DECEMBER 20, 2015
THE FILM VERSION of Emma Donoghue’s Room was announced in April of last year. I had not yet read the book. When I did, I began to wonder how a film could capture the voice of the book’s first-person narrator: a five-year-old boy raised entirely by his mother in a tiny space called Room — a space which as the story goes on almost becomes an ominous character of its own. After seeing the film, I was impressed by how Donoghue and the other filmmakers were able to tell this incredibly tight and tense story using visual means as opposed to language. I was especially impressed by the language of Jack’s narration, such as, “When I tell her what I’m thinking and she tells me what she’s thinking, our each ideas jumping into the other’s head, like coloring blue crayon on top of yellow that makes green.”
Recently, Joan Allen was gracious enough to talk with me about the film and her role as the long-suffering mother, Nancy, whose life is tossed and turned in the most brutal ways imaginable for any parent.
LORI FRESHWATER: You read the book shortly after it came out, but I understand you chose not to revisit the first half of the book before you began filming — that you wanted to keep those days in Room as much of a mystery as you could because Nancy would not have had any awareness of them. As a writer, I think the key to your character had to be rooted in not being overdramatic, in being able to pull back and find subtlety. And you really nailed that balance.
JOAN ALLEN: Thank you, but that was the director too, because this kind of movie could go into a bad Lifetime movie in a heartbeat. The director just didn’t allow it, and when you see Brie Larson and that little boy, when you see them in that room together in the first half of the film you just cannot believe it.
I was so curious as to how they would handle this in the film, with the book being completely inside the little boy’s head. And then with film’s inevitably omniscient point of view, the audience must also have insight to Ma’s perspective.
I think there was subtlety also because even in the second half of the movie when they’re out of the Room, it was still really sort of told from Jack’s perspective. One thing I discovered during shooting is that the audience never gets the moment where I actually see my daughter for the first time. And that is a powerful moment, and it just dawned on me when we were shooting the scene during which we are walking in the hospital [after Ma and Nancy are reunited]. I’m walking down the hallway, and Jack is asleep on his mother’s shoulder, and I realized that the reunion was not there.
I talked about it with the director and he said that’s because what’s happened is they’ve escaped, the police have come, they’ve probably been taken to the station, you’ve been notified, and Jack’s been asleep the whole time. So he wouldn’t have seen you have that moment with your daughter.
And so I was like, Oh, I get it. I get that. And even the second half of the movie is told from the little boy’s perspective. There are even shots of me — when I first saw it I was like, wow, you’re seeing me from my neck to my knees because he’s short. You are not seeing my face.
There was one scene that was so beautifully shot: it is when Jack is with his mother in the hospital and the doctor is talking to him; the doctor squatted down trying to connect with him. Jack is clinging to his mother, almost disappearing behind her, and the scene is shot through her hair as a direct POV of Jack.
Well, I read the book shortly after it came out and I remember I was just mesmerized. In the first half of it, I was like, turning the page and turning the page. Because there was so much tension — about when are they going to get out, about how are they going to get out.
Then when I reread it before we started shooting, I didn’t remember much of the second half. But I really remembered the first half. And I thought the trick was going to be to keep the tension — the story didn’t end; the audience didn’t get to really relax once they were out of Room. They are really now in another room, a psychological room, that they still have to find their way out of. Which is also, you know, an enormous task.
For me, that transition became clear when the doctor said to Ma, you know my recommendations about not going straight home — that he thought there should be a more structured transition back to reality. And when she says, no, I want to go home, I thought, oh my goodness. That was such a big moment, and the tension pulled tight again because I knew that she was going to take that little boy home and try and act as she had his whole life, protecting him and weathering the storm on her own. But I knew all the dynamics were changing, so it felt like … here we go, this is part two. Not the typical story diagram.
Yes, yes exactly.
The people who love Ma and Jack don’t know the truth of the Room. It struck me that there would be a tug of rope between desperately wanting to know about the missing years, while at the same time feeling the dread of each new revelation and wanting to escape the pain. One example of that was when Jack brings up being in the wardrobe when Old Nick is in bed with Ma. I could read your face as being in this exact place of wanting something and being terrified of it at the same moment.
Yeah, I think it’s a terrible push-pull, to learn the facts of something so horrible — you know, the facts about how your child has been excruciatingly abused. You know, I can’t even look at my daughter’s Facebook page! I can’t look.
