IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Rachel Nichols Talks 'A Bird of the Air'

Thursday, 22 September 2011 18:49 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Rachel Nichols Talks 'A Bird of the Air'

Rachel Nichols is best known as the beautiful actress who has kicked ass in such popular genre films as G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra, Star Trek, and most recently Conan the Barbarian. But soon you will have a chance to see her in a different kind of role, playing a quirky librarian in the new independent comedy A Bird of the Air.

Former actress Margaret Whitton, who is best known for her roles in the classic ‘80s comedies Major League and The Secret of My Success, directs the film, which opens in selected theaters on September 23rd. A Bird of the Air stars Jackson Hurst (Tree of Life) as Lyman, a loner working the graveyard shift for the Courtesy Patrol. When a green parrot flies in to his trailer he becomes obsessed with finding its owner, which eventually leads him to Fiona (Nichols). She has been eyeing Lyman from a distance and decides to help with his parrot search, whether he wants her to or not. The pair set off on a search that doesn’t always lead them where they think they’re going, but gradually leads them to one another.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Rachel Nichols about her work in A Bird of the Air, as well as the status of production on I, Alex Cross and a possible Star Trek sequel. Here is what the talented actress had to say about A Bird of the Air, her quirky character, collaborating with actress-turned-director Whitton, and working with animals.

To begin with, this film is a lot different than the big budget action movies we are used to seeing you in, were you looking for a small, quirky independent film to make that would help you balance out all of the major movie tent-poles that you do?

Rachel Nichols: I find when you're not looking for something it lands in your lap. You know its like they always say, your life changes when you're not paying attention. This script landed in my lap and I was looking for a job at the time. I read it, and laughed out loud. I immediately thought that this was a character unlike any character I've ever played. Then I immediately thought, I must get this job. Then immediately I thought, how am I going to get this job? Because it was so different from anything I had ever done. I went and met with Margaret Whitton, who directed the film, and then was drawn to her. She's extraordinarily bright, she's very cool, and she's a touch cookie, but she's also a softy as well. I loved her from the second I met her and kind of had a little girl crush on her just because she's so cool. Clearly she's a professional and comes from theater, but also she was an actress herself for years and years. So then she said, “Would you be willing to audition?” I went absolutely, of course! Then I immediately went home, re-read the script, called my acting coach and said, we're going to branch out here and try something new. When can you see me, I've got a screen test tomorrow? I just really started to try to figure out the character and what we wanted to do with her. You know Fiona is so different from me, but we could find pieces of me in her and that's sort of how the process began.

You are known for being a very beautiful and glamorous actress but in this film your character is more of a “plain Jane,” did you have to dull yourself up a bit for this role and how did that transformation help you to create the character of Fiona?

Nichols: Yeah, they wanted her to be different. She's got this kooky kind of fashion sense, which is definitely a look, and it's certainly not my fashion style, but it sets her own style. There's nothing like tight and sexy it's all kind of cute and baggy. She wears a lot of tights, hats and layers. Then we gave her bangs because we wanted it to be pretty simple. We wanted her to be pretty simple, dressed down, very minimal makeup. Once we got the aesthetic together, a lot of the other things came together. The way she walks is specific and the way she talks is much quicker because she's just the girl that has to fill the spaces, and dealing with someone like Lyman there is a lot of spaces to fill. As soon as you create the aesthetic, then you can go about creating the rest of the character. Margaret was obviously very interested in collaborating our ideas for Fiona and they were very matched. That made it easier as well, but I’ve never had the opportunity to really create something before so it was great.

The character that we see in the film, was she written that way in the script or were you able to bring a lot of yourself to the role?

Nichols: You know her sense of humor was on the page but I bet if you had ten different actresses read the same page and give her a sense of humor, all of them would be completely different. The sort of the speed of talking, the kind of in-your-face sort of eyebrow raise, that kind of stuff, that’s Rachel coming out in Fiona, that just is. But the writing on the page was very good and did lend itself very well to building a character that is this private “fly by the seat of your pants” librarian. It was very fun to be able to create that since that’s not necessarily something that’s familiar to me.

When Fiona first meets Lyman she is very bold with him, he is an odd guy and she’s a bit odd too, can you talk about their relationship together and their initial attraction?

