Ahead of her return to the big screen in the remake of the sci-fi classic The Day The Earth Stood Still, Jennifer Connelly talks about her remarkable transition from child actress to Oscar winner.
A star reborn
Ahead of her return to the big screen in the remake of the sci-fi classic The Day The Earth Stood Still, Jennifer Connelly talks about her remarkable transition from child actress to Oscar winner. Last night, Jennifer Connelly confesses, she was behaving a little like her grandma. I ask whether she was baking cakes or possibly knitting a Christmas jumper? "No," she smiles. "I was tucked up in bed in my pyjamas with a book by about 8pm." My grandma, I note, is rarely tucked up in bed by 8pm, but all grannies are different. "Well," she continues, "it was so cosy. I called up Paul [Bettany, her husband] and said, 'You'll never guess what I'm doing'." Whether he guessed, she doesn't say, but the point is quite clear: she enjoyed her evening in. "Getting to do something like that is so rare," she sighs. "Life has been rather hectic."
Indeed, our conversation unfolds just one day after she finished shooting her forthcoming film, Creation, in which Bettany stars as Charles Darwin and Connelly as his wife, Emma. Tomorrow she heads back to the family home in New York to prepare for Christmas, which they will spend in Vermont. "Paul is staying on in the UK for a bit," she explains, "to do some more work on Creation, but I've got to get back and get on. It's a big family time of year and we've not all been home together for a while."
She and Bettany have a five-year-old son, Stellen, while Connelly also has an 11-year-old boy, Kai, by an earlier relationship with the photographer David Dugan. With both Connelly and her husband of five years working on the same film, the family has been tucked away on the Cornish coast, braving the Atlantic winds, for the past week. "It was so cold down there," she smiles. "And I finally realised that you know it's time to finish your job when you're so cold in the trailer that you are wearing huge sweatpants, a really ugly fleece top, a big puffa coat and Uggs that are two sizes too big! It became my everyday wear over my pyjamas! And when I found myself walking round town like that, I thought, 'It's time to go home'."
Today she is not wearing a fleece top, Ugg boots or pyjamas. She is, in fact, dressed in a stylish black top and skirt with two gold pendants hanging from her neck. The topmost is emblazoned with a "S", which I presume is a monogram for "Stellan". We meet in a classic 1930s hotel, Claridges, to discuss, among other topics, her latest screen offering, the remake of a classic 1950s sci-fi film, The Day The Earth Stood Still. It opens in the US on Dec 12 (Connelly's 38th birthday), although people in Abu Dhabi will have the chance to see it two days earlier at the Emirates Palace, as part of the Hydra OpenAir Cinema season. With just this one day to squeeze in a trip to London and a handful of interviews, the actress, like her character in the movie, is a woman on a mission.
"The Day The Earth Stood Still contains a tremendous sense of urgency, of course," she begins, "and my character is the one who needs to try and affect change, even as time is running out." Although changes have been made, the film draws heavily on its 1951 progenitor, which provided cinema with one of its truly iconic sci-fi moments as the giant robot Gort stepped from the flying saucer and zapped the assembled military hardware with a laser beam that squirted from its visor.
In the original, which was made five years after the end of the Second World War, the filmmakers' concerns centred on the threat of man's martial belligerence and impending nuclear catastrophe. Therefore, the alien being Klaatu, arrived to warn us humans of our warlike ways. The original was released in 1951. In the remake, however, Klaatu, played by Keanu Reeves, comes with a much simpler message. He is going to destroy us. He is a friend of the Earth; mankind is not. The message is ecological. As the story unfolds, it falls to Connelly's character, a scientist named Helen, to try and change the alien's mind.
"I liked the story, and I liked my character," says Connelly. "I thought, 'Great. There's this impending disaster. She's resigned herself to the position of having to change this guy's mind and ultimately she does it and not with weapons.' She knows that weapons would have been counterproductive. She changes his reasoning with love and she does it with communication. It's a movie that, underneath all the sci-fi stuff, is looking at human nature and how we treat one another, how we treat the planet. Is our behaviour sustainable?"
Along with the sci-fi superstar Reeves, Connelly is supported by John Cleese, who, in a rare dramatic outing, plays the super-science boffin Dr Barnhardt, along with the Oscar-winner Kathy Bates (who plays the American secretary of defence) and Will Smith's son, Jaden, who stars as Helen's stepson. Helen and her stepson are physically united but emotionally battered in the wake of tragedy - the death of the boy's father.
The film starts strongly, with Klaatu's arrival and "capture" building a strong sense of menace and suspense (even though most of us know the basic narrative). As it enters its final act, however, the energy levels drop and the conclusion seems a little perfunctory. That said, the filmmakers have found a point of difference from the original movie and the performances are strong - especially those of the two leads. Reeves plays the extraterrestrial with an eerie, expressionless detachment.
