I recently caught up with actress Elisabeth Shue who is starring in the just released indie thriller, Don McKay, an edgy mystery also starring (and executive produced by) chameleon-like actor Thomas Haden Church, and directed by Jake Goldberger. Elisabeth and I spoke about the movie business and the art of the film, which seem light years apart. Elisabeth, herself, has had an acting career that has arched from her playing the hot young thing in movies like The Karate Kid, Adventures in Babysitting and Cocktail to notably acclaimed actor with her Oscar nominated role in Leaving Las Vegas. That led to other leading roles in films like The Saint and Hollow Man. She made some comedic pit stops along the way with the likes of the Back to the Future franchise and a guest stint on the HBO series, Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Now, a married woman, with three young children Elisabeth has turned to more independent fare with characters that are slightly left of center and always layered with questionable motives and pathology. In Don McKay, Elisabeth Shue plays an ailing young woman who summons her childhood sweetheart back into her life for what appears to be a second chance at love before she succumbs to her illness. The film takes a grippingly sharp turn when someone turns up dead and no one is who they originally appeared to be.
As far as who Elisabeth Shue turned out to be during our interview, she is remarkably sweet and sincere, and she clearly loves her job. Elisabeth is also a devoted mother and wife who consistently makes her family priority number one in a business where many let that fall by the wayside, favoring the trappings of celebrity instead. I connected with Elisabeth as a fellow parent, a film buff and, I’ll admit it, a longtime fan.
PR.com (Allison Kugel): What drew you to the part of Sonny in the film Don McKay?
Elisabeth Shue: Fear as to whether I could pull her off (laughs). That always draws me to a character. If I feel like it’s somebody I haven’t played before or whether I might fail is interesting. I just saw the potential for a lot of choices. That was terrifying on one level, but also liberating.
PR.com: When you’re dealing with a character like this one who obviously lacks a moral compass, as an actor do you judge the character, or do you try to find the good in her?
Elisabeth Shue: Yeah, you can never really judge a character, because it’s hard to inhabit them. If you think about it, although we are critical of ourselves as human beings, we don’t really judge ourselves because we probably don’t even know ourselves well enough to fully go that far. I also felt, with Sonny, the nice thing about her is she is so present and she couldn’t really discern between fantasy and reality very well. Everything that seemed like it was fantasy, to her it felt very real. Coming down to the fact that I think she fell very much in love with Don. She just sort of just kept living in the moment, so morality didn’t really factor in. She was just trying to deal with the situation at hand and trying to figure it out. How do I make this work for me, right now, right now, right now? She didn’t think through her choices or what they really meant.
Thomas Haden Church, Elisabeth Shue & Don McKay Director Jake Goldberger
PR.com: Don McKay director Jake Goldberger describes his filmmaking style as being inspired by film noir. What genre of film most inspires you?
Elisabeth Shue: I’ve always really loved movies where you are going on a ride with characters that you learn from, are repulsed by, moved by, but the characters themselves are really what you respond to and then you go on a journey with them. Then whatever the journey is, it can be interesting or fun, but you have to really connect with the characters. I can take that into many genres. The Shining was one of the most brilliant movies I have ever seen. And I hate horror movies; I can’t stand them! I would never willingly go to be scared in a movie. But that movie, and also The Silence of the Lambs. I can’t believe I would see that movie, but I had to because I could just feel that it was going to be such a great movie.
PR.com: How would describe working with Thomas Haden Church in this film?
Elisabeth Shue: I love working with him. I think he’s an exceptional actor because he can work on so many different levels. He’s obviously incredibly funny, but he also brings such depth and honesty to his characters. His comedy comes from complete honesty and a unique sense of humanity that is him. I keep saying that he is such a character (laughs). But he so lives in his skin in such an honest authentic way that you just can’t help but love him.
PR.com: When do you feel most in your element, when you are working one on one in a scene or when you’re in an ensemble situation?
