At the film’s premiere in Cannes, we caught up with the cast and crew of THE PAPERBOY

Lee Daniels’ new film, The Paperboy, examines life in a small Southern town when there are secrets that must be kept. We caught up with Daniels and the cast of the film – including Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack and Matthew McConaughey – in Cannes last year.

Lee, there is a rumour that Pedro Almodovar was originally attached to the project, is that true?
Lee Daniels: Yes he was. I read the book by Pete Dexter when I read Sapphire’s Push, and they both stayed by my nightstand, many years ago. Then Pedro Almodovar wrote a draft that was very, very interesting, but I think he opted out of it for whatever reason. As many movies happen in Hollywood, they change directors and they change cast and there was something that attracted me about the book; the characters were very rich, very unique and I decided that after Precious, this should be my follow up.

John, the characters you play are generally quite sweet. Hillary is not a sweet man; did you have any reservations about accepting the role?
John Cusack: No, no, quite the contrary. I was thrilled, I felt like I had been let out of some cage, somehow. When I met with Lee, we sat and talked, and he just talked to me about a film I made with Stephen Frears a long time ago, called The Grifters, and he talked about a certain quality and sexuality between my character and Angelica Huston’s character. He was looking into me like ‘I know you have more to give than you have been giving lately’ and that’s music to an actor’s ears. I was a big fan of Lee’s and as soon as we met we developed our language where I knew instantly that I wanted to do the role. So no, I didn’t have any qualms. I was thrilled.

Zac, do you feel you were eroticised in this film? Was that something you were comfortable in dealing with?
Zac Efron: I don’t think I was supposed to feel comfortable. It’s like life; this character is learning the ways of the world and that can be very, very uncomfortable. I think it’s also exciting, it’s new; he doesn’t really know what to expect. It was a very fun character for me to play and I certainly was grounded by the best people in the world.
LD: Eroticised!?
ZE: it’s a great word…
LD: He’s a good-looking guy, and the camera can’t help but love him! And I am gay! What do you want!?
[All laugh]

Lee, how much of the murky, mysterious film do you feel is about racial equality in America?
LD: I think Matthew should answer that…
Matthew McConaughey: You do? OK. Everyone in this film as they are introduced, you find out later that they are not as they seem and people are not who they introduce themselves as, or there is a lot more underneath. I know that was one of the draws for me and the story was a draw for me, to dive into that mystery and come out the other side. The hard part is getting through it, and everyone has their own difficulties with the characters in the film and that transition. Nobody, as I said, is as they seem, or just as they present themselves… It does have a sort of salacion. Not to be eroticised, but there is something very erotic about the swamp. There is something very magnetising about that world and these people, where you just get an abbreviation of who they may be, you just get a pass, a whisper, an approach, an exit… but you know there is more going on and I think that’s where Leonardo, the director, where he really loves to spend his time… In those gaps in between. Then he gives you a little bit more, and a little bit more. You know when you leave many scenes that you didn’t get everything, and it was on purpose, so you keep watching and things turn out to be not as you thought they would be.
JC: I was just trying to get back to the autoerotic nature. I thought it was also the story of Zac’s character’s initiation. In an initiation process a character has to go into the Underworld, and he has to come up against themselves. So by definition they have to be in a place they have never been before, be it emotionally, physically, sexually… I think this film and Dexter’s book had that feeling of the unconscious too. I think it’s about all those things, but it is also about none of those things. I think it is about being initiated into a world and going through some deep process that defies easy explanations and that is what they mythmakers all write about.
Macy Gray: It’s a crazy movie. The characters are all over the place; its about sex… Zac is in his underwear in half the movie. I was distracted… [laughs] There are definitely a lot of hints about racism and discrimination; it goes through the film when my character is addressed. Then there is David [Oyelowo]’s character as well. It is one of those movies where there is so much going on underneath the surface and it is one of those movies where you will watch it for the fifth time and you will see something you didn’t see before.

Nicole, was your first visit to jail a difficult scene to shoot?
Nicole Kidman: Strangely, no. I had to step into a place to play the character where I didn’t step out of it too much and look at myself, so it wasn’t hard to shoot. John and I never met as John and Nicole, we met as the characters, and we never spoke really in any other way until after the film. That was very helpful because it allowed this stuff to just flow. As an actor I had been looking for something raw and more dangerous in terms of performances and this came along. I was the last person to be cast and Lee sent it to me. I had met Lee when he was promoting Precious and I was promoting Rabbit Hole. We had met at some parties and I loved Precious and I thought I would love to be in his hands to see where he would take me, because I think directors bring out different things in their actors and this is what Lee brought out in me, so it did not feel uncomfortable at the time. That’s my job; to give over to something, not to censor it and not to put my own judgements in terms of how I feel as Nicole playing the character. I am there to portray a truth.

