IAR INTERVIEW: Sandra Bullock Talks 'Gravity'

Tuesday, 01 October 2013 14:15 Written by  iamrogue
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IAR INTERVIEW: Sandra Bullock Talks 'Gravity'

Sandra Bullock is one of the biggest movie stars on the planet.

So it makes a strange kind of sense that her latest film, Gravity, takes her off the planet.

Bullock has been a staple at the multiplex for two decades.  Most recently, she once again proved her comedic chops with this summer's The Heat.  In 2010, shortly after she headlined the hit comedy The Proposal, Bullock won the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in the hugely popular drama The Blind Side.  She's one of the rare contemporary stars able to bounce between genres, maintaining her popular appeal in seemingly any type of film.

And there are very, very few films like Gravity.  Directed and co-written by Oscar-nominee Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También), Gravity features only two actors onscreen for almost the entirety of its running time.  With George Clooney (The Descendants) as Matt Kowalski, a NASA astronaut on a rountine orbital mission, Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first trip into space.  When satellite debris tears apart their shuttle, a routine spacewalk turns into a real-time a fight for survival against the void of space. As intense as that sounds, the film itself is more immersive and harrowing than such a description can capture, with Cuarón pushing modern visual effects almost to the breaking point in order to execute hugely involving uninterrupted takes of spacefaring action. 

IAR Managing Editor Jami Philbrick was recently on hand for a Los Angeles press conference during which the one and only Sandra Bullock enthusiastically discussed the rarity of her Gravity role, her research with actual astronauts, collaborating with her acclaimed director, carrying a film of this size herself, and seeing the movie for the first time.

"I’ve always been longing to do, emotionally and physically, what my male counterparts got to do," Bullock said of playing Ryan Stone. "I just felt envious every time I saw a movie that I was in awe of and it was usually a male lead. Those kinds of roles weren’t available. They weren’t being written."

Often, she explained, she's forced to "search for something and turn it into a female character, or develop it yourself. But just in the last couple of years, things have shifted. Jonas (Cuarón, co-writer) and Alfonso wrote this part specifically as a woman, it wasn’t an afterthought. It was the integral part of the story. It made me realize 'I have to step up and be the best version of myself so, whatever is asked of me, I can produce.' Every day I’m so grateful."

In response to our man Philbrick's query about her research for Gravity, Bullock answered, "We had a lot of technicians around us that helped me know where buttons were in the (space capsule), so I was more concerned with body work and how it worked in Zero-G. A friend of my brother-in-law said ‘Yeah, my sister’s an astronaut.’ And my brother-in-law said, ‘Well, my sister-in-law’s getting ready to be an astronaut.’ So he got my number to (NASA astronaut/chemist) Cady Coleman, who was at the International Space Station at the time, and she called me from there and I was able to literally ask someone whose experiencing the things that I was trying to physically learn."

Speaking with Coleman allowed the actress to learn, "How the body works (in zero-gravity) and what do I need to re-teach my body physically to do that cannot happen on earth that we need to get the puppeteers (operating the floating rig) and everyone together on the same page.  It’s just the oddest thing to reprogram your reactions, so it was just a really coincidental, fortuitous thing that happened that got me the final piece of information that I needed."

Gravity represents an attempt to capture the reality of action in space.  As such, it was an intensely complicated production that was particularly arduous for Bullock, who had to work with complex rigs and untested techniques to create the effect of floating without gravity.  She said, "Alfonso and I had similar paths in life and how we looked at things and events and the unknown and then we went into the technological side and thought ‘Wow, I don’t know how I’m gonna pull this off’ but we always went back to the emotion of the story."

"I can’t selfishly take journeys anymore because I have to take a little boy along with me," she said, referring to her infant son. "And (producer) David (Heyman) turned a back lot of a soundstage in rainy London into a wonderland for a one-and-a-half-year-old. Everything was bumper-guarded to protect a child’s head. We can go through the technical aspects of working and how you change, but there was just a level of kindness and collaboration. I think the general sense of the unknown bonded everyone together in such a human level."

"Alfonso and I talked a lot about the voice. It’s very specific, the voice and the breath. If I went a little higher-pitched in my panic, it always rang false," Bullock said of creating this particular character.  Special attention, she said, was paid to "the level of hyperventilation in that moment. Are the breaths too fast? Should we slow them down? There was a lot of time spent on that. So we were always able to go back and say 'I don’t know why, it just didn’t feel right. Can we go back and just try other levels with the voice?' I always wanted to give her a voice, based on her experience and where she was in life. So it was unapologetically cut-off and monotone, but very distinctively her."

Despite the arduousness of the shoot, Bullock was not feeling the pressure of being the only presence onscreen for so much of Gravity.  "I’ve never thought 'I’m the only person on screen.' Because there’s George who’s a vital part of this film (whose character) represents life and his outlook on living that, if you don’t have that, this film couldn’t exist. I never thought about that and now everybody’s freaking me out going ‘How do you feel that this movie rests on you?’ and I’m going 'How is this now my problem? I didn’t write this or produce it or come up with the cockamamie idea to make a space movie,” she said, laughing. "I think I’m third or fourth on the list after the story, the emotional visuals, the sounds, the experience of what they’ve created."

With the film earning critical accolades for its visceral depiction of Stone's peril, Bullock commented on her first time seeing Gravity.  "As an actor, when you see yourself for the first time," she said, "you spend all your time just watching yourself and hating yourself and picking your performance apart, saying, 'I look horrible, I should quit.' There was no time to pick apart one’s performance because you were inundated with the extreme beauty and emotion that Alfonso created with the visuals."

Visual effects technology, she said, was channeled into, "such an emotional, visceral, physical experience in this movie. You just went 'I don’t know how they did it with sound, coming here behind your head.' All of a sudden you found yourself affected in ways you were not planning on. I think George and I both went '…Wow.' I mean you can’t really speak after the film is over. So I think I was lucky enough in my career to finally be able to view a movie I was in as it was supposed to be viewed as a newcomer."

Gravity opens nationwide on conventional screens, as well as IMAX 3D, this Friday, October 4th.

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