Contemporizing a novel that’s over 100 years old for a movie that naturally chronicles the emotional struggles a young child faces in the midst of their parents’ bitter separation and custody battle can be difficult process for working actresses who are also mothers in their personal lives. But in the film adaptation of the 1897 novel ‘What Maisie Knew’ by Henry James, which is now available on DVD, actors Julianne Moore and Alexander Skarsgard skillfully showcases a mother’s desire to care for her young daughter as she engages in a hostile custody arrangement, even though she’s always felt more connected to her career. While Moore’s character is a self-involved parent who is so selfish that she fails to notice her neglect for her daughter’s well-being, Skarsgard’s character readily showcases his ease at caring for a vulnerable young girl.
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, ‘What Maisie Knew’ follows the title character’s struggle for grace and attention in the midst of her parents’ custody battle. Told through the eyes of the film’s young protagonist, Maisie (Onata Aprile), the ever-widening turmoil between the six-year-old’s innocence with the selfishness of her parents, Susanna (Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan), rises when they marry other people-Lincoln (Skarsgard) and Margo (Joanna Vanderham).
Susanna is an aging rock star who doesn’t know how to cope with her lagging music career, while Beale is a contemporary art dealer who’s never home to care for his family. Their battle over Maisie’s custody is just another issue in the war of their personalities, and they fail to see how their inadequacy as parents is hurting their daughter. Maisie is always watchful of her parents and new younger step-parents, and she begins to understand that the path through her parents’ selfishness will have to be of her own making.
Moore and Skarsgard generously took the time to talk about the process of filming the drama during a roundtable interview at the Soho Grand Hotel in New York City. Among other things, the actors discussed the ease of working with Aprile on the set, as she’s a curious, energetic young actress, and how at times it can be difficult to find an in-depth role, but many characters are complex.
Q: Julianne, being a mom yourself, what was your first reaction after you read the script?
Julianne Moore (JM): Well, she’s a terrible mother, isn’t she? (laughs) That was my first reaction. She was interesting to me in that she has this desire to parent, but the inability to do so. Her relationship is to her music, and that’s where she communicates with everyone. She’s not able to have a relationship with her daughter and her boyfriend or husband, or with anyone.
So the times she’s trying to get closest to Maise, and when she communicates with her, is when she brings her into the booth, or she talks about doing a duet. That’s her way of saying, “I want to be close to you and know you, but I can only know you in here, as a musician.” That was fascinating to me.
Also, I was fascinated by her eventual realization she is a bad mother, and that’s tragic. She’s forced to examine the fact that she’s not able to do it.
Q: How would you define a good mother?
JM: Well, children need to be cared for and loved. From the instant they’re born, they can do nothing for themselves. So your job is to care for them and love them and do all the things for them that they can’t do. Then you have to gradually teach them the things they need to do to exist.
So it’s a tricky thing, being a good parent. You care for someone fully, and then act as that bridge for them to move into the world. So it’s not just loving a child that makes a great parent; it’s caring for them fully.
Q: How did you get out of Susanna’s mindset after you were done shooting?
JM: I’m pretty compartmentalized. I did say to my kids a couple of times, “Oh, she’s horrible! I can’t wait to be done with her!”
But I made it clear to Onata, “When we’re doing this scene, I’m going to be yelling at you, but don’t be afraid. Then I might cry at this point, but I’m not upset. If a door slams, I’m going to tell you. I’m going to hug you, is that okay?”
So I set up all these parameters. In that sense, of her knowing, it’s very helpful. I wasn’t trying to trick or scare a kid. She knew we were pretending, and I knew we were pretending. That’s also part of the compartmentalization. We’re telling a story, we’re not living a story.
Q: What was it like working with Onata, and was there anything you learned from her?
Alexander Skarsgard (AS): It was so easy shooting with Onata, because her energy is so amazing and real. There are no false notes; everything is genuine and real, so that makes it easier for me. Not only is it fun hanging out with her off set, but in front of the camera, you get so much. You have to be there and respond to all of that.
JM: She’s remarkable. She’s a lovely, open, curious, bright, present girl. It takes actors a long time to go from the state of acting to the state of being. She does that, and instinctively knows how to be on camera. One of the things she does that’s so remarkable is that she always finds an activity. That’s one of the first things they teach you in acting school, is incorporating an activity into your work, so you’re not standing there like a stone.
