Interview: Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl on Being ‘Unforgettable’
In the new thriller Unforgettable, Katherine Heigl is having a tough time adjusting to the fact her ex-husband has found a new woman, played by Rosario Dawson. Like, a really, really hard time. Like, she wants to ruin the woman’s life and break up the relationship, and goes a little psycho about it.
The film follows Julia Banks (Dawson), an online editor who moves to a new town to be with her fiance David (Geoff Stults). Having come out of an abusive relationship years before, Julia is ready to start a new life, but soon runs a foul with David’s ex, Tessa (Heigl), who is the mother of his young daughter (Isabella Kai Rice). Julia tries her best, but as Tessa starts manipulating things behind the scenes, it becomes clear Julia is going to have to deal with Tessa her own way.
Unforgettable touches upon familiar themes in the woman-scorned scenario, and is bolstered by Heigl and Dawson’s performances. ScreenPicks sat in on the press conference, where the woman described how they got in touch with their characters.
On finding their characters:
Katherine Heigl: I always actually sort of approach every character probably from the wardrobe, I don’t know why. You may think I’m super shallow. But Denise and I, we worked really together on that. It sets the tone for me of who this in her perfection, and the way she would hold herself and the hair. That was a mistake. But it works well for the film. It just didn’t work well for my head. But all of that was how I started to dive into Tessa’s personality, because there is something about the way all of that, the clothing, the shoes, the hair, the makeup. How it changes the way you hold yourself, it changes the way you express yourself. And then it was about for me right from the get-go. I just really wanted, it sounds strange, for there to be some sympathy for Tessa. I felt sympathy for her, I felt compassion for her. And I wanted to have moments where we could do that, so that she wasn’t just maniacal and she wasn’t just insane. She was heartbroken, and insecure, and afraid, and aging, and not knowing how to deal with any of it. So, it started with the clothes.
Rosario Dawson: This is a woman who is… first of all, I want to say, it isn’t just a woman thing. Andy Garcia, I read, is very particular – he cannot play a character until he’s figured out his shoes. Read about it extensively. He has to find the shoes and break them in, it’s a whole thing. So it’s across the spectrum. It’s an actor thing, period. She’s almost got the benefit of having experienced to some degree, a very distinct trauma that she can isolate. That’s not glossed over. In the same way with Tessa and her mom, something just not spoken about, the family dynamics and what that kind of abuse really looks like. And the trauma that comes from that.
But for my character, she’s had some very distinct moments. A father who was an alcoholic and a boyfriend who was very abusive physically to her. She had to put herself, she got psychological help for it. So she’s actually braced with tools in a different way. You’re seeing a woman who was a victim, who was a survivor. And now she’s putting all those tools to work to become someone who thriving. It’s really beautiful to see there is a relationship, though. You can see a similarity, the missed opportunity because of so much that goes unspoken in so many of our relationships. The closets that no one ever wants to air out shows the opportunity that is missed, for these two women to relate very closely to each other. Instead what’s different about them is made out as competition as opposed to a commonality, which is unfortunate.
[Katherine would] be on set and we’d be doing this really strong scene and all of a sudden, one of Katie’s hairs would come up like this. That straight bleached hair was really hard to keep down. So we’d be like really intensely looking at each other and a hand would just come in and be like [motions flattening her hair;laughter] We’d keep eye contact because we weren’t going to lose the moment. It was smooth again and we could go!
On how Julia can’t be totally honest with David:
Dawson: She is really trying to hide those scars, literally. We don’t look at our weak moments as anything but weak. We don’t want to share that with each other, even the people we care about who say they are going to be there for you forever. We see how parents abandon their children. We see the relationships that are never supposed to break, break. So, we are very careful with them. Sometimes overly so and make choices that you would make differently, but you understand them in the moment, and that passion was really beautiful and a chance for us to explore.
On finding that level of craziness:
Heigl: I think for me again it really really starts with the compassion. I had compassion for Tessa, and I felt sorry for, and I kind of identified with her fear really. And so her crazy is really born out of insecurity and fear, and the idea that she just is so terrified of not being perfect, of not achieving perfection in her life, in her marriage, and with her child and in herself. She I guess has some idea that if she doesn’t her whole world will fall apart. So the desperation to hold on it and to maintain it is what drives her to make choices that any sane person wouldn’t make. So I kind of just started, in order for it to not feel, it certainly is over the top, because again most sane people don’t, I don’t know if even, no sane people. We’ve heard of people making insane choices, but it’s rare, so you want it to feel extreme. Yes, but honest I guess.
