In a career that has spanned more than three decades, there is little that Academy Award Winner Paul Haggis hasn’t done. Finding unprecedented success, first as a writer for both film (Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers) and television (The Facts Of Life, thirtysomething, Walker, Texas Ranger), and eventually as one of the most in demand directors in Hollywood (In The Valley of Elah) the guy’s feet are planted firmly atop the Hollywood heap. Perhaps that’s why almost four years have passed since the release of his last project (2010’s The Next Three Days)… After all, with a resume like his, one can certainly afford to be picky.

And that’s exactly what makes his latest effort, Third Person, so special. Examining the agony and ecstasy of love in the fearlessly unapologetic way that only he can, Haggis combines a first rate cast (including Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Kim Basinger, Mila Kunis, James Franco, Adrien Brody, Moran Atias, and Maria Bello) with a series of deftly interwoven narratives to create his most emotionally affecting work since Crash.

Recently, the director, along with three of his lovely leading ladies (Kunis, Bello, and Atias) sat down to discuss their film, and before we knew it, my fellow journalists and I were treated to a funny, delightfully frank discussion about everything from unibrows, to onset antics, indecisive directors, and of course, how they brought this undeniable labor of love to the bigscreen. Here are some highlights:

Paul, what were you trying to accomplish with this film?

Haggis: “I so admire the filmmakers of the 70’s who just changed cinema forever; people like Antonioni, Buñuel, Truffaut, Godard… They didn’t explain everything to you. They trusted the audience and allowed the questions to be the most important thing in the film… That’s what I wanted to do here.”

“I wanted to make a film in which you were emotionally moved at the end – you felt satisfied, but then you had to walk outside with your friends afterwards and say What the hell happened?! – and discuss it, and enjoy it, and come up with answers for yourself days later. I think very often now we’re asked to underline everything, to put it in boldface – all caps – and explain every moment in a film, and I think we really need to trust the audience… I want to trust that the audience is smart, that they can bring their own answers to a film, and that they want that experience.”

How did you encourage the actors to discover your characters for themselves?

Haggis: “Every actor finds their own character in their own way. Some are very intuitive, like Mila (to Kunis) I don’t know how you came to your character, you came to it; you were there… Others, like Moran came three months early to live with gypsies, hang out with them, find out what it’s like to work on the streets…”

Bello: (to Atias) “I didn’t know that you spent three months…”

Haggis: “She taught herself Albanian for Christ’s sake…”

Bello: “Wow. Here I go sounding like an interviewer, but Moran, tell us about your process?”


Atias: “I was in a different position…  nobody wanted me for this part so I had to convince a lot of people that I’m suitable for the role. So I started first researching from here in the US, just reading every book and article or any documentary that I saw about gypsies and it was just an idea of the character in my head. Then, when Penelope Cruz got pregnant, I said ok, I’m going to Italy and I will try to find this character in my bones.

“And I lived with (the gypsies) for a period of time, created a daily activity with them – the first thing was begging for money and that was probably the hardest thing that I did because nobody wanted to give me money. It didn’t matter what I was wearing or how nice I was, it was impossible to come back home with more than a euro. So then I started watching windows… All of these activities just helped me be confident about how she wouldn’t be apologetic for what she’s become. If she needs to take this guy on a journey she will, because she has to survive.”

Haggis: “One of the early directions I gave when she first showed up on set was: Ok if you have hair on your body, let it grow.

Kunis: “That’s what you told me! I had like a unibrow! I totally forgot about this!”

Haggis: “It’s just a direction I give all my actors… (laughter breaks out) With Mila, I honestly didn’t think she could play this role. We met and I said, Please… I think you’re too beautiful. I don’t believe that the only job you’re going to be able to get is a maid. And she said, But you wanna hide sometimes (because) you have that shameSo being a maid is kind of perfect; she can hide because no one looks at maids. (Mila) convinced me of that and it’s so exciting when that happens. It was the same with Sandy Bullock in Crash. You go, Ok, I’ve seen her do this, but wow, look at her do that! I would never have thought…

“Then there’s others like Maria. I didn’t know how she was going to do the role, but I knew it was going to be really interesting. And I remember the first thing I shot with her was I put the camera outside by the pool and let her step up, did the close up and then had her step closer, and she took my breadth away. So it’s wonderful to watch the process and to have actors that make it so easy for you because they find their characters themselves.”


Maria, you really delve into the deepest, darkest part of being a parent in this film… Is that something you consciously chose to do?

Bello: “When I read Paul’s extraordinary script, (I realized) it’s about so many things, but really at its essence, it’s about love… And for me, what moved me, and pained me the worst was the idea of parental love and how that works with all of the other relationships in our lives, and how in the end, for me, it’s the most important love of all: my love between me and my son. So I was very attracted in that way and I think anyone who has their own child can understand that, and the loss of that, and the pain of that.”

Paul, is it necessary for your characters to be likeable? And for any of the actresses, was this something that concerned you?

Haggis: “No. I guess it was important to me that they were human and that I cast it really well. All of these actors took really challenging roles; I mean these characters were not sympathetic on the page, and none of (the actors) tried to be liked, and I think it’s that bravery that really makes (this film).”