Elisabeth Shue: I guess I would rather be one on one. I like to try to find… the relationship that you have with actors when you work with them and just the delicate dance of getting to know an actor and then getting to know their character and then having to be so open and engaged. That dynamic and that nuance is such a complicated dance. I find it really stimulating. I find that when you show up in a group, first of all, you have to do everybody’s close-up and you’re there for hours. But if you’re doing a television show I think an ensemble would be great.
PR.com: Regarding your career, in general, it seems like at the height of your fame you pulled back from work somewhat. Was that family related or were you put off by that level of attention?
Thomas Haden Church & Elisabeth Shue in Don McKay
Elisabeth Shue: I don’t think I pulled back as much as I had three children, and you have an idea of what that takes (Elizabeth was referring to my 11 month old son). The reality of the three children, and then the choices you make, you end up pulling back to accommodate their life and not really being as drawn to working back to back to back. And I just think it’s a mysterious thing how careers ebb and flow. I think as I started to pull back, having children and then seeing what was out there and not being as drawn to working then led to, “Whatever happened to her?” (Laughs). In three seconds flat you’re like, “Whoa! I thought I had a little more time to figure things out.” Then you’re on the list and you’re ten down [the list]. You know how many great parts there are for women each year.
PR.com: I’ve seen so many great films starring women, yet every time I speak to an actress they always say that there aren’t enough good characters for women.
Elisabeth Shue: There aren’t as many films getting made. Maybe that’s a more honest way to put it. There aren’t as many films getting made so there are a lot of great actresses and it’s just needing enough to go around, really. I bet men would complain a little bit now about the lack of films getting made.
PR.com: The lack of big budget films?
Elisabeth Shue: All movies. And then the movies that get made, like ours (DonMcKay), which I love so much, we’re so lucky that we’re getting distribution. There are tons and tons of movies with huge stars that haven’t gotten distribution. And partly, during the time I disappeared, I was filming a movie a year. Those movies just didn’t come out because of the way things have shifted in our culture and all kinds of factors. It’s harder today to get them out there.
PR.com: Do you feel freer or more creative on an independent set than you do when you’re working on a large studio film?
Elisabeth Shue: You usually have more opportunities to play more [interesting] characters on an independent film because they are not necessarily the stories that are going to sell to a mass public. I love the pace of independent films. I think it does lead to a certain amount of freedom. You’re not waiting around for big lighting set ups. Everything is happening so quickly. You have so little money and so little time, and I love that energy. And it’s kind of a cliché, but the people who show up to do these films really do them because they love them. There’s a certain amount of dedication that you may not find on a bigger movie. I just did Piranha 3-D which is a relatively big movie and I still found the same commitment from the actors and the love of the work and it was really hard work. People put it all out there so I guess you can’t generalize too much.
PR.com: Which scene from Don McKay was your favorite to shoot?
Elisabeth Shue in Don McKay
Elisabeth Shue: The last scene, I wouldn’t say it was my favorite. It was challenging on some levels and kind of terrifying. I remember the day we started and I think it was [shot] over four days. Imagine, one scene and having to keep it connected for that [long].
PR.com: That scene in the kitchen?
Elisabeth Shue: Yeah, It just went on forever. It was challenging for me to make all of those turns work. The energy that was required was kind of intense, but I love the challenge of it. I’m more attracted to the challenging scenes than the scenes that are fun.
PR.com: The moment where it’s revealed that you are not who you are supposed to be, that sent chills up my spine.
Elisabeth Shue: Did that surprise you?
Elisabeth Shue: That’s good. That makes me so happy. Everyone keeps saying that this is the one movie they have seen in a really long time where they really had no idea what was going on (laughs). You can’t say that about many movies. We’ve all seen so many films, and you guys especially, think of all the films you’ve seen (referring to my job), and to still be surprised is pretty cool.
PR.com: Well my biggest pet peeve is with big budget romantic comedies because you go to the movie to see how everything is going to happen, but you know what’s going to happen at the end. If you see the trailer and it’s about a man and a woman who are annoyed by each other you know they are going to wind up in bed or in love, one of the two. As an actress what do you think of those kinds of female roles?
Elisabeth Shue: I haven’t done so many of them. I don’t think I’ve done a romantic comedy where I’ve been the lead. I remember Soap Dish, but that wasn’t a romantic comedy.
