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Frances O'Connor

by quendrith johnson
photography fabrice trombert
location the mercer hotel, nyc

Regarding Steven Spielberg's A.I., critics thus far have had a group think about the film and come back with various responses, both positive and negative, that seem to reflect their own cinematic tastes and prejudices. Some have posited that there is a piece missing in that there is no one, a la Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, to interpret the organic vs. mechanical being dilemma for us in a human way. Others have posed the question of whether there was a true and meaningful melding of methods between the late Stanley Kubrick, in whose keeping the project originally lay, and Spielberg, who some say is prone to sentiment but is undoubtedly at the height of his craft at the moment. The essential point that seems to have been missed in the frenzy of the reviewing process is that Film, Movies if you like, are in themselves one of the highest forms of artificial intelligence at this current juncture in human history. And Spielberg, like being-designer Professor Hobby (William Hurt) in A.I., has given us his best David, a film that-like the ersatz boy David (Haley Joel Osment) -may perplex and dismay some, but makes us think nevertheless. Think about the techno/biological choices before us, and even envision, as they say in The Wizard of Oz, "a place where there is no trouble.behind the Moon, beyond the Rain."

For those looking for the Harrison Ford character in A.I., Spielberg did give us one- only it's a woman, a mother, in whom all human creation begins and ends in the film. True to his current status as a master filmmaker, Spielberg selected the ideal person to symbolize the feminine embodiment of the species, highly gifted Australian actor Frances O'Connor (Love and Other Catastrophes, Mansfield Park).

O'Connor, whose father is a physics professor, has a complex range of emotion that hints at her own inner workings. Yes, she can play the comedic object of desire opposite Brendan Fraser in Bedazzled, but she can be Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" for the BBC. And then she can turn around and be in the upcoming The Importance of Being Earnest with Dame Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, and Reese Witherspoon; followed by going back on stage as Maggie, again opposite Brendan Fraser, in Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Meanwhile, she is also in About Adam, a comedy with Kate Hudson, about a waitress (Hudson) whose sister (O'Connor) and other family members scam on her boyfriend. very light, funny fare. To add another layer of depth, O'Connor will soon be Nicolas Cage's nurse/love interest in John Woo's highly anticipated Windtalkers, about Navajo code transmitters in WWII.

Although O'Connor hopped from L.A. to N.Y. to London and back to L.A. in the space of about a week, when we finally had our interview over coffee at The W, she revealed that she regularly makes her own reality within the realities around her. Including forming her own mythos about show business, about being an alien in America, about living in London with her boyfriend, about mapping her brilliant career.

When she seeks me out in The W lobby with wet hair and a wide smile, she is dancer-like and animated, a kind of lightning rod for connecting feeling to thought. She doesn't want to get into the actual science behind A.I. (maybe that's the right of the daughter of a physicist), she is just kind of into a groove for the day-despite that she recently traded in yoga for Chardonnay and has been globe trotting.

: Starting with A.I., the child comes from the father and is brought to the woman-did that strike you as significant in terms of the whole slant of the movie about reproduction, intelligence, and love?

Frances O'Connor: Well, it is interesting that it does come from the guy. But I think his motivation for bringing a child home is through love. I think the analogy is like "God." Men perceive themselves as creators; men have traditionally been the major inventors and major artists. The William Hurt character is dabbling in a God-like role.

For your role as the mother, adopting this "child," at first she is very hesitant-like the locking him in the closet part. How did you put the ambivalence together?

It was pretty much written that way but then we improved a couple of different scenarios, and Steven chose the one he liked best. I thought of reading on the toilet. [laughs]

And the shock when she is seen by the boy.

I know. It's such an interesting dynamic, but it's not real either-so her embarrassment is in front of a machine.

How did you keep that in balance-"It's real but it's not real, but it's Haley?"

We did plot out the moments when she would be alienated, and the moments when she would connect with him. There was some stuff that didn't make it into the original film that is more about me connecting with him that was removed from the film. I think it serves the piece because it is better that she is more unavailable.

What notes or pieces of direction did Steven give you regarding the character?

A lot of it was the starting point for the character, in terms of how deeply depressed she would be and how cut off from the world she would be. And sometimes if we were playing a scene, sometimes he would contribute, and sometimes a scene would play itself. Steven would have a variety of things to choose from. I think it's a natural instinct, when I developed a relationship with Haley, I felt a maternal thing for him anyway. I didn't want to make her a mom-mom, not as warm as a Hollywood mom, to make her conflicted.

You've seen a cut, right?

I saw it twice, once in New York and back here in L.A.

Do you think it works together?

Some people feel it's fragmented in three sections-but that is very much a Kubrick tradition. It's like 2001, in pieces.

It's like Spielberg is putting together perceptions, Kubrick-style, to get all these POVs (human and mechanical).

What really shocked me the first time I saw it, was that when I was [shooting] I was playing everything from a human perspective, and there were some scenes where I thought she was so harsh! So much of it was shot from the android perspective, and to have this perception of humanity as this terrible, consuming-

Bigoted, cruel race!

I know. And yet these are machines, so it's weird to say, "How dare you treat that machine like that," because it's not real.

As for artificial intelligence and the science background, did you immerse yourself in it?

I didn't think I needed to because what was important for my story was the humanness.

How did Steven pick you for the role? Who was up for it?

