When i began working with Kate Beckinsale on Snow Angels, we were trying to find elements rooted in reality that could give her character of Annie anchors of emotion—humor, frustration, aggression and sympathy. I knew that once cameras were rolling, we wanted a high degree of improvisation, particularly when it came to confrontational scenes with her estranged husband, Glenn (played by Sam Rockwell). So we needed to design as much background for her as time would allow.
Much of what we leaned on was Kate’s willingness to bring notes from her own motherhood and various personal relationships to the broad stroke understanding of her character. The sincerity of her performance would not have been achieved without this investment. In addition, we were fortunate to have Stewart O’Nan’s novel that the movie is based on, which was a tremendous resource and reference. From there we constructed lists that would elaborate the fictional details and environments of Annie’s life.
We wanted to design a fully realized, complex character with all of the contradictions and texture we believed her to have. Kate and I were excited to fill in the cracks of her character that the story left out. From there, the process was less about me giving specific directions and more about asking questions. Why would…? How come…? What if…?
I don’t believe in a traditional rehearsal process in which concrete intentions are made and dialogue is chosen. I would rather use it as a time for concerns and considerations, where the actors get comfortable with each other and get to know all sides of the characters we are developing—some confidentially. This leaves plenty of room for natural instincts and responses to be captured while the camera is rolling.
For me, the thrill is in the surprises. I want to avoid preconceived performances that appear as if the actor spent time rehearsing inflections in the mirror and memorizing lines, looking slick as they say the witty script written by the cracker-jack screenwriter. If actors know exactly what is going to be said in a scene there are almost always flat looks of anticipation on their faces… Not truly listening… Lots of “eyebrow acting.” It’s obvious they’re waiting for their next line.
Working with a performer like Kate is a pleasure because she has a deep understanding of her character without over-intellectualizing it. The process is fresh and fun no matter how dark or dramatic you go.
The following is a copy of the results of my many dialogue and e-mail exchanges with Kate in regard to her character; lists of things we could use to define Annie and elements from her environment that we could use to reflect who she had become as we meet her.
*Aquatic earrings, but hates to eat fish
*Wears makeup… wears less and less
*Favors bright in her wardrobe—colorizing the winter months as if she’s in autumn
*Wears a man’s watch
*Wears pajamas until lunchtime when she can
*Always wears low-cut tennis socks around the house, dirty bottoms
*Flowers and plants, frozen in harsh winter—
*Kitty litter boxes but no cats
*Butterflies flattened in paperback books
*Rigs things with Velcro
*Children’s stickers half-peeled off of furniture and walls
*Crayon drawings of houses and people in profile
*Cluttered hall tree… Where do I begin?
*Soft lunch boxes
*Collection of pens from seminars
*Stacks of old phone books
*Clocks everywhere—In 1687 they invented the minute hand. There’s no excuse to be late.
*Cigarette burns on low-cost furniture
*Garden tools inside
*Spotless dishes unless life gets the best of her
*Floral patterns/subtle clash
*Photos of good times in cheap frames
*Frozen plants outside
*Favors pale everything inside house
*Chain link fence
*Heavy comforter/white noise
*Keeps firewood inside
*Bowls of cocktail nuts and snack mix, but otherwise healthy as hell
*Will someone just sit next to her and be quiet?
*Curtains tied back in knots
*Lace and silk in simple places
*Aquarium with light and fish bowl with sharks
*Light blue/light pink
*Big TV with antennae
*A dozen unidentified remote controls
Things That Make Annie Laugh
*Babies, monkeys, naked African warriors, old people dancing, stupid shoes, Jello, Sunday comics, “Benson,” “Newhart,” “Ellen,” Oscar the Grouch, worms, The Church Lady (“Saturday Night Live” isn’t as funny as it used to be).
*Thinks rap music is funny
*“Can’t Fight This Feeling”—hates the song. It gets stuck in her head.
*Loves Bruce Springsteen—timeless
*Loves David Lee Roth, but thinks he’s a has-been
*Likes to watch the squirrels play in her yard
*Annie likes poems that rhyme/Percy Shelley
*These paintings of Andrew Wyeth’s: “Henriette,” “Willard’s Coat,” “Ice Pool,” “Tenant Farmer.” Wyeth is not interested in 18th-century buildings because they are 18th-century. He may care what age has done to the texture of a brick or stone or wood buildings, but in the same way he would be interested in the bark of a tree. What led to this tempera was the deer hanging from a graceful willow tree while a dry snow blew off the roof and disappeared in the howling wind. He did not know the tenants who occupied the house.
*Brought a bag of toys when she babysat as a teenager
*Would sneak Glenn over and got a thrill from making out in other people’s houses
*10th grade spelling bee champion
*Summer camp was the best time of her life; first kiss was with a counselor
*Dad died in an accident at a train yard when she was young
*Honeymoon in Niagara Falls
Things About Annie
*Latches onto words like “rendezvous”
*Always pays her credit card bill on time; works extra hours if she has to.
*Always ends up being the caretaker
*Wants someone to treat her like a princess
*Drinks hot tea for her colds
*Sits Indian-style on bar stools
*Can’t wait ‘til Christmas!
*Keeps old angel wings from a play she did as a kid
*Drinks Johnnie Walker when it calls her name
*Thinks tattoos are hot, but afraid to get one
*Owns 20 brushes
*Has nightmares about a bearded lady
*Loves her baby’s belly button—Animals that lay eggs don’t have belly buttons; posted on the fridge as if to remind.
*Has perfect pitch
*Has been thinking about taking piano lessons
*Always uses umbrellas, never wears a raincoat
*Scared of wolves from childhood fairytales
*Clips coupons, keeps on the fridge with magnets
*Saw potential in Glenn. He was destined for great things, sharpest wit in high school. The only guy that could keep up with her sarcasm and make her laugh. She fell in love with the unlikely guy when he did a book report in 11th grade English class about Robert Louis Stevenson and read out loud:
“Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill”