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THE POWER OF HOPE DAVIS Bringing Complexity and Realism to “The Special Relationship”


There’s something familiar about Hope Davis, like you’ve seen her before or she’s someone you knew a while back. Her everywoman quality coupled with a gift for subtlety and nuance allows her to inhabit a character in a way that always invites empathy. She makes every role accessible and welcomes you in. So when HBO ramped up for “The Special Relationship,” an inside look at the American-British alliance during the 1990s, Davis was the top pick for the part of Hillary Rodham Clinton. The job required an actor to embody a political and social figure who is loved and hated in equal measure, and has long affected the global political landscape — and to present her as flesh and blood, rather than concept or caricature. Their choice paid off, as you’ll see when the Peter Morgan-penned, Richard Loncraine directed film premieres May 29th on HBO. Costarring with Dennis Quaid as Bill Clinton, Michael Sheen as Tony Blair, and Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair, Davis applies her shared-experience sensibility, as well as her uncanny knack for nurturing intimacy in onscreen relationships, as adeptly to this portrayal of an international heavyweight as she did to her Emmy-nominated performance as a miserably single, yet successful lawyer on “In Treatment” last year.

“Hope managed to make that character ambitious, vulnerable, needy, witty, and identifiable to a lot of women who find themselves in a similar career and personal quandary,” remarks Gabriel Byrne, who sat across from Davis for seven intensely emotional sessions on the HBO series. “Her work contains complexity and ambiguity, so she can  take a line or a thought of a character and suggest to an audience a lot of different ideas. You could give the same words to somebody else and they wouldn’t be able to convey that kind of depth. It comes from a real place inside her.”

When Charlie Kaufman wrote and directed the audio play, “Hope Leaves the Theater,” starring Davis, Meryl Streep, and Peter Dinklage, he weighed in on Davis’ uniquely personal appeal — in his own singularly self-referential way. “Hope Davis. I like her,”declares Davis’ character as she watches herself on stage. “She’s cute. Kind of nonactressy; I like that about her ... I feel like I could be friends with her or something.”

The New Jersey-raised thespian made her first big splash in The Daytrippers (1996) as a young woman who drives into Manhattan with her family to find out if her husband (Stanley Tucci) is cheating. She went on to gather a solid following with her role in Brad Anderson’s Next Stop Wonderland (1998), in which her character meanders through an unfulfilling love life while she and her potentially perfect match continually miss the opportunity for a chance encounter. As Davis climbed the rungs, she won roles in high-profile pictures like Arlington Road (1999) alongside Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins, and About Schmidt (2002) with Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates. While remaining both compelling and sympathetic, she took on one idiosyncrasy after another in her Golden Globe-nominated turn as Joyce Brabner — who married downtrodden cartoonist, Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti), after knowing him for a week — in American Splendor (2003). She also appeared as narcissist psychologist, Madeleine Gravis, in Kaufman’s masterwork of despair, Synecdoche, New York (2008).

And while offering her talents to those and other films like The Secret Lives of Dentists (2002), The Matador (2005), The Myth of Fingerprints (1997), The Nines (2007), and Charlie Bartlett (2007) — and to the television projects, “Deadline” with Oliver Platt (2000-2001) and “Six Degrees” (2006-2007) with Campbell Scott — Davis has continued to pursue her first love of theater. Her stage work has included Broadway’s “Two Shakespearean Actors” (1992) and “Ivanov” (1997-1998), and she received a Tony nomination for Best Leading Actress in last year’s “God of Carnage.”

The exceptional performer gave us a ring the other day from New York City, where she lives with her husband, Jon Patrick Walker, and their two children. Get acquainted with Hope Davis, even if you feel you know her already.

Venice: Let’s talk about your current project, “The Special Relationship.” The film is a great illustration of the personalities and interactions that shaped the world at that time, and it reminds us how Tony Blair’s relationship with the U.S. really started.

Hope Davis: And how Tony Blair ended up in the pickle that he ended up in. Isn’t it tragic when you see that real footage with him and George Bush?

The film is framed as a tragedy, as a prequel to the events that followed.

The prequel to when the world went to hell in a hand-basket.

How did you feel about taking on the role of Hillary Clinton?

I felt really, really overwhelmed by the task and didn’t think I should do it, but in the end I decided to. It was a challenge. I was very nervous about doing it because, obviously, this isn’t a comedy. No one’s being sent up in any way. But I read the piece and I was really fascinated by the subject matter and wanted to do it.

