Interview with Joseph Fiennes and Evan Rachel Wood

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

“Running with Scissors,” produced, directed, and written for the screen by Ryan Murphy (creator of the provocative television drama “Nip/Tuck”), is a scathing comedy and deeply moving 70s-era coming-of-age tale of how a young man survived a nightmare childhood while keeping his sense of humor, forgiveness and optimism intact.  Based on Augusten Burroughs’ harrowing personal memoir of the same name, the film depicts Burroughs’ unsettling, humor-filled and highly personal recollections of growing up under the most absurdly chaotic and often shocking circumstances. The film stars Annette Bening, Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Alec Baldwin, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jill Clayburgh, Evan Rachel Wood, and Joseph Cross.

Raised by a bright but unstable mother given to psychotic episodes, and an alcoholic father who left when the going got rough, Augusten was sent at 13 years old to live with his mother’s shrink and the doctor’s family of outrageous eccentrics.  Seen through the eyes of a child’s vivid mix of curiosity, compassion and dismay, the film depicts a flurry of alternately bracing and hilarious encounters with mental illness, sex, prescription drugs and counter-culture therapy that left Augusten’s boyhood innocence in tatters.

While Dr. Finch (Brian Cox) becomes Burroughs’ stand-in father, it is Finch’s ‘adopted’ son, Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), who yanks him even further over the precipice into adulthood by starting a sexual relationship with the already confused teen. Bookman is one of the story’s key and most controversial characters. Playing a desperately lonely man given to rages, depression and pedophilia would be an enormous gamble for any actor. Yet it was a risk that Joseph Fiennes – the British actor whose many acclaimed roles include Will Shakespeare in “Shakespeare In Love” and Bassanio in Michael Radford’s “The Merchant of Venice” – was willing to take. 

Fiennes wasn’t so much afraid of the character as he was thrilled to face the challenge of making Bookman utterly real. “Neil Bookman is probably one of the most difficult parts I’ve ever come across – which to me was the inspiration to tackle it,” explains Fiennes. “I thought the script was the most arresting piece of writing – original, very peculiar and difficult, but very funny as well.”

To really get into Bookman’s world, Fiennes would have to try to analyze him without judging his actions. “The key was really trying to understand Bookman, his illness and his sexuality. I needed to make him human and less of a cardboard monster,” he says. But it wasn’t easy. Fiennes continues: “I felt it was pretty abhorrent what Bookman put young Augusten through – and it became a huge challenge to me as an actor to really understand the nature and the reasons behind their relationship. The audience has to understand through the performance that there was also genuine love between the two of them.”

Fiennes came to see Bookman as being driven at heart by an urge to protect Augusten – even if his good intentions are cloaked in nefarious sexual attraction. “I think that Neil sees that Augusten is a kind of innocent who has been brought into the Finch family – and he already knows what Finch is about and what the family is like. He wants to help Augusten, but the irony is that he becomes one of the people who interrupts his childhood and takes his innocence away,” sums up Fiennes.

Also attempting to guide Augusten through the Finch family maelstrom is youngest daughter Natalie (Rachel Evan Wood), who decked out in her hot pants and platform shoes, tries to turn meticulous, introverted Augusten into more of a free spirit. Wood, who rocketed to attention with her searing role in the indie hit “Thirteen,” was a perfect match for Natalie’s unusual blend of vivaciousness, secretiveness and fears of truly breaking away. Wood felt an affinity with Natalie, who she sees as being trapped between devotion to her family, no matter how crazy they are, and a burning need to forge her own identity.

Wood initially responded to the raw unfiltered emotions of Ryan Murphy’s screenplay. “I love brutally honest scripts and I love material that no one has ever seen before and I really don’t think that anybody has ever seen a story quite like this one,” she says. For Wood, it was particularly thrilling to join with such an accomplished ensemble cast in creating the Finches. “I really felt that you couldn’t have cast this movie any better,” says Wood. “Everybody is so perfect for each part. I think audiences will be really excited because there are just so many great performances in this movie.”

At the Los Angeles press day to promote “Running with Scissors,” Joseph Fiennes and Evan Rachel Wood sat down with Movies Online to discuss their characters and what it was like working with director Ryan Murphy and an outstanding ensemble cast. Here’s what they had to say:

Q: So tell me about your sex life?

JF: As Bookman? Are you sure you want to go there?

Q: These characters, the situations are so out there, and yet they have to be rooted in reality because on some level they really happened. How hard was that for you guys to approach and figure out where to put on the brakes and where to hit the accelerator?

