When Terrence Howard walked up, he was already crying.
This particular day of shooting for “Prisoners” was set in a hospital in Atlanta. Real and pretend cops walked past real and pretend doctors and nurses up and down its hallways, a tight space for Howard, Viola Davis, Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello to exorcise the most heightened of emotions.
Howard with Davis and Jackman with Bello play working class parents two families, each with daughters who have been kidnapped. Each actor, in real life, is a parent. It shows, said Howard, who has spent the latest scene in yet another state of what he calls “messy moments.”
“I hope I don”t get in trouble saying, but it feels like ‘The Silence of the Lambs” in a sense because you have this whole couple with this horror,” he said. “It’s like this anxiety on steroids.”
Watch the trailer for the film – which made its debut at TIFF this week – and you can understand how this “horror” is rooted in reality. One minute, there are two little girls and the next moment, they”re missing. The biggest lead comes from a suspect (Paul Dano) who one could typically qualify as looking like a pervert. Search teams scan the woods, the statistics of missing persons reports becomes grounded in actual faces and names in the Dover and Birch families.
For the scenes shot at the hospital in Atlanta, Howard, Davis, Jackman and Bello look like the walking dead. In the plot at that moment, there had been some developments in the short days that have followed the kidnappings. Far from the glamor that each actors” more recent roles have allowed, their makeup is in shades of purple, their lines deepened, their real tears falling between frizzy and unwashed locks and unkempt facial hair.
“Normally you want to look your best, and every day is them making you look your worst,” Howard laughed after he wiped his eyes again. “And you feel like that ’cause everybody that looks like you, they have the same makeup. And it’s like ‘Man, we are f*cked up.””
Director Denis Villeneuves, who helmed Oscar-nominated “Incendies,” pushed each of his characters in the film react to the abduction in different ways, similar and contrasting ends to the reactive equation of “What if it were your kid?”.
Jackman”s character Keller, who is “religious,” has a survivalist streak, and “believes in being ready, ready for anything. One of the first scenes in the movie where he has that chat with his son, where he says ‘Basically don’t rely on anybody in life,”” Jackman said, looking like a sack of potatoes in a hospital waiting room chair. Like the other actors, the story hurts him as it hit close to home. “I”m a parent. It’s even difficult to even vaguely go there.”
“Trauma is the main characteristic [in ‘Prisoners”], if you could imagine losing your own child. But we all deal with it in such different ways,” Bello said “My character [Grace] deals with it with putting her head under the covers and taking a lot of medication and not being able to really to get out of bed hoping her daughter’s just going to show up.”
“…But the thought that they’re suffering and waiting and crying and hoping on you, that’s the thing that doesn’t allow you to rest,” Howard said separately.
“I gravitate towards it because I felt like it had something very interesting to say about the human psychology of vigilantism,” Davis hinted. “We all have smokescreens that we kind of put to on ourselves to give us the stamp of good or bad or evil or good. And then when we’re questioned and we have to step up to the plate of morality, then you don’t know what’s gonna come out of you.”
The unpredictable elements to the very real human drama of missing children are the authorities working the case. And in this case, it”s Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki, who looks upon all parties suspiciously, acting as the “audience”s eyes,” as he explained it.
“I do skepticism relatively well. We’re in the perfect environment for it right now,” he smiled, fresh from a scene where he further questioned the Dover and Birch parents (and a newly hospitalized key to the puzzle). “When everyone is a mystery of some sort, you get to be the audience’s eyes. Therefore, it’ll be a more interesting film to watch ’cause you see in a way the case unfolds through Loki”s eyes… in that way I think there’s a relative amount of paranoia and skepticism that every audience member kind of walks into when they’re being [told] a story, when they’re being entertained that I weirdly revel in.”
Gyllenhaal was described as being upbeat between scenes, and a good, stoic sparring partner for the other actors. He could be seen laughing and smiling between scenes as Jackman”s Keller skulks in his muted colors in a livid nightmare.
“It’s been a dream really to have this cast. And Jake, who’s so silly in between, and then he gets so serious because all of us are suspects,” Howard said. In missing persons reports, “parents are the first suspects. So Jake, not-shooting-Jake is the funniest thing. And then he turns into this cop, and he doesn”t give you anything.”
Loki plays his part as an objective policeman; Keller”s moral compass disorients into a sleep deprived psychopathy. Both did their research and homework into these circumstances. Both have to lead their characters down into appropriately dark roads.
Seven days after children go missing, the statistics of finding them are “pretty horrific. And it’s clear to all the players in our film, y”know. So every day that goes by, every minute that goes by, statistically things are just getting more and more dire and more and more desperate,” Jackman said.
So why go through with a script like this, a story that effects the actors in such a visceral way?
“It’s an incredibly rich and beautiful drama character piece. You really experience this episode through the eyes and feelings and the emotions of these characters. There’s something much more important than story, than acting, than anything really,” Bello said. “We tend to constantly talk about our children, and that’s a priority for us.”