Nicole, do you feel it is easier to find interesting female characters in independent movies?
NK: Um… yes [laughs] When you are working in independent films it is very hard to find financing. You do eventually, if you are lucky, and you get it made and that’s where I find the interesting roles are, but it is very hard to get these films made and it requires a lot of tenacity on the behalf of the filmmaker, and it is an uphill battle all the way.

Zac and Nicole, what was it like working together? Was the age difference an issue?
LD: They are not that much older or younger than each other! They are OK!
ZE: We are six years apart!
[All laugh]
ZE: I had the most lovely time in the world working with Nicole. I was ecstatic the day I found out she was playing the part. I have been in love with her for a long time; since Moulin Rouge, so I was blown away. It was the best opportunity in the world for me. I loved every moment of it.
NK: I was just so impressed with the way Zac threw himself into it. It’s dangerous and it’s hard at times but strangely enough, it becomes like a threesome because it is Lee, Zac and me so its all being created and worked on as the three of us. It was great to have the chance to do it. It was an ad-lib actually, where he comes to me in the film and says he wants to me to be with him and Charlotte says ‘Do you really wanna be with me?’ and that for me is the kind of love she can give him. She is tough with him, very tough because she has to let him go. To keep him to herself and to let him fall in love with her would destroy his life and she knows that. That’s what I loved about Charlotte; she frees him and releases him.

Lee, in the book Yeardley is not African American and Anita is a smaller character, can you talk about your decisions to make these changes?
LD: What I had to breathe into this world, what I had to give to this world was my truth, my understanding. Every character in this movie is someone that I know personally or I have interacted with personally. In America in the 1960s and now, there are two faces that we have to portray; one for all of you in this room, and one for ourselves, for African Americans that we keep close to our heart. Yeardley is that. I watched a movie called The Help and, though I liked it, most of my family was ‘help’ and they came back and told me stories about working with very wealthy… um… White people. They worked for white people, and these are the stories they told me. They loved the people that they worked for and there was a truth in Anita that I wanted to bring out and that was why I expanded both of the roles… also because there aren’t enough roles for African Americans in the world today. I am very proud to have worked with not only Macy and David [Oyelowo], but everyone at this table. They gave me their souls, they gave me their souls with a ‘Yes, sir’. I am honoured and I am not sure I can experience that again. I thought I had reached the pinnacle with working with actors with Precious, but these magnificent actors gave it all to me, so I am honoured.
MG: I totally agree with Lee and there’s definitely a lot less roles for African Americans, but I think when someone like Lee comes along… I don’t think its always about race for him, I think he’s so out of the box and so ready to try something that no-one’s ever done before and take a character that is white and make them black and see what happens or vice versa… Or make someone like Matthew a homosexual… The sexiest man alive [All laugh] That’s why I think Lee is going to do incredible things in cinema, he is not afraid to make things different and to make you see things differently.

Matthew, how did you approach your character?
MMcC: I think one of the first things for me is, I have played lawyers quite a few times and it was delineating the difference of someone doing an investigation from someone being a lawyer. The first two weeks that I was working on creating my character, I was thinking to myself ‘it’s too much lawyer, it’s too much lawyer…’ but there are things that are true for this man – Ward’s – past that defined and painted how I portrayed him for sure. For example intuition; now if you have lost your mother at a very young age and you are gay that is a very good recipe for being very intuitive. As far as the homosexuality… He was never just gay to me; I thought he would fuck anything… really. It was also a relationship with his brother, his family; there was Anita and I who raised my little brother. There is a neutrality to Ward that makes him a very good investigator. It makes anyone good at investigating the truth. Again, I was never carrying a moral on my shoulders, and neither was the character, it was always about hanging my hat on the architecture of the reality and the humanity. None of that was difficult after it clicked. My character wasn’t even competitive with Yeardley. Ward is a real badass in many ways. As far as his appetite, I think he was very much periodic when it came to his sex life and when it came to his drinking or any of indulgences and he was a perfectionist when it came to the job. He is also one of those guys that to feel, he’s gotta bleed.

Lee, how did you combine a pulp novel and the feel of the South and Southern literature on screen?
LD: When I do a film I combine all of what I am supposed to do. I was supposed to do Selma, which is why I brought some of the race relations into this piece right here because it was festering me. I couldn’t explain it Matthew, when we were on the journey I kept drawing back to race because I couldn’t shake Selma – the Martin Luther King story that I was going to do. So I don’t live just with the story, I live with the past; my past experiences. I can’t shake off other films, so yes I am now doing Butler and Matthew is playing John F. Kennedy, and we are trying to keep it PG-13, which is a very difficult thing for me to do. [laughs] And John Cusack is starring as Richard Nixon! [laughs]
JC: I haven’t quite processed that yet!