I don't know who was up for it. He saw Mansfield Park; somebody gave him that to have a look at.

In Love and Other Catastrophes you were right on with that character, too. Did you know the writer-director?

We were friends. I went to acting school at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts; then I graduated and went to Melbourne and started working with a theater company there. The first play I did was with Geoffrey Rush-wow, that was great! Then I did small television roles and I got Love and Other Catastrophes after that.

Did you have an ambition to come stateside?

I was in love with all the Hollywood movies growing up and the glamour of it.

Any actors in your family?

No. I've got a totally academic family. My mum is a musician and I've got two sisters and one brother [who are musicians and scientists].

I recently spoke with one of your countrymen, Robert Luketic, and he was talking about-because you mentioned the glamour-what a "star" is and what you do as a star. What function do you think stars serve in the culture?

I don't think I'll ever be in that mold of [in a perfect American accent] "Movie Star." [laughs] You have to define it for yourself. Clever actors like Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep, they very much have their own sense of who they are. Judy Davis, definitely. Jessica Lange.

Looking at who you've worked with, you were talking about Geoffrey Rush, and now you've worked with Nicolas Cage. Do you feel your star on the rise?

Going to the opening for A.I. in New York was just wild, the frenzy. Paparazzi. I try to just be in the moment. It is incredible; we had a little tourist moment! But I know I can go back to my little flat in London.

You're in London for theater reasons, right?

Yes, I'm going to do this play with Brendan Fraser. He rang me and told me he was going to do "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" with this director Anthony Page, and did I want to be in it.

Do you look at a script first and say, "Here's what I can do," or does the director talk to you first?

I think talking is good because it provokes thought and creative ideas. Things germinate.

What are the roles that you would like to play?

I've been really lucky! I'm really looking forward to doing Maggie [in "Cat"]; there are so many levels to her.

And Brendan does comedy so well, you'll have to tell him, "Don't crack me up!"

Exactly. I know that's going to happen a couple of months into it.

Working with Spielberg was obviously amazing, who are some other directors you'd like to work with?

Paul Thomas Anderson, PT! Of course, everyone says Scorsese. There are some really great young directors-like Spike Jones is incredible. [For actors] I think Robert Duvall is great; he's a quiet actor, just going about his business. And Meryl Streep. because she's the best. She's the Goddess of Acting! I think Jeff Bridges is great-also Joan Allen. Gary Oldman is good, too...there are so many good actors in the world.

Do you think about your career path?

Sometimes an opportunity that might not be a career move can lead to something else -like with Bedazzled, it was the first thing I got offered (after debuting in Love and Other Catastrophes), which was a kind of light comedy. But it resulted in the chance to work with Brendan again on a play.

Your boyfriend also lives in London. Is he an actor?

Actor and a writer. He's Scottish.

For A.I., there are going to be iterations of you everywhere: you'll be streaming, in voiceovers, images in print and video. It is huge.

Haley will really be the one to feel the weight of all of that, because it is really his film. And it doesn't go to London until September.

Did you have a sense that it was Haley's film when you were working on it?

I didn't mean that in any way in a bad way-I felt really honored to be a part of it.

Were you in any scenes with Jude?

No. I wrapped and then he started. I saw him a couple times in the make-up trailer. I gave him a candle for good luck.

Haley's performance, when you had to be rough with him, how was that?

Ultimately, it is just acting. You are pretending. And if people react to it, you are doing your job, a real job. We wanted people to feel shocked. Anytime you see a mother roughing a kid up; it was horrible to shoot that [abandonment] scene.

Haley's father is an actor, so he's had really good prep for the business.

What I love about Haley's performance is that it is very carefully thought-out; each moment is thought-out.

Before the press screening, [producer] Kathleen Kennedy and some of Spielberg's family were watching A.I., and the press screening was delayed. There were a bunch of reporters, including a sort of hard case from the New York Post who was grousing, "What's this going to be like, a Pinocchio story?" After seeing it, he was transformed, he said, "Believe the hype."

A lot of journalists have pulled me aside, and said, "Between you and me, when he goes to sleep, does he die?" And I can see emotion in their faces, it's wild. They want to know what happened in that moment!

Let's talk about Windtalkers. That's going to be huge, too!

To be honest, what happened was the actress who was going to play it [dropped out]. I play this nurse. It's a fantastic story about the American Indians. It's a story that needs to be told. The Native Americans in it, I don't think one of them had acted before, and apparently they were great. [Nic's] character loses all his friends in war and he is a little bit on the edge. He's got something wrong with his ear. I lie for him to get him back into the war, and I'm conflicted about sending him back. I really enjoyed working with him because I've seen so many of his films. He is really authentic; he cares about what he does. And he loves acting.

Do you pick that up about actors, what informs their work?

I just did that with Judi Dench [in The Importance of Being Earnest]. It was one of the best things I've ever done. She was brilliant. Just to turn up every day and watch her work. Her craft is just so there. She is giggling around on the set, then turn the camera on-and it's all there!

When you work with someone like that, they totally live up to their expectation and even more-they are so good at what they do. You think, 'Oh, I've got to lift my game, I've got to be better.' Especially to see a woman like that. [sees her boyfriend crossing the lobby] There's the long-haired lout!

You better go, anything you want to add?

If your priority is acting and creating good characters, that's what comes to you.

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