From writer/director Francesca Gregorini, the indie drama The Truth About Emanuel tells the story of the troubled Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario), who becomes preoccupied with her mysterious new neighbor, Linda (Jessica Biel). In offering to babysit her newborn, Emanuel unwittingly enters a world that blurs the line of fantasy and reality, and shows just how dangerous secrets can be.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Jessica Biel talked about how she got involved with this film, her audition process for the role, playing a character with such a delicate mental state, how much she enjoyed working with co-star Kaya Scodelario, and how this experience helped her to become more confident in her own instincts. She also talked about what attracts her to a project, the heartbreaking journey that she’s gone through with the David O. Russell film Nailed, that never got finished or released, her hopes that The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea will go into production soon, and that if the right thing came up, she would definitely consider returning to television.
How did you come to be a part of this?
JESSICA BIEL: The script was given to me, I took a read, and it was just one of those scripts where I finished it and I said to myself, “I have to do this. I don’t care how. I don’t care who’s in it. I don’t care who’s directing it. I have to do it.” I called my representation and said, “I don’t care what you have to do to get me this movie, but I have to do this part. I don’t know why, but I feel empathy towards this person.” I’m fascinated about how the human brain handles trauma and grief and guilt, and that’s what I feel this character is experiencing. The guilt of what happened to her child and how it manifested into her life, and how she has this relationship with this younger girl, who’s also, in her own way, experiencing guilt and shame, in regard to her experience with her mother, is how these two odd people connect with each other. So, I just auditioned for it, and I got it. It’s as simple as that.
When you go into an audition, especially for something that you really want, are you very focused and determined? How are you with the audition process?
BIEL: Luckily, I’m a pretty good auditioner, which doesn’t mean much. All it means is that you can get through the experience without having a total breakdown. It’s hard. The audition process is so tough because the environment is weird, you’re on the spot, nothing is helpful, there’s no visual aids or emotional aids, and you’re reading with someone who’s probably not an actor. The experience is really hard, but I’m okay with it. Usually, I can do a decent job, but I still get nervous. A lot of the times I’ve gone into an audition and felt like, “Wow, I killed that!,” I walked out and never got it, with no call-back or anything. And there are times I’ve walked in there and felt like, “Well, I have no idea what that just was,” and then you get the part. It’s so hard to tell. It’s hard to step away and look at it from an objective perspective.
What was your audition like for this?
BIEL: The audition that I did for this film was super hard. It was the scene where they’re looking in the crib and the baby is there, but the character who works at the medical supply store is saying, “This isn’t your baby. Where is your real baby?” That was one of the scenes that I had to do for Francesca, and it was crazy. We were in some weird room with the camera, her and a casting director. It’s insane, what you have to try to create. It’s a tough experience.
This character has a very delicate mental state. How detailed was that in the script, when you read it, and how much of it evolved out of conversations you had with Francesca Gregorini?
BIEL: We talked a lot about how we were going to do this. It developed through those conversations because we really decided that this person believed, wholeheartedly, in this experience. Subconsciously, there’s probably some doubt and moments of clarity, but that’s so under the surface and so hidden in this person’s life that it’s not even accessible to her. She’s like a villain. She just believes in the cause, and she will continue to believe in it, until that one moment where the consciousness raises and there’s that clarity, but then the brain protects her again. It was very delicate. It was a constant struggle. We were constantly trying to find the balance of what is realistic, what an audience can believe, what they will empathize with and what’s too far. That balance probably came a lot from the editing process, too. We’d try things that were too much, and then we’d have to reign it back in. It was all about being really genuine about what was happening, and self-righteous in the belief of the facade.
What was it like to do the scenes where you’re actually supposed to be holding this infant?
BIEL: It felt really silly, at first. With the first take, I felt like I looked like such a moron. I had to get through that. My ego got in the way. I was like, “I look stupid doing this.” But once I got through that, then I started to go with it and it became real and fun and freeing. The baby became, in some sense, a real baby because we treated it with respect and we held it all the time. But, it is weird. It was an odd experience.
How was it to work with Kaya Scodelario and play that very complicated and complex dynamic between Emanuel and Linda?
