The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

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October to December is screening season in LA. And ever since I discovered it, it’s become one of my favorite times of the year.

To help drive publicity before the January awards season, many films offers screenings to members of the various entertainment unions. Sometimes, some of the actors or directors will come and do a Q&A afterwards. For an actor, there are sometimes some wonderful jewels of wisdom about the craft or the business. I recommend seeing the movie first before reading these notes. Also, I won’t try to summarize the Q&A, just highlight certain parts and offer some comments.

On Friday, November 13, 2009, I had the chance to see The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, the story of a woman who marries a older man (played by Alan Arkin) at a very young age. Raised in a troubled home and wild when she was young (played beautifully by Blake Lively of Gossip Girl), Pippa Lee (played by the wonderful Robin Wright Penn) becomes the picture perfect domestic wife. That is, until events force her to question the choices that she has made.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee was written and directed by Rebecca Miller, who is also the writer / director of Personal Velocity: Three Portraits; The Ballad of Jack and Rose; and Angela. Ms. Miller is daughter of Arthur Miller and Austrian photographer Inge Morath. She studied art at Yale and was an actress before becoming a writer / director.

Both Rebecca Miller and Robin Wright Penn attended the Q&A. Ms. Miller is petite with curly brunette hair. She is obviously an intellectual, very articulate, and can be quite funny. Robin Wright, normally blond, was brunette and had her hair pulled back. She looked quite sophisticated, spoke well, and as a woman next to me noted, she was ridiculously thin. I love watching actors speak, because they’re often very expressive. Robin Wright was humorous, intelligent and vulnerable all at the same time, quite a wonderful combination.

How did Robin Wright find the character of Pippa Lee? 

Apparently, there was a year of talks with the director about the character. That’s very unusual, and part of that was due to lack of financing. Robin had read the script and had had a vision, but was not sure how to get to that vision. There was, however a defining moment, when Robin Wright started basing her character of director Rebecca Miller’s behaviors. Robin even mimicked Rebecca answering a question, and apparently Rebecca would say something, she would pause as if lost in thought, and come back to the “present” and say, “what?”. There was a slight spaciness, in other words, which Robin imitated.

What were the challenges of financing the film?

Rebecca noted that the film would not have been financed after the beginning of the credit crisis. Many wanted to change the lead to a male protagonist, and Rebecca was often told that with a male lead the film would be easily financed. Also, she was constantly told that the film was “execution dependent”. Rebecca didn’t quite understand this, she says, because everything is execution dependent.

How did Robin Wright (older Pippa) and Blake Lively (Younger Pippa) coordinate their characters?

Robin and Blake crossed paths for “37 seconds” according to Robin (it was probably minutes). And at the time, Rebecca told Robin to look at Blake and pick something, a behavior of Blake’s, that was unique and could be incorporated into Robin’s performance.

Robin noted that Blake was this great, fresh-faced innocent, doe-eyed, really. And Blake had moments where, when she was asked a question, she would look down and pause, and look up and say, “Whaaat?” in a wondering, innocent way. And that’s the behavior that Robin absorbed. This is, by the way, a huge contrast to Robin, who is strong, in charge, witty and doesn’t miss a beat in conversation.
Blake worked after Robin, so Blake had the chance to watch Robin’s performance as she was shot the part of young Pippa.

On playing Pippa without judgment.

Later, there was another question about understanding the character of Pippa Lee, and Robin said the challenge was how to play the character without judgment. Robin wanted to eliminate judgment, so that everything was as if it had never been seen before. I think if you watch the film, this is one of the hallmark’s of Pippa’s character, she really seems to approach every as new, fresh and without judgment, as if Pippa were an eternal innocent.

How did Robin do the love scene with Keanu Reeves?

There’s a very intimate love scene with Keanu, and the shot is almost entirely on Robin’s face as she climaxes. A hugely difficult thing to do for an actress, I would say. Robin said she would never do that again, and she could barely believe that she had done it. You could literally she her shrivel at the thought as she talked about it.

Robin says she’s not a trained actress, and that the first take was terrible. She was so upset that she got everyone off the set and pounded the walls her trailer, causing her hand to bleed. She thinks it was that anger, that frustration, that brought her to her performance in the scene.

By the way, when it was shot, there were only three people around – the director, the camera man and the focus puller. Everyone else had been “exiled”.

Was Rebecca strict about the text?

Yes, Robin says, very strict. Nothing could be changed. Rebecca, jumping to her own defense, noted that she writes musically, and so it hurts her ears when the text is “off”.

What’s Robin’s secret for staying beautiful?

Yes, someone asked this question, and Robin really is quite striking in person. And Robin is witty too. Robin’s answer? “You’re very far away.”

What is Robin’s process?

Robin again said that she isn’t a trained actress, so it’s very hard for her to say. “I fucking don’t know [about process]” she said.

At one point, Robin was at Rebecca Miller’s house for dinner, and Rebecca is married to Daniel Day Lewis (who, by the way, is very secretive about process). Robin, really, really desperately searching for guidance, had to ask Daniel Day for some hints, some morsels of wisdom. So she asked, and his answer was, “It’s confidence, my dear” with a smile. Looking at Robin’s expression of disbelief, Daniel Day repeated his answer and then proceeded to walk into the kitchen to help his wife cook.

Robin tries to absorb the character but doesn’t have a very specific process. She tries to find “where the person sits”. Finally, she said “it’s really mimickry at the end of the day”.

On the role.

People always ask how stars feel about their role, and one person commented on how she thought Robin was underrated. Robin herself commented that in this role, she finally had something to “do” each morning, instead of playing the grieving wife all the time. In fact, she said that this was the best role she had ever been offered, and that it was like starting a new life as an actor.

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