JESSICA BIEL on 'HOME OF THE BRAVE' Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
November 19, 2006
In the war drama Home of the Brave, four American soldiers (Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel, Brian Presley, and Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) return home from tours of duty in Iraq and try to assimilate back into normal life with various physical and emotional problems.
For Vanessa Price, the character Jessica plays, the specific obstacle is dealing with the loss of her right hand and trying to lead a normal life when even the simplest, most everyday tasks can present enormous challenges. The role required Jessica to wear a prosthetic and do research with amputees who had been in similar situations. And as with her recent turn in The Illusionist, her performance here is garnering praise with many critics, and even a bit of Oscar buzz.
In this interview, Jessica talks about working on the movie.
Home of the Brave is now playing in theaters everywhere.
MEDIA: What reaction have you received from veterans over your role?
JESSICA: I haven't really spoken to many veterans who've seen the film yet, honestly. So I'm curious to know what they have to say. I didn't really get to experience much of the camaraderie with the men because my time in the battle sequences was so short, because everything was really about when we were at home. And I'd be really curious to hear what veterans think about it. I mean, that's the people that I'm really curious to know, because we want to portray their stories and their experiences truthfully, or as close as possible.
Did you feel the opening battle sequence was more realistic and not so much "action hero"?
I thought a lot about that because I was trying to bring a balance of "She's trained, she's very smart and able and strong, but this is a situation that she could never prepare for." She's a woman. How would I feel? You know, how would I really feel? What would I do? Would I be calm and cool and collected, or would I be freaking out? I'd probably be freaking out and trying to maintain protocol. And so that was the dynamic that I was trying to show in there, that these are people. Yes, they're trained to kill and trained to protect and provide, but when you take all the guns and the fatigues away, we're talking about like 19, 20 year old people--young kids.
Has working on this movie shed a new light on their situation for you?
It's made me a lot more aware, and it's given me a much greater appreciation for the soldiers. You know, you watch the news and you think, "God, this is horrible. Everyone's dying and everyone's having their legs and arms amputated." But you don't think any further. You don't really think about, "What is that like? And how do you come home?" I didn't have a clue how difficult it was until I actually started speaking with a couple female amputees and a couple sergeants who also had families and who experienced this. And it never ends. It's hell. What these people go through just...The pain never ends, and the judgment never ends. And in this war, some people are supportive, some people aren't supportive. I just can't imagine it. I really have a different perspective on it now.
The story generally steers clear of having a specific political voice. Do you think politics should have been represented more than they were in the film?
No, I think it was really important to avoid the politics. I feel like we see a lot of war films with politics, and I just didn't really care that much to do a movie about that. I was really interested in watching people, broken people, people who experienced such traumas, coming back into this normal kind of society and dealing with it. I was interested in seeing vulnerable soldiers breaking down and trying to figure out if they want to go back, if they don't want to go back, their lives, their families. I was interested in that struggle, not about, "Is the war right?" and "Is the war wrong?" and "Should we be there or should we not be there?" I was really happy that that's not what this movie was about. And I don't think that it should have been at all stressed more. I think this is way more interesting. We've never seen a film like this before. Or at least not in a while. You know, there's some great movies that I also watched, like Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July--that gives you another perspective of what it's like to deal with injuries and come back from war.
How receptive were the women amputees you spoke with about having their story told by Hollywood? Did you have to convince them that you would treat their situation with respect?
You know, I didn't even have to convince them. I work with a couple charities (even before I actually started working on the film, which is just sort of coincidental) called Serving Those Who Serve and Rebuilding Together. Both are charities that are supportive of veterans when they come home, first in the hospital and paying for the families to join them for rehabilitation, then coming home and then basically rebuilding their homes and helping them start to slowly step back into normalcy. My father is also a part of it, so he called for me. He said, "Would there be a woman who had something similar to this injury that would be willing to speak with us?" And this one woman said, "Absolutely, no problem, I would love to." There was not even a question. And basically, on the phone call to her, I said, "I want to do your story justice and I hope that if you will be honest with me and open, that I will be able to take this information, and not tell anybody about it, but use it to make choices for this character that you'll be proud of." So I told her that and she never questioned me. I don't think she felt uncomfortable. She was really extremely open and told me some really intimate details of her recovery and her emotional state.
Did having to use a prosthetic make it easier or more difficult to get into character?
I think it was easier to get into it. Wearing this glove that I wore, it made me really aware of my hand at all times, which I think was important, because I would be aware if I didn't have it--if the arm was gone, you would be aware of it, but when you have it, you're not aware. So having something on my hand and having to keep my hand still at all times was really helpful to keep me conscious of the fact that I'm wearing a prosthetic and that people are looking at it. And it was easier to really feel an honest emotion of embarrassment or anger. Wearing it just sort of helped everything along. It was kind of like stepping into the corset for The Illusionist. It was like, boom--once it was on, I was there, I was transported. Once this hand was on, it was like, "Okay, I'm here, and I'm this person again." It was so helpful for me.
Did you try to do everyday things in the prosthetic?
