COVINGTON, LOUISIANA – It’s early May in Covington, Louisiana with the heat and humidity to prove it, but in Gatlin, South Carolina it’s shortly after Halloween.
Pumpkins still perch on the stoops in a neighborhood that required very little set decoration to embody the more-Southern-than-Southern fictional town at the heart of Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s “Beautiful Creatures,” a bestselling Young Adult Fantasy novel getting the big screen treatment courtesy of Warner Brothers and Oscar nominated writer-director Richard LaGravenese.
In the book, the first installment of the “Caster Chronicles” series, Gatlin is an imagined stand-in for any Dixie town lorded over by the Daughters of the Confederacy, in which the ghosts of the Civil War hover atop the architecture like spectral Spanish moss. There’s more than enough literal Spanish moss to go around in Covington and other than the South Carolina license plates on any car that might accidentally or purposefully make it into a shot, the city — statistically a piece of the New Orleans–Metairie–Kenner Metropolitan Statistical Area, but a long drive from New Orleans on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway — might as well be playing itself, minus the newfound infestation of witches and other supernatural creatures.
The only real signs of state affiliation are on the backs of the individual crew members, whose t-shirts boast work on productions like “Treme” and “Bad Lieutenant” or offer support for the Saints and embattled coach Sean Payton.
Because May and November in the Deep South can also be difficult to distinguish — especially to a desert-dwelling Los Angeles resident no longer accustomed to the weight of even minor humidity, much less sticky, oppressive, overbearing, stop-walking-and-start-swimming-down-the-street humidity — it’s tempting to look for hints of Halloween in the set, but other than the pumpkins and some compelling makeup on a supporting player that represents a plot point I can’t discuss, holiday decoration is minimal.
Although it has nothing to do with Halloween, Emmy Rossum is playing dress-up, strutting down the sidewalk in short, form-fitting dress with a lacy black overlay. With her hair tinted auburn and cut short, Rossum scarcely resembles Fiona Gallagher, her brassy blue collar alter ego on Showtime’s “Shameless.” She also scarcely resembles Garcia and Stohl’s description of her character from the book.
Rossum is playing Ridley Duchannes, cousin to Lena Duchannes.
Lena (Alice Englert) is the new girl turning Gatlin upside-down as she simultaneously begins a romance with native son Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) and discovers her powers as a “caster” (that’d be a witch, if you don’t know the lingo). Ridley, a Dark Caster, arrives in town and soon begins inciting chaos of her own.
In the book, Ridley is a blonde nymphet, prone to skimpy costumes and able to entrance men with the not-so-subtle lick of a lollipop.
On screen, it’s immediately obvious that this will be a different version of Ridley.
“She’s definitely less Harajuku girl,” Rossum tells the trio of reporters watching the shoot. “She’s definitely not, you know, kind of like a trashy… Harajuku girl, which is how I imagined her when I was reading the book — kind of like punky, blonde and pink. She’s much more sophisticated, kind of runway haute couture-meets-bad girl-meets-Dita von Teese.”
Despite the fashion overhaul, this Ridley is still equally powerful and equally manipulative, but in the scene we’re watching, her lollipop is nowhere to be seen. Taking its place in this moment? A plum. This change for the nutritious initially sounds like Cookie Monster being told his eponymous desserts are merely a “sometimes food,” but it works.
The sequence, which I can’t tell you a darned thing about (for several reasons), features some of Ridley doing That Thing She Does and ends with her striding away, taking a bite of the fruit — less phallic, more Eve & The Serpent — and discarding it aggressively.
Over and over, Ridley sashays away.
Over and over, Rossum bites into a plum.
Over and over, she sends the fruit flying.
Sometimes she goes to the left, sending the plum through the assembled crew. Sometimes she goes to the right, sending the plum into one of several neighboring yards. Each time, she maintains a devilish glint in her eye until the shot has played out, before looking around nervously.
“Did I hit you guys?” she sheepishly asks a couple small children, watching from the side. Reassured that she didn’t, she comes over to meet the kids and their small puppy.
Each time, the crew resets. Each time, somebody scurries to collect the largely unconsumed plum.
Another take, another plum toss, this one coming entirely too close to the camera. Rossum smiles regretfully, utters several colorful expletives and then immediately goes over to apologize to the juvenile onlookers and to the dog.
“There’s a lot of fruit, actually, in the movie with my character,” Rossum tells us after the scene wraps. “In the book — I read the book and liked all the three books I read so far — she’s obviously very orally fixated with the lollipop and we will showcase the lollipop at one point, but I thought seeing the lollipop over and over and over again, when I talked to Richard might, be a little bit Lolita. Although it works in the book because you can imagine it, it might be slightly repetitive. So we’re hoping a little more earthy, a little more Garden of Eden , a little bit more fruit, hence plums, strawberries.”
[Based on the picture accompanying this story, you can see that the lollipop did, indeed, make it into the film. The picture at the bottom is from this particular day, albeit lacking any visual proof of plums.]
Regardless of the color of her hair, the style of her attire or the nature of her oral fixation, Ridley is an attention-grabbing character and fans of the book will be relieved that that hasn’t changed. And yes, Rossum read the first three books in the series to make sure she had a full grasp on the character, which counts as commitment.