And the humor that does show up throughout the film comes from the characters and not from the way they’re portrayed.

Right. It’s not the “Saturday Night Live” thing. It’s tricky and I thought Dennis Quaid was amazing in the film! When I would say to people, “Dennis Quaid’s playing Bill,” they would totally think, “Oh really?” Because they seem so far apart in nature, but I thought he did an amazing job of nailing things about his character without sending him up.

What made you nervous about taking on this role?

She’s probably one of the best-known women in the world. Everybody knows her and has seen a lot of footage of her, and most people have a very strong opinion about her. [I had to] tackle a character that everyone knows so well, and we’ve been watching her for years now. It’s been a long time that she’s been in the public eye. And the fact that we’re telling a true story, a drama, and yet the words are fiction. We don’t know what was actually said in these conversations. Peter Morgan is telling the story as he sees it. So in that way it was a fictional story about very real people. We were conscious of straddling a lot of lines, as far as what the tenor of the thing would be. And there’s just the basic idea that you want to sound something like them, but we’re not mimicking them in that way. For me, I just had no idea how I would approach her. Luckily, of course, there are 12 million hours of footage so I was able to really immerse myself in her speech patterns. I also had a lot of help from a man named Tim Monich, who is a coach here on the East Coast. He actually had a fascinating piece done about him in “The New Yorker” a couple of months ago. He works on all the movies and helps actors really get down the speech patterns and inflections. He, in parsing the way Hillary speaks, gave me a real key to her character and that just opened it up for me.

How did you feel when you first looked in the mirror in full makeup and costume?

[laughs] I felt kind of frightened. I popped the teeth in and the wig went on, and once you get that pantsuit on it’s hard not to feel like you’ve gotta go kick some ass. In a way those pantsuits were very empowering.

So when you sank into the character, you really did feel powerful.

I did. And I watched a lot about their early days when Clinton first became President, and in the days before he was elected, when she was kind of pushing him through the campaign trail. When you saw footage, you’d see how often she was in control of the situation. I thought, “She is never at a loss for words and she is never out of ideas. She’s always in control.”

Hillary and Bill’s relationship is political as well as emotional.

He counted very much on her opinion. The BBC put out a bunch of really interesting documentaries about Clinton over the years, and there were a lot of people within the administration who would come on camera and go, “She is the most articulate human being we have ever encountered in our lives.” And I think, clearly, he looks to her for her opinion. It was very much a partnership, but a partnership that they seem to have agreed upon — that the work they wanted to do was more important than whatever was ailing between them.

The title, “The Special Relationship,” may refer to their relationship as well as to the relationship between the U.S. and England.

It remains a very intriguing relationship to this day. I think a lot of us wonder what really is said between those two.

Is that something you talked about as you were shooting the more private scenes between the two of them?

We did. That’s what was tricky. I think as much as we were all rubberneckers when [the sex scandal] happened at the time, we also felt that they should have their privacy. And I feel like the film actually walks that line very respectfully, of hinting at what they were going through without laying them open in a way that feels disrespectful.

In the end, it’s not a gossip piece. Among other things, it weaves their marital strife, which became politics, into what was going on in Kosovo. There was this idea that Clinton supported the bombing to get people’s minds off of the scandal, and this film really blows that idea out of the water.

Absolutely. And you realize what a ludicrous idea that is, that he would do something like that. I never believed that at the time; that stuff made me so angry when that was out in the news, and everybody was conjecturing that that might have been why. But I think that this film does talk to that question, that the personal and the political are very much entwined, and any discussion going on between two parties, whether it’s the Republicans and Democrats or two countries, is also happening on a very personal level. It’s also really about the people involved; it’s not just about the ideas or what’s right or wrong. And seeing how that affects world politics, and how important it is to have someone like Barack Obama in office, who knows how to talk to people.

Hillary’s interview with Matt Lauer after the breaking of the scandal is one of the most vivid moments of that time. How did you prepare to reenact it? It’s basically shot for shot.

It is. Everything was copied, down to the earrings, and the set is as close as possible. That’s one of the scenes that was lifted verbatim from her real words. I think I was most nervous shooting that scene because that is a scene that people remember. It’s such a fascinating piece. Watching her conduct her way through that interview, I tried to put as many of the nuances in as I could capture, but it’s really fascinating watching her sliding around and yet in complete control at the same time. I mean, no one could imagine that someone going through what she was going through could get up and be that eloquent, as well as being that vulnerable. I literally sat and watched it dozens and dozens and dozens of times until I could do it along with her. I really feel like that’s the key to who Hillary is. Even when you think she’s completely down, she’s somehow standing and she manages to pull through.

