Samantha Morton: The Movieline Interview

Samantha Morton planted her flag stateside towards the end of the last decade, with an impeccable breakout performance as the mute ingenue of Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown -- a part for which she was nominated for her first Academy Award. In the years following, she emerged as a dependable powerhouse, imparting her gifts for nuance and emotional veracity to everything from period dramas like In America (which earned her her second Oscar nomination), to Hollywood blockbusters like Minority Report, to prestigious independent fare like Control and Synecdoche, New York. In her latest film, Oren Moverman's beautiful and difficult The Messenger, Morton plays a newly notified Iraq War widow who begins an affair with the soldier assigned with breaking the news. (He's played by one of the few young actors who could match her quiet intensity beat for beat: Ben Foster.) Movieline talked to Morton about the madness of her craft, the perils of buying burning homes, and her return to sci-fi in Andrew Stanton's much-anticipated John Carter of Mars.

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I read an interview in which you described acting as a sort of "madness." What did you mean by that?

Every part is different. I think there's a very fine line between the type of performing that some actors do, and being in a state in your mind where you actually believe what's going on. If we weren't actors, what would we do with that ability? Would we not be slightly insane? Mentally ill? I don't know. There are different types of actors, people that can learn a line and deliver it the way you ask them to. But there's nothing going on in here and here [she points to her heart and head]. And then there are actors that push it on every level.

Would you say Ben is one of those actors?

I don't know. I'm not going to comment on other people. Because that's such a personal thing. I don't know where he goes in his head at night. I don't know how he prepares. I think he's certainly someone that absolutely has the ability to absorb himself in his character. But the other bit -- the stuff that I relate to -- I don't know.

Where does your head go at night? Do you bring your characters home with you?

If I'm preparing for something and I've got a huge day the next day, I have to get into character the night before to assess the scene. I can't assess a scene unless I'm in character, if that makes sense.

It does. I guess it's hard to demystify how it happens -- it just happens.

Magic!

There's one scene in particular in The Messenger -- an 11-minute scene in the kitchen, with no cuts, in which Ben's character tries to kiss you, and you pull away. How difficult was it to achieve that scene?

For me, it was fine. Often when you're an actor, you have to rehearse and perform a scene as written anyway. And the director will watch it and figure out how he's going to break it down and shoot it. The fact that he chose to use it that way in the film is liberating, I suppose, because it allows my character to get through something without having to cut it here and there.

You have a brother in the military, correct?

He was. He's now a private security guard.

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Was that factor, and your own politics, something you tried to leave outside of this film? Or did it inform your process?

I chose not to separate it, for the reason that, OK, I have a huge amount of respect for my brother and his friends, and the men that he's known that he's lost. And the history of war. I find it really, really traumatic that it happens, and humanity continues to have wars -- that they use them to resolve things. I find it abhorrent. So that was very hard.

However, I would have felt very concerned for Olivia if the actress playing her wasn't me, and what she would bring to it. So I felt very possessive of Olivia once I'd read the script.

You identified with her immediately?

Completely.

What were you afraid might go wrong in someone else's hands?

That they might overdo it -- the losing of the husband or the focus. You get very possessive about characters, you feel you can see it in your mind and you want to play it. Sometimes you need to let those things go, but Oren and I were compelled to come together.

When you say you didn't want to overdo it, it seems you really do specialize in these sort of "iceberg" characters -- characters that try to reveal very little about themselves, yet you can tell that there's a huge amount of pain and inner life beneath the surface. Would you say those are parts you gravitate to?

I don't know. I read everything that gets sent to me. There are parts that I seek to be employed in. I suppose like anybody, I want quality. And if quality is in a low-budget independent film, that's where I'll be. Sometimes the quality roles in the big budget films aren't going to come knocking on my door. They'll go to other people with box office appeal. So I'm lucky to be working at all.

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