The Real Philomena Lee Surprises at Hollywood Screening of Weinstein’s ‘Philomena’

The subject of Stephen Frears’ snowballing box office and awards contender also meets a woman who says she was born in the same convent at the same time, making them long lost contemporaries

Up until halfway through a pre-screening Q&A with “Philomena” director Stephen Frears at the Egyptian Theatre on Tuesday night, the hand-raisers at the American Cinematheque hosted event were asking some pretty embarrassing questions.

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“Can we stop with the idiotic questions and start the film?” one woman yelled out from the back, drawing the loudest cheers of the night to that point.

The unassuming director, who had walked down the aisle with a day bag on his shoulder and cap in his hand as if he was begrudgingly boarding a cross-country flight on a narrow body jet in coach, had already fielded vapid questions on art versus commerce and how he solves fights between his production departments.

Then the night suddenly got interesting.

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Surprise! Philomena Lee, the real woman in search of her son played by Judi Dench, made an unannounced appearance at the theater. (Pictured above: In a bit of cross-Irish film promotion, Philomena Lee met The Edge from U2 at a Sunset Marquis event the night before.)

“We’re here to pay tribute to Stephen’s work and I hope you all will enjoy it,” Lee said.

After very briefly addressing the crowd, Lee was approached by a woman named Shannon.

Shannon, who had already seen the movie twice, was not there to view it a third time. She was gripping two business cards in hand, and had chosen a reserved row on the end with easy access to the featured guests’ arrival path.

Earlier Shannon had raised her hand, announcing that this would be her third screening. Frears quipped that there was no need for a spoiler alert with her, cracking up the audience whose laughter drowned her next line – a key one.

Also read: TheWrap Screening Series: ‘Philomena’ Director Stephen Frears on Balancing Comedy and Tragedy

The audience was still laughing as Shannon said “I was born in the Sean Ross Abbey,” meaning that she too was present in the same convent, at the same time, in the same straights depicted in the film, based on the true story of a mother’s search for her lost son after nuns removed him from her as a teenage resident of the convent.

“I have a special affinity for the film,” she said after it got quiet again. “I want to thank you for bringing the subject to light. I had a similar journey with a happier ending, and I was curious to know if Philomena had talked more about that?”

Frears was confused, having not heard her say before that she was born in the Sean Ross Abbey, the name of the convent called Roscrea Abbey in the film that is at the center of the story. Her comment had gotten stepped on. “When say you ‘had a similar journey’…”

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“I was born in the same Abbey, in Sean Ross” she said, pulling the room to a halt.

“Roscrea??” Frears asked.

“Yes, in Roscrea,” she answered. “Same time that (the baby at the center of the movie) Anthony was there and I didn’t realize that.”

Frears was either stunned, slow to catch on, or both. “The same time that…?”

“The same time that Anthony Lee was there…Philomena’s son” she said, causing an extended, awkward silence.

After two beats, “You’re joking,” Frears said gravely.

“No,” Shannon said.

Frears asked her “What was the name they gave you?”

“Pauline,” she answered.

Because only a scattering of people in the room had seen the movie already and could connect the dots, the moderator missed the moment and moved right on to a waste of a question about whether the movie was set in Northern Island or Ireland.

However as Frears and Philomena Lee made their way out of the theater, the three of them engaged in a hallway huddle as the Weinstein title card rolled to start the movie.

They discussed the Irish-Catholic adoption issue, their shared history, and Shannon’s quest to find her own mother 40 years later – a real moment amidst awards season theatrics.

As for Philomena Lee herself, she’s in town doing press on Wednesday but is then headed out and is not currently expected to be at the Globes or surrounding hoopla this weekend.