And so yes, one thing I thought was that Nancy was able to take the temperature of the situation better than her ex-husband, who could not deal with it … at all.
Oh, I hated him.
He just couldn’t. He just couldn’t. I mean, I thought he was very human. He just could not get past what had happened to her. You know, what happened to his baby. And some people … I could see them totally go that way.
But sometimes you have to step up.
Sometimes you do. You do. But I thought that it was a good perspective to show him as the type who just could not.
But you know, one scene that was really important to me in terms of how I played the rest of it was the scene where Ma goes back home and she sees her room. She’s back home and she sees her room for the first time. And we’re standing there and I’ve got her suitcase, and I’m looking around and I’m looking around and I lean down to Jack who is taking this enormous new thing in and I say, how about we cut that hair?
I mean, what a bold thing to say, but what a motherly or grandmotherly thing to say. But then she sees how he responds and he can’t speak and he hides behind Ma and whispers to her. I think right then Nancy pretty much gauges that she has to really tread light here. She figures this out. And there’s no guidebook; there is no rulebook. You can’t read anything to really help you to figure out how to navigate such a layered and traumatic experience.
But I think she sees the relationship between Jack and his mother. She gets how close they are, and I think she knows that she has to just be patient and tread lightly, and hope that eventually, even though it’s going to take a lot of time, eventually they are going to come around.
The fact that Jack then comes to her and says, I want to cut my hair, and allows himself to be vulnerable — even going as far as asking her help him — that said a lot. This is a moment where it really came all the way around and she is rewarded because she was patient.
Exactly, exactly. I think Nancy knows enough not to be one of those people who gets right into a baby’s face making silly noises on and on. It’s like, don’t get into their face. Let them come to you. You’ve got to, you’ve got to wait. And her partner, her new partner, Tom (that actor was so lovely in the film, I thought) — he was a great rock for Nancy because he was more separate from the whole thing. You know, he had some distance.
And the scene where he was the one who was able to connect to Jack for the first time showed that ability of his beautifully. And I thought, yeah, she made a good choice in partners.
Yes. Yes, she did.
Nancy is someone willing to face pain. You deftly portray that heaviness she carries because of it. The bedroom is exactly as it was when Ma was taken as a teenage girl. But it never feels as though Nancy is in denial or suspending her own life, just that she chooses to believe there is a chance. Leaving the heart exposed in that way is quite brave. And even though Ma comes back, Nancy still went through the loss of the child. She will always bear that wound and will never be the same. She will just be able to find some new normal.
Yes, exactly: a new normal. It is forever changing. That kind of extreme trauma, it doesn’t go away. If you allow yourself to know the grief, and to know that, and recognize the grief, I think there is value in that. At least if you can see it, and say, oh, I know what I am doing, I understand, I get why I am doing it. It sucks, but here we are. Here we are.
Yes, when they went back to Room I was so relieved that they did that so that Jack could put it into perspective. To see this room is in his world. Not his world.
Speaking of Jack, what was it like working with that powerhouse little boy?
He and Brie Larson spent a lot of time together before we started shooting. Brie started prepping nine months before shooting, and they spent probably three to four weeks with each other before shooting. And they shot the film sequentially. They built the Room on a stage. And they shot the Room sequence like five weeks before I even arrived in Toronto. So they developed this very tight, obviously critical, close relationship with each other.
When I came up to Canada and started shooting, I met Brie and I met Jake. We maybe had a couple of hours with Brie, and then we brought Jake in just to read with me a little bit. But we didn’t want him to become too familiar with me because that’s not what the story is. And I think that helped. So I kept kind of a very respectful — not distance — but I was just very respectful of him.
I was blown away by how the director, Lenny Abrahamson, worked with him and spoke to him, and of course Jake was an incredibly able little boy. I think he was eight when we started, or had just turned nine, and he had this phenomenal capacity to just jump in. He loved being on set. And his character was actually pretty happy! From his perspective he was just living life when he was in Room. He had his mother all to himself! He didn’t know any different. That’s just the way he lived.
And who wouldn’t want to go back to that? For Ma, Room means Survival. For Jack, it simply means life. Yet your character has to deal with both of those widely variant existential experiences. Like a divorce, and knowing that by insulting the other parent you are causing harm. You can’t invalidate Room, because there was joy for him. You can’t talk bad about the other parent. You can’t talk bad about Room.