Nichols: Before we started shooting, Margaret and I were talking about Fiona and Margaret said, “You know you’re going to have to trust me on this but the audience has to really be annoyed by Fiona for the first half an hour.” I said, I know, okay. She said, “They really have to not like you, you have to be really annoying.” And I said, okay, I know, all right we’re going to do that. Because she is (annoying) when you meet Fiona. And this poor guy, you think, man, Lyman, God get away from this girl because she’s crazy. It’s one of those times when you think, wait are these people actually going to end up together, how is this going to work? That beginning part, that’s sort of the way she comes into the story. Then obviously as much as she speeds Lyman up, he slows her down. That’s why opposites attract, they’re just complete and polar opposites. Then slowly but surely she does become a bit more relaxed and a bit more bearable as the film goes on. Then hopefully by the end everybody will want Lyman and Fiona to be together and they’ll like her.

In the beginning of the movie Fiona comes on to Lyman very strongly, but it seems like once he starts to give in to her advances she begins to push away, is that because Fiona’s feelings for him became too real for her to handle? Ultimately, do you think that she is afraid of her own emotions?

Nichols: Yeah, I think there are a lot of themes in the movie (like that). It was originally called The Loop, the book (it is based on) is called “The Loop.” Lyman’s job is that he rides the highway loop every night. He works at night, he rides the loop, and he’s by himself. He picks up trash, he helps stranded people, and he doesn’t have a life of his own. He’s been in this one place for his entire life. He doesn’t have parents, he doesn’t have family, and he doesn’t have any friends. He’s a solitary man by himself whose world is turned upside down by a ninety year-old parrot and a crazy librarian. So now Fiona is also stuck in a loop but her loop is very different. Her loop is that she moves to a new place, settles in, something gets too real or too deep or too serious for her, and she packs up and moves on. That’s her loop. She’s not necessarily going around in a circle, but that is her loop, that is her pattern of behavior. After that first date with Lyman it becomes very, very real to her. Especially given her relationship to her loyal pet Floyd, how she feels about Lyman’s life and his past, and the fact that she’s so close to her family and he doesn’t have any. It becomes very real. It’s the realization of: this is something. He does feel this way. I do feel this way. What do I normally do in this situation? I leave. So that’s what I’m going to do, pack up and go. So I think you’re right, I think it just becomes too real. And her experience with something that becomes too real is to pack up and leave before she gets hurt.

As you mentioned, director Margaret Whitton began her career acting, did you find it helpful on set to have a fellow actress behind the camera calling the shots?

Nichols: It’s the best thing ever, and I love it. I love it because, and this is not to say I didn’t trust other directors, but I love it because with Margaret I knew that she could come in with a note, I would understand the note, and I would understand why (it was given). If we had a little debate, if I didn’t quite necessarily agree with her, we’d have that discussion, and we’d settle on something. But for an actor who turned into a director, who could then watch actors in detail, it’s like an actor can relate to them. It’s very helpful, because then you’re not dealing with a miscommunication. You know, “Are you asking me to do it this way because it makes the shot look better or are you asking me to do this because it makes the scene look better?” I find it very accessible to have a director that’s an actor and I find it a comfort, to be honest. I find it much easier to just blindly trust them because they were actors so they know what they’re talking about. But there’s something about it, I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Finally, W.C. Fields famously once said, “Never work with animals or children.” In this movie you work with a dog and several birds, as an actress what was that experience like for you?

Nichols: You know it’s so funny because they do say children and animals are difficult and I’ve worked with both. But I’m a very glass half full kind of person, and I think children and animals are extremely special to work with because only in those circumstances do you have spontaneous happy accidents. Because you don’t necessarily get that with adults, and animals can do things they’re not supposed to do. Babies and young children can do things in a scene that they’re not supposed to do, or don’t know that they’re supposed to do, and it can be the most beautiful innocent piece of happiness that occurs. Jackson (Hurst) actually put in a lot of time with the parrots, but not as much time with George (the dog) who played Floyd. But he did put in a lot of time with the parrots, and really talked to them, and they knew him and they loved him. Maybe it’s because the animals were so well trained. This was the first time I ever really worked with animals, except for the time in P2 when the Rottweiler was trying to kill me. That’s also a different experience. But I like to think that working with babies and animals can allow for that special, spontaneous moment that ends up being perfect for the film. 

A Bird of the Air opens in select theaters September 23rd. 

To watch a special clip from A Bird in the Air, please click here

To read what Rachel Nichols had to say about I, Alex Ross, and Star Trek 2, please click here

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