JF: It’s all in the writing. A lot of information is in the writing. You’ve got a great director who’s giving you great freedom as an actor, but completely disciplined in kind of everyone being cohesive and sharing the same world and target. Yes, people were suffering from serious conditions and there are people today suffering from those conditions. I hope in a better light with better instruction than Doctor Finch. There are medicines out there for people suffering from schizophrenia in which they weren’t probably as advanced at that time. These are real people so there is a whole collection of themes that you have to put together to realize it, but I think in doing that I think you get the tone of the piece which is hysterical funny, witty, brilliantly observed, deeply sad and disturbing in the same kind of package.

Q: Both of you were damaged by Dr. Finch. How did you feel towards him?

ERW: I feel sympathetic towards all the characters. But, yeah I mean Brian (Cox) played it brilliantly and I think you really get he really did at one point want to help people and do something good. I don’t really know what happened to him. Maybe he was so smart he went crazy and just took it a little too far, which just kept growing and growing. I do feel bad because I’m sure sometimes he must see some of the damage that he’s doing which he probably can’t deal with so he’s just going to keep going crazier. It’s just a bad vicious cycle with the whole family so, yeah, I feel bad.

JF: I think from Bookman’s point of view, he’s the devil. I mean here’s this little boy who’s coming in. He’s innocent and I think Bookman feels like he has to protect that innocence and clearly [Dr. Finch] is misdiagnosing everyone. I think Bookman as well and giving them the wrong prescriptions. Pills sending him up, down, sideways and I think Bookman suddenly switches on to this and really challenges him and is also terrified for the survival for this young boy. But, at the same time, Bookman himself is you know deeply screwed up and thinking whilst he’s protecting, he’s actually treading on the innocence of this boy so it’s sort of complicated household.

Q: What do you think happened to Bookman?

JF: I’m terrified Bookman is going to come back.

ERW: I’m convinced he’s going to be at the premiere.

JF: I’m convinced he’s going to be at Will Call looking for his tickets. But what do I think? In all honestly, I think he probably went to New York. He may have been one of those tragic characters that we see too many of muttering to themselves on the street. He may have OD’d, he may have died of AIDS. I think ultimately, my gut instinct is, he had a really, really sad and tragic demise.

Q: So you think he was too far gone to pull himself out of it?

JF: Yeah, I think so. I think he knew he had to get out of that household or else he would take a pair of scissors to everyone, and I think once he got out of there, I think he would never seek any help or medication having been with Dr. Finch. So my sense is that he probably went off the rails and continued. I imagine not a very glamorous ending. 

Q: How helpful was Augusten to each of you with your characters providing more background?

ERW: Well it was great for me. I mean I was right in the middle of the book when I got the script just by chance and so, you know, I thought that I didn’t have a chance because just the character description is really different. I thought that they would never hire me. Getting to talk to him and hear more about the real girl and the real people and get some of their real names, and I was just sitting there like a kindergartner listening to all of the stories. It definitely helped. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I know this is a real person, but I don’t have anything to base it off of except the book. I’ve never seen her. I don’t know what she sounded like, you know. So getting that from him really helped, and even asking about mannerisms, and how she smoked, and little things like that. That was just a treat for me.

JF: It’s riveting. He’s the conduit between all that you’re fantasying about. All that you’re in the profile of searching for the character, he’s suddenly this conjurer. I can’t tell you how exciting it is for him to come into the Honey Wagon or the makeup and suddenly there he is and he’s going to talk to you about this relationship or these characters. He is that one connection. It’s like finding somebody lost in your family. You have no family and then suddenly you find a member of the family. So with a character in the rife and someone that’s been in that household, I can’t tell you how exciting that is. Really helpful. Out of that came this funny scene. I think it was the angry nun which came out of a few emails that Ryan and I and Augusten had about searching for some background material on Neil. So it’s great. It’s a real joy to have the writer.

Q: Evan, what was it like to soak up the environment of the 70’s?

ERW: It was fun. I definitely have a whole new appreciation for the 70’s and for 70’s fashion and the music and all of that. Yeah, I had a lot of fun with that, and hair and makeup had a lot of fun with me (laughter) because I was the one they just totally let loose on. They told me, ‘This is so much fun because, you know, Gwyneth isn’t really wearing any makeup and Jill is looking kind of sad, and you come in and we’re just peacocking you up.’ (laughter) I’m like lying there and like just ‘go for it.’ It was fun.

Q: You had some pretty crazy costumes?

ERW: Yeah. Oh God, I had so many fittings. Everyday I’d come to work and there would be a rack of clothes and we would just go through it. The problem was, every outfit I put on, Ryan loved so he didn’t veto one outfit. (laughter) It was hysterical.

Q: Did you keep anything?

