Oscar Watch: Penelope Ann Miller
While The Artist has unquestionably launched Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo onto the A-list, the Best Picture Oscar nominee also serves as the unofficial comeback vehicle for Penelope Ann Miller.
A big-screen staple throughout the 80s and 90s -- she starred in Carlito's Way, Kindergarten Cop, Chaplin, The Freshman and Adventures in Babysitting for starters -- Penelope took a pregnant pause after getting married in 2000 and giving birth to two children.
But now that she's made her mark on this millennium, Penelope assured me during our whimsical chat that The Artist is just the start of her "comeback."
Insider.com: I simply don't know where to begin talking about this movie...
Penelope Ann Miller: I know, it has people speechless! [laughs]
Insider: Take me back to the day you get this script and are pitched this film. Is there even a script, or is there just sort of a post-it with the title of the movie?
Penelope: [laughs] Yes, there was a script but it was just it was more descriptive than dialogue. It really read like a story. Michel [Hazanavicius, writer/director] really did a beautiful job -- it was bound and on each side of the page there were photographs of Berenice [Bejo] and Jean [Dujardin] in period costume, and period locations. It was very picturesque. It was definitely unusual, so I did get this almost hesitant call from my agent saying, "They're making this black and white silent film and it's set in the 20s." That perked me up because I love the 20s, and I asked, "Well, who is in it?" He said, "The two leads are French and the director is French," and I'd never heard of them nor could I pronounce their names [laughs]. And I thought that this was getting more interesting by the minute.
Insider: But were you worried that it might be tough to sell a silent black and white film in 2012?
Penelope: Oh, I didn't think anyone would ever see it, but at least I'd have fun playing dress up [laughs]. Then I met with the director and we really kind of hit it off in terms of what movies we loved and the homework he'd done on the project and how he was planning to film it. I know it was important for him that this was a real movie about real people and not a gimmick. He really wanted everybody to be very authentic. And then actors like James Cromwell, John Goodman and Malcolm McDowell were talking about joining so I thought I'd take this leap of faith. If nobody sees it I'll come out unscathed and if someone sees it maybe it will be nice! And here we are, of course, with ten Academy Award nominations, and winning the Golden Globe. It has been beyond our wildest dreams, everybody is in shock in a lot of ways, and of course thrilled.
Insider: What was it like on Oscar morning as the nominations kept rolling in?
Penelope: You know, so much of this movie is about the visuals. That's what is telling the story and so every aspect of that part of the film -- from the art direction, the lighting and music, the cinematography, the costumes -- is so important to the success of the whole thing, so in a lot of ways I wasn't surprised because I felt like it's such an artistic film and if the Oscars are all about celebrating artistic excellence, then I felt like every aspect of this film would be recognized. Of course, I was overjoyed and thrilled beyond belief, but I just knew that if people saw this movie, it would change everything. And the reaction has surpassed my expectations.
Insider: Is the act of being in a silent film any different -- beyond, obviously, talking -- on you as an actor?
Penelope: For me it was more just about being a woman of that period, but knowing too that our voices weren't going to be recorded, so there was also a fine line with facial expressions with not wanting to make a fool out of yourself, but you also don’t want to be too subtle. We as actors really rely on the sound of our voices so it's a little bit of a daunting task actually.
Insider: Although daunting, it had to also be kind of amazing to really flex that rarely used acting muscle.
Penelope: Certainly. We actually talked to each other when filming the scenes, so we were hearing each other. So the era played into it almost more. My character holds herself differently, had different mannerisms and has different clothing, all of that plays a part, but it is really no different than tackling any other role that I would play even if my voice was being recorded. There really are a lot of similarities; I think we all just wanted to be authentic, because if we weren't feeling it then the audience wasn't going to feel it. I think having watched and studied films from the 20s and studying the actors and their faces, it all got absorbed.
Insider: I've been a fan of yours for a while and I must say that The Relic is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated horror movies of my generation.
Penelope: Oh wow, thank you. That was scary. And I think you're right, it was kind of under-the-radar. It opened at number one, but you're right, it wasn't some huge thing.
Insider: And that was one of many movies you starred in during the 90s -- but then you took a break to have a family. Coming back with The Artist, how has the reception in Hollywood been?
Penelope: Let's face it, I had a pretty good run in my mid-twenties and early thirties. I was working with the best actors, best directors and the best studios on the best films. It was a pretty successful time in my career. And then I got married, had children and my priorities changed a lot. There was definitely a lull in terms of all of the things that I used to do; I used to make two to three movies a year. You can't leave as much when you're married with kids and pregnant. The perception of my career had changed significantly. But when I come out to events now people are so warm and welcoming. Like, just the other week, Leonardo DiCaprio -- who I knew years ago when his career first began -- came up to me and was like, "Oh my god, I haven't seen you in ages!" It's so funny for me when people are like, "Where have you been?" because these people probably see each other every year, and they just say, "Oh, it's you again." But I'm having the best time with it all -- and I can't wait to keep it going!
The Artist is now playing.