Whenever I held Onata while we were shooting, I always had this necklace on. She’d always take the locket and open and close it and look at it. Everything she did was so textured and interesting; she’d play with someone’s hair and engage physically with them. It was really remarkable. That’s something you’re always looking for, to texturize your work, and she did it instinctively.
Q: Alexander, what was it like playing a dad?
AS: It was a lot of fun, but different for me. I just thought it was an interesting character. He was someone who didn’t ask for this. She’s obviously not his child, and he didn’t expect this to happen. In the beginning of the film, he’s kind of lost, and doesn’t take care of himself.
I think he’s talented and smart, but he’s not very ambitious. He does this out of kindness, as Susanna says, “I’m about to lose custody of my child, can you marry me?” He’s like, “Okay,” but then she’s not there. So he ends up in a weird situation where he’s with this little kid who no one takes care of.
I thought it was a beautiful story of how he falls in love with this little kid, and how he learns to take care of someone for the first time. She kind of takes care of him, as well. He grows and matures quite a bit.
Q: Julianne, what did you draw from your own life, in regards to balancing a career and motherhood?
JM: It’s interesting because I don’t feel as though they can be a conflict. You can’t do them both if you feel as though they’re a conflict. Susanna feels they’re a conflict, because the most important thing to her is her career.
I think to do them both, you have to think, I have these two things, and they’re both important. You have to know what the priorities are, and the most important thing is the well-being of your children. You have to make sure they’re cared for and safe and you’re parenting them, but at the same time, you’re going to work and making a living.
For me, I’m lucky that I have a flexible job, so there are times I don’t have to go to work at all, and there are times when I do have to go to work. I think every parent is hoping for some flexibility. But if there’s a lot of conflict, I think there’s something really wrong.
Q: In the context of the film, how do you go through a breakup in a way that you’re taking care of yourself, but you’re also respectful to the other person?
JM: I don’t know, I think that’s a difficult thing to do. No one’s in a good state when they’re breaking up with someone, it’s difficult. You’d like to think you’d be respectful of the other person’s needs, but I think everyone does the best they can. Obviously, what you have to remember is that there was a reason that you were together to begin with, and I think you have to try to honor that, not that’s easy to do.
Q: How familiar were you with the book before you began shooting the movie?
AS: I read it as a teenager. When I read the script, I thought it was an interesting take on it. It’s obviously different from the book. Even though the book was written over 110 years ago, it still felt relevant. A lot of kids go through that. In a way, I think it was written as a reaction to the Victorian society. People were so focused on their own growth and what was going on with the industrialization.
But I think it’s still universal today. People are so focused on themselves, and it almost becomes a battle of two egos. You’re so focused on winning that battle, and hurting your ex-partner, that you neglect the most important thing in life, your kid. Both parents love Maisie, in the film and in the novel, but they forget that in a way, because they’re so focused on destroying each other.
Q: Alexander, what it was like working with Julianne?
AS: She was an extremely generous actress, and very open. We would tweak things on the day, and it felt like a great collaboration with her. Also with Onata and the directors, you felt very safe. We tried to create an environment where you’re allowed to make mistakes. If you have an idea, you’re allowed to try it. It might be terrible, but it’s fine. That’s how you stretch.
I want to be surprised; I don’t want to come to set, knowing exactly how the scene’s going to play out. I felt she was very much on the same page.
Q: Was there not a lot of rehearsal before you began shooting?
AS: We rehearsed a bit. There was a scene of us in the film where we were drawing a castle and a moat. But we would play around with stuff to tweak it. But most of the time we didn’t rehearse it. Most of it was scripted. Onata’s so good that it feels like it’s improvised, but it is scripted.
Q: How difficult is it to find a character with depth? Do you think we’re living in shallower times?
JM: In every society, people complain how it’s not like it used to be. But I think we’re pretty much the same. When you look at Rome, it fell, and I think a lot of things that brought it down were shallow, too. But in terms of finding complex things, I think everything’s complex. I think you can choose to be simplistic about things, but I think all roles are complex.
AS: I think it’s difficult. Scripts like ‘What Maisie Knew’ or ‘The Disconnect’ or ‘The East’ are far and few between. Most scripts aren’t as intelligent. But I think a lot of people want that substance. It’s great to see something that’s visually cool and fun and entertaining, for an escape for two hours. But I think people also want to balance that at times, and see a film like ‘What Maisie Knew,’ which is about real relationships, and has real depth.