'Like Being in Another World': Vinessa Shaw on the 10th Anniversary of Eyes Wide Shut
Vinessa Shaw remembers when she first stepped on the London set of Eyes Wide Shut, where the one-time child actress would eventually spend the better part of six months working on Stanley Kubrick's final film. As Domino, the prostitute with whom Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) shares a preempted encounter on his late-night walking tour of New York, Shaw portrayed one of many casualties in Kubrick's wasteland of sexual obsession; her kiss with Cruise -- perhaps EWS's most purely erotic moment -- signaled a peak of intimacy from which their characters would plunge in the day to follow. She was 21.
That was over a decade ago. Today, exactly 10 years after Eyes Wide Shut's July 16, 1999, theatrical release, Shaw talks to Movieline about nabbing her breakthrough role, shattering the notorious perfectionist's all-time take record, and life (and work) after Kubrick.
How did Eyes Wide Shut come to you?
I think it was in the Breakdown; it was just simple and straightforward, and my agent just found it buried amid other roles for other films. It was kind of strange, but that's the way it went. I went in for the audition, and I think it was a scene that had nothing to do with the film -- a scene with Japanese businessmen. I realized later there was the scene with Leelee Sobieski's character and some Japanese businessmen, but it wasn't even the same dialogue. I read that scene and was put on tape; it was with [casting director] Denise Chamian. And she said, "That's great, but I have no idea what to say because I have no idea what Stanley is looking for. Seems fine!" And then a few weeks later, in my first few weeks of my college semester, I got a callback. I did it again, and she said, "Great! I think that's maybe what he wants?" That was the gist of it: He watched these tapes and chose me out of however many people were on tape. It was pretty simple on my end, something you'd probably never expect when you're auditioning for a Stanley Kubrick movie.
Did you know what the role was when you auditioned?
The second time I went in, it was closer to the scene. But I didn't actually read a script until I was in London filming. I had no idea of the context of the scene within whatever the movie was. All I knew about the movie was that it was about sexual obsession and jealousy, and that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were in it. Actually -- I didn't even know that, now that I'm remembering. Or if I did, I didn't know what roles they were playing.
Did you just accept it sight unseen on the basis of it being a Kubrick movie?
It was absolutely because it was a Kubrick movie! Even though I was still young, I'd seen Lolita and Dr. Strangelove and Clockwork Orange. I thought he was an interesting, out-there director, but I really felt there was some humanity to what he was saying. But I had no sense of the scope of the legend that he was. My Mom had to tell me. I was just naturally drawn to him from the films I'd seen.
How different was your first meeting with Kubrick from what you were anticipating?
I heard all these stories about him being a recluse or offbeat; there was this rumor that he was difficult to work with. I found it was quite the contrary. He was so warm and embracing of me, and he really had a nurturing quality when he was directing me. I guess I was kind of scared meeting him -- I expected him to be this terror. But he was actually a big teddy bear. I really felt like that! He gave me big hugs. He was very warm.
What about the first meeting you and Cruise had to discuss your scenes?
Stanley made sure after our first meeting that we got together again and talked more specifically about the characters. We were on the set of Domino's apartment, talking in there, writing and rewriting the lines. The way it was [originally] written was just a skeleton of what I'm assuming Stanley wanted to create from there. I think he liked bringing in people's personality, their humor, and bringing that to the scene. Tom and I were goofing around, so Bill and Domino's exchange became more humorous than another one that might be completely sexual.
What was more nerve-wracking at that age: Acting in a scene with Tom Cruise, or being directed in a scene by Stanley Kubrick?
The first day we started shooting, I remember being very, very nervous. Tom had been shooting with him only for a week, or maybe even a few days. I did the scene over and over again, completely off-book, and I was just really nervous. So I asked Tom if he had any advice he could give me about how [Stanley] works, and he said, "Please, don't worry -- you'll have plenty of time." I had no idea what he meant! I didn't know what I getting into with the lengthy rehearsals and takes -- and multiple takes -- that we'd wind up doing.
You didn't know that part of his legend going into it?
Actually, I didn't. I hadn't researched how he'd done his movies prior to that one.
Part of the legend on Eyes Wide Shut is that the kiss you share with Tom was the most frequently shot take of the entire film.
It was? Oh my God.
It's not a short kiss either. Do you remember how many takes it took?
I don't remember that one. I do remember coming into the apartment -- the Steadicam shot. The set was real. It was built with the real dimensions of a New York apartment, so there were no breakaway walls or anything. The camera operator had to somehow maneuver through it, and it was a very tricky, tricky shot. So that was the one I heard about: It was 69 takes. We beat out Full Metal Jacket at that point. Or at least that's what I remember [executive producer] Jan Harlan telling me.
And so you get to the kiss. Then what?