Lee, how did you approach writing these characters?
LD: I live in the truth. Every character in here, I know. I know John’s character because my brother… I raised his children since they were 2 days old. [Lee’s brother] is 40-something years old now and he was in jail for murder, and he has women that write to him so I know this guy. Whenever [John] gave me something that was not true I said ‘You gotta come at me differently’. Macy; that is my family. I can’t tell you how many men that I have been with in the 80s and the 90s that were white, that I could be intimate with and they would publicly shun me; ‘No, I will not be seen with you, black man, in public’. I know him, and I hate him and they hate themselves for it; I know that now. My sister wrote many men in prison; she was one of the women that Nicole studied. So all these people are people that live in my head and my world and my existence.
JC: There is a sense of menace and a real sense of danger, sexually and physically in the movie. I also have known a lot of racists and a lot of bad people from being alive for 45 years and having a really interesting life where I have seen a lot of things. I did get a chance to go down to Angola and I went on a little tour and met some of the people on Death Row; I was just trying to get the feeling of that and bring it to the set somehow. That was pretty unique and powerful.

Lee, can you talk about casting actors who are also known as singers in your films?
LD: Not to take anything away from Macy, because I think she is brilliant in the film… I try to keep it real with all the actors; I try to show all my flaws to them. I am far from perfect and I tell everybody I am not perfect so that they can trust me and they can go on a ride with me. I am very humbled by their talent, by their brilliance. We are married at the hip and then I ask them after everything ‘how do you feel? What are you thinking right now?
MMcC: Lee has got a hyperly keen mind and also as soon as you nail a take, Lee says ‘Great. Now do something I have never seen and surprise the shit out of me’ Every time. I have seen the film; there is a whole lot of those takes in there baby! [laughs] Those fifth takes after you got it. Also, Lee is constantly, in my opinion, staying current with your perspective or things you have said you understand about the film or about the character. Things you understood yesterday are very different to what we talked about a year ago. Everything is very astute, but the next take will be very astute but 180 degrees the other way.
LD: it’s not just about black for me, yes I am a black man, but it is about art for me, it’s about actors for me. John and Nicole… They ain’t black and they gave me their souls. Thank you.

Nicole, where did you find the character of Charlotte?
NK: I found it in the way she moves and in just talking to Lee. Lee said to me ‘We have got no money, you are going to have to do your own hair and make up’. I was like [sighs] ‘OK, Lee’ so I actually went into the bathroom – this is so true – and I got out the fake tan and I put on lashes and I got out a hair piece thing and I threw it all and I took a photo and texted it to Lee. That was how it started to come together because hat he sent back… I can’t say.
LD: No, don’t say it.
NK: …But it was thumbs up [laughs] And that’s how it started to percolate. Then I came down [to set] and we didn’t have time to rehearse, we didn’t have time to do much. We did a make up test – Zac and I – and we were able to be in character on the shoot. I found the shoes there; the wardrobe person brought these white shoes in and I said ‘scuff ‘em’. Then I never stepped out of Charlotte. I also interviewed a number of women, which Lee forced me to do, but I sat down with five women who were in love with men in prison and they told me stories that… Wow. And then I got scared and I said to Lee ‘I don’t know how I am going to be real in this because I don’t know how to access it’ and then it all just happened. Then I never had a hesitation about it, I just went for it.

How did you strike the balance between drama and comedy in the film?
NK: Well Lee is funny, he has got a great sense of humour, so I just go with the flow. The way he shoots this is; no take is the same and you try things and you play and it’s like a labyrinth really; you are exploring different paths all the time. Out of that either comes things that are dark, things that are light, things that are funny. That’s how it gets discovered, and he laughs, you can hear him laugh off camera.
LD: I can’t take it. One of the funniest things out of the movie was with Matthew’s character – he is under a big moose. I couldn’t keep it in the scene because it didn’t move but it’s a very funny scene and I thought ‘Oh my god, what movie and I making? This is not a comedy! This can’t be a comedy’. I think there is humour in everything. I find humour in the darkest of moments and I think that to tell a story you have got to find the humour, otherwise it is not true. Laughter is what keeps us alive.

Zac, will you continue down the path of finding dangerous roles?
ZE: So much about what we do as actors is about facing your fears and walking though fear. I think that something I have always craved is that feeling of abandonment, fearlessness that you have to have as an actor. What I recognised from everyone sitting here, is that it is in these kinds of roles with directors like Lee, that actors get that kind of rush and that feeling. That is what I am hungry for right now. As much as I love everything I have done in the past, this is a new frontier for me and it’s incredibly fulfilling. It’s a dream, so hopefully I can keep doing more things like this.

Words: Brogen Hayes