INTERVIEW WITH ANNABETH GISH (December 2011)
Last week, I participated in a conference call with several other journalists hosted by A&E to promote Bag of Bones, which premieres on Sunday, December 11. This is the first time I’ve been involved in something like this. Basically it’s a press conference, except it’s done over the phone. While it seemed a little chaotic at first, once the moderator established the rules, everything fell into place. Each of us got to ask three questions in turn.
The interview guest was Annabeth Gish, who plays Jo Noonan in the two-part, four-hour miniseries, which is directed by Mick Garris and stars Pierce Brosnan, Gish, Melissa George and William Schallert.
Gish previously appeared in Garris’s 2006 TV movie Desperation, where she played Mary Jackson. She received an offer for the part of Mike Noonan’s wife, read the script and accepted the role, even though her character dies early in the movie. “Jo was so clearly drawn, and her essence is throughout the film, so in that sense she kind of resonates. I was automatically drawn to say ‘yes’ for several reasons. One is that I’ve worked with the director, Mick Garris, before and I absolutely adore him. And, again, this is another Stephen King project for me and I respect him immensely. I just jumped at the chance.”
Because of the nature of her role, her on-screen moments are almost entirely with Pierce Brosnan. She first met Brosnan during the photo sessions that gave rise to the Dark Score Stories website before filming began. “You can get to know a little bit more about Jo and her paintings and her relationship to solving the Sara Tidwell murder... That was nice to get loose and to play, because we were supposed to be captured as in real life moments. That was really helpful to get to know each other.” They also took a rowboat ride together, but she didn’t feel it was necessary to process their relationship too much before the cameras rolled. “Here’s the thing about Pierce Brosnan that I can’t say enough: He is a consummate professional and an actor. He would come so prepared, with so many diverse options and choices. He’s such an impeccable actor and a great human being that what he brought was fantastic.” A scene in which she lies on the dock with Brosnan was a personal highlight for her. “He’s always been idol of mine from a young age,” she says, remembering him for his days on Remington Steele.
The fact that she was working with Garris for the second time helped, too. “You’ve gotten all of the niceties out of the way. You’re comfortable. You know each other. You know each other’s styles. And Mick has such an open heart. My level of comfort with him was immense, and I trust him implicitly. I would do anything for him. Mick is such an exquisite filmmaker. He has this mastery of horror. Anything he did technically with this film, I trusted, and you knew it was going to be beautiful. Sometimes when you walk onto a set you know everyone is in accordance with the director. Everybody is getting the memo. Filming is working efficiently. That was the vibe whenever I worked.”
Because she is the mother of two young children, she didn’t relish the idea of spending a lot of time away from them, or taking them to Nova Scotia to live in a hotel. She says that everyone worked around her schedule. “I had to take five separate trips to Halifax, but I was able to do only three and four days away from my sons. They were so considerate to me being a mom and knowing that I didn’t want to leave my sons.”
As for Nova Scotia, which doubles for Maine in the miniseries, she says, “Halifax itself as a location was this murky, mysterious, lush landscape that really fit. I think it really gives a sense of the landscape and infuses the film throughout. Weather in that kind of coastal environment always can present a problem but it was beautiful. I would shoot in Halifax any time. I think it’s such a gorgeous area of the planet and I would return there in a heartbeat.”
The most difficult aspect of the miniseries for her was the fact that she had to convey her character’s spirit. “You have a limited amount of time to convey a certain amount of feeling. Mick and I particularly talked a lot about Jo’s essence and what needed to come as a kind of feeling state without words over the screen, which is really amorphous and difficult to execute.
To help capture her character’s vibe, between scenes she often hung out in the set of Jo’s studio and examined the paintings. “They are so kinetic and so emotionally turbulent that they were an immediate hook in for me to Jo. I love that. I have no painting/artistic ability at all but just to take a brush and pretend and follow the strokes of this artist and imagine was inspiring. Pierce is a painter. He paints and draws. On an artistic level it made me think about taking a painting class, even though I’m not good at it.”
An early scene that has her underneath her bed was both psychologically disturbing and physically challenging. “We would get under the bed when we were children, but I don’t know when I’ve been under my bed recently. It was kind of a tight-quarters stunt that they actually did have to pull me with velocity from under the bed. I couldn’t sleep that night thinking of a wife reaching out to her husband from beyond the living world. It’s pretty scary. From a physical, visceral experience of filming, that was one of my favorite scenes.” However, she says, the impact of such scenes doesn’t stay with her long, “Maybe I didn’t sleep for a couple of nights, but after the movie it’s gone. It hasn’t affected my life.”