Yeah, I did. I mean, I wore it around on set every day, pretty much all day long. But I didn't want to wear it too much because I didn't want to be comfortable with it. But what was interesting is I was in wardrobe fittings and not wearing this glove because it hadn't been prepared yet, and tying shoes. You know, I was trying on a pair of shoes and tying these sneakers and was tying with both hands and realized, "Wait, I only have [one hand]." So I had to try with one hand and realized, "That doesn't work." So we had to literally stop the wardrobe fitting, go, "This is wrong. We have buttons, we have hair ties...I need Velcro for the shoes, I need clips for the hair." I mean, those are the things that [we] started to realize after thinking about the prosthetic and using it a little bit--that you don't even remember the small little details that you use both your hands for, and how important both your hands are, and how much you miss one hand when it's not available.
Your character's love scene isn't a typical steamy one that a lot of people might expect--in fact, there's some comedy to it. How did that come about?
That scene was actually not really in the script. There was definitely like the skeleton of the love scene, with a kiss, and then maybe moved down onto the bed. It was very serious. And I just had a problem with it from the very beginning. I was talking to [the director, Irwin Winkler] about, "I feel like for her to actually really start to chip away at this hard shell that she's put around herself, there needs to be humor." I feel like laughter is the cure, and there hadn't been any in the movie. And I thought for my character, for me, she needs that. There was something cathartic about laughing. Because there isn't really a moment where she like "breaks down" breaks down. It could have been at the moment when she's [struggling to unbutton her jacket], and it could have just been this total release. But she wasn't emotionally ready for that yet. So I felt like it either had to be just tears, or it had to be laughter. And I just kind of came up with this idea. And I was talking to my co-star Jeff about it. "It's got to silly, it's got to be awkward." I mean, the first sexual intimate experience you have with somebody is never perfect. It's always weird. Right? [laughs]
Except in the movies, where it's always perfect...
Right, which is exactly what we were trying to get away from. She's never done this before. How do you get your shirt out? How do you be sexy? And so it was kind of my idea to like let it just go kind of wild and funny. And also, there was so much passion. She probably hasn't been touched in maybe a year...So that's kind of how that happened. It's just one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
Was this a role you actively sought out and pursued?
You know, actually, it wasn't, which is unique for me. I'm usually always fighting to the death for things. But this one was just one that I happened to read, and I met with Irwin, and he offered it to me. So I didn't even have to audition, which sort of scares me to death. I sort of feel like I should deserve it and show what I can do before I have to show up on set. I feel like there's much more pressure. But I actually ended up doing a lot of auditioning for the role [of my character's] sort of love interest towards the end of the movie. So that was sort of different for me. I was on the other side of it, auditioning all these guys. Kind of really cool.
How did you handle being on that side of the auditioning process? Is it hard rejecting people?
Yeah, it is hard to reject people. But it is important. I mean, I think casting is huge, and I just wanted someone who's a really good actor, and someone who was a little bit older, who you would believe would be a kind of a coach and a P.E. teacher at a high school. And he had to be good, and he had to be like a gentle person to care about this woman who has this disability...There was like a warm quality that I was looking for. And obviously, Irwin had the final say. I mean, I wasn't the one who was making the check, for sure...I mean, it's always weird, because I know what it's like in an audition room. It's so hard. But I was reading with them, so I felt like I was giving 100% all the time. So at least I hope they had a good audition experience.
Have audiences been surprised to see you give this kind of performance?
I think, yeah. I think a lot of people that I've spoken to just today--this is actually the first day that I've really talked to anybody about the film--seem surprised. A lot of people seem surprised by the performance. I think also because it's not so glamorous. And I've always wanted my work to be based on my performance and not the way I look. I guess I can understand how people would have mistaken that, because in the past, I've done much different things, much more glamorous things. You know, you do what you gotta do. You know that saying, kind of "one for them, one for you, one for them, one for you"? That's sort of true, I think. So this one's for me. [laughs] But people have been surprised. I mean, but that's nice. I take that as a compliment. I hope to keep surprising people.
Do you think this role will earn you some "for your consideration" ads for awards season?
[blushing] Oh God, I don't know! [laughs] Did I see one earlier today? I think I saw one today. It's very cool in writing. It's much different in your fantasy. [laughs]
So you have had that fantasy, and maybe done the acceptance speech in front of the mirror?
Oh yeah, absolutely! [laughs]
When you have the possibility of being recognized with a major acting award, how do you not become preoccupied by it?
Well, you know, the truth is, you really don't make these movies thinking, "Oh, this one's it. This is going to get me my Academy Award." You don't think about that. You think, "I love this story, I love this character. I can't wait to play this character." And then it comes out and people start talking about it, and it's exciting. It is. Definitely when you might be possibly getting recognized for something. But that's sort of where it ends. You know, you get excited about it, and yeah, privately you give this speech and everything, but you really think, "Whatever. If I win, amazing." I mean, I can't even believe if that would happen. That would be incredible. Is that the goal for my work? "I must win an award"? No. You do think about it, but you don't harp on it, because it just sort of feels so untouchable and so unrealistic. I don't know why, it just does. You just feel like there's no way you'd win, so whatever, you just laugh about it and have a good time. But I think you would be lying to say that you don't fantasize about it. I mean, if you're an athlete, I'm sure you'd fantasize about--I don't know--winning some huge [championship].
Thanks for your time, and congratulations on the movie.