Hugh Laurie, Allison Janney, Oliver Platt, Catherine Keener, Alia Shawkat, Adam Brody & Julian Farino Live Life in The Oranges
by Jay S. Jacobs
Suburban life has always fascinated filmmakers. Close-knit, middle-class residential nirvanas made up of similar houses, swimming pools, mini-vans and girl scout cookies have always seemed a microcosm of all that is comfortable and at the same time plastic about the American dream. Suburbia has inspired many diverse film classics over the years, including The Graduate, ET: The Extra Terrestrial and American Beauty.
It is onto just this kind of cul de sac in West Orange, New Jersey, that British director Julian Farino (who is best known for chronicling another type of American dream while directing many episodes of HBO’s Entourage) sets his sights in his new film.
The Oranges is the story of the Wallings and the Ostroffs, two neighboring couples who are best friends. David and Paige Walling (Hugh Laurie of House, M.D. and Catherine Keener of The 40 Year-Old Virgin) and Terry and Cathy Ostroff (Allison Janney and Oliver Platt, both of The West Wing) are as close as next door neighbors can be, spending all their time together eating, drinking, talking and running. The younger generation of Wallings and Ostroffs are not so close. Walling daughter Vanessa (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development) and Ostroff daughter Nina (Leighton Meester of Gossip Girl) had been friends years earlier, but the beautiful and wild Nina left the plain and more-reserved Vanessa behind for a cooler crowd years before. Meanwhile Walling son Toby (Adam Brody of The OC) has been nursing an unrequited crush on Nina for years, a crush that both pairs of parents fantasize will take root, but one that Nina seems to have no real interest in pursuing.
The Oranges takes place between Thanksgiving and New Years one year, when Nina dejectedly returns home from traveling the world, freshly broken up with her cheating fiancé. The families see this as a chance to fix up Nina and Adam, but instead Nina seems drawn to his dad David. The younger woman and older man slip into an affair which explodes this tight-knit group.
Just about the entire huge ensemble cast and the director of The Oranges recently met with us and some other media outlets for a press conference at the Crosby Street Hotel in the SoHo section of New York. (Co-star Leighton Meester was called away to do some filming on a different project at the last minute.) They had a lively, funny discussion about their movie and their careers.
What drew each of you to the film?
Allison Janney: Initially, I think the script spoke to me. I thought, wow, what a crazy thing to happen to two families. How would I deal with something like that? An extraordinary, awful thing that happens. I loved the character’s development through dealing with it, navigating the event. Then, the cast falling into place and meeting with Julian, it was a no-brainer for me. I wanted to play with these people. They are all willing to be silly and playful. So, that’s my story.
Julian Farino: Maybe Hugh should answer that, because you have an interesting character in the piece and you took the part on.
Hugh Laurie: Yeah, I’ve got an interesting character. Well, I think we all shared the same response. I read the script and I thought it was beautifully done. I thought it was very funny, but I also thought it took people’s lives seriously. It took people’s feelings seriously. It did it in a way that wasn’t condescending or judgmental in any way. It was very humane, I thought. It’s a very delicate line to tread. I think Julian has trod it with elegance and grace. It is a tricky one, it could either be sort of hahaha and yet not really be a believable or respectful portrayal of real relationships and real consequences to things. But I just thought it was beautifully done. And then when you hear the other actors’ names, you begin to salivate in a slightly unseemly fashion. It’s an enormous thrill to be part of it. (to Oliver) Go! Oliver, you’re on. Go!
