If Lee Daniels, the son of an abusive father, was working through his demons in his award-winning 2009 movie Precious, his subsequent melodrama, The Paperboy, is taking society's norms and twisting and turning them to shocking and highly entertaining effect. While both films were based on novels (by Sapphire and Pete Dexter respectively), the openly gay African American has made the stories his own, and has allowed his actors to do the same with their characters. This is why A-list stars clamour to work with him, even if on the $9 million Paperboy he was asking a lot.
He probably asked the most of Nicole Kidman, who delivers her most eccentric performance since To Die For. That she can morph from the bouffant-haired white trash bombshell Charlotte Bless to playing Martha Gellhorn in HBO's Hemingway & Gellhorn and now Princess Grace in Grace of Monaco, is stunning proof of her talent and fearlessness.
“I have a very strong imagination and a very powerful ability to transform myself,” Kidman says. “I have always been able to do that since I was a little girl.”
Kidman admits she likes the fast, cheap manner in which independent movies are now made (given how the $30-50 million dramas are a thing of the past and have largely been replaced by longform television series) so she can spend more time with her family. Needless to say, her two young daughters aren't going to see The Paperboy any time soon, though her husband Keith Urban liked his wife's look when he first saw the film in Cannes, after he travelled all the way from Australia to hold her hand at the premiere.
“He leaned over and he said, 'I love it,'” Kidman confides with a gleaming smile.
Did he ask, “Can you do this for me?”
“Maybe I do!” Kidman chortles.
Kidman certainly wasn't holding back for Daniels in her scenes with her onscreen boyfriend, death row prisoner Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack). The now famous scene, which focuses on what Matthew McConaughey refers to as “transcendental sexidation” – his reporter becomes aroused watching Charlotte's sexual antics across from her beau – will probably go down in film history long after The Paperboy is forgotten. Incredibly, Kidman and Cusack hadn't met beforehand.
“We'd met a few times socially and had five or six minute conversations, 'How are you doing?' 'Nice to meet you',” Cusack recalls, “But we only met as Hilary and Charlotte on the set. That's how she wanted to play it. I love to work any different way and it seemed to be working well.”
Had he done that before? “Not to that extent. That was the most hardcore. Afterwards we said, 'Hey, nice to see you.' 'How have you been doing?'”
Unlike other movies where filming the erotic and dangerous scenes are left till the end, Daniels shot his three most contentious scenes one day after the other before his cast became too comfortable. First came the horrific rape, second the aforementioned prison erotica and then Charlotte peeing on Zac Efron's Jack to alleviate a jellyfish sting.
“It was genius to film the scenes straight away,” notes Cusack, “because it set the bar for the whole movie, which is like, 'It's on, we are coming to play right now!' It gave us no chance to back out, for Nicole and I to say, 'No we don't work this way, we don't do this, we need to ease into this'. But we didn't back out, she didn't back out.”
Interestingly, all the millionaire stars on the film did their own hair and make-up. “They all jumped in, they all trusted me,” Daniels recalls. The actors likewise did their own research, with Kidman looking into women who seek out relationships with prisoners, corresponding by mail.
“I met with five women like that, absorbed them and then felt scared to play the character because there's so much sadness and ferociousness to them,” she explains. “There's this weird combination of strong sexuality and not being able to touch, yet still trying to connect in this strange and powerful way.”
Cusack attempted to find Hilary's humanity even though he says the character is unknowable in some way. He went to visit death row inmates to learn what he could.
“Obviously, they don't get a lot of visitors, so they enjoy having interaction with people,” he notes. “Some of them are just like any of us, but others have something so compressed inside them that you could literally feel the violence and I couldn't find their compassion. There was something reptilian about their eyes. I wanted to just feel that and bring that onto the set in some way.”
Cusack certainly hits the nail on the head. The actor has come back for more with Daniels as he's been cast as Richard Nixon in Daniels' The Butler where Forest Whitaker plays the real life Cecil Gaines who served as the White House butler to eight American Presidents.
Since working with Daniels, McConaughey too has been on a wild filmmaking spree, including losing weight for perhaps the biggest leap of his career with his portrayal as the real-life AIDS-afflicted Ron Woodroof in The Dallas Buyer's Club. When it came to the swamps on The Paperboy, the native Texan, who was raised a Methodist and who still lives in Austin, was better equipped than the rest of the cast.
“I've always had an affection for the swamp, whatever it is, the murkiness, the humidity, the mystery,” he says. “I love the people there, I love the rhythm there, I love how time just seems to trickle along and gravity weighs more in the swamps. Mother Nature rules; that's the main thing. People live there but you have to say, 'I am a guest'. It's coming at you in four dimensions. It's not only coming from the ground up, it's coming from the top down, coming from front-to-back and the back-behind. I get very turned on by that and all over. Spiritually, all over. I really like it.”
Even teen heartthrob Efron, as McConaughey's brother helping him in the investigation to prove Hilary's innocence, got into the swing of things as he made his way into the foreboding swampland as well.
“Dude, there was stuff swimming around everywhere!” the 25-year-old exclaims. “I dove in the water and someone spotted an alligator so we had to cancel filming. We were playing it for real.”
Efron had been keen to be part of a more substantial project and as a young man, who falls head over heels for Kidman's Southern belle, is essentially the story's protagonist.
“The film is set in 1969 in the South where there are lines we can't cross that are imposed upon us by society. That was wonderfully explored in the movie. Also for me it was great creating my role as a younger brother watching as my older brother come back into my life, the idolisation, and ultimately realising he's much more complex than I'd ever imagined.”
Why did Daniels cast him? “The same reason I chose John, because it was an unexpected choice. Everybody was saying Zac Efron? What are you talking about? He's the Disney boy. But it pushes me as a director. I have to be stimulated, it makes me think. I can't be bored.”
Did he think that Efron, who in the flesh seems mild mannered and self-contained (like his Hollywood characters), was scared? “No, I think he was terrified! That's how I got the performance out of him, through sheer terror because I think he just dropped for me. He knew that I was going to demand nothing but the truth from him and he gave it to me. I am proud of him for it and I think this is his best performance.”
It's not that Cusack, an accomplished director in his own right, wasn't pushed as well. Though, he admired the way Daniels handled it. “Lee inspires you to go in with him because he's on the ground with you sweating. He wills things to happen and he dares you to go places. I love it! For actors, that's what we do it for.”
Still, did Daniels go too far with the jellyfish scene?
“Ah!” he sighs, “You don't realise till after it's all over. When I sat back and watched the film I went, 'What the hell have I done?' I don't know what I'm doing at the time because I'm having so much fun with the actors. It's like putting on a play! Some people say it's shock value, but it's not. This stuff happens and we just never see it on screen. We've been brainwashed by the films that we've seen to think this is the way the world exists, that this is the way we are supposed to see things. Well, I know we walk on those streets and that's not what we see.”
The Paperboy is in cinemas from February 28.