BIEL: It was fun! Kaya is lovely to be around and to work with. She’s fresh and young and just open. She’s a very open person, ready to absorb. It was easy. I felt a natural maternal thing for her, in real life, as well. We were that way, off camera. Having that maternal relationship with her on camera, and having that mentor thing was easy. We got thrown into the fire real fast, with no time and no money. I felt protective over her. I felt like I needed to teach her how to protect herself in this crazy business. She hadn’t worked in the States before. This is very new for her, and I felt very included to teach her about how to watch out for her. It’s easy to be a young woman in this business and let other people say, “You need to do this and that.” Even when it doesn’t feel right, you do it anyway because you figure, “Well, I guess they know better.” And it takes a long time to learn that. I just felt very included to be there for her, if she had questions, or if she needed someone. She didn’t know anybody. She came from London and she had no friends here. I felt worried for her and I wanted to be someone that she could trust.
A role like Linda must really push you, as an actress. What did you learn from the experience that changed you, and how do you think it will affect your future work?
BIEL: That’s a really good question. It’s hard to have perspective, on these parts that you do in the films that you do. You don’t know exactly what you learned and what you’ll take with you. With this particular one, it’s maybe the confidence to trust what I’m doing, amidst a crazy story and with a really bizarre character who’s doing things that could come across as really ridiculous. Because it turns out okay and it’s not a complete disaster, I think maybe I have a little bit more confidence about my instincts and about the ability to dive into what you have to believe is real. That is working, at this moment. I want to continue doing that, with everything.
At this point in your career, what do you look for in a project and role, and what gets you excited about something and makes you want to sign on to do it?
BIEL: I look for a challenge. I want to do something that I’ve never done before, something that seems really hard, and something that’s really different from me. That kind of thing really gets me going. If I go, “Wow, people probably don’t think I can do this,” then I’d like to show them, and I’d like to show myself, more than anything. That’s exciting. A challenging part, or to work with someone who I’m a huge fan of, or to be directed by someone who I love would be a huge moment for me.
lDo you have any idea what you’re going to do next, or are you working on anything now?
BIEL: I’m not working on anything right now. There are a couple of things that I hope can come together this year, but I don’t know for sure what that’s going to be. I’m still looking. It’s a new year. The beginning of January is always an exciting time. You wonder, “What’s going to happen this year? What amazing thing is going to be available to be a part of?” I’m just starting the search for this next year.
For the last couple of years, every time I’ve spoken to Jeffrey Dean Morgan, he’s talked about how he hoped The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea would go into production. Do you think that film will ever happen?
BIEL: I think it’s gonna happen, actually. I really do. If you had asked me at another time, I probably would have said, “That project is never gonna happen!” These little indie movies can take nine or ten years to come together, so that gives me hope. It’s all just not for naught. The story is great. I love the story so much. We want to tell the story. We will tell the story, at some point. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that I think this is our year. I think this is the year we’re actually gonna get that done. If we don’t do it soon, Chloe [Grace Moretz] is gonna be too old and I’m gonna be playing the grandmother. It’s really incredible how hard the film industry is. If it’s not a big-budget film with a huge studio behind it, it’s incredible how tough it is to get these little movies made. So, we’re still working on it and we’re not gonna stop.
Could you ever have imagined the odd journey that you’d take with Nailed, almost finishing the movie and then never having it be released?
BIEL: I never would have guessed that that was going to be the experience. I never could have understood the craziness that would have ensued over the last five years with that film. You work so hard on something and to not finish it is a map of heartbreak. To this day, it’s not finished, in the way that David [O. Russell], Catherine Keener, Jake Gyllenhaal and all the cast who worked their butts off would have liked to have seen it be finished, and to respect what we did. It’s tough. It’s a tough thing to swallow, for sure.
You haven’t done television since 7th Heaven, but there’s some really great work being done now, especially on cable. Have you thought at all about returning to TV and exploring a character over the long term, if you found something intriguing?
BIEL: Yeah, absolutely! There’s such great stuff happening on television, especially for women. I’ve definitely thought about it. It just has to be the right time and the right thing. If everything lined up, I would definitely consider doing that.
The Truth About Emanuel opens in theaters on January 10th.