ERW: No. I think the studio owns everything. I couldn’t steal anything. I took the blue mascara. But that was all I got. (laughter)

Q: Was that an authentic 70’s porn moustache? 

JF: That’s something the studio does not own. (laughter) That’s all mine.

Q: Is that based on how Bookman really looked?

JF: You know what, that’s artistic license. I can’t remember if I asked if he had a moustache or something, but I remember it’s weird. Having hearing Evan talk today and certainly myself, these characters just somehow arrived and so I didn’t really spend much time searching, trying to get Bookman. Bookman just arrived and he arrived with handlebars and side chops. (laughter) Of course, that’s a 70’s thing. A little bit of research and a lot of photographs and finding a face that fits that Ryan and I would agree on.

Q: Did you have any experiences in your personal life with any whacked out therapists or doctors?

ERW: No. (laughter)

JF: Tell me did anyone tell stories.

Q: A little.

JF: Oh, really? (laughter) No, I just think, you know, just on set was enough. (laughter) Just to walk into Brian Cox’s world was enough.

ERW: That was enough, yeah.

Q: How was being on that set? It looked crazy.

ERW: That was one of my favorite sets. Well because it was so kind of out there and you could just really go and do anything and say anything. It didn’t matter. It was just really open and everybody was really relaxed and laid back and Ryan Murphy is the most well dressed director I ever worked for. He always looked so cool on set with his white sun glasses and his jackets. (laughter) It was a very stylish set.

Q: Was it as dirty as it looked on screen?

ERW: Yeah. It was dusty.

JF: It was pretty filthy. I have to say that the set is one of the best characters in the film. It’s a brilliant character.

ERW: Yeah. I couldn’t believe what they did with it.

Q: It kind of represents everyone’s psychological state of mind.

JF: Yeah. That’s a good metaphor.

ERW: Right down to all the plates of food. They made the plates of food with all this fake moldy food on it. (laughter) It was crazy.

Q: Have any of you known any Deirdre’s?

ERW: Yeah. Similar for sure.

Q: How do you deal with people like that in your life?

ERW: I just had to learn to accept Deirdre, you know, kind of just had to love them for who they were and just get over everything else. I was more forgiving than Augusten and it wasn’t as bad as Annette’s character, but definitely similar.

Q: Do you think she would have been better off if somebody had told her maybe she wasn’t a brilliant poet? (laughter)

JF: No, it wouldn’t have worked.

ERW: No, she wouldn’t have believed it.

JF: It’s weird because I’ve been witness to somebody who thought they were a great singer and a lot of people went to the Rainbow Room here. Within possibly 30 seconds it was empty after they had begun singing. But, that singer still believes that they were brilliant so I asked my friend to tell them, ‘Listen, don’t pursue this career,’ because they will be disappointed. You have to be cruel to be kind. But some people, you know, they have a passion and a dream and there’s no shaking them. There’s no waking them up. But, I have to say some of her poetry I kind of liked it in the movie. (laughter) It’s not that bad. It’s kind of good in a pseudo Elliot kind of way.

Q: As actors, can you kind of understand her obsession for wanting to be famous?

JF: I don’t want to be sort of pseudo shrinkie, but I think it goes into this thing of acceptance. Certainly I think as an actor a lot of what you do is not to be famous and it’s not adults dressing up. It actually has to do with a lot; I think could be about the child / mother / father relationship and that dynamic of needing that communication and needing that appreciation. I think that boils down. So I think it’s less about that than the kind of genre and the kind of language that [is] the film. I think it’s less about fame and more about kind of the dynamics of growing up and needing that appreciation and who is your audience? Your audience is really your mother and your dad and if you don’t get that, you want it more. So I tend to think of it more in that aspect.

Q: Evan, you’re doing ‘Across the Universe.’ Have you finished you’re work on that?

ERW: Oh yeah, yeah.

Q: So how was singing Beatles music?

ERW: Oh, you know piece of cake. It was amazing. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it changed my life. It was also the most amazing experience I’ve ever had. I can’t even explain it. Just really, really special and just meant so much to everybody. I mean The Beatles mean so much to so many people, you know. Everybody has at least one song of The Beatles that’s one of their favorite songs of all time. So, and most of them we were singing, so then you get the burden of going, you know, there’s a few million people out there that this is their favorite song and if you screw it up, you kind of flunk so don’t worry about it. It was wonderful.

Q: What’s your favorite song?

ERW: Oh that’s hard. It changes a lot. But, from the movie my favorite number was probably “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” It was really great. After hearing it constantly. A lot of them, I can’t really listen to anymore.