"I thought he was good, too," agrees Connelly. "It is true. There is some sort of shift that goes on because the body is alien to him when he first arrives. By the end of the film, however, that is less the case, and that's what is clever: Klaatu is being shaped in some way by the vessel of his body. I think he has a nice shift in his character arc, too." The film's director, Scott Derrickson, who rose to prominence with his 2005 supernatural thriller The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, has tried to find shifting character arcs for all of his main players, including Helen's stepson, whose grief-induced anger gradually softens.
"Jaden was amazing," coos Connelly of her 10-year-old co-star. "Of course, he had Will, his mum and his grandma around, but he seems to enjoy the process. He isn't overly worried about things. He isn't trying to act like he's a grown-up. That's my worry when I see kids on the set, just being too precocious. I worry. 'Where did that childhood go?' It's sad. But he felt entirely intact, in the right way."
Connelly is, of course, no stranger to the trials of child acting. Though she shot to international fame for her Oscar-winning performance in 2001's A Beautiful Mind, her career began almost 20 years ago with an uncredited performance in an episode of the television series Tales Of The Unexpected. In 1981, at just 11 years of age, she joined Robert De Niro and James Woods in the cast of Sergio Leone's sprawling gangster epic Once Upon A Time In America, which was released in 1984, and two years after that, appeared alongside David Bowie and a gaggle of fantastic Jim Henson creatures in the cult favourite Labyrinth. Indeed, in a recent interview, Angel Coulby, who stars in the hit BBC series Merlin, told me that when she was growing up she "so wanted to be that girl from Labyrinth". Well, Connelly was that girl.
"I had a great time making that film, and of all the things I've done, that film's probably mentioned to me the most. I loved Jim Henson. We remained in contact after the film and I'd go see him and his family. He was really great with me. I was over in England for a long time, five months, and we had a fantastic time. It was a great set, as you can imagine, with all Jim Henson's wonderful puppets. I was 14 and it was like heaven. I had so much fun making it."
I wonder if that's entirely true. After all, most 11-year-old children that visit cinemas do so wide-eyed with wonder. They do not need to suspend disbelief at the door. But if a child is making films at that age, surely the spell is broken? It's hardly life-threatening, but does she feel as though she lost out in any way? "Not really. I think it becomes special in a different way, being able to be part of something like that was amazing. Just consider that one character, Hoggle, who would walk around with me. It was kind of extraordinary watching how they did it. Basically, working when you're young, you choose one thing and you lose something else. It's like that in any choice that you make. But it's a great job, and I feel lucky to be doing what I do."
In which case, presumably, she wouldn't object if her children wanted to follow in their parents' footsteps? Angelina Jolie, for one, has always said that while she would never stop her kids from following their dreams, she hopes their dreams lie elsewhere. "I don't think it's a concern; it's not a thing that needs addressing, certainly not with Kai. He seems to have no interest whatsoever. And Stellen, well, it remains to be seen. He has said that he would like to be an actor when he grows up. But he is only five years old. That said, my personal preference is for them to be kids for as long as possible. And then whatever they choose to do, as long as it's not illegal or destructive and they do not receive bodily harm, I will be OK with it." She smiles. "Probably."
Connelly's path into the film industry was paved by an early modelling contract, formed when she agreed to do a shoot as a favour to a family friend who worked in the advertising industry. But it wasn't until she hit her twenties that her career really began to take shape. Her role in John Singleton's Higher Learning (1995) hinted at abilities previously untapped, and following on from small roles in well-received films such as Mulholland Falls (1996) and Dark City (1998), her portrayal of a burnt-out junkie in Darren Aronofsky's acclaimed Requiem For A Dream (2000) earned her a nomination for an Independent Spirit award.
"I suppose some people do regard Requiem as a breakout role, but really if there was a change in me and my abilities around that time, it was just because I was moving into a different era, in terms of the way I was working and the way I was approaching my work. But it was nothing to do with the way I was being perceived." She felt a shift after filming Waking The Dead, 2000's absorbing dramatic thriller. Shot before Requiem For A Dream, the film is thoughtful and slow-burning, and Connelly responded by giving more to her role. "That's just a function of the way I approached it. I grew up working but it wasn't necessarily something I would have pursued for myself. So it was a completely different endeavour once I took responsibility for the role in a meaningful way. I mean, I was always responsible, but in a different way, not with all of me, if that makes sense."
I tell her I think it does. Was this just a time when she was maturing as a person as well as an actress? "I think it comes from the fact that I grew up working because it just came to me and I did a job as a favour. Someone asked me to do a modelling job, and then I continued working, making movies without really having pursued it, or studied or questioned it. "Basically, I just took it for granted that this was what I did, and some of the movies along the way I really liked. Some I didn't like at all. Some I felt good about and some I felt embarrassed by and then I got to the point where I thought, 'OK, either way, I know that somehow I am not 100 per cent creatively invested in this, because it's my job'.
"But I could see there's a part of me that would thrive, the sort of thing that as a teenager I would put in my schoolwork, my dodgy paintings and my suspect poetry. So I decided that this was a path I could choose for myself." Connelly plays a scientist named Helen in The Day The Earth Stood Still Her choices after Requiem For A Dream were indeed well thought through, including her supporting turn in Pollock, Ed Harris's biopic of the great American artist Jackson Pollock, and her Oscar-winning performance as the loyal wife of Russell Crowe's schizophrenic mathematics genius in A Beautiful Mind.