You moved to Chicago with a group of friends to pursue theater when you were younger, is that right?

I did. When I got out of college I felt like that terrifying time when you’re 21 or 22 and you don’t know what you’re going to be, and I wanted to try and be an actor but I just never imagined that I would find my way to a job. I left college after majoring in something else and we started a very small theater company, which was probably one of the most difficult and painful years of my life — trying to start something from scratch. I’m so admiring of people who start their own thing and make it happen. Getting people to a little black-box theater in Evanston, Illinois, when you’re doing Beckett and Pinter — it wasn’t easy. We worked on that for a year and then just felt like we all couldn’t take it anymore and gave up on that. Then I spent a couple of years kicking around, trying to find an agent and all that. I went to Chicago because I thought it would be easier; I was totally overwhelmed by the idea of L.A. or New York. And it worked well for me; I got my first couple of little jobs. I was in Home Alone, and I got enough work out of Chicago to propel me slightly forward to the next stage, and then move to New York when I felt like I could survive.

The Daytrippers was a very important film for you.

Yes, it was. That’s one of these things where a lot of people say it’s about luck. If that movie hadn’t happened, who knows if I would ever have worked again. And it was a friend who had a barbecue. We were walking home from the barbecue and he said, “Hey, I wrote this little film and I don’t know if you want to be in it.” And I was like, “Well, sure! Yeah!” He was a really nice guy and we all enjoyed hanging out together and we made the movie. But if I hadn’t met up with Greg Mottola [Superbad], I don’t know what would have happened to me.

Were you living in New York at the time?

Yes, I was living in one of the lofts that part of the movie was shot in. We shot in each other’s apartments. We shot a bunch of the scenes in his parents’ house. Those were the days.

Arlington Road was a really cool movie. Tell us about working with Jeff Bridges.

That was my first experience being on a real studio movie and having a juicy part. And to have your first experience be with someone like Jeff Bridges was incredible. He’s the most generous, hardworking ... he’s the actor you dream of working with. It’s all about the work. He’s absolutely prepared and focused for 14 hours a day, and it was a joy. I loved working on that movie.

Were you nervous about taking on the task?

No, I was so excited. I had always been a fan of Jeff’s. I was divorced at the time; I was totally single, living in a studio in New York. I was jobless and I was literally sitting in the middle of my apartment when the phone call came in. I was sitting there, thinking, “Okay, what next? I’m starting again with a blank slate. What do I do?” And the phone rang and they said, “Do you want to go to Texas?” I couldn’t believe it; I was so excited. For an actor, you wait for the opportunity to really do some work and that was the first time that I felt so challenged, in a way.

Alan Rudolph’s The Secret Lives of Dentists was great as well. In the final scene, Campbell Scott is doing delicate dental work in your mouth, which we then realize is a very intimate act. What kind of work do you do with your cast-mates to give your relationships life?

I thought that was a really amazing end to the film. “Open...” It’s so symbolic of what it’s like to fall back into a relationship with someone. You’re putting yourself at your most vulnerable. He could just jam it right down your throat if he wanted to. As for the relationship question, if you look at the guys that I’ve had the chance to work with, it says it all. Gabriel Byrne, Campbell Scott, Jeff Bridges; these are great actors and incredibly soulful people. It’s easy to make something pop on the screen with these guys. They’re so amazing to be with and to watch. Campbell Scott has been a friend of mine for a long, long time, and Gabriel Byrne I’ve known over the years. These are friends and people that I’m happy to be around off-screen and onscreen. So it’s not like on-screen we’re manufacturing this “Okay, you’ve been married for 20 years” thing. No, we know one another well, which makes it easier in some way to let yourself open in a way that these projects have asked us to do. It’s definitely always about the person that you’re with. And that’s why I feel like in my career I’ve been very, very lucky to work with the people that I’ve worked with, because that’s what it’s all about.

About Schmidt has got some eccentric, hilarious, and fascinating relationships.

