With Rooney, I’d imagined her as either Mariche or Salome, but then we started talking about Ona. I read hundreds of people for that part and it’s difficult because you have to believe what she says, or she seems kind of ridiculous. Rooney will hate this, but I think she has this side of her that’s incredibly enlightened. I was wondering if I should rewrite Ona, but when Rooney read her lines, it worked. And with Jessie, I’d considered her for Ona, but she loved the challenge of trying to understand Mariche. Some people wouldn’t touch that part because she has to be unlikeable for so much of the film before you really unpack her story—but not Jessie.
And once you got onto set, what scenes proved the most difficult? And how was the on-set therapist able to help in those moments?
There’s a scene in the film, which is not in the book, in which Mariche’s mother apologizes to her for her complicity in her abuse. It’s a moment of transformation for Mariche and in order for that character to come on board, we needed something like that. We shot Jessie’s side first and, in her performance, there was this huge internal crumbling and rebuilding. That deeply impacted one of the crew members who’d grown up in a community like this, in which there’d been abuse and his parents had never apologized or taken responsibility. He said it made him think about how everything he’d been taught to accept wasn’t okay, and he was really emotional. Then, when we were shooting Sheila [McCarthy, who played Mariche’s mother Greta], I asked him, “Would this be enough for you?” He said, “No, not enough for me to transform the way Jessie just did.”
So, we talked about what he’d need to hear. I said to Sheila, “First of all, don’t cry, because this has to be about her. And if, at the end, you feel like you’re breaking, say the words: ‘I’m sorry.’” We did a take and she said sorry three times, and it felt like that’s what she needed to do in that moment. It ended up being this really interesting collaboration between me, the crew person, and the actors. Harriet Lerner wrote this amazing book called Why Won’t You Apologize? and it really inspired me—I knew this movie had to hinge on an apology, on someone getting to hear the words they need to hear to move on. I felt so lucky to have that experience on set—to have this crew person who was so generous with his experience, and actors who were so receptive.