Hyde Park on Hudson: Interview with Samuel West, Olivia Williams, Elizabeth Wilson, and Elizabeth Marvel
Directed by Roger Michell from a screenplay by Richard Nelson, Hyde Park on Hudson is scheduled for a limited release in theaters on December 7, 2012.
Academy Award nominees Bill Murray and Laura Linney star in this historical tale that uniquely explores the all-too-human side of one of history’s iconic leaders. In June 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (played by Murray) readies to host the King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) for a weekend at the Roosevelt home at Hyde Park on Hudson, in upstate New York – marking the first-ever visit of a reigning British monarch to America. As Britain faces imminent war with Germany, the royals are desperately looking to FDR for U.S. support. FDR’s wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams), mother Sara (Elizabeth Wilson), and secretary Missy (Elizabeth Marvel) are integral to the success of the visit.
Humanizing the Political
Williams: This is meant to be an illuminating story told affectionately, not washing dirty linen in public or diminishing anyone in the eyes of the world. Facts have come to light over the years about some of these leaders’ domestic realities; I think people will be interested, entertained, and surprised. Richard [Nelson] puts massive world events into the context of a country house weekend, with all its social awkwardness. He’s made icons of the 20th century into three-dimensional people, and explores their political influence.
Wilson: We weren’t making a re-enactment of history. It was about humanizing the political. When I read the script, I thought, “They’re not hiding anything.” I admire Richard’s writing, and this story was historic, honest, and humorous. I think the film is about survival. I was thrilled to be asked to play this part by Roger because I grew up in Michigan in the 1930s and was such a fan of Franklin Roosevelt. I had been raised a Republican. But when Roosevelt became president – I was just as smitten as most of my friends, most of my family. We became Democrats. It meant a great deal to me to be able to go back into the light of someone I worshipped.
Marvel: My character is called Missy, and her actual name was Margaret LeHand. She was secretary to FDR even before his presidency; they were introduced to each other when she started working for the Democratic Party in D.C. People would say that she was like a wife to him; they were that close, that intimate. When he was struck with polio and went down to Florida, she lived with him on a houseboat. She helped him resurrect himself. Then, she helped him run the White House; she was a great organizer, and a cosmopolitan woman. She also had depressions, and suffered a lot to do the job that she did; she made her choices knowing that she would be in the room for history-making decisions, these incredible moments.
Trusting the Actors
West: Because Richard [Nelson] comes to screenwriting as a playwright, he trusts actors; he doesn’t put words in brackets that tell you how to play the part, like “worriedly” or “with anger.” This gives you an enormous amount of freedom, and makes you feel that you’ll be trusted to interpret the scene properly. His writing is spiky, and feels spontaneous. He’s interested in little things that build up slowly, so then there’s a cumulative power that you didn’t see coming. I think that’s a real skill. I read biographies of Bertie and Elizabeth, and dipped into a couple of ones on Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt said that Elizabeth would smile or wave at a crowd and everybody would think that the smile or wave was just for them.
On Set with Bill Murray
Marvel: When the camera wasn’t rolling, it was a party. But when it was rolling, [Murray] would morph…he would transform like any good actor does.
West: Getting to do a long two-hander scene with Bill Murray? Thank you very much indeed, that is one for the grandchildren. Bill was wonderful and generous; we did full run-throughs of the whole scene.
Williams: I’d made “Rushmore” years ago with Bill, so we had a pre-existing friendship – which was good for “Hyde Park on Hudson,” because at this stage of the Roosevelts’ marriage there is a longstanding understanding of each other, and there is an acceptance. Politically, she would be his emissary, traveling to places he couldn’t; he listened to her ideas, and incorporated some of them into government.
Wilson: I was very proud to play [FDR’s mother] Sara Delano Roosevelt. Her family went through a lot, physically, emotionally – and they would have had more trouble financially, but she had a good deal of money. Things might not have happened the same way for Franklin if it hadn’t been for her willingness to support them.
Marvel: So many American presidents – Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, FDR – have had profound relationships with their mothers. These women were dominant in their lives. Also, Eleanor [Roosevelt] was such a force for women’s rights.
The Production Process
Wilson: Each day we would sit and read different sections of the script and get to know each other over coffee, tea, and little snacks. It was very relaxing. We read through the entire script just before we started filming.
Williams: I believe in over-researching, but (director Roger Michell) didn’t want me to do an impersonation…I had begged, in a slightly undignified way, to be part of this movie. But it was very daunting playing someone of Eleanor’s caliber; she did so much for civil rights and race relations, using her position as First Lady to help others. I wanted to do her justice, and I also got to explore this world figure in a domestic situation – one where she had less power; her bedroom was her mother-in-law’s dressing room. Eleanor didn’t patronize people. She wouldn’t curtsy to the King and Queen because she didn’t feel that anyone should be curtsied to. This was her principle, and I aimed to carry that off with dignity and without looking petty.
Working with Roger Michell
West: Roger would have, for our scenes together, Bill [Murray] play with responses and words slightly so that I would be slightly surprised and be able to react to what was happening in front of me. The takes were fresher. This was the fourth time I’d worked with Roger. He is so attentive, and he makes things un-scary. On our first movie together, “Persuasion,” we were doing a scene and he said, “Don’t do that, it’s too much. We’re looking for ambiguity, not confusion.” That remains perhaps my all-time favorite note from a director.
Williams: To me, “Hyde Park on Hudson” has the same qualities as “Persuasion,” in that Roger completely nails how much passion and how much import can lie beneath a polished social surface. I wanted to work with Roger because I wanted to be directed; I wanted someone to tell me what I might not be doing quite right – which he does, with extreme charm!
Wilson: I think Roger enjoys his work, because he smiles a lot; many directors never smile. His technique is to do a lot of takes, which is terrific. I trusted him.
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