Q: So Joseph, after “Shakespeare in Love,” I don’t know if many people would have thought this was the movie you and Gwyneth would have reunited on. You barely have any scenes together.

JF: I know. It’s sad in a way. But who’d have thought as we were running around those Elizabethan sets that a few years down the line we would be in a dysfunctional family in the 70’s Finch household. Yeah kind of, but that‘s…Is that movies? I don’t know. But it was weird.

Q: Was it at least fun to work together?

JF: Oh, it was great to see her.

Q: I apologize, I don’t remember if you had any scenes together.

JF: One or two. I think there’s the boiling of the cat. You know, I don’t eat pussy. (laughter)

ERW: Ad lib.

JF: I think there might be one or two others. Not enough is the answer.

Q: Was this a real reunion for you guys or had you stayed in touch over the years?

JF: I’m an ambassador for HRH His Royal Highness Prince of Wales for a charity called Princess Trust and we did, together Gwyneth and I, we did readings from “Romeo and Juliet” at the Globe Theatre before filming.  So we’ve caught up.

Q: What was it like seeing Ryan transition into the feature film world coming from television?

JF: He’s done it effortlessly. I mean brilliantly. What I love is his sharp wit and his ascerbic wit I should say. His detail. He’s incredibly disciplined. So everything might look kind of off the wall and crazy, but actually the attention to detail, the rhythm, and the (inaudible) he makes for a great, refreshingly original way to direct your own feature.

ERW: I never heard anyone say one bad thing about Ryan really. Even on set you always hear people gossiping about the director and how much he is driving them crazy, but he was never like that. He seemed to have a good relationship with everybody and he would even come over and just sit and hang out in the hair and makeup trailer. That’s just unheard of with directors. So yeah, it was a lot of fun.

Q: Are you addicted to “Nip/Tuck” now?

ERW: Actually I am. Yeah, completely.

Q: Can you talk about the scene where you’re on the table with the broom and just going crazy taking out the ceiling?

ERW: Actually that was right after I found out that I got the part in ‘Across the Universe.’ It was moments before that. I was almost in tears. I was so excited and everybody clapped for me on set. Me and Joe had been looking forward to shooting this scene for so long and he got me up there and I was like (she pretends to scream) and hitting the ceiling. That was my excitement and that was one of my favorite parts in the book, too.

Q: That actually cross cuts to the scene that you’re in where you’re destroying Finch’s office. How many times did you do that?

JF: Well, the prop man will probably tell you too many. (laughter) Quite a few actually. It was quite a few takes from different angles. But I haven’t seen what they’ve edited so what’s in or what’s out. That was great fun.

Q: When you do a scene like that, are you trying to get a rise out of Brian’s character who’s supposed to be stone-faced the whole time?

JF: No, when I was doing that it was with all the background of Neil and all the kind of fury and this schizophrenia and the anger and the self loathing of himself and this relationship with this boy. So actually there were some intense emotions going on there. Once in awhile I tired picking up a tablet or two and throwing it directly at him because he was just doing nothing. Just going, ‘Yes, Neil.’ I  was like, ‘Oh God, I just want to hit you with these pills.’ No, it was a great scene. I enjoyed that.

Q: What were your perceptions of Annette Bening coming into the movie and what did you take out?

JF: Well, she’s a tour de force. She’s one of our greatest screen actors. I was incredibly nervous, but I loved doing the scenes with her. She’s the real deal. I mean what can I say? And when you’re on set and it’s so palpable her chemistry and her connection to the character and when you’re in the room and in her world, it’s deeply affecting and that’s one of the great things as an actor you’re looking to be affected or infected by the chemistry and the collaboration and when you get that, hopefully it’s caught on film and she’s the real deal. Incredible. 

Q: Thank you very much.

Joseph Fiennes recently completed filming “Goodbye Bafana” in South Africa, directed by Bille August. Based on a true story, Fiennes plays a white prison guard who befriends an inmate, Nelson Mandela, played by Dennis Haysbert. Other upcoming films include Finn Taylor’s dark comedy “The Darwin Awards” starring opposite Winona Ryder. The film references an Internet award that is given to those who die or maim themselves out of stupidity. Fiennes plays a forensic detective who pairs with an insurance claims investigator (Ryder) on a road trip to create the profile of a potential winner. “The Darwin Awards” premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and will be released in early 2007 by Bauer Martinez. 

Evan Rachel Wood recently finished production on “King of California,” with Michael Douglas. In August, she started production on Vadim Perelman’s “In Bloom,” with Uma Thurman. In 2007, Wood can be seen starring in Julie Taymor’s highly anticipated musical film, “Across the Universe.”

“Running with Scissors” opens in theaters on October 20th.

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