Right, and then you think about the lengths Ma went through to make it good for him. To make it simply his life. I made a choice not to look at Room. They had some costume fittings near where they had built the room. And as Joan I was dying to see it, but as Nancy I knew I couldn’t. Because she would have known where her daughter was and she has probably spent hours and hours and hours imagining multiple environments where her daughter could be. And I didn’t think that I should see the real thing.
But the fact that Ma has created this incredible structure and schedule and exercise and brushing your teeth — when I saw the whole film, I thought, I wonder what I would do in that situation? I wonder if I would I hang myself? You know? I think I might crack up. And to see her surviving and her love and that he gave her meaning, because as you know, she pointed out too that she was alone in the Room by herself for two years before he was born. So she had that experience of being completely by herself in that room. And then she got, you know, this little boy.
I think for me the most difficult part of the film was the interview and that horrible scene where the woman asks, well didn’t you think about sending him out? For the first time I thought about this particular guilt that Ma might be feeling. And you can see on her face that it was dawning on her at the same time — that she could have tried to send him away without her. It was really tough to watch.
And I thought, what would I have done? And then I knew in that moment I would have kept my baby.
That would have been my instinct. And I think it was her survival instinct. She knew she could not survive without him, without that meaning. We see her light up when she is telling someone about seeing him for the first time, telling them how he was just so beautiful.
Yes, you did see it hit her. But then again that guilt — that it was the first time that it ever occurred to her, and importantly, it was that night that she took the pills. But also you know to top that off, look at who she was giving him away to! That guy? It was like, what can you possibly do with him? How could you trust this man to do anything safe or sane with this child?
Yes, which is why it is so horrifying for her to even ask him to bury this child. And to count on his behavior being what she predicted.
I’ve heard a lot of people say this film almost had to have the author on board in order to translate the literature to film.
It’s a cool story. Lenny had read the book and I think he assumed that the rights were tied up. But he wrote a letter to Emma and she wrote back and said like, I should direct your film and this is exactly how I would do it. [laughs] So not only was it available, but he worked with her on the script as well.
And she was more inspired. It’s a love story for her. It’s a survival story, and yes, the circumstances are extreme, but it’s really about mother-love and the strength and the power in that. Emma is in a marriage with another woman and they have two children, and she was watching her younger son walk around the house and the things that he would say and the observations that he would make. So you know, she was inspired by her own son.
There was that horrible case in Austria, where this father had kept his daughter in captivity for like 20-some years and had like seven or eight children with her and she had read about that and she juxtaposed the two. But I think her original inspiration was a lot of her own son and just how he was in the world and the things he would say and how he would take things in, and she used his language as the platform for telling this particular story.
Yes, and Ma refused to name the father of Jack. She said he’s mine, and that’s it. When Ma said, “Biology is not a relationship,” it reached me on a very personal level. The way she took ownership of him made me more optimistic for her future. I can see how the author’s intimate relationship with her son, without the traditional father role, could really have influenced what we read in the book and eventually saw played out on screen.
It was so real, so authentic, such a beautiful story. I was really glad that she was able to do the screenplay and was able to work with Lenny so closely, and I was very happy about that because you know screenplays can get taken away and five or six writers come on and the concept gets watered down and shifted. But this was like a really tight collaboration between the two of them, and Lenny’s film experience and his European sensibilities — he’s Irish …
I didn’t know he was Irish!
Yes, he and she are both Irish!
Thank you, Joan, for talking with me. This seems like a good place to leave off, kind of full circle on the book being translated to film. But I do have to bring up one more small thing … you are doing a new show right now for ABC?
Yes, I am.
And the show is about a child missing as well, right?
Yeah, I know! I’m playing this mother and it’s so ironic that it came on the heels of when I finished Room. It was like a month later. I got the script for this and I thought I don’t know if I can do this. Just like the agony all over again.
It’s like pulling off the Band-Aid? Because you have probably just kind of found balance again after what I’m assuming was a very emotionally draining role. And here you have to go do it again?
I know. But this woman is an activist. One of those types of people that turns their trauma into acts of activism.
I have done that … on occasion.
Right, and that is one of the ways this character is different than Nancy.
Well, I look forward to talking to you about her at some point, too. Thank you so much for such a great discussion, Joan.