Oliver Platt: (to Hugh) Umm… Nice talk. Everybody has talked and we all sort of agree about this, but for me there is just this wonderful tension in the movie. In the narrative between how people would think that they should respond to an event like this and then how they actually do. As Hugh said, it’s done in a very mysterious, yet believable way. It’s constructed… they chose to set the story at the time of year when there is so much pressure on everybody to be humane and loving and civil with each other, because it’s the holidays. What better environment to lob this grenade of an event into and then watch the consequences? Unquestionably, morally, this is a taboo thing in our culture, and I would imagine a lot of different cultures. So there is how you think you should respond and then there is how you actually do respond. To me, the brilliance of the script is that the event happens on page 30 instead of on page 90, because it’s really about the consequences. It’s about what happens to this little community that is created by these two families and how these mysterious things occur in their lives. Which are not necessarily named, they are shown. That’s definitely part of it. All the others everybody else said.
Catherine Keener: I can’t say more than that. I had a beautiful meeting with Julian and I’ll always remember it. Everything else was fantastic, so I don’t know. We had a great, really, really fine time together. I care a lot about everyone here and I know they do for me. (to Julian) Where’s Leighton? I’m just curious.
Julian Farino: Filming. They couldn’t release her.
Catherine Keener: Oh, she’s filming. No, I just… because we miss her. She was awesome. Great. It was really kind of ideal. You probably can gather how warm everyone is from seeing the film, because you can’t hide that. I think that was all in the casting, Julian, I really do. I know you were very careful about that, so… I don’t know. That’s all.
Did any of you draw from any past experiences or someone you knew for your characters?
Allison Janney: Thankfully, no, I didn’t have this kind of experience at all. (laughs) I’m so glad. But it was fun to just imagine if something like that happened. For my character, Cathy, who was so controlling, to have something like this happen has just made her apoplectic. It was fun to live through that in an imaginary reality.
Catherine Keener: Well, I’ve certainly been in a situation… I think we all have… where we felt caught in something. What do you do about that when the truth comes crashing in and you have to face it? That’s the feeling that I had a lot on this movie. You learn that you’ll come up again. You’ll be all right. No matter what, there’s another day that is going to happen and yesterday will pass and it will be okay. In terms of that, I’ve had that experience kind of everyday. (laughs)
Julian Farino: The only thing I have to say – and this is your exclusive – I’m not from New Jersey, but the whole reason for the thing for me was I thought this subject matter in the States today may be a tricky concept for an American audience. As an outsider coming to America and experiencing – I’ve lived here seven years now – different sets of moral values to Europeans and so on. I thought that story may rub people the wrong way, but what I was prompting Hugh with earlier was the beauty of the story was that it’s really about forgiveness and human frailty and weaknesses and the ability that we can all transcend those things. That was the heart of the movie. The people that may object to the movie or the concept of the movie are actually the ones that you want to hit in a funny way. It is the most generous sort of view. That was a universal thing. It wasn’t very, very specific. So I had no experience of family cut among the pigeons like this, but that was what made sense to me.
It sounds like nobody was scared off by the difficult subject matter of the film. There seems to be a six-degrees separation among this cast where people have worked together in the past. Hugh, having worked with Leighton on House, did it make it easier for you to attack this?
Hugh Laurie: It was a terrific help. I think undeniably it was a terrific help. Apart from everything else, I knew that we could do it. That we could work together and we could play scenes together and I knew I liked Leighton a lot. She’s an absolute hoot. We had a very good time doing it. And no, I don’t think… you made the early reference to being scared away… it’s not Lolita. It’s kind of weird that we’re having to explain or nervously frame a set of circumstances that are actually considerably less difficult to digest than a film from 50-60 years ago. It’s a strange thing that we have reached that point. Particularly in a story which is so palpably humane and compassionate, in which nobody is acting malevolently. Nobody is seeking to dominate or exploit or make mischief. It is just the great foaming waters of the human heart. After all, to tell stories about endless human perfection is both A) dull and B) impossible, actually, because there is no such thing that I know of. If anything it’s the other way around. We are drawn to the imperfection and drawn to the mistakes that human beings make. Particularly mistakes that are made out of good intentions, or at least kind intentions. It’s not to say that this is of no consequence, absolutely it is. Like I said, one of the things that attracted us all to the script is the fact that the consequences are taken very seriously and respectfully. I think the characters are treated with respect. But, yes, I would absolutely agree that having known… Leighton did two episodes of House, so for a few weeks we were acting together. That was an enormous help. I’m sure if we hadn’t known each other, we would probably have jumped in and somehow found our way, but I was personally very relieved. I can’t speak for her because she isn’t.