There’s a reason for each one of these choices, for why it goes further and further and further. Because she’s not getting the results she wants. So she goes one step further. And even in the moments with, talking about Isabella, the hardest thing I had to do was make that little girl cry. And it just, even now, it feels so terrible [laughs] It’s the hardest thing I had to do. And that’s when I started to lose a little bit of my compassion for Tessa. And I had to find a way to understand why she was doing this. And to do it from a place of again she truly believed she’s right. She truly believed she’s doing the right thing for her child. She’s teaching her a very valuable lesson. You only have one mother, and don’t alienate me. And all of it was coming from a place of sincerity. It wasn’t just to be outrageous and just to be crazy.
On that last, climactic fight sequence:
Dawson: What I loved about this was the opportunity to work with a bunch of remarkable women and tell a very multi-faceted story about women that didn’t have to have them be perfect. What was interesting was watching these different women struggle with the idea of perfection. And how each of them, striving in that perfection, how much gets lost in the way. For miscommunication and opportunities and possibilities because you’re so just caught up with the knee-jerk reactions or the heat of the moment, the distraction of anger. I liked that part of every single one of those women. There wasn’t, “Oh, she’s bad!” and this is the good person. I’ve definitely not handled upset well, and I’ve gone a little crazy. I think that’s an interesting thing to explore, actually, to see these different women, the full spectrum of what it is to be passionate.
You were seeing as well when we were shooting it. Cheyenne, who is Katie’s stunt woman, she’s been working with her for years. I’ve been working with Asia for years, she’s been on all the Marvel Netflix show’s with me. And it was like, I’d fight with you, Katie, then Asia would fight with you. Then I’d fight with Cheyenne and then Cheyenne would fight Asia. We’d all take turns tussling with each other.
Heigl: It was a lot of fun.
Dawson: It was a lot of fun and interesting to see how it brought out a different range of, again just seeing women trying to be like each other and how difficult that is. And I thought that was just beautiful, to see that full range.
On the sex scene and it being directed by a woman:
Dawson: What was great about having Denise being a producer is the open conversation we had about the film all the time. Which some directors get super precious about and can’t really do or sometimes their; not really big picture. I talk about directors, can they really handle the pre, during and post production. So many I’ve worked with, the favor being better one part or the other. But [Denise] have always journeyed throughout the entire process of a movie. It was so seamless on set. So, yes, we’re doing this intimate scene, we’re showing this relationship. We showing what a montage of lovemaking can give you without having dialogue. Just where the state of this relationship is. And then using that contrast of this bathroom scene from the perspective. She’s throwing him up against the wall. It’s coming from her desperation. It’s a scene you’ve seen before, the sexy bathroom scene, but there’s something different happening. And that storytelling that was always in it, really appreciated how open the discussion was. Of what we didn’t want to do and the stereotypes we didn’t want to fall into.
But what we really wanted to create in the storytelling to have happen. It just felt really respectful and thoughtful, and that’s what makes it so charged. We got to really talk about it, like where is this coming from. To see that sexuality, these are the different things we see women use. Whether its the outfits they’re wearing or the way the perfection they’re holding themselves, whatever it is, it’s this armor we are always constantly wearing. So going into battle for that dinner that night, and not being in a good place. But needing to stand by your man and doing that, it was just so fascinating to see how much storytelling was actually done in that.
Normally, you cut out a little bit and you’re going, “Oh, that’s a nice angle.” It’s about the sex that you’re watching and not the subtext. And I thought that was really important to have a woman at the helm, not just for those scenes but in general all of the stuff we talked about – the breakdown, the relationships and the different way you behave in them. It would have been different from a guy’s perspective, going, “Oh, I was crazy in a relationship and that looks different.” The angle to that, people think is more abusive, right? Or I dealt with a crazy ex, it’s a totally different perspective than being an ex-wife and being a mother. And being the girlfriend, or the one that’s left behind or being the new person. We were just able to get into a lot of details.
On doing research on domestic violence victims for the role:
Dawson: Yes, but over the years, I have been a spokesperson for different campaigns. My mom when she was younger worked at an organization called Woman Inc., which was my first real experience. The remarkable infrastructure that some people choose to create for people like my character, who ends up really alone. She doesn’t have family, or a lot of friends. And oftentimes when you get into an abusive relationship, they silo you off and cut you off from the herd. You end up being more and more desperately needed that abuser. To know my mom was on the other side of that war for a woman like my character when she’s finally ready to get out of this, that she needs help, there are people, strangers, who are willing to do that, was always so powerful to me. So that was big consideration for me. The reality she sought out psychological help and went through all of that. That was really critical for the reason why my character is in the position she is, where she can have love in her life. But she did do that work and looked at her pain. She dealt with it.
Also, how critical that relationship was with Whitney Cummings because she’s her boss and who she works with but she’s her best friend. And one of the very few people if only people who actually knows her true journey. That’s really unfortunately the case for a lot of people who are in abusive situations. Why would you handle that? Or why would you stay there? There’s a real why and I think we tried to treat that as respectively and honestly as possible.
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