AT LACMA Fri 5.22.2015

“Every day that I go to work I get a surge of adrenaline.”—Aloft Star Jennifer Connelly

There’s a quote in Claudia Llosa’s new feature Aloft (which premiered at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival) that echo Stephen Daldrey’s The Hours. “It was just too much to bear,” Jennifer Connelly’s character whispers to her estranged adult son. She’s apologizing for abandoning him two decades earlier, after his younger brother drowned in a tragic accident. Her words are a haunting reminder of Julianne Moore’s earth-shattering speech from that 2002 film: “It would be wonderful to say you regretted it. It would be easy. But what does it mean to regret when you have no choice? It’s what you can bear. There it is. No one’s going to forgive me. It was death. I chose life.”

Aloft is a lyrical film and a poignant one. It’s the story of a woman who discovers that she is a healer, yet she can’t heal the one thing that matters to her–her terminally ill son, so she becomes a maternal figure to the rest of the world instead. In Elvis Mitchell’s conversation with Connelly at Film Independent’s free Member screening of the film last night, he looked back at the stand-out roles of her career and asked whether it was a deliberate choice that she made to play these strong, unapologetic mothers.

“I guess I do have an affinity for unsympathetic characters. All of my characters have difficult choices to make, and don’t feel the need to be liked. Real people are complicated and contradictory so I like when filmmakers don’t manipulate that—it’s brave.  It’s interesting to reflect on people who are different from me, to spend time  with a character who makes a choice that I would never make. It’s also scary. But I like practicing empathy and compassion. It’s a fulfilling creative process and it’s nice to have an opportunity to challenge oneself.

There’s a lot of judgment in the world about women and about mothers—the choices they make. And a lot of people don’t want to spend the time thinking about someone who would leave a child. It’s interesting that some people see it that way. But this character’s journey, it’s an unfathomable thing to lose a child. I can’t even imagine what that might be like.

The majority of my work has been in dramas, so a lot of the characters I’ve played, their stories are darker fare. (There’s not so many comedies on the bio!) I don’t think about it as this overarching plan. I go from one character to another; but maybe there is a pattern. Those are the choices that I’ve made, so I suppose its what I’ve been attracted to.

With Claudia [Llosa, the Director of Aloft] she’s never trying to make apologies for her characters. She’s never seeking to have her characters be liked. In the case of my character, Nana, she’s very stoic and contained. She’s a mother but she doesn’t come across as warm and tactile—not because she doesn’t love her children, but because she loves them so much. She keeps herself so contained to avoid having to feel such depths of pain. She practices this sort of non-attachment, and surrenders to that distance. To some extent the film is about people being frozen, stuck in time. What drew me to the script was its subtlety, how aesthetically powerful it was (it communicated so much visually) and the lead character was so complex and tender. All of these things appealed to me.”

Connelly and Mitchell also discussed highlights of her career:

On working with Sergio Leone in 1984’s Once Upon A Time In America:
“It was one of my first acting jobs and was such an amazing first film experience.  He is probably why I’m still acting. I had no idea what I was doing – I wasn’t a kid who had aspired to be in movies, but I landed his film through an odd string of circumstances, and it was magical, almost like a fairy tale – mythical in fact. There were these exquisite, elaborate sets, extraordinary actors, and Sergio himself was this grand creature with these strange octagonal glasses and a bullhorn, which he would use to shout up to his DP who was perched on a ladder. Everything about the film was cinematic. Even the making of it was cinematic. I’ve never worked with anyone like that again.”

On working with Darren Aronofsky: 
“He’s a great filmmaker and is pioneering in so many ways. With Requiem For A Dream so much if it was groundbreaking—the editing, the cinematography, the music, the sound design. When I auditioned for it, I had to go back in a couple times in order to fight for the role, as Darren wanted someone else. He was very honest about that. It’s not a secret. It was a really fulfilling experience. I felt like I was really able to I immerse myself in it and I’d had no experiences like that at that point, so it was wonderful to have something that I could dive into to that extent.“

On making the transition from being a child actor:
“Before that, I’d felt a disconnect between the stuff I was interested in and the films I was making. I was engaged but it wasn’t personal. I think that was a holdover from when I was a kid. Because I started as a child actor, the criteria was very different. Doing my job well meant to show up on time, learn your lines, stay on your mark, and don’t make a fuss. Around this time [the year 2000] I also did Waking The Dead and there was this transition at that point where I said “Oh, this could be really fulfilling for me. This could be where I put my creative impulses.” I was becoming an adult. It was exciting, as it felt like I was re-choosing this as a path for myself.”

On getting the dream job:
“When I read the script for A Beautiful Mind I thought I would love so much to do a movie like this, and then I auditioned and they gave it to me! I couldn’t believe my luck! I knew it was so special. That was a big moment for me, and the first time Ron Howard and I worked together. This job is fun but it’s also kind of frightening. Working in general, I don’t take it casually. I think about it a lot. Every day that I go to work I get a surge of adrenaline. I definitely don’t take it for granted.”

Lucy Mukerjee-Brown / Los Angeles Film Festival Associate Programmer