies and videotapes release. Did you have any run-ins with the now-notorious mogul?
What I experienced with Harvey was not dissimilar to feelings Ive felt with other men. But I didnt have any intimate confrontations with Harvey. First off, I didnt live in Los Angeles until recently, so I hadnt had those kinds of experiences with him. In fact, the only experience I ever had with HarveyI havent told anybody this, but Ill tell you, even though Im not sure I should. But it tells you a lot about me. I was at the Cannes Film Festival, and my manager at the time would make me stay out late. I dont like to stay out late; one of my favorite things to do is sleep. I love it, and Im not a very big party person. Its not my nature. She forced me to stay out late, because its Cannes and its work.
So like 1 a.m., she makes me go to Harveys yacht, because she thinks itll be good for me to connect with him. I show up and Harveys there with all these women. I sit down and, at the time I was living in Montana and I had two children at that point, so Im asking him about his family and his wife, because I dont really know Harvey. And this is my nature. This is me. It is the stupidest conversation I could possibly be having, and I dont really realize it until I leave. I made an ass out of myself, because as I left the room and I look back in hindsight, I realize they were probably all prostitutes! Seriously. Thats what I realized once I left the yacht. He must think Im a complete ass, sitting here asking him about his wife. How stupid am I? It was such a waste of time.
Later, when I would see Harvey, I would love to tease him. Harvey had not hired me again, and I kept thinking Why not? I made him a lot of money. But Id see him and go, Hey, Harvey! How are you? Remember me? We made that little movie, called sex, lies and videotape? So I would always tease him and make him laugh. I had no idea that he was a complete monster. I knew he was one of those spoiled men, and I knew he had a big personality and when he walked into a room he took up space and everyone looked up to him. Everyone looked up to him; he was powerful. I knew that. I did not know he was a monster. And I honestly feel like there are a lot of people out there who knew he was what I just described: the man on the yacht, and the man in the room who would expect you to come up fluttering to him, which we all did. But I dont think everyone knew he was a horrible monster. I didnt.
Im sure he hid that side of himself from many people.
Im sure there were people who were close to him. But I wasnt close to him. I was this woman asking him about his wife! [laughs]
Your nude scene in Love After Love received quite a bit of media attention after the film premiered at last years Tribeca Film Festival. How did you feel about doing that?
It was embarrassing how it was written about, for me, because I didnt want people to think that was the way I was selling the movie. Its just unfortunate that if you say something like that, it becomes the twist. Ive never done it before, and it is true that I come from a very conservative background. And because of my innate conservative upbringing, I didnt want to embarrass my children. Of course theres a lot of shame, when youre raised like that, with nudity. My girls are highly creative creatures and I didnt want them to feel the same shame that I have felt. So I raised them completely different: to be intelligent females and to not be taken advantage of. But this is not that kind of movie.
The nudity in Love After Love is so gorgeous, and its part of the story from the very beginningthe vulnerability you feel, the nakedness, the human body. Its how you come in; its how you come out. Thats really important to this movie. I loved the shapes of our bodies, and my nudity is, I feel, so vulnerable. You really feel her need for human touch, and love, and companionship. And with Chris sex, hes craving his own very masculine connection, while mines very female. I think thats beautiful, seeing our needs. Were looking for that in such different ways.
But Ive seen the film three times now, and the nudity has no affect on me. I see it all the time! Its not surprising. I think for me, its harder being in the room like that with men you dont know. Russell, he made me feel so comfortable. Ive never felt like this with another director. He was like, I know youre worried about this, so how do you want to do this? I want you to feel comfortable. I said, Well, why dont I just show you, and he goes okay, so I just take my clothes off, and hes just standing there. I go into the bathroom, and were practicing, and he kept saying, Youre so beautiful. And I cant tell youit was the sweetest thing. I wish I had had that in every relationship I ever had with any man! [laughs] It was such a special thing, to have someone look at me and tell me I was beautiful like that. It gave me a lot of confidence and made me feel really comfortable.
The nudity feels like a natural part of the characters development.
You need to see it; its part of the characters story. Its not just to have tits and ass. You need to see its part of her humanity. Sex is a huge part of what drives us as humans, period. I truly think, for my character, and for most women, were not always just looking for the orgasmalthough the orgasm is very nice and pleasant and very important to us! [laughs] I think were also really in need of companionship and touchto be held and loved.
I think Suzannes sex is so much about loss of true love. Because when she says, I feel like Im having an affair, you realize she hasnt moved on yet. How do you connect to another human being, and will you ever? Will there ever be someone who feels that good? Because she says early on about her husband, the sex was good. So I think their relationship was everything. I do think marriage is like that. Once youre in the commitment, youre working, and its huge. And it takes a lot of work. And when it falls apartI know, I went through divorce. Its no fun.
After the drama of Love After Love, are you looking for a change of pace?
I am doing something Im really looking forward to, and its pure comedy. I feel like dark comedy is something Im really comfortable in, because its something my mind understands. But this is pure, very broad comic work thats in London. Its called Cuckoo and its on Netflix now, and so Im going in for seven episodes of that. I love English humor. Its going to be a lot of fun.