Published: February 18, 2013
Rachel McAdams tells Will Lawrence about the freedom she was given when making her new film, Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder.
Filmmaker Terrence Malick is many things to many people. Brad Pitt, who starred in Malick’s 2011 Cannes Film Festival favourite The Tree of Life, likens him to a butterfly collector, fluttering through a swarm of cinematic moments with his actors, unscripted and unrehearsed, before scooping up his favourite with his net.
Canadian actress Rachel McAdams, meanwhile, who appears in Malick’s latest film, To the Wonder, describes him as a “sculptor”. “The story just presents itself to him,” says McAdams, 34. “He puts a lot of clay on the table and sees what comes out of it. Terry himself is so malleable – he keeps things open.”
Malick’s new film plays like a companion to The Tree of Life and, by his famously snail-paced filmmaking standards, he’s made it in a heartbeat – To The Wonder is just his sixth offering in a 40-year feature-making career that stretches back to his masterful, myth-like Badlands in 1973.
Some critics have claimed that Badlands is the most accomplished debut feature by an American filmmaker since Citizen Kane. From the outset, Malick demonstrated an exceptional visual talent, his work rippling with symbolism, as well as a refusal to adhere to Hollywood convention.
As his career has progressed — Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life and now To the Wonder — he has edged ever closer to the esoteric, though he remains revered by art-house audiences and fellow filmmakers the world over.
“I was just looking forward to the experience [of working with him] so much,” says McAdams. “You just trust Terry implicitly. I think he has an amazing eye for great moments and for finding truth and beauty.”
Working with a cinematic luminary like Malick, however, is not all plain sailing. McAdams, who broke through in 2004 with the crackling comedy Mean Girls and the popular tearjerker The Notebook, concedes that filming unrehearsed and with no set script proved confusing.
“Sure, I got lost,” she continues, “which is an actor’s worst nightmare. But it is a gift as well, because great things come out of being lost and unsure, especially if you have a controlling side or a perfectionist side, which plenty of us do.” Malick, it seems, does not. In fact, Pitt dubbed the writer-director an “imperfectionist” who “sets up a scene and then torpedoes it” (he was being complimentary).
McAdams, whose other credits include Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies and the bawdy comedy The Wedding Crashers, describes how Malick left the characterisation to her, simply driving the actress around the town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where the film was shot.
“He’d say, ‘Maybe you lived in that house and maybe you went to that school’. It was really up to me to decide. Terry never told me what to think or how to feel, though sometimes you want someone to say ‘This is how it is!’”
The movie turned out to focus on a relationship featuring Ukraine-born beauty and one-time Bond girl Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck, with whom her character is in love but with whom she cannot maintain the right connection. McAdams plays another woman in Affleck’s life. She runs a farmstead, looks good in jeans and is a dab hand with bison.
“You get the sense that they could have been quite happy together,” the actress says of her on-screen relationship with Affleck, with whom she also starred in 2009’s State of Play. “But he had a love in his past that was driving him back.”
While McAdams’s experience on To the Wonder proved immeasurably rewarding, she says, some of Malick’s cast will be crying into their Hollywood cocktails. George Clooney was famously furious when his sizeable contribution to 1998’s The Thin Red Line was whittled down to little more than a cameo (while Mickey Rourke, Viggo Mortensen and Gary Oldman were among those cut out altogether). On To the Wonder Malick has completely cut performances by Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet and Barry Pepper, leaving Kurylenko to share the screen with McAdams, Affleck and Javier Bardem, the last playing a spiritually perplexed priest.
Just what UK audiences make of To the Wonder remains to be seen. Critics usually revere Malick’s output, but this film has divided them. Some reviewers delight in his rhapsodic, rambling study of our yearning for love and spiritual connection. Others, however, seem baffled. One critic even compared the film to an overlong advertisement for a fancy perfume.
McAdams, however, remains sanguine. “It is such an interpretative film,” she says, “and I think that it is so personal when watching it that there aren’t any right or wrong answers. Terry always allows you to have your own experience with his films.”