On Tuesday I was part of a small roundtable group of journalists who chatted with Vinessa Shaw (pictured below in Garden Party) about Two Lovers, in which she stars opposite Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow. A Brooklyn-set drama about Leonard, a thirtysomething, live-at-home, bi-polar wallflower who finds himself torn between two women, neither of whom may ultimately be right for him, writer-director James Gray‘s movie marks the third collaboration between filmmaker and male star, but is currently getting lots of pub as Phoenix’s last film, now that he’s announced a retirement from acting, and the launch of a rap career. Shaw, who plays Sandra, a sweet-natured woman whose father might be buying the dry-cleaning business of Leonard’s pop, talks about her work with Phoenix, as well as the film as a whole. The conversation is excerpted below, with a few slight story spoilers when the conversation dips into the movie most specifically:
Question: Have you ever had anyone, especially parents, try to set you up with anyone?
Vinessa Shaw: No, I never have. I think I’ve always made my own choices, but at the same time there’s always some date that end up going on to please someone else. But I’m not very good at dating. I’m very decisive. If I like someone then they’re my boyfriend, it’s pretty straightforward.
Q: What was it like filming on location in New York?
VS: I think New York is perfect for this film because of the intimacy between characters, and I really feel we couldn’t have done it anywhere else. Plus, James is from New York and has a special place in his heart for the city and the surrounding burroughs. I feel like if we used L.A. for New York it wouldn’t have been the same, especially in his heart.
Q: Which leads to part two — did James take you guys out [to specific places] to get everyone ready?
VS: No. (laughs) I think he was there with his family, living in Tribeca, and was really focusing on the work we had to do. And the film went [off] pretty fast after we got all the actors together for each character, we just started filming. So I think he just went scouting and that was it. You kind of had to create in your mind what the scenarios would be for each character, and where their families lived and the specificity of it.
Q: Why wouldn’t this movie be the same if it was set in L.A.?
VS: As we know, so many romantic movies are set in New York, and I think the city itself romances people’s hearts. I think it can be a very lonely city and also a very comforting city depending on how happy or miserable you are. So I think we see both sides of that, and especially for my character, being from Brighton Beach, it’s a very homey kind of familial neighborhood, contrasted to the awe of New York City, which James does so well when Leonard goes into [Manhattan] and there’s that beautiful, serenading music. The city can be very intoxicating in that way, and that’s what’s happening to him with Michelle. He’s being intoxicated by her mysterious ways.
Q: The love scenes in this film are much more realistic than we see in many movies. Were there any differences in other movie love scenes?
VS: (laughs) I think all movie love scenes are hard, because you can’t truly be as intimate as you would be with anyone you’re truly with, and everyone’s watching you. But I think especially for the love scene between [Sandra and Leonard], it’s in his parent’s house, and James really wanted it to be messy — not just shooting on my face and then his face. I think you got the reality of the characters. Even in the end, when we’re post-coital, Sandra’s holding him instead of him holding her. It’s very much the nature of their characters, so I think he really got the correct mood of the scene — very passionate, but still kind of imbalanced in how she essentially views their relationship.
Q: Joaquin and James have worked together a lot — did you notice a shorthand between them?
VS: For sure. I went in, and the first day I had to do the scene in the café, and it’s the first day that I’ve even met Joaquin and was supposed to be doing the actual climax of our characters’ relationship, having dated for a few months, and with things going a little bumpy. And so going into Joaquin’s trailer, with James there, it was very much like they already knew what was going on and I had to catch up a little. But it’s really nice, it’s a very brotherly kind of care that they have for each other, so in that sense, even though I didn’t know the terminology or shorthand that they were using, I still caught up to it because of their care for each other, and I was welcomed into that circle.
Q: Some filmmakers do a lot of takes — how was it on this film?
VS: James was running the show, and he really wanted us to run the gamut of all the possibilities that the characters would go through. He wanted my character, especially, for instance, the scene in the café, he ran it a couple times with me not saying anything, and then a couple times with a full-out argument. And so what you get on film is something in between. So I think he just wants to play a lot. And that would drive me crazy sometimes, because I didn’t know where we were going and what would be on screen, but it was exciting nonetheless.
Q: I’d be interested in your take on Sandra, because she’s willing to take a lot of absence from Leonard, she’s willing to accept him not showing up to the birthday party, or showing up [late] to the New Year’s Eve party. Who is she — is she a sad person, or is she just so in love with him that she [acts this way]?
VS: I think that her life, from what I could see, was very straightforward, and I think perhaps she’s been in many relationships where she’s been set up with people — guys that are very safe and stable, and probably have good futures, a good doctor or something. [Sandra], I think, has an adventurous streak in her, even though she’s not crazy like Michelle. In her perspective, she has this rebellious side, [wanting] somebody who’s more dangerous and unpredictable. I think she seeks that out in [Leonard]. She wants to be the one who can do something or help someone. She works at Pfizer in the city, so she’s definitely a caretaker in nature, but I think she maybe has too much faith in Leonard, and really feels his potential is something she could seek out, and he could be someone in the future who is really ready for her. But right now she doesn’t see that. Maybe she’s way more patient than any woman could ever be in seeing what exists for him in the future, so she doesn’t make a stink about him [missing the parties]. Either that or she’s completely in love, and blinded by that, I don’t know. I kind of decided to have her be someone who’s just simple, and sees his potential, and lives in that moment of potentiality rather than what’s going on.
Q: There’s an ambiguity at the end of the film. Do you think they have a chance at working out?
VS: I think it’s a mystery, for me. I hope that they work out. You can tell that he’s stepping into the bright future that he wants to live, but you never know. She could just as easily get fed up if he doesn’t reach the place that she wants him to be. So I hope the best for them.