Indeed, Ron Howard's critically lauded movie proved a real boon for Connelly, propelling her to the Hollywood A-list, and she has since gone on to star in a number of expensive yet well-considered movies, including Ang Lee's Hulk (2003), Todd Field's Little Children, Ed Zwick's Blood Diamond (both 2006) and now The Day Earth Stood Still. She also shone in the 2003 adaptation of Andre Dubus III's affecting novel House Of Sand And Fog, in which she more than held her own opposite Sir Ben Kingsley, whose performance as an Iranian immigrant earned him an Oscar nomination.
And yet, I wonder if A Beautiful Mind stands as her most personally treasured film. After all, not only did the movie earn her an Oscar of her own, for Best Supporting Actress, she also met her husband, who also starred in the film, on set. "No, A Beautiful Mind doesn't have a particularly special significance for me," she counters. "I am equally invested in every film I make. I'm just like that; I am really quite a detail-oriented person, so most of the things I get involved in I throw myself into. Film projects too, whether it is a negative or positive relationship to the film. I don't take it lightly so that's why I choose really carefully."
Connelly's next choice, Creation, sees her team up with Bettany on screen for the first time since, and she says that the pair had been desperately seeking a project they could share. "Paul and I really wanted to make a film together," she says. "We looked at a few things over the years and this one seemed to come together and to make sense. I thought it was a film that worked for us being married.
"With some projects, the marriage would get in the way, but Emma and Charles Darwin, they'd known each other since they were kids. They were cousins and were married for decades. I thought that our relationship could support that." She laughs. "I was pretty sappy about it, actually, and I was often going to work feeling, 'I am so lucky to be able to do this'. How many people can go to work with their husband? At the risk of sounding unbearably hokey I remember in the beginning thinking, 'I must take advantage of every day, not let myself get hung up about things and just remember to enjoy it'. Which I did."
Except for the Cornish winter? "Exactly," she smiles. "Thank goodness for those Uggs and that fleece!" The Day The Earth Stood Still can be seen on Wednesday December 10 at the Hydra OpenAir Cinema at the Emirates Palace. For tickets, call 800 4669 or visit any branch of the Virgin Megastore. Alternatively, a limited number of tickets will available for purchase on the night from 4.30pm.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS The Original Beware the Pod People; beware the communists. Mysterious invaders from space (Russians spies) are killing humans (wholesome Americans) and assuming their identities in order to kill more humans. Don Seigel's 1956 film, considered essential viewing in sci-fi circles, captured the paranoia circling America during the McCarthy era. And while the filmmakers later said they were not trying to make a political point, it doesn't matter - invasion is held up as a quintessential critique of communist paranoia. The remake(s) The 1978 Jack Finney version is set in the post-Watergate era and stars Donald Sutherland. Mistrust reigned in the US at the time, but mass paranoia was not rampant. Finney moved the film's location from small-town California to San Fransisco, perhaps reflecting growing urbanisation. Either way, the film was not as poignant as the original, despite being genuinely creepy. Two other remakes, Body Snatchers (1993) and The Invasion (2007), were so mediocre that it seems they were invaded by the Good Plot Development Snatchers. And while the latter, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, was released in paranoid times, it failed to live up to the original. PLANET OF THE APES The Original "You maniacs! You blew it up!" screams a shirt-less Charlton Heston, staring at the Statue of Liberty. The realisation that the ape-ruled planet he is trapped on is, in fact, Earth thousands of years in the future, makes for a poignant (and easily parodied) ending to the 1968 film. At this point, Heston, an astronaut, has suffered in the world ruled by apes. They have arrested him, trying to emasculate and lobotimise him. When Heston shows signs of intelligence, Dr Zaius fights to hide them. Unfortunately, the cruelty and intolerence, which climaxes at a trial meant to parody the Scopes Monkey trial, is really humankind's fault. The message: intolerant societies obliterate themselves, leading the way for new intolerant societies to do the same. The remake Tim Burton's 2001 adaptation carries many of the same criticisms of human nature: the innate class system, disregard of "lesser species" and self-destructive tendencies. Burton's film, however, comes with a warning of rebellion of the oppressed. Mark Wahlberg leads a human uprising against the apes (with the help of a few enlightened bourgeois apes). Then Burton spoils this poignant point with an all-too-confusing ending. So, the ape General is actually Abraham Lincoln? WAR OF THE WORLDS The Original The "Martians invade!" film has been made, remade and remade again. But 1953's War Of The Worlds is the archetype - with its influence seen in modern films from Signs to Mars Attacks! The movie deals with themes of invasion and social Darwinism, though, it's generally a tale of survival at all costs. The remake Martians invade again. But this time, Tom Cruise is here to save the day. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film also deals primarily with survival, though in the end the aliens are felled by human viruses and bacteria, which can be interpreted as an argument against hand sanitiser.