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Judy Greer talks “The Descendants,” Alexander Payne and the “crapshoot” of moviemaking – AWARDS ALLEY


By Sean O’Connell
hollywoodnews.com: It’s not the amount of screen time an actor is given, but what he or she does with it that matters. Ask Judy Greer, who doesn’t show face until the third act of Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” but walks away with the drama tucked neatly under her arm.

And yet, I’m struggling to even tell you how Greer factors into Payne’s equation without diminishing some of her character’s impact. And it’s with that difficult dance – of what to reveal and what to protect – where Greer and I began our recent conversation on behalf of Fox Searchlight’s “The Descendants,” which has opened in theaters. Here’s Judy Greer:

HollywoodNews.com: I’m wrestling with how much we can talk about your character without ruining the bulk of the film.

Judy Greer: I know! And I just realized during my lunch break that I’ve been talking all morning, and now I’m wondering if there are things I shouldn’t have been mentioning. I don’t know! No one told me not to.

HollywoodNews.com: I mentioned something in my review from the Toronto International Film Festival about [George] Clooney’s wife being in a hospital bed, and was chastised for not including spoiler alerts in the piece. So let’s stay vague, and yet attempt to be precise. Tell me what you saw in the script that made you realize you wanted to do “The Descendants.”

I just wanted to work with Alexander, honestly. It could have been anything. It could have been a car commercial and I would have been excited. He was the main draw. The script was so intricate. I felt like it was a story I hadn’t heard before, and I thought that the way he adapted it from the book was seamless.

HollywoodNews.com: When you say Payne was the main draw, is that because of the voices that he gives his characters? Is it his sense of humor?

I just think that he makes subtle, well-rounded films. I’ve been a true fan of his since “Citizen Ruth,” which I saw in college. The stories he tells are quirky but real. They’re grounded. They are voyeuristic without being like a Dogma movie. There isn’t a handheld camera, but you do feel like you are in the world of these people.

HollywoodNews.com: I also feel that there are moments where his characters head down different directions and you almost wish they’d stop.

Yeah, it is kind of like a real-life horror movie, where you’re whispering, “Don’t do what you are going to do!”

HollywoodNews.com: And in that instance, your character kind of is a victim of it all. You do want to sort of reach in and protect her from what’s about to happen.

Yeah, I felt that way, definitely. I was so glad that she did what she did, but internally, I felt, “You don’t have to do that.” But I rarely read a role that’s only three scenes in a movie that is so well-rounded, that has such a character arc and a journey, and that’s something that I was so drawn to, as well. I just couldn’t believe that he got so much out of only three scenes with this person.

HollywoodNews.com: So, now that you’ve realized the dream of working with Payne, what can you tell me about his style?

He’s so hands on, in a sneaky way. [Laughs] He gets the performance that he wants, and he has a very clear idea of what he wants. But he’s not heavy handed with his direction. He makes you feel like you’ve found it, at the end of the day. That was my experience with him, anyway. It was my performance. It was what I wanted to do with the character. But he had it planned all along. And that’s hard to do, without giving a ton of direction or line readings, to subtly guide your actors in a certain direction and to do it on a personal level. He’s not a megaphone director. He’s next to the camera. He’s standing next to you. He’s whispering in your ear or taking you aside.

HollywoodNews.com: And that’s probably why his films work best in the smallest moments.

Well, you never feel like you are in character or breaking character. You feel like you’re just there, talking with people. It’s not like, “I need a minute.” It’s always like, “I’m going to do my scene.” And he’ll kind of walk up and suggest something, and then you’re acting again. It’s organic. What was the part where I am getting direction and where is the part where I’m being shot? I honestly don’t know.

HollywoodNews.com: Are you paying attention to the impact “Descendants” appears to be having on people? I’m reading a number of reviews from people who say they’re having a hard time shaking the film, even days after they’ve seen it.

Yeah, totally. I certainly felt that way when I saw it, and I already knew what was going to happen. I just couldn’t get it out of my head. I’m really happy that people are reacting that way. You know, I’ve been in a lot of movies, and I always think that I’m making a good movie. Sometimes that turns out not to be the case. So I’ll often go, “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen with this.”

It’s such a crapshoot. It’s like Vegas. I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve done where I’ve thought, “This is going to be a big game changer.” [Laughs] And then it comes and goes.

HollywoodNews.com: We talked last year for “Barry Munday,” and I told everyone at South By Southwest that I thought it was going to be huge.

Exactly. Besides the fact that I was in it and I’m a huge fan of the film, I just thought that Patrick [Wilson] was going to blow up. I certainly thought he’s get some major recognition for it. I thought it was going to change his career, and he’d start being the lead in comedies. It’s funny because he often talks about how he is “The Guy.” I always joked, “I’m like ‘The Best Friend’ and you’re like ‘The Hot Guy.’ I thought after that movie, Patrick Wilson was going to be a romantic-comedy lead. And then “Barry Munday” came and went. You just never know.

I’ve bee in huge movies with huge directors. “Elizabethtown.” “What Planet Are You From?” with Mike Nichols. Those movies didn’t perform, and I thought the whole time we were making Academy Award-worthy films. And so for something to stay with you, like “The Descendants” does, it’s really amazing.

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