All's Fair For Mira Nair
The Director Of Vanity Fair Discourses On Filmmaking, The Boundless Charm Of Reese Witherspoon, And The Age-Old Appeal Of Struggling To Reach The Top
Hollywood is no stranger to connecting the dots in ways that seem bizarrely simpatico. So it's no surprise that Reese Witherspoon is on the cover of September's Vanity Fair magazine spreading the word about her latest role as the ravenously ambitious Becky Sharp in a film adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's novel of the same name (now playing). Set in the early 1800s, Thackeray's masterpiece may not be quite as slavishly up-to-date as the glossy celebrity mag. But the classic tale of a dirt-poor girl who climbs to the top of London society by any means necessary still has plenty of currency. Just ask Vanity Fair's director, Mira Nair.
"Becky Sharp was so modern," Nair says in a recent phone interview. "She was born on the wrong side of the tracks, but she had to prove herself. She wasn't like a Jane Austen heroine who sat around waiting to be proposed to. She went out and made it her way--whichever way she knew how."
Born in India, Nair was educated at Delhi University and Harvard before going on to make such critically acclaimed films as Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding. When she first read Thackeray's book, she was a teenager attending an Irish-Catholic boarding school. "Vanity Fair is a novel I've loved since I was 16 years old," Nair says. "When I first read it, I was mostly attracted to the sense of mischief and naughtiness. It was the kind of book you read under the covers. But it's always stayed one of my very favourite books over the years. So in a way, being offered this film is like going full circle."
After all those years, revisiting the novel in preparation for the film was a revelation. "I really found such treasure in every character Thackeray wrote," she explains. "What's so deep about the book is that you don't forget the humanity and the folly of them," she says. "Not only were they written with great affection but the things these characters aspire too are completely alive and well today. It's not a museum piece in any way."
She credits Thackeray's timeless vision for the story's enduring appeal. "He was so clear-eyed about the sham and the hypocrisy of society," she says. "All of it was fair game for him.
"It was such an ambitious project," she continues. "A lot of the small and big lessons of making cinema certainly came into play. But many of the things I had learned from my previous films kicked in. My experience with Monsoon Wedding helped me deal with the multilayered nature of the story and the huge ensemble cast." She laughs, then adds: "Ironically, both Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair had a cast of 68 characters."
In addition to Witherspoon, the sprawling cast includes Gabriel Byrne, Jim Broadbent, and Bob Hoskins. Get Nair talking about Hoskins's delicious turn as a seedy country squire and you can hear the glee in her voice. "He's a totally unpretentious Cockney boy who nobody ever thinks of in a wig and britches," she says, laughing. "But he's perfect. He lights up the screen with that twinkle in his eye."
Clearly, Nair had a lot of fun making the movie. "There's a carnival-like quality to Thackeray's world that gives me so much to play with as a director, whether it's visually or musically," she explains. "I love, for instance, that Becky rises in English society through her gift of singing. Music to me is so important cinematically, especially in Indian movies. The fact that Becky sang her way to the top got me so excited because I got to use songs to push the story forward, which is the training you get from watching the greatest Bollywood cinema."
Asked if it was difficult to get the full sweep of such an ambitious novel on-screen, Nair admits it was a challenge. She worked closely with screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), who was also a fan of the novel. "I began by giving him what I called my 'map of life'," she recalls. "It was everything l loved about the book and what I needed in the movie. In every scene, I wanted to maximize up to three or four different ingredients of the book. So that no moment we thought of as important could escape. I wanted people to care about every single person."
For Nair, making the details count is one of the reasons she became a filmmaker. "I'm always amazed at how I'll meet somebody in an airport and they'll be so eager to tell me how a certain moment in one of my films is just like their life," she explains. "If you do it right, people read into those moments and really get it."
Vanity Fair came to Nair from Witherspoon, who has openly acknowledged being in awe of the director's films. Nair had previously turned down another offer from Reese and her production company. "Much as I loved and admired her work, I didn't care for the project," she says. This time around everything came together perfectly. "Reese was my first and only choice for Becky," she says. "I can't think of anybody else who could play between the ages of 17 and 35 with as much charisma and effervescence."
But the director had another agenda in mind for Witherspoon, one that would be a stretch after a steady stream of ingénue fare like Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama. "We all know that she has the wit, intelligence, and guile for films," Nair says. "But what I was really excited to do was give her the opportunity to play a full-blown, mature, sensual woman. I didn't want to see her do something she'd already accomplished."
The main reason Nair cast the actor as the socially ambitious Becky was to take full advantage of the actor's considerable charm. "Becky is such a complicated character," Nair observes. "She's a schemer, and if she's not played correctly, you can easily dislike her. For me, it's just not fun to have a protagonist that people don't like." Knowing she could count on Witherspoon's talent for captivating an audience gave Nair a certain creative flexibility. "Reese has this kind of inexplicable appeal, which really makes an actor a movie star," Nair argues. "She's just plain irresistible. So I knew I could make her character as cold as she needed to be and still have the audience with me."
Advance buzz on Witherspoon's performance indicates that Vanity Fair could launch her career into a new and richer phase. Nair agrees. "To be totally honest, Reese surprised me even more deeply than I could imagine," she says. "There's this dramatic depth, this nakedness that's really extraordinary. She's very moving at times and there are other moments that just make the hair stand up at the back of your neck."
It's not a simple thing to get that kind of a fearless performance out of an actor. "Reese and I are very close," says Nair. "So that made it easier." She also credits Witherspoon's willingness to move into new creative territory. "She said: 'Mira, you make me better. People are always so scared to ask me to go out on a limb.' "
And then Nair laughs. "It's amazing to me that there are people in this business who are actually scared to ask someone to take a risk and try to go deeper," she says. "The great thing about Thackeray's book is that it shows we sometimes have strengths we're not even aware of. That's one part of the human condition that hasn't changed."