There are dream casts, and then there are DREAM casts. Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, Tracy Ullman, Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Emily Blunt and Chris Pine star in the new film adaptation of Into the Woods, and all of them bring exceptionally unique and wonderful performances to the movie.
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend the press junket with all of these actors, plus the director, Rob Marshall, the brilliant writer, James Lapine and the producers. It was apparent from the interviews how much everyone enjoyed working with each other, and how having a real rehearsal period resulted in an extraordinary adaptation from stage to screen. Often times musicals don’t make the transition well, but Into the Woods transforms magically on the screen – with the lush sets and art direction and fantastically clever songs.
Rob Marshall talked about this balance and risk when directing a musical at the press conference in this exchange:
MODERATOR: …Rob, musicals being so different from all other genres, are they more difficult to direct?
ROB MARSHALL: They’re very fragile. I mean, I feel like you’re always this far away from like a Saturday Night Live sketch, because if the song doesn’t come out of the story in an organic way, in a seamless way, and you feel the number beginning, it’s dangerous, because of the fact that somebody’s singing. What’s so beautiful about this amazing piece that James wrote and Steve Sondheim wrote is that the material is so organic. I mean, you said this the other day, James, which I loved, which is if you pull the songs out of the piece, the piece falls apart. You know, there are musicals you can take the songs out and it doesn’t affect it at all.
ROB MARSHALL: …But what’s fantastic about this piece is it’s so interwoven. I mean, you can see that in the first [SOUNDS LIKE] 16 minutes, that opening prologue. It’s so beautifully created and written because it moves in and out of dialogue so seamlessly, but it’s very delicate, creating a musical. I mean, I feel like it’s two movies in one when I’m working on it because you have the whole side of the music, etc., and you have the rehearsals and all of that. That’s almost its own thing. Then you have the filming of it and the piece and so it’s a balancing act, and the only way you can do it well is if you have great material and brilliant actors.
Which, of course leads back to the exquisite cast. One of the aspects of Into the Woods that makes it so powerful and successful is the strength of the acting, and the singing seems to organically spring out of those performances.
Since Into the Woods is based on such well known fairy tales – Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel – it was even more important that the actors find something true and universal at the core of their characters that resonates with a modern audience.
Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine talked about this specifically, especially since Cinderella and Prince Charming are two of the most iconic fairy tale characters.
PRESS: …You know, a bunch of us grew up on Disney fairytales, but how do you guys think that these stories apply, or maybe they don’t apply, to the craziness of modern day dating?
ANNA KENDRICK: I think that this has something very mature and modern to say about separation. When Cinderella and the prince, they have this conversation and a lot of people, you know, they’re like, this isn’t your everyday Cinderella and she kicks him to the curb and while that’s sort of true, the fact that it’s done with so much civility and compassion, I think, you know, my parents set an amazing example for me because they divorced when I was 15 and I mean, we’re having Thanksgiving dinner together in a couple of days. And I know that that’s not always the case, but I think that that scene meant so much to me because I feel love for people that I have loved, and I think that’s so beautiful, and I think that’s such an important lesson for children that, you know, people can have disagreements but it doesn’t mean one is bad and one is good. And I feel so grateful to my family for setting this amazing example within separation, and I hope that that scene is a reflection of that.
CHRIS PINE: You know, I think obviously we tell each other stories in life and as storytellers that’s what we do. We tell each other stories so we can understand the world better and there’s catharsis and we understand the models of what a hero could be and what the hero’s journey as a human being is all about. But unfortunately I think sometimes those stories too can be very prohibitive and confining, and this idea that we, especially in Western culture, Western literature, [PH] Tristan and Isolde, and Romeo and Juliet, that there’s some kind of all-encompassing burning passionate love that will never die out unless you both die, is so depressing and not real. And that these two people, the prince living out this storybook life all the time, in a completely non-relational manner, with a woman that he’s apparently in love with, I think it’s very telling that this relationship, there’s not one conversation until the last moment where they break up. I mean, if you look at the film [OVERLAPPING] it’s just these little eighth page things of looking up gazingly, fervently at one another, and it doesn’t mean anything. And I think the beautiful thing about it is that here’s a woman that chooses to get out of the story of Romeo and Juliet and Tristan and Isolde, it’s like, check it out, I don’t want you, ‘cause you’re lame, and you don’t listen to me. But actually in that final moment he does listen and I think it’s very telling for the prince that he says, “Is this what you want?” He’s actually, [Yeah.] he’s being very respectful and the boundaries are very clear.
And of course, the highlight of the press junket for me was being about ten feet away from Meryl Streep. She, Christine Baranski and Tracey Ullman were incredibly funny, smart and really gave a brief master class in acting and an actress’s thought process and methodology during this brief Q&A.
Christine Baranski also talked about fleshing out what can normally be a very stereotypical character: The Evil Stepmother:
PRESS: …Christine, the role of the wicked stepmother is such an iconic character type in stories. What was your take on the role of Lapine and Sondheim’s stepmother and what did you end up bringing to the role?
CHRISTINE BARANSKI: Well, you know I worked with Rob. We talked about what is this particular nature of, you know, she’s always described as the evil stepmother and the evil stepsister. So what exactly does that mean and how is that kind of activated? And actually I found that Cinderella is somebody who just is at the house and she just does thing for us. And a lot of the evil of the character — no really. And then when she suggests that she come to the ball, it’s like are you kidding? Look at your nails, look at your dress and it’s like laughable. They’re very — I think, you know, we wanted to figure out how to make these characters kind of resonant in the contemporary world and this particular trio of women just seem right for presenting a kind of narcissism and fashion absorption and from the brilliant clothes of Colleen (Atwood) are like a little too many ruffles and the hair is just a little too high. And they look like they’re trying so hard and this is their one shot and it’s like they’re getting ready for the Oscars. They’re obsessed. And, you know, they’re just comparing. There’s even a little ad lib in the carriage after we come back from the first night and obviously Cinderella’s girl — some girl was at the ball and I did an ad lib and said, “Who is that skinny girl at the ball?” You just know that these women are just, you know, they gossip. And I think they’re benow. They’re venal characters. They’re narcissistic and opportunistic and we see this. We see this when we kind of watch television or media. It’s very interesting. It’s like, “Mmm, these are women that, you know, it’s part of our culture.” So I’m really happy that we did it this way. It was interesting. It was good.
And lastly, the brilliant Meryl Streep talking about the multidimensional motivations of The Witch – and how it relates to all parents and raising children. This is the very soul of the film.
Into the Woods opens on Christmas Day – be sure to get your tickets in advance!