On Movies: In 'Killer Joe,' she bares lots, says it 'sets the tone'

Posted: August 13, 2012

It is, without doubt, one of the more memorable entrances in movie history:

There's Gina Gershon, answering a knock on the door at the start of Killer Joe, naked from the waist down, and not in any hurry to cover herself.

"It definitely makes a statement about who she is," says Gershon, laughing a bit and reflecting on this woman, Sharla - a character dreamed up by Tracy Letts for his play, and then adapted to the screen by William ( The Exorcist, The French Connection) Friedkin.

The story is trailer-trash noir: A desperate and rather dim guy ( Emile Hirsch) and his none-too-bright dad ( Thomas Haden Church) go about hiring a hit man. That would be the title character, played by Matthew McConaughey, and Gershon gets caught up in all this nasty business, too.

"It's out there," says the actress, who dropped into town recently. "I love the opening, because not only does it set the tone of the movie - you can laugh, and you can see you're in for an outrageous ride - but it also just reveals - no pun intended - so much about who she is. Primal, feral, a sort of wild animal who just doesn't really care."

In fact, Hirsch and Church spend a lot of time walking around the trailer in various states of undress, too.

"They're very animalistic," she says. "It doesn't really faze any of them. Even [McConaughey's] Joe - he hasn't lived in the house for more than a week, and he's walking around naked. I guess it's really hot in there."

Joe, a police detective by day, has moved in because he's taken possession, in a manner of speaking, of the virginal creature in the bedroom, Dottie, played by Juno Temple. Letts, who won the Pulitzer Prize for another of his plays, August: Osage County, has cooked up a pulp gumbo full of sex, violence, deceit, and greed. A pulp gumbo in which this family who walk around naked can sit down at the table for a meal, hold hands, and say grace.

"You don't know whether to laugh, or leave," says Gershon, who turned down the chance to appear in a stage production of Killer Joe ("I didn't want to do it eight times a week"), but took the role of Sharla for the film. Rated NC-17, it opened Friday at the Ritz Five.

And people are using words like brave and fearless to describe Gershon's performance - this for an actress who's heard that kind of thing before, for Showgirls, for Bound. There's a brutal scene toward the end of the film in which McConaughey's character forces Gerson's down on her knees and force-feeds her a piece of fried chicken.

"Everyone was like, 'Oh, how brave!' " she says. "I mean, I looked at it like OK, you have Friedkin, you have [cinematographer] Caleb Deschanel, you have Tracy Letts who's an amazing writer, like what's so brave about this choice?

"Sure, it's a challenging part, but as an actress, that's fine. I don't want to be stuck doing the same thing over and over again."

Still, Gershon, who has a book coming out this fall ( In Search of Cleo: How I Found My Pussy and Lost My Mind, about her epic search for her lost cat), concedes "it wasn't the funnest day on the set.

"It's a difficult scene - difficult for several reasons. Physically, obviously. But just emotionally, to me, here's a woman who thinks she has her life figured out, and she has an escape route, and she has her own Prince Charming coming to save her - and then she realizes her dreams are shattered."

Bourne again, but not re-Bourne. Tony Gilroy thought he'd finished with this Bourne business. After handing in the script for the final piece of the Matt Damon-starring trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum, Gilroy went off to shoot his own movie, Michael Clayton, with George Clooney in the title role. It received seven Academy Award nominations in 2008, including best picture, best screenplay, and best director.

And then Gilroy made the corporate spy thriller Duplicity, with Clive Owen and Julia Roberts.

"I was outside the Bourne community in every fundamental way," he explains on the phone from New York. "Years went by. My only source of information was either just running into somebody, or reading about it in the newspaper."

So when director Paul Greengrass, who had made the Supremacy and Ultimatum installments, announced he wouldn't do another, and then Damon announced that he wouldn't do another without Greengrass, Gilroy thought that was that.

"Everybody left. Everybody publicly walked away. There was going to be no more Jason Bourne."

But Gilroy was asked to meet with the people running Robert Ludlum's estate, who held the rights to the Bourne properties and wanted to see the franchise thrive.

"Almost as a courtesy, I took a meeting. . . . A very short meeting in New York, this sort of woe-is-us meeting. 'What should we do? We can't figure out what to do. If anybody can think of something to do. . . .' "

Gilroy gave it some thought - "it really started as a chalkboard problem" - and developed a treatment for The Bourne Legacy. There would be a new deep-cover protagonist, Aaron Cross, nothing like the amnesiac hero Jason Bourne, with altogether different issues.

"He is the exact opposite," says Gilroy of his new spy guy, portrayed by The Hurt Locker'sJeremy Renner. "He knows exactly where he came from, and his problem is that he does not want to return there."

The Bourne Legacy, which opened Friday, teams Renner with Rachel Weisz - the two of them on the run from the CIA, from National Security goons, from shadowy figures in the government - and, in a breathtaking 16-minute chase sequence shot in Manila, on the run from an assassin and squads of Philippine police.

"I'm the huge beneficiary, as many directors secretly are, of an amazing second unit director in Dan Bradley," Gilroy says. "Dan did all the action sequences in Supremacy and Ultimatum. His credits are legion."

Gilroy and Bradley headed to Manila a year before shooting began to map things out, to arrange permits, acquire vehicles, build sets, design and scheme and track specific locations.

"It's a lot of military planning, and it's grown men sitting around a table with Matchbox cars," he says. "Seriously. It's so adult and so juvenile at the same time. It's a bunch of middle-aged men sitting around with those toy cars going, 'Wow, what if it spins around here! What if this spoon is a bridge?!'. . . It's a combination of the most industrial-strength filmmaking and child's play."

Finding Sugar Man. On a trip to South Africa in 2006, Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul happened on the story - and music - of Rodriguez, a singer/songwriter from Detroit whose beautiful early '70s albums disappeared without a trace in the United States.

But in South Africa, bootlegged copies found their way onto the radio and into record stores. Under the rigid control of an apartheid regime, legions of college-age South Africans heard the plaintive, soulful folk rock of this Mexican American artist and found themselves deeply moved by his songs of struggle and isolation, their poetry, their power.

And their staying power: Rodriguez's music continued to sell, and other South African bands began covering his songs, well into the 1980s and 1990s. Meanwhile, back home, Rodriguez had abandoned his music career.

"His reality was a construction worker, a hard laborer, living in a ramshackle house in Detroit, having a pretty hard life," explains Bendjelloul. "And at the very same time, he was literally more famous than the Rolling Stones in a not-too-distant part of the world. . . . Distant in miles, but it was a very westernized society, the white liberal college students of South Africa. Culturally, they were very, very close to the college students in America, or in England or in Europe. Only, they had discovered Rodriguez."

Searching for Sugar Man, which opened Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse, is Bendjelloul's film about this remarkable, parallel-universe story - a story that couldn't be possible today, with every corner of the world connected by the Internet. Myths and legends grew up about Rodriguez. And Bendjelloul was determined to find the truth, and, if possible, find the man.

Check it out. And check out Rodriguez's rereleased albums: Cold Fact and Coming From Reality. They're like treasures from a time capsule.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmoviesMovie

Killer Joe

At the Ritz Five and Rave Motion Pictures/NJ

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