She also had to undergo extensive makeup sessions. “This project has probably been one of the most physically challenging for me in the sense of the prosthetics. I had to do a four-hour make-up job three times and become the ghost of Jo. That was for me personally very scary. It was claustrophobic and you have to wear all of this gunk all over your body. That was challenging.”
A scene involving a bus crash early in the movie was also challenging. “It was a short scene but it was a very difficult scene to shoot, not diminished by the fact that it was freezing cold and raining in Halifax that day. It was very emotional. To speak to Pierce’s commitment level, he just went for it and brought his grief to life. It was emotional and wrenching.”
She didn’t read King’s novel until after she read the script and had started working on the project. She pointed out some differences between the two that are necessary for “the economy of bringing such a large piece to the screen, to television.” However, she continues, “what I found so impressive in hindsight was how Matt [Venne], the screenwriter, really captured the extent of that universe, that world—it’s kind of like three worlds. It’s Jo and Mike, and it’s Mattie and Mike and then it’s Sara Tidwell and Mike. There are some discrepancies but in general the essence of the project is very authentic and loyal to the book. The script was so tight once we went to production, and so good that our goal was just to be faithful to what we saw on the script pages.”
Though she only started reading King after doing Desperation, Gish has a copy of On Writing on the nightstand in her bedroom, and is currently reading Lisey’s Story, which see describes as “phenomenal.” She says that King’s books translate well into film “because he always has character at the heart of his horror. There is always a real human struggle within these extravagant, horrific circumstances. It’s reality pulled out to its most dramatic stakes. What Stephen King does so masterfully is the human element. He does love. He’s really an expert at writing about love, which is probably why all of his horror is so good.” She says that the miniseries “is not just a horror film or a mystery project or a thriller or a love story—it’s all of them. People will, on a purely entertainment level, be able to sit down, get a little scared, have a few tears, freak out and fall in love with these people.”
She is attracted to horror, but not for horror’s sake. The goal of Bag of Bones is “not just to scare the bejeezus out of anybody. It’s all wrapped very intricately in with a story about real drama and real heart and/or real mystery. This isn’t about zombies, this is about a love affair—three love affairs. This about solving a mystery. This is about race. This is about genealogy. It spans a whole expanse of things that I think people will be drawn to watch it for.”
She says that she “kind of believes” in ghosts and that spirits can exist and wander around. “I would say I have met some ghosts before, let’s just put it that way. I have danced with a few ghosts. I don’t know how you can’t. When you’re on a set, you’re inviting this world in, and if you’re open you can’t help but be sensitive to it. I’m not opposed to believing in it, that’s for sure.” However, what really scares her are catastrophic events, such as someone from her family being harmed.
Social media has played an important part in promoting Bag of Bones. Programs like Twitter neutralize the playing field, she says, by letting people know that “everybody is human and happy to share about their life and open up beyond their work. Pretty Little Liars is what got me started because their whole social network is humungous and electric and certainly wields a lot of power, I would say. They kind of were schooling me in Twitter and how to tweet and all that, and then you do realize that it is a wonderful new platform. It’s hard to define the line between being private and self-promoting. I don’t post pictures of my kids or my husband or anything intimate like that. I do try to use it mainly to publicize the work that I’m doing and also to show a little bit more who I am personally. But that’s me, not my family.”
She has been acting since the age of thirteen and feels lucky not to be pigeonholed in a certain kind of role or genre. In some ways, she feels that her career is just beginning. “Now that I’m forty and I have two children, I’m thinking more along specific lines. What do I want? Your clock starts ticking and you think, what do I want to really say with my work? Things are clicking into place and I feel much more compelled to be driven now, which is odd. I’m excited to see what the next ten years will bring. I think that they might bring a little more concentrated focus, perhaps.” She says she would love to dig deeper into flawed characters like the one she portrayed on Brotherhood, and she would also like to do action films. “A new phase for me, too, is to start developing things of my own that I have passion for, that I’m excited to bring and be more proactively involved in rather than just showing up and doing my job. To comprehensively create something.”
She never feels the need to shift gears when shifting genres. “As an actor, you just play the truth. Whomever you’re playing, whatever circumstances they’re in, whether they’re on a horse or they’re in a space ship or whatever, that’s their truth and you just play the truth. As long as you’re being honest and authentic, then you can cross any genre.”