“[S]he just has a delicious sense of meddling and evil,” Rossum explains. “She was probably a kind of bratty, loud-mouthed young girl who wasn’t all that pretty and then she grew up, became a dark witch and all of sudden she’s all va-va-voom, and she’s like ‘Okay I’m going to be noisy and loud and have everyone pay attention to me.’ And that kind of bolsters her up in a way that makes her larger than life and very in your face, so it’s really fun.”
In her acclaimed Showtime role, Rossum gets to play a wide array of emotions, but even in its broader, comedic moments “Shameless” remains grounded. There’s little doubt that Rossum is enjoying spending her hiatus with a character for whom anything goes.
She laughs, “Yeah, within the realm of this slightly heightened, supernatural world, she’s definitely an attention hog, and definitely an exhibitionist, so it’s really, really fun to play that, because I don’t normally play that.”
“I mean, this obviously couldn’t be more different,” Rossum says, comparing “Beautiful Creatures” to “Shameless.” “It’s glam, it’s wigs, it’s make-up, it’s period costumes, it’s everything that goes with this supernatural world and what we’ve created Ridley to be. And by ‘we,’ I mean ‘not me at all’! I just do the acting, they do all the visuals. But it’s really fun to embody something different.”
It’s not like Fiona doesn’t have her bad girl side, but she isn’t evil.
“No. She definitely likes the dark side. Let’s face it, it’s more fun,” Rossum says. “But I think that she does have a tiny, small heart underneath. It’s very very small, but it’s under there for sure. She was definitely jilted by her family and has a sense of abandonment from that. Her family’s obviously fighting for Lena to stay to the light, whereas they didn’t for Ridley, so there’s a real stick in her craw. She wants Lena on her side. She wants her sister back, so she’s just gonna frickin’ get her.”
[Rossum, it should be noted, has not given in to her own dark side off-camera, just in case her respectful wooing of children and dogs left any doubt. After chatting with the group of reporters, she returns to work, but later in the afternoon, upon spying us eating in the craft service tent, she drops by to say “Hi” and to strongly recommend the melon water. We all nod agreeably, but then five minutes later, Rossum returns, precariously balancing a handful of cups of what is, indeed, very tasty melon water. It didn’t go unappreciated.]
While “Beautiful Creatures” may not have achieved the same YA saturation as the “Twilight” or “Hunger Games” series, the books have a devoted following that was quick to weigh in online on every piece of casting. That can mean a certain amount of pressure.
“I think it’s great,” Rossum says. “I do think about it because the fan art that people started to send me on Twitter and Facebook right when I got the part was so different than what I look like in the film, so of course I want them to be happy. But it is also an adaptation. You know, film is a visual medium and we’re definitely changing some of the visuals described in the book, but I know Kami and Margaret — we’re Twitter buddies — have read it and are super-jazzed and know what everything looks like, so if they like it, we’re happy.”
And it’s not like Rossum is a stranger to roles that come with expectations. She’s been in literary adaptations like “Mystic River,” in video game adaptations like “Dragonball,” in high profile remakes like “Poseidon” and then there was that little movie about the phantom who enjoyed spending time at the opera.
I ask if that’s a draw for her.
“No, I don’t like that pressure,” she says with a chuckle. “But I kind of lucked into getting with good casts and on those kinds of projects, and that’s definitely not like ‘Oh wow, people know exactly what they want this to be, and now I’m going to go create something different!’ That’s not like, ‘Woo!’ But at the same time I love Christine, I like Fiona, who was originally created by Anne-Marie Duff, and I like this character and thank God there’s been no other imagining of her. So yeah, I’ve done a lot of stuff like that.”
Rossum also assumes or hopes that audiences will be able to distinguish “Beautiful Creatures” from those other YA blockbusters.
“I know people are going to compare it to ‘Hunger Games’ or ‘Twilight’ or whatever, but those are just big franchises with heightened and/or supernatural themes. So we definitely fit in that realm,” she says. “But I think even moreso than the book, I mean the book was definitely different than those — in terms of the core of it being a love story between star-crossed lovers, very Romeo and Juliet: one’s a witch, one’s not, and they can’t be together, that whole thing, that’s totally a universal theme — But to me, when you’ve got somebody Richard, who’s such an amazing writer to adapt the book, because it’s really an adaptation, it’s not verbatim the book. A lot of things are changed. Some plot points are changed, some things are explained further than they were in the book or changed, and the world is completely visually created by [cinematographer Philippe Rousselot] and Richard in a very, going with what we did with Ridley, a very haute couture, kind of fantastical, magical place, some of which references, when you read the script, directly from paintings that Richard loves. He’s going to visually recreate the world in that way. So I think, visually, we’re going to be very different from those films.”
And what is Rossum’s pitch to audiences who don’t necessarily know the book?
“It’s a really fantastical world, the way it looks,” she says “It’s a little bit different take on casting and witches than we’ve seen. I love witch movies — One of my favorite is ‘Witches of Eastwick’ — and I think there is that element of comedy and satire but also an immense heart, and at its core, it’s a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story and I think that will really endear people to our main characters. I’m just a sexy bad girl, which is fun to be.”
“Beautiful Creatures” opens on February 13, 2013.