About.com - December 2003

 Interview with the cast of Mona Lisa Smile 

Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Ginnifer Goodwyn play Julia Roberts' young students in the dramatic movie, Mona Lisa Smile. After playing classmates on film, the four rising young stars got together to talk about working with Roberts and working on Mona Lisa Smile for director Mike Newell.

Would you ever want to go back to the era portrayed in Mona Lisa Smile?

Julia Stiles: No, I wouldn't because I think that what I learned from making this movie was that women didn't really have choices. They were underappreciated and didn't have a voice.

Ginnifer Goodwyn: I don't think we would be here. I mean, we wouldn't be actresses promoting wonderful work. I think that the actors who were respected back then as people, they weren't considered... Up until that point, actors were tramps and renegades and people to be disrespected and shameful. So I don't think there's any way for us to fathom not having this be a part of our lives. How could we fathom being in that time when doing something like this wouldn't have been so supported and embraced?

Ginnifer, do you recognize this as your breakthrough role?

Ginnifer Goodwyn: I'm proud of this film because the work that I remember doing is the work that I saw on screen when I did see this movie about a month ago. And to me, as far as being a revelation or breakthrough goes, I certainly hope that my performance is embraced because my goal is to continue every day of my life to support myself doing this. And so if that enables that, then I will not be so humble as to say that I'm not completely proud of the work that I've done. But at the same time, I can't think about that and do good work at the same time. I think that those two ideas contradict each other.

In being able to be completely emotionally vulnerable and open and step into someone else's skin, I can't really think about the final product. It certainly was not a goal. I certainly wanted to step up to the challenge of working with these women who I have admired forever. And in that way, I definitely challenged myself to keep up, frankly.

Julia, Julia Roberts said she was intimidated by you. What does that mean to you?

Julia Stiles: Oh, that's so nice. Wow. One of the things that I think is amazing about Julia is that she doesn't adopt an intimidating attitude. We've been asked a lot if we were nervous about meeting her and she's just the... I learned so much about acting with her. I learned so much about how to exist in the public eye and maintain your integrity and sense of self and keep a strong head on your shoulders. I was just really amazed that she's so dedicated to the work that she does. All the power that she's accrued in Hollywood, she's used so well. I mean, she's used it to tell stories that are meaningful to her.

What did you do to get into the '50s mindset?

Julia Stiles: We did a lot. We had etiquette training, elocution lessons, dialect coaching, dance lessons. And then on my own, I watched a ton of movies from the early 1950s and also looked at almanacs to see what was going on in the world and brush up on my history. But I thought the most helpful thing was the dance lessons. [It was] not so much learning dance steps but the actual psychology behind ballroom dancing. I really had to let go of my modern aggressiveness and let the man lead me. And I feel like that was what was going on with the psychology of my character.

Ginnifer Goodwyn: I found that, for my character, it was very important to sort of perfect the etiquette of the 1950s. Connie Baker doesn't really have any constants in her life and I found that sort of finding a way to be accepted socially was a way for her to feel accepted on any level. That was very important to her. I mean, clearly, she's not completely embraced by even her dearest friends, even though that does change. And clearly the boys are not chasing after her and having romantic love is her greatest dream. Those little intricate details were certainly something that I had to actually really focus on and try to perfect myself. I could then find these relationships with these girls in this movie and not be thinking about whether or not it's proper for me to shake my boyfriend's hand at the end of the dance and in which direction I'm blowing smoke, and how am I picking up my butter knife. But I did find that those things were very important to really avidly study through movies, through our classes, through reading, and through looking at photographs and seeing how women related to each other spatially. Social acceptance is something that Connie could achieve.

Do you believe movies still pass along the message that a woman needs a man?

Maggie Gyllenhaal: That's not true. To get into that kind of thing, to start to say this is where we are with movies, that women need to have a man and the issues that we're dealing with in Mona Lisa Smile are still issues now. More from your Guide below Advertisement

It's like regressive thinking. We're so much beyond that. I think in a lot of ways, I guess it depends what movies you go and see. But I think there are a lot of movies being made that include maybe romance and sex and all that kind of stuff, but don't demand that the woman has to have a boyfriend or a husband in order to do something interesting. I really don't think that's true.

Kirsten, can you talk about your character's transformation and taking on a role like this?

Kirsten Dunst: Well, I had never played a role like this before in a bigger movie. I felt like mostly a mass audience has only seen me as a cheerleader or like Mary Jane. So I wanted to do something [with] this girl. She's just the most restricted in the time and the society of it all, and I really could see a lot of pain in this girl. [She was] trying to be alive and wanting to enjoy her life, but so held back and so juvenile in the way she acts out against the other girls. She's just kind of like this little girl who is trying to be this woman. She's 21 and only recently has this woman come into her life. It's like, "Change your thinking," and of course your first reaction is, "No, no, no. It's scary." So I just saw more than just like the traditional bitch of the film.

Were these all the parts you originally went out for?

[all nod] Julia Stiles: Yeah, I really responded to Joan immediately because I was surprised by her choice. She was a nice contrast to the other journeys the characters go through. And I thought the danger with a movie like this was that we would all come away from the movie thinking that the message is all women have to have careers. I liked that Joan really makes an individual choice. I met Mike [Newell] and read for Joan because I really wanted the part.

Maggie, there's a scene in the film where it seems like your character is going to announce she's pregnant. Was there a scene ever a scene like that?

Maggie Gyllenhaal: No, I think Giselle for most of the movie is doing what I think most human beings do, which is even if you're in a situation that's constricting or complicated or hard, they try to survive. And I think Giselle is doing a pretty good job of it. I think her way of surviving in this weird place that she finds herself in is to fight for life wherever she can find it. Things that taste good and feel good and sound good, and I think that she's pretty good at it most of the movie. I think that scene is just a moment where some of the stuff that's underneath just comes to the surface. I think she just wants to be near him. It would be too much if she was pregnant. Like, come on. She has a diaphragm. She shows it to everybody. She has a lot of sex, but she's had safe sex.

Kirsten, could you relate to anything about your character?

Kirsten Dunst: I just could understand [that] it wasn't really [that] she's a mean person. She's just really a sad person and I had compassion towards her. She doesn't have the tools or the people around her or the guides to figure stuff out within herself. So I can relate to feeling that way. I don't act out the way she does or I didn't act out the way she did, but I know that feeling of feeling stuck a little bit.

Julia, can you talk about the dialect you used in Mona Lisa Smile?

Julia Stiles: We had a dialect coach but I felt very confined by that, so in order to not feel like it was so foreign to me, I watched a lot of movies from the early 1950s. I'm just like, "Did people really speak that way?" And I know that the movie stars of the 1950s aren't maybe the average person, but they did. I feel like I modeled a lot after Grace Kelly -- the way that she spoke -- only because she would've been brought up in the same way that my character was. She went and took elocution lessons and went to a finishing school.

Kirsten, are there any big changes planned for Mary Jane in Spider-Man 2?

Kirsten Dunst: I scream a lot less in this one. There's not as much screaming. She's definitely more on the track of a more independent woman and everything. But then look at her family and what she came from. This abusive male in the house and this mother who's an alcoholic. So I don't think Mary Jane was the most secure woman to begin with. She was a little bit more like, I guess you could say, a Damsel in Distress. Now she has her own place in New York and she's getting married. She's working and doing her own thing.

Article by Rebecca Murray
Originally published at About.com - Posted on December 2003