A version of this story first ran in OscarWrap: Actors Issue.
Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day” is a love story or sorts between three people who have no business being together: a fragile divorced mother, her 13-year-old son and an escaped convict who essentially takes them hostage in a store, moves into their house for the weekend and turns into the perfect man (if you ignore the murder conviction and the jailbreak).
Unsettling and unconventional, the adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel is essentially a three-person drama, with Gattlin Griffith (“Changeling”) as the son, Josh Brolin as the convict and six-time Oscar nominee (and one-time winner) Kate Winslet as the mother.
Winslet spoke to TheWrap from London, then in the final stages of pregnancy with her third child.
When I saw “Labor Day,” much of the audience was clearly wondering why your character does some of the things she does. Did you like embracing behavior that seems inexplicable?
The elements of the unknown in “Labor Day” were something that I really appreciated. I particularly loved how suspenseful it was, not only in the beginning but throughout. I love that, and I love the fact that when I look at Adele, I still can’t answer the question, “Why does she take him home?” The honest answer to that is, “I don’t know.” And I liked not knowing.
But isn’t it tricky to play a scene if you don’t know why the character is acting a certain way?
Yes, yes, you’re right. I definitely did feel I had to have my own version of what was going on for her. And I remember thinking in that particular moment, OK, I’ve got those two options here, I’m just going to play the truth of it.
All she could see, there was a stranger with blood down the side of his face, and he had a very determined grip on the back of her son’s neck. And she had to comply with what he was asking, just in order to have her son by her side. That was my truth in that moment. That informed her decision, her next step, her next breath, everything. And I don’t think beyond that she actually thought that much.
She certainly wasn’t thinking, in two days I’m going to be in love with this guy.
No. My God, no.
Was it hard to understand why she would fall for him so quickly?
[pause] I’m really thinking how I answer this question, only because I want to make sure I’m giving you the completely right answer. At the end of the day, it’s the book and it’s what Joyce [Maynard] wrote. Did I think it was implausible? No. I didn’t think it was implausible that two people could fall in love that quickly — or at least believe that they were falling in love.
I think that actually, when you strip away the circumstances surrounding the meeting, surrounding his prison conviction and everything that had happened with her as well, it’s very simple. It’s two people who meet in exceptionally wayward circumstances and just fall in love.
Two pretty damaged people.
Yeah. But I really admired Adele in a way. She isn’t hooked on medication for her shaking and sinking into a bottle of gin. She is warm. She’s fragile, yes, and she’s marked and scarred. But that doesn’t mean she has to be brittle and cold. She actually does have this gigantic heart — she’s just forgotten about it over the years.
There’s so much about herself that she has forgotten, so much that she actually had to leave behind because it was too painful to carry around anymore. And so for me, playing her, I wanted her to have lots of different colors. And that might sound really kind of like wanky actor-speak, but I didn’t want her to be just blue and white and cold and grey and broken. I wanted there to be more powerful colors in there, the colors that she had once been that had been muted over the years.
Much of the film takes place in one house with only three actors. Did the shoot have that intimacy?
It did, I have to say. There are two things that Jason really likes to pull off in his film shoots. One is a really small crew, which he absolutely achieved with this. And the other is to shoot chronologically. And with “Labor Day,” we were able to do that fairly consistently throughout.
Also, Jason is not a fan of rehearsal, and I would say that his decision not to rehearse really lent itself particularly well to the atmosphere that he was wanting to create. Because there’s a newness and a rawness to any child actor. Gattlin is a very sweet, untouched kid, and Jason’s decision not to rehearse us kept Gattlin always on that edge of feeling just a little bit nervous, not quite knowing what’s going to happen next.
The first time Josh and Gattlin met was when we filmed the first scene in Price Mart, and Gattlin was actually shaking in his shoes. He was all right with me by then, I’d been with him for a couple of weeks, and I’d managed to relax him a bit. We were friends, and I was just Kate.
But suddenly there was Josh, sweating and bleeding and looking a bit scary. And after a few takes he was shaking. I sidled up to him behind the underpants in the shop and said, “Are you OK?” He’s like, “Yeah, geez, he’s really kind of scary. I’m finding it so hard to relax.” And I said, “Well, don’t, then. Keep being nervous, this is perfect.” And I could see a light bulb go off in little Gatlin’s face. He got it, you know. That was Jason, he very much planned that it would be like that for young Gattlin.
And how was it for you?
I had to fall right into that atmosphere that Jason was trying to create. And when we were in the house, it was like a pressure cooker. It really was hot and sticky and uncomfortable, and there were very few of us there.
It’s fantastic when that happens, you really do feel like you’re inside it, telling the story. It’s pretty wonderful when you are forced into a pressure cooker like that with a group of actors, because there is no more spectacular company in the world than a group of actors. I just love ‘em, because everyone’s so different and eccentric, and half of us are completely insane, and it’s brilliant.