Kunis:” I totally agree, I think that sometimes being unlikeable makes you likable; makes you human. I don’t think that anybody ever goes into a character going I can’t play this character because they’re not likeable. I think that people are different because of the mistakes they make, and how they function after they make those mistakes is what makes everybody special. I think my character is incredibly sympathetic and likeable for her faults…. actually I think all of the characters are.”

Mila, with that being said, having portrayed a lot of fun comic foils or romantic leads in the past, did you enjoy taking on a character who was so different from anyone you’ve played before?

“Yeah, I loved it… first of all, I wanted to work with Paul, and then reading the script and having it not be a girl next store character was a relief so to speak. “


She certainly was pretty tortured… What did you do to draw inspiration?

Kunis: “Everybody has mistakes that they make in life, it’s just relative to who you are and how they impact you. So it wasn’t hard for me to figure out a way to get to a place where I understood the character and understood her emotional rollercoaster ride. I may not have had a child that (was taken from me), but it doesn’t take away from the experiences that I did have in my life that were equivalent to that emotional depth.”

Mila, how difficult was it to shoot the emotional scene with James Franco when he confronts you about what happened to your child?

Haggis: “I can tell you… the wonderful thing about working with really skilled actors is you turn the camera on and you watch. And I could see that it wasn’t hard for (Mila) at all; she just went there… You want really brave actors and actresses and that’s what I had in the cast. If we aren’t brave, we aren’t artists, and these were artists.”

Kunis: “Yeah, you don’t really think about it. It’s not like you’re (saying), Oh, I’m gonna really love getting my legs dragged on the floor for the next seven hours. It’s not really a thought process that you go through.”

Haggis: “I enjoyed that prospect!”

Kunis: “Paul loved it… Paul and James were all about it! (the room breaks into laughter) But it wasn’t something that I disliked. I looked at this film as an end to my 20’s and so it was like a massive therapy session for myself. And selfishly, it was incredibly gratifying… I don’t really know how to explain it… I loved doing this movie because I actually felt like I was doing something that I loved again.”

“I’ve said this in previous interviews so I don’t want to keep restating this, but you go and do a film with a director and they make you do a character every which way because they don’t trust themselves and they don’t trust you and they want to ultimately do what I call ‘Frankenstein’ you together in the edit bay and make a character that they feel comfortable with 6 months later.”

“Paul’s the opposite. Paul trusts you and empowers you and gives you this great character to play with and then you can live it for a little while and have this really great therapy session with this character and go through life with her from all the faults and mistakes and experience that you’ve had. So did I look forward to it? Maybe. Probably – in a very sick way – but not necessarily to be physically dragged on the floor.”


What is the emotional impact of going to the dark places you each had to go to for these roles?

Bello: “When I’m doing the parent thing like in Beautiful Boy or in this movie, I can never use my son in my brain. If I go there for a second, I think I’ll kill myself.  Most characters, I can do something really emotional and then be like Ok, What are we having for lunch? But with a child, forget it!”

Kunis: “I’m more on the side of Hey, what are we having for lunch? I will live it for those 20 minutes that I’m on set that I need to live it, but it’s called acting for a reason. This is just me – mind you, there are people that are really close to me that use a very different method, that I live with, and that’s great. I feel like if I did a good job, I am emotionally drained by the end of the day. I don’t want to keep living it. I want a glass of wine, and then I want to go to bed.”

“But I also do a lot of homework before I show up to set. I’ll have everything done, marked out, my script will have a thousand words on it that ultimately will never make sense to me 6 months later and then I show up to set and I forget everything and just go with the flow of things… But mind you, I am not a trained actress, I did not go to Julliard. No one should listen to me ever.”

Ladies, how did you each create-  basically in one key scene – an onscreen history with the men in your characters’ lives?

Kunis: “James and I (have) known each other a long time and so we were very lucky in the sense that we didn’t need to build chemistry necessarily, but I know that we met at (Paul’s) apartment in Italy and talked about the relationship between the two of us, and I wouldn’t say it was hard. I think everybody at one point in their life has a relationship that they wish went different, that didn’t go as well as planned, ad there’s still some repercussions. In this case, the repercussion is a child, and then you deal with it the best way you know how. So it’s all relative.”


Atias: “It’s interesting because sometimes men get shy in doing certain things because they want to respect you, and there was a scene in which Vinicio (Marchioni, who plays fellow Gypsy, Carlo) had to put his hand literally under my top, and he felt very uncomfortable. Even when Paul came up and said Put that hand under her shirt!, he still felt very uncomfortable.”

“But we needed to show this history as you say, and for me what helps is other people in the scene. I need visual influences, inspiration… You have a hand on your breast and it does feel humiliating because another man is watching, so you use the reality and the preparation before and just let it have this magical surprise element.”

Bello: “I worked with Adrien on the phone and I was going to be on set for the phonecall (scene), because I only met him once. But I had strep throat and a 104 degree fever, so I just remember laying in my bed and trying to talk to him and particularly (trying) not (to) be friendly to him… but he was lovely.”

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