Houston, Gravity's Sandra Bullock has a problem
TORONTO—If Gravity were only a film about being lost in outer space, that fact alone might be enough to recommend it. But the movie, by Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, is a bit of a game changer, both in terms of its combination of CGI and puppetry and also for one of its lead actors, Sandra Bullock: the former Miss Congeniality and Oscar winner is in almost every shot of the movie.
An interview at the recent Toronto International Film festival revealed that Bullock endured adverse conditions to deliver a career-defining performance—and all with only a 30-percent rotation of her head.
Bullock delivers a memorable performance in a movie about Big Questions: nothing less than our place in the universe, the meaning of life, and what it means to survive and stand on your own two feet when everything—including, yes, Gravity—is against you.
Meanwhile, a movie about rebirth might be just the right thing at exactly the right time. Bullock is a year away from 50, and her personal life has hit some very public setbacks even as her career has reached new heights.
This past September, the actor wore her hair glossy and straight above a graphic-print sundress when she sat down to chat with media at the elegant Shangri-La Hotel during the Toronto film fest. She explained how her role as a first-time astronaut marooned in zero Gravity forced her to reorient herself here on Earth, as well—even while shooting in conditions described by Cuarón as “gruesome”.
“I mean, gruesome—that word makes me think of explosions or something,” the actor said, shrugging it off. “Yes, there was some blood. There were some blisters. It’s because the entire thing depends on these contraptions [and] this suit that literally took me at last 20 minutes to get into, and then I’m harnessed and locked into something that I had no control over once it started…I was always strapped down, so no matter what I was trying to do physically, I only had 30-percent motion and I needed to be able to talk normally, hit all my marks, and do it [give a performance]. And, oh, there’s a blister coming, and something’s cutting into my leg, and I’m hanging from the wires.”
Bullock said that although it was a challenge to deliver a performance without being able to use her body to convey emotion, the restrictive conditions were just a more extreme version of her usual acting conditions.
“I think every actor will tell you we are always panicked about being able to convey something,” she said. “If all you have are your eyes and your face, then you just have to feel it truthfully. You dig deep; you just have to. I didn’t feel that I was behind a visor, in a suit. For me, it was still my whole body feeling it.
“People notice the CGI because it’s more spectacular,” Cuarón added, “but probably the longest shot of the whole film is inside a capsule, and it’s just Sandra. It was not only just a tour de force of emotional performance but she was doing that all the while performing zero G with her body. I have to say, for me, that’s probably one of the most amazing achievements of the movie, and it’s all pure performance.”
Technicians had preprogrammed her suit’s movements to emulate the way her body would tumble, spin, and float in space; she had no human contact other than her earphone connection to her director. “I was, literally, ‘Houston, Houston,’ ” Bullock said. “I was often thinking, ‘Wow, I don’t know how I am gonna be able to make this work; I don’t know what I have to offer.’ I had to trust in what he saw, because I saw nothing. There were these lights, blackness everywhere, but I had him in my head and I just had to trust that.”
Cuarón, who Bullock described as a “kindred spirit” in a “strangely intimate profession”, was able to give her the support she needed.
“The film is about adversities, and we were going through adversities. Everything was a big challenge, but also that was the spirit of the film,” the director said. “When Sandra and I met for first time…our connection was a big understanding about real big things in life. It was as if [Gravity] was part of our life process.”