Nonetheless, she’s never done anything quite as superb as her work in Love After Love, in which she stars as a woman coming to grips with the death of her husband, and the tumultuous individual and familial upheaval created by that loss. As Suzanne, MacDowell exudes a bracing mix of vulnerability, tenderness and longing, as well as a healthy dose of misery and bitterness that comes to the fore during her many scenes opposite Chris O’Dowd (as Suzanne’s misstep-making son Nicholas). It’s a tale of grief, dysfunction and survival that heralds its first-time writer/director Russell Harbaugh as one of American cinema’s finest new artists, and reconfirms MacDowell’s standing as a Hollywood star of formidable charisma and complexity.
Coming amidst the ongoing #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, Love After Love’s portrait of a middle-aged woman rediscovering herself in a male- and youth-dominated world couldn’t be more timely. Nonetheless, it’s the intricate personal drama of Harbaugh’s indie that marks it as 2018’s most impressive big-screen debut to date—as well as makes it a fantastic showcase for its leading lady, whose nuanced expression of Suzanne’s internal chaos (and revival) is downright award-worthy.
We sat down with the actress to talk about her attraction to the role, Hollywood’s dearth of adult projects, her feelings about #MeToo and her experiences with Harvey Weinstein, and her much-discussed Love After Love nude scene: “You need to see it; it’s part of the character’s story. It’s not just to have tits and ass.”
Actresses over the age of 30 often struggle to find lead roles as rich as this one. In your experience, has it gotten tougher as you’ve gotten older?
I just don’t think there are a lot of roles for mature women, period. It’s not a matter of finding something I’m drawn to; it’s just that there’s not enough to go around. I’m very willing to play smaller roles—I just need to figure out how to get them. But this one was a huge, complex, interesting woman. When I read it I thought, I cannot believe I am going to get to do this, it’s fantastic. There’s not a lot of material out there that calls on the audience to be intelligent, and I do think this calls on the audience to be open to a journey where they’re going to have to digest stuff for themselves, and be smart enough to understand what’s happening! [laughs]
It’s not Spider-Man, or something simple. It’s about many complex subjects. It’s not just about death and loss and grieving. It’s also about relationships—and the boundaries Suzanne has with her children. I don’t know if they were that broken before he [Gareth Williams’ father, Glenn] died, or if it became magnified. I imagine it became magnified, because Suzanne no longer had this touchstone—this person that was everything to her emotionally and physically. For her kids, I think this father must have just been such a powerful figure. Even seeing him read the poem in the beginning, I feel he was a magnificent man.
Once he’s gone, their relationships—and how they treat each other—are broken. How Suzanne relates to Chris’ character, and how he relates to her, is crazy! You see us laying together on the couch with that tenderness. Was that there before? I doubt it. I think it was all because of the death of this man that they’re floundering as humans. They don’t even know how to behave. They certainly don’t talk about the loss…
Not constructively, at least.
No. They go on and suffer. Really, true suffering. And people do behave like this. We do! When crazy stuff happens to us, we act crazier!
It felt like Glenn’s death was a destabilizing event for everyone.
Yeah. I can go back and think, I have done so many peculiar things in my life. Really strange. I look back and I go, “What were you doing?” But it’s usually because something else had happened and I was not emotionally prepared. So you act crazy.
It’s often only in hindsight that you understand the reasons for your crazy behavior.
Right. And you have to forgive yourself. I hope these characters learn to love each other. People have been asking me about the film’s title, Love After Love, and I hope the characters learn to love each other in a kinder, sweeter way than what they’re doing.
Does this sort of sophisticated material primarily now exist in the indie world?
I’ve always thought that, since I did sex, lies and videotape. I’ve done a lot of great independent movies. I did a movie called The Object of Beauty with John Malkovich that’s a beautiful independent movie. Sometimes you do independent movies and they’re just pure trash, I have to say [laughs]. But you can get lucky. And usually, it’s the script. Like this script. I read this, and it was great, and I loved the characters. It’s hard to make a good movie with an imperfect script. I’ve done it, and usually in the back of my mind, I’m hoping they’ll fix it along the way, but it usually never happens! It’s always about the writing; it’s the most important part. It doesn’t matter who you put in it or who you hire if the writing’s not there.
I’m trying to figure out movies now. I think the business has changed a lot. And I’m worried about this movie, because I don’t know if we have enough money to advertise it. I think good independent movies can be seen, and people will notice them and give them credit if there’s a lot of money for advertising. If there’s not, and there isn’t someone behind it pumping it up, it can go unnoticed. That makes me really sad. I don’t know if it’s that less people are going to the movies and more people are watching television. But the dynamic has changed. I don’t know how many intensely smart, personal stories are out there. I’m trying to figure it out myself.
Certainly, when you go to the multiplex on a Friday night, the main offerings are often adolescent (or adolescent-targeted) fantasies.
