My Sister's Keeper: Making a Movie about Cancer
“My Sister's Keeper” directed by Nick Cassavetes and starring Cameron Diaz, is being released on June 26, 2009 by New Line Cinema.
The most extreme makeover for “My Sister's Keeper” was reserved for Kate. To expose the ravages of her disease and the effects of the grueling treatments to cure it, Sofia Vassilieva wore contacts that caused her eyes to appear bloodshot and cloudy, and a subtle, ghostly layer of make-up that mottled her skin and sunk her eyes, giving her a pallor that reflected her character's increasing debilitation.
But, in the most demanding test of her dedication, the young actress, who came into the production with a mane of long blonde hair, shaved her head and eyebrows. While the actress is quick to point out that her bald pate did not nearly approximate what real cancer patients undergo, she says it certainly was a start toward understanding it.
“Shaving my head was an extraordinary experience that caught me off guard and frightened me; then I realized that Kate is too beautiful a character and that shaving my head was a sacrifice that needed to be made,” Vassilieva says.
It helped, she adds, that she had a technical advisor in the form of 16-year-old Nicole Schultz, who is a vivacious leukemia survivor, now with a full head of blonde hair.
“Nicole has become one of my great friends. Her battle with leukemia was very similar to Kate's and she knew when I needed support more than anyone else. When I was shaving my head, to provide an escape from the bittersweet reality, we chanted 'Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear, Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair,'” Vassilieva smiles.
“Ask a kid to shave her head and her eyebrows for a movie…let's put it this way: I felt out of line even asking,” declares Cassavetes. “But she's quite a kid,” he says of his young star.
Because Vassilieva appears in a regular role on the television series “Medium,” the production fashioned her hair into a wig that she could wear on the show until her own grew back. She will then donate it to Locks of Love, the non-profit organization that supplies hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children suffering from long-term hair loss due to any medical condition. Indeed, wigs figured heavily into Sofia's role, as she had to wear several different ones throughout the film. A special wig schedule was devised to keep track of them all during the shoot.
Like Vassilieva, Thomas Dekker, who plays Taylor, a young man Kate meets during chemotherapy, also shaved his head. He found it to be a liberating and enlightening experience. “What was most interesting about it was life outside the movie. People treated me very differently because they assumed that I had cancer. I often got these very pitying or strange looks, and it gave me a small idea of what it must be like to go through life like that, singled out as a sick person,” Dekker says.
Of course, part of what draws the characters of Kate and Taylor together is their shared understanding. Dekker adds that he, Vassilieva and Cassavetes all wanted to emphasize the joy and camaraderie in Kate and Taylor's relationship.
“I think for Kate, Taylor brings a lot of humor and love into her life in a way that only another person who has gone through the cancer experience can. We wanted to stress the fun and silliness they enjoy together, as well as their affection for each other, because we figured if your life was really short, you'd try to have as much fun as possible in the time you have,” Dekker explains.
Adding to the cast and filmmakers' own understanding of what cancer patients go through were the extras and technical advisors, who were often one and the same.
“One of the things we did for authenticity's sake is make sure that our actors and extras in the hospital were as close as possible to the people who would actually be there,” offers Johnson. “And we had a number of patients who came and worked with us in various ways and really helped us to better understand so much about the movie we were making.”
Throughout the production, Ileana Geestman and her organization, The Desi Geestman Foundation, provided information and advice about cancer-stricken children and how the illness affects them and their families, both physically and emotionally. The foundation's mission is “to improve the quality of life for children suffering from cancer and their families. The foundation provides environments of support that alleviate emotional and economic trauma.” The charity was named in honor of Ileana's daughter, a brave 12-year-old girl who fought a courageous battle with neuroblastoma at The City of Hope. Ileana arranged for several of the children affiliated with her foundation to appear as extras and to serve as de facto advisors for the cast and crew.
“I got a phone call one day from City of Hope,” Geestman recalls, “asking if our foundation wanted to participate in the movie…and maybe I could specifically answer some questions from the perspective of a mom having gone through this with my child. I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity not only to help but also to bring awareness to the children, their disease and their families. Having said that, my initial reaction was also one of protection because of what the children and their families go through–I wanted to make sure they were taken care of and that they were not going to be exploited in any way and that they would be treated as regular kids.”
Geestman was more than pleased with the result. “All of that happened–tenfold. Nick told me he wanted to keep the movie as real as possible and asked if some of the children would participate, and completely reassured me that they would be taken care of and respected. The children loved meeting and working with everyone on the set; Nick was so friendly with them and talked to them on their level. Sofia was a real sweetheart–they all felt like she was their best friend. The kids really wanted to be a part of it. We took some of them out of the hospital and it became an adventure for them. And these adventures are so important because their journey sometimes gets very lonely at the hospital. So their involvement in the movie brightened their lives tremendously,” Geestman affirms.
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