HOLLYWOOD – Save a taste-maker here and there for friends and family and filmmakers (bound by no man's embargo), Christopher Nolan finally unleashed “Interstellar” to audiences of press and guild members on both coasts Thursday night. Ever the perfectionist, the director was on hand at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood right up until showtime, ensuring that the venue's image and sound were up to snuff before it before it was projected on 70mm IMAX for a capacity crowd that saw some late-comers turned away without a seat.
The reaction was uproarious when the final credits rolled, a typically generous SAG audience offering pops of applause to the three cast members – Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain – that they knew were in attendance for a post-screening Q&A (Nolan did not stick around to discuss). And given an audience of actors, naturally the discussion revolved around performance.
For McConaughey, who plays a pilot-turned-farmer in an environmentally bleak future, the experience was one of the macro and the micro. “This is a science fiction film and it goes to limits we haven't seen before – Christopher Nolan gets more scope and scale on film than any director I've ever worked with,” he said. “But at the same time, you have such an intimate story, such a personal story. I think it was very personal for Chris.”
It's a line of patter that last year's Best Actor Oscar winner has had down pat for some time. Just over a year ago he told me that his biggest fear on the project was that he would go into the blockbuster production and not feel it grounded enough on a human level. “I had a bit of fear, going like, 'Was it so much of a machine that I'm going to still be able to have an experience,'” he said at the time, when he was in the thick of shooting. “So that's what I'm working on, that I am getting. Because I'm holding on and saying, 'No, I'm still going to have an experience today. I still had an experience on Friday.' I'm serving [Nolan's] story but I'm still having a personal experience.”
In figuring out how to deliver the performance – which may well rival his Oscar-winning turn in “Dallas Buyers Club” if not surpass it – McConaughey said at the Q&A that he latched onto character flaws. “What helped me was to shine a light on the foils of who [the character of] Cooper was,” he said. “I invested in what's wrong with him, his spite, his feeling of being screwed around and not able to live his dream. Those are things that I was able to grab onto and helped me go through each day and feel like, 'OK, I feel my bloodline in it. I'm having a personal experience.'”
The film marks Hathaway's second collaboration with Nolan after 2012's “The Dark Knight Rises,” and she copped to not fully grasping her character through all of the metaphysical elements of the script. “Any other director, I don't know that I would have leapt at the opportunity,” she admitted. “And it took months and months and months to figure [my character] out.”
Without spoiling anything about the direction of the movie, she plays a member of a modest and clearly defunded NASA working in seclusion. The secrecy surrounding the organization's machinations might just rival that of a Christopher Nolan film set, so we'll leave it at that, but it's important to mention because that isolation from the world ended up being a key into figuring out the character.
“Once I imagined her as someone who was highly emotional, highly intelligent and desperately lonely with a very small group of friends – family only, really – and not much experience in the world to draw from, I thought, 'My God,'” Hathaway said. “'Here is a genius with very little life experience. She's a late bloomer.' That informed the language for me, that science was where her heart is.”
Speaking of seclusion, Chastain spoke about how she felt isolated from the moment she took on the project. She didn't even meet Nolan before accepting the offer and finally made his acquaintance at a costume fitting. Tthroughout the experience, she said she felt very shut off from the whole. “Now I wonder if that was on purpose,” she said. Indeed, her character inhabits a much different space than McConaughey and Hathaway's in the film, but wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more.
The film will screen throughout the weekend with Paramount hoping for a big splash ahead of a release date that's just two weeks away. It will no doubt be a box office hit positioned as one of the season's boldest Oscar contenders – and at nearly three hours, certainly the longest. Will size matter? Or will the intimacy that attracted McConaughey be the spark for the Academy's fuse?
Questions for another day…
“Interstellar” hits theaters on Nov. 7.