Correct. I think it’s really hard. I think smart movies are suffering, and that’s why everyone is going to television. That’s what I think about when it comes to how I want to work. I want to be on smart television now!
Well, you just were on The Hallmark Channel’s Cedar Cove…
I was on television but I haven’t really created my fantasy.
Which is what?
My fantasy would be to play a character like this: a woman who is fascinating, and sexual, and beautiful, and mature. It’s so hard to find a character like that! And when I have this fantasy, it’s more for television because I feel like I don’t even know how to fantasize about being successful in movies anymore. Unless you get hired on the kind of movie you’re talking about, to play the mature woman in a young, big fantasy movie. And I’d be thrilled! But what are the chances of me getting that? I don’t know.
It’s true that there are only so many of those parts.
I would be really, really thankful if it happened, and I’d work my ass off. But I don’t know—everyone’s going to be young except for a couple of characters, so then you have to get really lucky to be the couple of older characters in the young movie.
Love After Love is Russell Harbaugh’s first directorial effort. Was there any hesitation on your part about his inexperience?
I don’t mind. I worked with Steven [Soderbergh, on sex, lies and videotape], and nobody knew who he was. I was very, very lucky, so I’ve always been open to the idea of working with someone who’s never directed before. Russell is a fascinating guy; he was unlike any man I’d ever worked with. He’s one of the sweetest men I’ve ever met. And I know that’s probably not something a man normally likes to have said about him in our society, but I think things are changing, and he’s already there. He’s past the need to play some kind of fake idea about what a man should be. I don’t think he feels the necessity to put on that mask. I think he’s comfortable in his skin, and he’s an evolved person, and extremely intelligent.
He gave us this whole list of movies to watch, and for me, that was like going back to school. I felt like I was in my twenties again, that someone was asking me to do this. So we watched all these movies, like [Maurice Pialat’s] À Nos Amours, which was the one we all went to see together—and how beautiful is that! Loulou and The Godfather and Cassavetes and Bergman. Since my acting coach in New York, I hadn’t had anybody do this. So I revisited all of these films, and it was really helpful to get into that space. Also, for me, I watch a movie and I walk around for days feeling like I’m in it. Does that happen to you?
Sure, sometimes a film lingers long after it’s over.
I’m still in there! It just stays in me. It’s fascinating, and I love that. So it was very helpful. We would start a scene improvising, move into the dialogue, and then keep it open so we could keep it going. Everything had this fluid feeling. It was so much fun.
Given that the material can be quite intense, was it a demanding shoot?
It was fun. I think I’m a highly emotional person anyway, so it’s not far from my nature. I’m a highly creative, emotional being. So the access is really easy for me. Fantasy—I’m always in fantasy. I don’t know what that is, if that means I’m completely nuts? But I think it really suits me for this job. My problem is that I have all this shit and I never have any opportunity to use it. That’s my problem.
So here you had a vehicle.
Here I had a vehicle to use all my insanity—my ability to fantasize and play characters, which are always there. I just think it’s who I am. When I was a little girl I went to a play, and I know this sounds clichéd, like every actress is going to say, “When I was a child, blah blah blah,” but I saw these people on the stage playing make-believe, and it was the correct place for me. That is me. And I still do it; it’s just the way I’m put together. Fantasy for me is gigantic. And I get paid to do it.
At one point in the film, Suzanne has a confrontation with a younger actress, which then segues into a conflict with a male colleague whom she subsequently dates. Those power dynamics struck me as extremely relevant given the ongoing #MeToo movement in Hollywood. How do you feel about the changes taking place in the industry?
We have a long road to change the roles that we have played. For women, we have been submissive and subservient, and that has been our role for such a long time. Even though we think we have evolved, we have not evolved. The fact that we haven’t had a female president says a lot about the state of affairs for women. We have been less-than for so long that it’s going to take some time.
I think the #MeToo thing is really important, because I know what that feels like. I have been treated like a piece of meat, and it’s been okay for men to treat women like that. But it’s even deeper, and #TimesUp has been the further step because it’s not just about sex—it’s about every other part of what it is to be a woman: to not be equal, and to be expected to play this kind of less-than role that we’ve been so well-trained to play. It is time, and it’s going to take more time, because it’s a really nice position that men have been in. Whether they have the wherewithal to realize it, and shift—they’re going to have to give up a lot.
When I spoke with Steven Soderbergh a few months ago, he recounted his experiences with Harvey Weinstein during sex, lies and videotape’s release. Did you have any run-ins with the now-notorious mogul?
What I experienced with Harvey was not dissimilar to feelings I’ve felt with other men. But I didn’t have any intimate confrontations with Harvey. First off, I didn’t live in Los Angeles until recently, so I hadn’t had those kinds of experiences with him. In fact, the only experience I ever had with Harvey—I haven’t told anybody this, but I’ll tell you, even though I’m not sure I should. But it tells you a lot about me. I was at the Cannes Film Festival, and my manager at the time would make me stay out late. I don’t like to stay out late; one of my favorite things to do is sleep. I love it, and I’m not a very big party person. It’s not my nature. She forced me to stay out late, because it’s Cannes and it’s work.