[laughs] I chased that movie so hard. That’s actually one of the few times that I’ve gotten the guts to really pursue something. I wanted to be in that movie so badly. I had met Alexander Payne years before and I just kept at it. He takes a long, long time to make up his mind. It took him a few months to decide to cast me. And I kept showing up; I just kept flying to L.A. and sitting down with him and auditioning again and again, and calling him. I just loved that script so much. I feel like people can really see their family in that movie. The last scene I shot was in the airport with Jack Nicholson and Dermot Mulroney. When they called “cut” on my final shot, I just burst into tears and sobbed my eyes out. And Jack was so taken aback; I don’t think he’d seen anybody do that in a long time. I was so sad that it was over. Just being in that world was so delicious. I love Alexander Payne’s movies; I could watch them over and over and over.

I remember driving by a bus stop and seeing the poster for About Schmidt — with Jack Nicholson standing there under a rain cloud — and thinking, “I have to seem that.”

I know! I have to say I was shocked that he didn’t win an Oscar for that performance. I think he’s so incredible. And it’s not a character we’ve ever seen him play before. When I first read the script and I knew he was doing it, I thought, “How? How is Jack Nicholson going to play this milquetoast guy?” I just didn’t see how he would do it. And he’s just so heartbreaking and brilliant in that role.

The scene where he’s lying in bed and you’re yelling at him for getting a crick in his neck has always stuck with me. It’s so terrible and hilarious at the same time.

Shooting that scene, we were laughing so hard. I started to get in trouble by the end of that movie because I just couldn’t look at any of those people anymore. I couldn’t look at Dermot with that ridiculous haircut. And after going through that scene with Kathy Bates and the whole family eating pork chops, when it came time for my close-ups, I had to ask them all to leave the room because I couldn’t eat my pork chops in silence with all of those people around me eating in their very idiosyncratic ways. It was so funny to me the way they were in the movie. That scene with him lying there in this waterbed with his neck to the side, I could barely look at him. I could barely get through the scene. It was so funny the way he was lying there on that bed. In his robe! [laughs] That’s probably why I started shouting so loudly, because I was in a panic.

Is it ever surreal for you to be working with legendary stars like Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates?

Yes, for sure. I remember my very first day on that film. I was shooting a phone call with Jack. They had rigged it up so I could be somewhere on stage and we could actually be speaking on a telephone because it’s much better to have someone on the other line. I was sitting there waiting, you know, sweating, and I heard him pick up the line. He’s like, “Hopey, it’s Jack.” First of all, the only other people who ever called me Hopey are my parents and my sisters. I was like, “Oh my gosh, Jack Nicholson just called me Hopey! Oh my God, I’m on the phone with him!” But it’s not scary once you actually get into the work with somebody like that because they’re there to work, and they’re doing their thing. After I started to relax it was just really exciting.

You played quite an idiosyncratic character yourself in American Splendor.

Great movie. That was a rough shoot, and I have to say that that was a movie where, as we were making it, I didn’t really understand what the movie was going to be. Because when you read the script and there were all these sections that were going to be comic sections, animated, I didn’t understand how this movie was going to come together. And then we saw the finished film and I was just blown away by it. I love that movie so much. I think it’s a really special piece. Paul Giamatti is another person that I have a lot of trouble with because he makes me laugh so hard. I’m scared to work with him now because I’m not a person who has a lot of control, and he’s just so funny to me. He makes me laugh. When Paul Giamatti is yelling and screaming at people on screen, I think it’s so goddamn hilarious. He’s such a great actor.

When your character first walks into Harvey Pekar’s apartment, it’s such a claustrophobic feeling. She literally gets sick by the end of the evening.

Oh, God. We were shooting in this filthy, dirty little bathroom in this old, decrepit house. And the scratchy wig that I had on my head. Literally the day before shooting we went to this really burned-out section of Cleveland that had a lot of wig stores. We bought this acrylic wig and plopped it on my head. It was like a big hunk of plastic and it made me sweat so much! [laughs] And it was so itchy. And there I was, kneeling down next to this filthy, dirty, olive-green toilet. There really wasn’t a lot of acting required in that scene.

And yet it turned out so beautifully.

Bob [Pulcini] and Shari [Springer Berman], those filmmakers, they’re amazing people and they knew exactly what they were doing the whole time. And that’s a case where I was so lucky to be a part of that film. I didn’t really know what I was getting into and I was lucky they took a chance on me.

I think Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is a masterpiece.

