by Kit Bowen 04 June, 2021
Based on Ken Wilbur’s book of the same name, Grace and Grit tells the true story of courage, transcendence, and eternal love between famed philosopher Wilbur (Stuart Townsend) and his wife, Treya (Mena Suvari), and the difficult but beautiful journey they go through together when Treya is diagnosed with breast cancer.
ScreenPicks spoke with Townsend about playing the role and how it impacted his life in a meaningful way, working with Suvari and the bond they shared with writer/director Sebastian Siegel.
Q: Tell me how you came to this and how you embraced this story.
Stuart Townsend: I never met Ken Wilbur. He's quite reclusive but he is close with Sebastian [Siegel], so we had Ken's blessing. Sebastian was not just telling this story but was on a mission to bring Ken's work to a wider world. Grace and Grit is definitely Ken's most accessible and personal work. It's just such a beautiful love story.
When I first read the script, I was just blown away by how mature and real the love story is. It was a love story that goes right to the depths of Hades, in a sense. They really go deep with each other into hope and despair. And on that roller coaster, I read the script, I loved it. Then I read the book and that was just a whole other level… I just couldn't believe these two. They were, in a sense, heroes to me. They were both on very separate journeys, but on the same journey at the same time. Unfortunately, so many people have gone through this journey of cancer, whether it's family members or lovers.
There are many dimensions to why I wanted to get involved. I really wanted to tell a love story. I really wanted to be in love -- in this depth of love and then I also felt that this story was going to be a great story for the audience. A guiding story that is real. Love is very painful. It's a very painful experience to go through [cancer] and that's the beauty of this movie.
Not to say that it's all roses. Ken always says he still loved Treya but he also stopped liking her, too, at one point, right? The film shows that these two people go through points in their relationship in which they can't bear each other. They can't stand each other anymore. And for me, that was very real. I wanted to be part of a story that is real. I wanted to have my heart broken open and that's what love is. At the beginning of the film, they have this amazing instant and powerful connection.
Q: Do you believe in love at first sight?
Townsend: Yeah, I do to a degree. Maybe not as other people see it. But we resonate with each other when we find each other. Whoever that person is, I do think there's a resonance that is palpable to both individuals. So yeah, I believe in it, but I think they always talked about love at first touch, which I thought was really nice. There's a scene in the film where they meet in the kitchen, and I think Sebastian captures that beautifully. It's not really about what they are saying to each other. It's about how they are looking at each other. These two people have just found each other.
I also love that we don't spend too much time dwelling on their romance, right? Because you're telling a book, you have to condense everything. But I really love the way Sebastian tells that story very quickly, so, within 10-15 minutes, you're with them. You're in love with them, they're in love, it's all about love. And then the hammer drops and now you're going to go on the journey with these two lovers. I just feel like we need more love stories that are about transcendent love and their respect and admiration for each other. At the end, death is irrelevant. It doesn't even have any meaning because they've gone beyond that, and there is no death. They will find each other again, there's a certainty to that in their souls and I just find that very cosmically beautiful.
Q: There’s such a quiet beauty in just letting go, for those with a disease and for those loved ones who are with them.
Townsend: Yes. That's what you know when you fall in love. You agree to heartbreak, essentially, because at some point you will let them go. We all have to let go of each other and ourselves at some point and that's the beauty of the story.
Q: You and Mena Suvari were so brilliant in conveying that love. How did you two work things out on set?
Townsend: Well, you know, it's interesting because we're on the journey together but they're very separate journeys. She's going through the sickness and as an actress, she had a very different journey and undertaking than I did, in a sense, as the caretaker and someone who sacrifices his own life to look after this woman. So, yeah, it was very intense. We were together all the time, and we didn't have any rehearsal time. Sebastian shot the film quite chronologically, so when we met as actors, we were also meeting as Ken and Treya in the story. In the beginning, it was all excitement and love and romance and sunshine -- and then we descended into the darkness with each other.
Mena and I had built up a very profound professional connection that I haven't really had with many actors because I really had to go to those kinds of places. It was beautiful. I just admired Mena and I was very grateful to play opposite her because she goes 100 percent. She goes all the way. And it wasn't just me and Mena, there was also Sebastian. He really was always there holding us up and allowing us to jump.
Q: What did you learn from this experience?
Townsend: I mean, I guess I learned that love is not as simple and idealistic as we think or as we want it to be. I think a lot of us watch a lot of movies where it's you know, a happy ending. There's certain programming involved in love, but love is really about having your heart broken in the truest sense. That was their journey of transcending death and transcending pain and transcending hope even. It was such an honor to read those books and then to tell the story. It was so intense personally for all of us. When the film ended I was completely exhausted, ready to sit on the couch for a while. But I've always been a lover. I've always loved love. I've always been in relationships and that's my realm.
Make sure to catch Grace and Grit, now playing in limited theaters, as well on digital and on-demand!