All Stanley had told me was that it was a long kiss. He said, "Please take as long as you want, and move slowly into him." I just remember I was leaning over, and it was so many times -- not as much as the entrance -- that I remember my neck getting cramped. [Laughs] I just thought, "Oh my gosh, how many more times are we going to do this?" I'm leaning over and looking straight at him, because he was on the bed at that point. I just remember feeling so unsexy, trying to make sure it's slow enough and that my muscles don't start twitching and I can say the line oozing the sexuality that I need to. At the end of it, Stanley made a joke: "Gee, you've done it so many times now. Are you enjoying this kiss?" I just said, "Stanley!"
Well? Were you?
Of course! Tom was a very nice kisser.
You mentioned having spent six months off and on doing Eyes Wide Shut. How long were you originally supposed to have shot with Kubrick?
I can't remember if I was told a specific amount of time, and it was just extended. I'm pretty sure that it was kind of a vague shooting schedule. I think shooting lasted a whole month on that one scene -- the interiors that we did first in December. Then I came back in May for a month for the exteriors, so...
Wait a second. It took a month to shoot what amounts to about five minutes of screen time?
Yes! [Laughs] He definitely has his process. Stanley was creative as long as he thought there was some creativity flowing. I don't know what he was thinking, but I think if he thought we were tired or he was tired or the crew were tired, he just would say, "OK, let's do this again tomorrow." And it could easily be 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and we could have gone for longer. It really did come down to him saying "Let's continue" or "Let's stop."
But there are only seven set-ups!
Mm-hmm. And the exterior [one Steadicam set-up] took two weeks. And I was there for a month because they shot something else in between. There was a lot of dialogue about the character, so there was a lot of shooting. He looked at all elements that went into making the picture. He wasn't just looking at the acting. He would shoot many takes just looking at the lighting, and then shoot many takes looking at the camera, and then finally shoot takes looking at the actors. I noticed I was doing the same thing since take one, and it was take whatever -- in the double-digits -- and Stanley turned to me and said, "Have you done that before?" I said, "Yeah, I've been doing this since take one." And he said, "Oh, OK, keep doing that."
Did that ever frustrate you?
It could have been frustrating for another actor, or even me at another time in my life. But because this was the first movie I'd done as an adult -- I'd really just done kids movies before this -- it was my first real movie where I felt, "Wow, there's such a process behind this." A development of character and letting the scene happen rather than forcing it to happen -- that's what Stanley taught me about while we were making this movie. Honestly, at that point I wasn't sure I wanted to act anymore because I hadn't seen that kind of magic. What would really happen if you slowed everything down? Every moment, or the planning of every scene? The writing, or the rewriting? I felt like I was finally understanding what movies were about. If you let something unfold, it could be very magical, like an athlete getting into the zone. I felt like after doing it multiple times, I was in this zone that was very different than me remembering my mark or remembering my line. It just became this organic moment. I think that usually only happens with actors who do theater, perhaps. Or who do a Kubrick movie. It was a very special world that could have driven a lot of people mad.
That kind of experience can also throw a long shadow over an actor's career, especially a young actor. How did Eyes Wide Shut affect the way you've pursued acting for the last decade?
Well, Stanley did, in his parting words to me, say, "Don't do any dopey films." [Laughs] But how do I match my experience with him? I've been really fortunate to work with great directors on great films, and I can apply what I learned with Stanley to those films. It doesn't need to be 55 million takes to understand what the character wants and what the scene needs. But I have that memory inside of me, so I literally felt like it was my acting class -- my moment of understanding what my potential was as an actor. I bring everything he taught me into my work now.
Do you feel like Eyes Wide Shut precedes you? Do you still sense the film influencing the ways directors work with you?
I think all of the directors I've worked with are mostly curious about the time I had on Eyes Wide Shut. They really just want to know about it. They're all fans of Kubrick. I've never [experienced] extreme apprehension, though in the weeks and months leading up to wrapping that project, I did have meetings for other films where directors would say, "Well, you can't expect to have 300 takes on this movie!" Like I would demand that kind of experience again! It was like being in another world. I don't even think a studio would allow someone to do that. Warner Bros. allowed Stanley to take all the time he needed and tell them when he was finished. There was never a studio head on the set rushing him along. There was some apprehension when I shared my experience, but I wasn't going to bring that to the Hollywood that everyone knows.
When you sat down to watch Eyes Wide Shut, how did it feel knowing it was the last time you'd ever see a Kubrick film for the first time?
Well, I was very sad. He really felt like this movie was his masterpiece, and no one considered it to be so. Stanley was so ahead of his time, and even though this is the 10th anniversary, it really might take 10 more years before people really recognize how great a film it is. I was only sad that he didn't get more recognized for it when he was alive. That was my only disappointment; I felt very full after meeting him. I saw his daughters and his wife afterward, and we shared the same sentiment of how great it was working on that film and how amazing Stanley really, truly was. He's very much alive in my heart, and I'm a different actress for having worked with him.