Juliet Stevenson takes on the role of Mother Teresa in the new drama
Juliet Stevenson takes on the role of Mother Teresa in the new drama, THE LETTERS. I had a chance to speak with her over the phone from NY about the role.
Matt Mungle: Hi Juliet, how are you?
Juliet Stevenson: I'm well, how are you?
MM: I'm doing great, thanks. I understand that you're in New York which is a great place to spend the Holidays. Is there a special place that's close to your heart to spend this time of year?
JS: Back in England we have a little cottage on the east coast in East Anglia, which is surrounded by water, and I guess that's my special place. We go there with the kids at Christmas and whenever we can, and it's just like sky and water and light and birds; that's probably my special place. On the other end of the spectrum I do love New York. It's always a treat coming here.
MM: I can imagine that the times you do get away for a holiday is probably good, because it seems like you're really busy most of the time. Do you thrive on that busyness of a schedule, always having a project coming and looming? Is that what keeps you going?
JS: That's a really good question, I think I do. We've got 4 kids at home between us, it's quite a busy house as well. I think I do like to be busy. When I'm not, there's plenty of other things I like getting involved with, although when it stops I always rather love it, yeah.
MM: In the midst of this busyness, here we have this project, The Letters, which we're talking about now, how did that end up in front of you with everything else? What about this caught your eye? Did you seek it out, or did somebody seek you out? How did those paths cross?
JS: Somebody sought me out, the director, William Riead, obviously through my agents. I truly, truly thought he got the wrong person. They said, "There's a guy who has offered you Mother Teresa." I said, "Well, he's got to have made a mistake. It's obviously not me. He's looking for somebody else." He rang me at home and I said, "Listen, I'm 5'8", she's 5'1". I’m strongly built and she was tiny and I'm not a Catholic. Are you sure you want to go ahead with this?" He said, "Absolutely. Absolutely." I was thrilled in a way because she is so different from me. She's such a far reach for me to get to. It was the most wonderful challenge. I think that's what you want. What you want is stuff that really turns you inside out. That's what I'm always looking for is the next job, something that's unnerving or tricky or challenging or that you're a bit scared of. Because otherwise as an actor you get boring. There's a great danger you'll get boring. If you go on playing the same kind of role similar to you it's so dull. I loved having this transformation.
MM: Did he ever share with you, even in just passing, what it was about you that did catch his eye? Because you say you're so different and all these elements, was there something that came out later?
JS: You know, I never understood why he asked me. He said it was his wife's idea. I don't know what he'd seen or why but I'm glad he did because it was an amazing experience going to India, which I'd never been to and just exploring her really in all her complexity.
MM: Watching the film, it's almost like there was a transformation and I wanted to talk a little bit about how you fleshed her out because there were certain things about your posture and even your facial expressions as you're dealing with these other young women and the compassion that's there but is also an inner strength of faith even struggling through the doubts that we see come out in the movie. There're all these complexities about her that's played out even in a single facial expression. Kind of just talk a little bit about how you fleshed her out that way.
JS: Well I fleshed her out by watching absolutely mountains of documentary footage, interviews with her. I locked myself in a room at the British Film Institute where they have the records of everything. I just said, "Find me everything on Mother Teresa that you've got." Then you sit in the middle of the room in the dark and watch and watch. I had loads of taped interviews with her too on audio. All the time I was filming, in my lunch breaks and everything I would just listen to her on my little MP3 player, my ear plugs. I wanted to immerse myself in, first of all, the way she spoke the strange accent that was a mixture of Albanian, English, Hindi and then her body language as you said it was very ... It struck me watching her body moving, watching her walk and move that she had this strange body shape, this concave chest and lots of tension in the neck and shoulders. Her shoulders were high always and then these huge hands for somebody so little. They were always touching people, stroking them, patting them, patting their faces, very tactile. Which for a woman who is living a celibate life and giving her body to herself was interesting.
When you're inside that body shape and that weird accent it starts to tell you things, but I also read a lot. I read stuff about her. I read interviews with her. I read stuff she'd written. I went to talk to nuns. I did work quite hard. There are still 1 or 2 branches of her order that are dotted around London doing work with the poor and destitute in different parts of London so I went and talked to a bunch of very elderly nuns who still work in her order and some of them had worked with her in Calcutta who could tell me personal stories about her.
MM: We all know so much about her, or think we do, and then watching this what struck me is the focus and agenda of compassion over conversion that she had, that kindness was to rule out over everything. Not saying that you're not a kind person in general but coming out of this on the other side do you look at compassion and kindness a little bit differently when you come across certain people? Did it change you in any way in that form?
JS: I think the one place I could connect with her, the one, perhaps, overlap we might have is that in the sense that I am a bit of a pushover for anybody who's in a bad way. I did quite a lot of charity stuff at home and especially with refugees and migrants and very unfashionable end of the charity radar, as it were. I think that was easy to connect with in her and unlike most of us she rolled up her sleeves and devoted her whole life to it. I mean listen, the times we're living in, especially coming from Europe you know where the borders of Europe are clogged with desperate people living outdoors with babies and infants and old people and living in the wet and the cold and desperately trying to find somewhere safe to live and who will have them. Never has there been more need for the sort of compassion that Mother Teresa ... It was the fuel of her life wasn't it? The gasoline of her life was this compassion and we could do with a bit more of that.
MM: I think so, and I think we just sort of answered one of the questions we had earlier. Maybe that was why you were perfect for this role. Maybe it was that connection of kindness and maybe there was something in that nature was just supposed to be because it was a fabulous role. You did a marvelous job, an award worthy role for sure. I really appreciate you spending some time with us to chat about that and best of luck with the film releasing this week.
JS: Oh, thanks, Matt. It was lovely to talk to you
Review - Matt Mungle - @themungle
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