Q: You’re saying it would be fine for them until she found out about the ring (a gif
t originally purchased for Michelle), and then the shit would hit the fan.
VS: Maybe, maybe. But even so, she’s an extremely understanding woman — more than any of us could be — and she’s extremely compassionate. I think that perhaps she’s been through a lot in her past, to the point where nothing phases her. Maybe that’s why they do have hope in the end, or there is at least a possibility of them succeeding.
Q: Are you part of this documentary Casey Affleck is doing about Joaquin?
VS: No, no.
Q: What do you think about [his announced retirement], and the hip hop career?
VS: You know, I hope he enjoys what he’s doing. I think that he’s a fantastic actor, and I hope that whatever he does makes him happy. I’m sure that whatever Joaquin chooses to do will bring success in his life, because he’s obviously very talented.
Q: Are you bummed that he’s quitting acting?
VS: Yeah, I would love to work with him again, but such is life. People have to do what they want to do.
Q: When getting involved with this project, was it hearing that Joaquin and James were making another movie that made you want to get involved, or were you sent the script?
VS: Well, I had been given the script and apparently James had seen 3:10 to Yuma, the movie I did with Russell Crowe, and was at the premiere. It’s so funny, because I realized that I’d seen him there, kind of staring at me. A few days, maybe even less than a week later I got the script and I heard that Joaquin and Gwyneth were attached. I loved the script, and felt like it was so real, and that the story unfolded so naturally, and that he was a great writer. I just thought, “Why not?”
Q: I found the film interesting because with respect to your character it’s a portrait of a woman who’s desperately loving someone who’s maybe wrong for her. And you don’t usually see that. She’s complicated, she’s not just a doormat.
VS: The thing I responded to the most was that she’s so honest. The exchange between her and Leonard was so beautiful, because it was real and awkward and kind of dorky. It was kind of sweet; they didn’t have everything together, and all the cool lines to say to hit on each other. So I felt it was sweet, and I think she really brings out his sweetness. I love when he has opera playing in his house, and she says she’s never been to the opera, but she’s been to The Nutcracker. She’s a very simple girl — never had more than seeing The Nutcracker. And I’m sure there’s not any other ballet that she’s seen. So I felt immediate compassion when I read her character, because I felt that she’s someone who’s pure in her love. And so she’s not manipulative, and doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. That’s different than being a doormat. It’s pure kindness and pure love. She’s not seeking anything in return. And I think you become a doormat when you start thinking that you don’t deserve the love you receive. She’s just different, she just knows that Leonard will love her and come around and become the kind of person that she knows he can be. It was a different kind of character, because she’s so warm and kind and has nothing but respect for him and her family. She’s just a good girl.
Q: Did you have to audition with James?
VS: It was one of those highly unusual circumstances in Hollywood, where it was just a meeting and an offer. I had not auditioned for him, he was very confident based on what he saw in 3:10 to Yuma, and Donna Gigliotti, who produced the film, said she saw it a few weeks earlier and told him, “I found your girl.” And he went and saw the movie and said that was it. So it was kind of fate that way.
Q: Have you gotten other gigs from other roles?
VS: Once before, and it’s funny because they’re friends. James is friends with Kathryn Bigelow, and she saw Eyes Wide Shut and cast me in Weight of Water based on just a meeting.
Q: Do you have anything coming up? Of those rumored projects, do you have something starting in March?
VS: There are things in the mix, but there’s so much that the business is suffering right now, but I think there will be something very soon. Most of the things that I’ve been involved in [have just had issues] with financing and stuff like that. (laughs) Hopefully that stuff will go [soon], hopefully for all of us.
Q: In the meantime, what do you do, take on a play or just enjoy the nice time off?
VS: I’m very active, I’m not just an actor. I have other things going on. I’m a Buddhist and active in my Buddhist’s Association, and I’m actually a National Young Women’s representative for the organization, so I travel a lot helping young women who are practicing Buddhism. And I have my family, and this is a wonderful time to have some [free] time. But at the same time, I’m definitely ready to go to work again as well. I’m going to be honest.
Q: Do you consider it to be a position of honor to be Joaquin’s potential final leading lady?
VS: Of course! Of course. And he’s very fantastic in this movie. If it really is the last role that he does, and he doesn’t come back for sure, then it’s a great one, because he’s so different than any of the characters that he’s played before. He’s so sweet, and he’s kind of funny in this too, very funny and charming. I think these are things that we haven’t seen from Joaquin Phoenix before.
Q: Have you tried to take him aside and say, “You can’t be serious!”?
VS: (laughs) I haven’t really, because I haven’t seen him since he decided to [retire], so… yeah.
Q: Wrapping up, you talked about being cast in this movie off of a meeting, but are auditions something you feel a level of comfort and ease with, given your theatrical background?
VS: Yes, I have ease and comfort because I’ve been doing it a long time, but auditioning is never an easy thing — I think you’re always feeling judged and feeling like you have to prove something. It’s such an awkward, strange thing that was concocted, to have auditions. Back in the old days you’d just have a screen test and they’d say, “Oh, you seem natural in front of the camera,” and you’d just go do 10 pictures for Paramount or whatever. So this auditioning process is very new to the business, and I think a lot of people can find reasons to not like your performance because of the specificity of that room at that time, and the takes that you do. But I’ve learned to live with it, like every other actor, and it’s still fun, because you get to say that you’ve worked that way, when you go on an audition.
Q: Do you have any memorable worst ones?
VS: Oh God… I don’t remember, probably thankfully. I just remember being sick on some of them. I auditioned for Moulin Rouge and had a fever and everything, and was trying to sing. I just remember being loopy. But nothing very bad, to the point where [I’ve been] completely embarrassed.