So like 1 a.m., she makes me go to Harvey’s yacht, because she thinks it’ll be good for me to connect with him. I show up and Harvey’s there with all these women. I sit down and, at the time I was living in Montana and I had two children at that point, so I’m asking him about his family and his wife, because I don’t really know Harvey. And this is my nature. This is me. It is the stupidest conversation I could possibly be having, and I don’t really realize it until I leave. I made an ass out of myself, because as I left the room and I look back in hindsight, I realize they were probably all prostitutes! Seriously. That’s what I realized once I left the yacht. He must think I’m a complete ass, sitting here asking him about his wife. How stupid am I? It was such a waste of time.
Later, when I would see Harvey, I would love to tease him. Harvey had not hired me again, and I kept thinking “Why not? I made him a lot of money.” But I’d see him and go, “Hey, Harvey! How are you? Remember me? We made that little movie, called sex, lies and videotape?” So I would always tease him and make him laugh. I had no idea that he was a complete monster. I knew he was one of those spoiled men, and I knew he had a big personality and when he walked into a room he took up space and everyone looked up to him. Everyone looked up to him; he was powerful. I knew that. I did not know he was a monster. And I honestly feel like there are a lot of people out there who knew he was what I just described: the man on the yacht, and the man in the room who would expect you to come up fluttering to him, which we all did. But I don’t think everyone knew he was a horrible monster. I didn’t.
I’m sure he hid that side of himself from many people.
I’m sure there were people who were close to him. But I wasn’t close to him. I was this woman asking him about his wife! [laughs]
Your nude scene in Love After Love received quite a bit of media attention after the film premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. How did you feel about doing that?
It was embarrassing how it was written about, for me, because I didn’t want people to think that was the way I was selling the movie. It’s just unfortunate that if you say something like that, it becomes the twist. I’ve never done it before, and it is true that I come from a very conservative background. And because of my innate conservative upbringing, I didn’t want to embarrass my children. Of course there’s a lot of shame, when you’re raised like that, with nudity. My girls are highly creative creatures and I didn’t want them to feel the same shame that I have felt. So I raised them completely different: to be intelligent females and to not be taken advantage of. But this is not that kind of movie.
The nudity in Love After Love is so gorgeous, and it’s part of the story from the very beginning—the vulnerability you feel, the nakedness, the human body. It’s how you come in; it’s how you come out. That’s really important to this movie. I loved the shapes of our bodies, and my nudity is, I feel, so vulnerable. You really feel her need for human touch, and love, and companionship. And with Chris’ sex, he’s craving his own very masculine connection, while mine’s very female. I think that’s beautiful, seeing our needs. We’re looking for that in such different ways.
But I’ve seen the film three times now, and the nudity has no affect on me. I see it all the time! It’s not surprising. I think for me, it’s harder being in the room like that with men you don’t know. Russell, he made me feel so comfortable. I’ve never felt like this with another director. He was like, “I know you’re worried about this, so how do you want to do this? I want you to feel comfortable.” I said, “Well, why don’t I just show you,” and he goes okay, so I just take my clothes off, and he’s just standing there. I go into the bathroom, and we’re practicing, and he kept saying, “You’re so beautiful.” And I can’t tell you—it was the sweetest thing. I wish I had had that in every relationship I ever had with any man! [laughs] It was such a special thing, to have someone look at me and tell me I was beautiful like that. It gave me a lot of confidence and made me feel really comfortable.
The nudity feels like a natural part of the character’s development.
You need to see it; it’s part of the character’s story. It’s not just to have tits and ass. You need to see it’s part of her humanity. Sex is a huge part of what drives us as humans, period. I truly think, for my character, and for most women, we’re not always just looking for the orgasm—although the orgasm is very nice and pleasant and very important to us! [laughs] I think we’re also really in need of companionship and touch—to be held and loved.
I think Suzanne’s sex is so much about loss of true love. Because when she says, “I feel like I’m having an affair,” you realize she hasn’t moved on yet. How do you connect to another human being, and will you ever? Will there ever be someone who feels that good? Because she says early on about her husband, “the sex was good.” So I think their relationship was everything. I do think marriage is like that. Once you’re in the commitment, you’re working, and it’s huge. And it takes a lot of work. And when it falls apart—I know, I went through divorce. It’s no fun.
After the drama of Love After Love, are you looking for a change of pace?
I am doing something I’m really looking forward to, and it’s pure comedy. I feel like dark comedy is something I’m really comfortable in, because it’s something my mind understands. But this is pure, very broad comic work that’s in London. It’s called Cuckoo and it’s on Netflix now, and so I’m going in for seven episodes of that. I love English humor. It’s going to be a lot of fun.