You got it, then. So many people just don’t have any idea what that movie is about. But I think it’s a masterpiece that will stand the test of time. I really think in 50 years, people will be talking about what a genius [Kaufman] is. I think it’s an incredible piece of work. Even though it was a small part, I said, “I gotta do it. I have to be a part of this movie!” It was very intense on the page and very beautiful... and funny and strange.

It’s such a grand portrayal of despair.

The end of that film is so sad to me. That idea that we run around in circles, spending so much time trying to parse it together and figure it out. Who are we, and what’s happened to us, and how can we get back to that place of contentment — and then it’s over. It’s such a generous thing, in a way, for Charlie to tell us all. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Caden [Philip Seymour Hoffman] missed it. He missed the whole boat by suffering so much.

Let’s talk a little about “In Treatment.” What a great opportunity to really explore a character.

It was some juicy work to dig into. I’m not much of a TV watcher, just because I have young kids, but I had watched it while I was working in L.A. I had flipped it on and I was just mesmerized by it. I love the pace of that show. I couldn’t get enough of Gabriel and these stories. And listening to people talk, I just thought it was so interesting.

What was it like immersing yourself in those scenes?

It’s what actors love when they’re in school. You’re in the meat of the scene. It’s not about your behavior; it’s about expressing your feelings. These characters are universal in a way. You can relate to these people. Anyone who’s been single in New York knows the pain that this woman is in. These scripts were so eloquently written, and the relationship that they created between my character and Gabriel’s was very, very complex — and sexual and strange and inappropriate, with a long history. It’s always so gratifying for actors to have really good words to say; it’s so easy when the writing is as good as it was on that show. It was one of those great experiences. You’re making me realize that I should stop now. I’ve had a really nice career! I’ve been so lucky; I should really hang it up. [laughs]

How was it working with Gabriel Byrne?

Everyone on set was madly in love with him. He’s just that guy. He’s funny and beautiful and smart and vulnerable and he’s a great listener. He’s a fantastic guy. I admire him so much and I found him mesmerizing on screen — and obviously when you’re sitting across, talking to him, that’s what you’re getting. You’re getting that guy.

The climax of your storyline is this quiet realization. Mia asks Paul when he has ever seen her capable of emotional intimacy, and he says, “Right now.”

It’s such beautiful writing. And the other thing about that storyline that works so well for it is that usually in any kind of steamy, romantic thing, you know they’re going to get together in the end. You know he’s going to kiss her. And in this case they can’t. But, oh my God, are they going to? Is she going to jump on him? And if you watched the first season, he did cross the line, so there was that thing hanging over all of these episodes. Obviously she was in love with him in some way, or thought she was, and you feel the attraction between them — and it really was a lot of tension, wondering if anything was going to come of it. There are real moments when you think something’s going to happen.

And he helps her realize that her behavior with him is exactly what leads to her own pain and sadness, over and over.

And also showing her, “Here’s someone who cares about you, and who you’ve developed a relationship with. Here I am.” It’s not the person you can be with, but it’s someone, right? It’s something; it’s closeness to some degree.

She’s capable of intimacy.

Right. You’re capable of being intimate with someone. That was such a revelatory moment. I read the script and it’s like when you’re reading a great book and you go, “Oh God, that’s it. That’s what we’ve been trying to get to.” And that’s the whole idea of therapy — to bring you to that point where a realization happens that actually propels you forward.

And through all of the screen work you’ve done, you’ve continued to do theater as well.

Yes, that was my first love, always. It’s a place where I hope I will always have a home. It’s something that I really love. It takes a kind of energy that I don’t have a lot of these days because I have young kids, but it’s something that I relish doing and this last year working on [“God of Carnage”] was so much fun.

What continues to draw you to acting? What do you find compelling about it?

It’s these people. It’s spending time with people like Gabriel and [“In Treatment” writer]  Jackie Reingold and [“In Treatment” show runner] Warren Leight. I feel very lucky to be part of this community. I just relish spending time with people like that and doing this work. I still really, really love it. In a way, the balance of my career, being able to go back and forth between theater and film and television, works really well for me — the different experiences that those are and the people that I encounter along the way. In [“God of Carnage”] I worked with Marcia Gay Harden, James Gandolfini, and Jeff Daniels, and it’s so incredible to spend your day around people like that, who are so devoted to the work and really wanting to make something happen on stage. I’ve been very lucky; you can tell I’ve been surrounded by such good people. I love that and I find it really inspiring. ▼

“The Special Relationship” premieres May 29th on HBO.


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