PR.com: Maybe The Karate Kid would be the closest thing to that kind of a role.
Elisabeth Shue in Don McKay
Elisabeth Shue: That was the quintessential girlfriend. I was annoyed by the idea of “the girlfriend,” but then I was lucky that I didn’t end up playing that many of them even though that was sort of my title for awhile… “the good girlfriend.” I hope that as the years go on, and the audience members are really the ones that need to revolt and they are the ones who need to say, “Hey, we want more interesting, more complicated, more human and surprising. And we’re not going to come out and see that other kind of movie again.” The advertising and marketing just seems to draw so many people into movie theatres that it’s hard for them to stop making those movies. They keep working enough to get people to keep coming.
PR.com: Back when you were nominated for an Oscar for your role in Leaving Las Vegas, those are typically the films that wind up as the stand outs and get the acclaim at the end of each year.
Elisabeth Shue: The smaller movies.
PR.com: The smaller movies, or just the movies where it takes you on a journey where you didn’t know where it was going to go.
Elisabeth Shue: That’s true. Sandra’s part this year, every once in a while there’s a hybrid of a movie that is really entertaining and works on a commercial level and also has a really great character, and for a woman, oh my God, that’s pretty amazing. And the same for Julia Roberts when she won for Erin Brockovich, that’s really rare. It’s not as rare for men, like Forrest Gump was a hybrid. And if you look at all those movies that were commercial plus they had a great actor in them, they were probably done by a huge director so that they can sell it and so the studio felt comfortable. We’re going to do a movie that is much more complicated and much more interesting, but we know we have this great director. We have Steven Spielberg or we have Robert Zemeckis, a commercial director doing it.
PR.com: Being that your husband, Davis Guggenheim, is a successful producer and director (An Inconvenient Truth, Training Day), do you ever run your professional choices by him for input?
Elisabeth Shue: It’s funny, but I was thinking that we don’t really do enough of it. We’re so busy in our own lives. Even though he just finished a pilot and I didn’t read it, and that was the first time I didn’t read his pilot, and that’s terrible. And I was thinking that he never reads any of the scripts that I choose to do. There must be some trust that he has in me (laughs). When he sees the movie he’s always like, “Jesus, I didn’t know you were going to be kissing him that many times!” And I’m like, “I didn’t either. But it was part of the character. It was starting to become necessary for the movie,” and I was like, “You didn’t read the script anyway.” But as parents of three kids with two careers, it’s kind of impossible. And maybe there’s a need for a little bit of independence. Or else we’re just lazy (laughs).
PR.com: It’s also good to separate your business life from your personal life.
Elisabeth Shue & Husband Davis Guggenheim
Elisabeth Shue: That’s true and maybe there is also the feeling of what if he read a script that I really loved and he didn’t like it. Then I would listen to him. So maybe it’s better for us to make our own mistakes.
PR.com: Sometimes asking for advice is a slippery slope because you lose touch with your own inner voice. What else are you working on this year?
Elisabeth Shue: In August Piranha 3-D is coming out, and I also did a movie called Janie Jones with Abigail Breslin and Alessandro Nivola. I’m really excited about both movies which is rare for me. I think Piranha 3-D is going to be really fun. And Janie Jones was such a departure for me because I got to play a very dramatic character. It’s very much a supporting part, but just a character that is very challenging. It surprised me how difficult it was. I’m scared, but excited for how that [film] turns out.
PR.com: Is there anything that all of these characters have in common, or any one quality in yourself that you tend to always bring to your work?
Elisabeth Shue: The best characters I’ve ever played are the characters that really need something very badly, whether it’s love or attention, or money (laughs). They need something. With my favorites, there is a certain desperation underneath them and usually some sort of openness to wanting to experience life in a more open and vulnerable way. The tougher characters for me are the ones where I’m supposed to be really smart or an authority. I’m nervous if there’s not one screw loose somewhere, because then it’s not quite right.
“Don McKay” is now playing in New York, Los Angeles and Boston in select theatres.