Oliver Platt: You know, just to put it a slightly different way, the filmmakers, the writers, very artfully if you notice, they don’t editorialize. They don’t ask you to root for one character or another. They don’t approve or disapprove of any behavior. They are laying it out there and showing us. Like I said, they are lobbing this grenade into this little happy community. They are watching what happens. And unless I saw a different movie, there isn’t any sort of happy ending. The movie ends in my favorite kind of way, which is suspended and ambiguous, but somehow satisfying, which I think is very artful. It’s also very truthful, too. This is not a movie that advocates or doesn’t advocate for anything, except for, as Hugh said, humanity.
I think that the lack of comfort in the subject matter is more about the closeness of the characters than the social mores around it. There’s sort of a contradiction in the sense that you guys all sort of knew each other before and I’m wondering if that made it easier to play people who were conflicted.
Oliver Platt: I think it always does. In my experience anyway.
Catherine Keener: I think yes. I agree with you that it’s more that than the other, definitely. Because really when you look at the other that’s not really that farfetched, it happens all the time. What’s unique about this situation, which is also quite possible, is that our families are so tight and the crossover is really shocking.
Julian Farino: I didn’t know who knew who beforehand. I’d seen the episode of Leighton and Hugh together and I had a feeling that they could be chemically great, which is obviously crucial for the movie. I didn’t know there was history for everyone else. But it became the job of the cast and the spirit in which the thing was made. That was the quality of actor thing that everybody jumped into that and tried to engineer a situation where you felt that there was closeness and there was history and chemistry. It’s the great unknown when you go in, especially in an ensemble, and even more so when you’ve got families involved. That’s the credit of the cast that they made those relationships believable. I don’t think it relied on all them all being mates beforehand did it.
Catherine Keener: You do that on a hunch and sometimes hunches are good and sometimes they don’t work out. But this one the hunches worked out I think.
Why wasn’t the movie shot in New Jersey? Did you want to shoot it there at any point?
Julian Farino: It was shot in New Rochelle [New York] actually, so for me that’s production money and budget. What you can allow, where you can be and New York tax breaks and fairly tedious stuff. How far out of New York we were actually able to go. For me the main thing was to create somewhere that visually was believable to be a New Jersey story. Beyond that the only thing I was concerned about, I didn’t want the houses to be so big that it looked like a story about rich people, which it wasn’t. I just wanted to be comfortable and welcoming and warm and so on, and to find a real spot where that relationship with the two houses was practically possible. Of course the first thing I did when we started was go to West Orange, and where we ended up shooting to me seemed like it was believable. Certainly no one in London won’t know that we weren’t in West Orange; that was my way of thinking.
Allison Janney: I don’t think anybody knows where West Orange is.
Julian Farino: Probably don’t.
Catherine Keener: It was perfect proximity. I mean it was kind of perfectly laid out. It made such sense. You could see when we were coming home. It just supported the story so much, just the logistics of the location.
Julian Farino: It was great to have two complete houses that we took over and that all the rooms were the rooms that we shot in. We always tried to shoot out with windows in the back where you would see the other house just to bed in that these two families are completely locked together.
This for Allison and Oliver. I was wondering, having worked together on The West Wing if it was easier coming into this to play a married couple.
Allison Janney: When I heard that Oliver was going to do this, we just had fun together. I think we even knew each other before West Wing. I just know that he has a sense of playfulness that makes it really easy. He’s very easy to be around and easy to have fun with. This relationship with the two of them, I just knew that he was going to make it more exciting to do. So yeah it helped and it definitely gave us a common ground that we came in on, just our mutual love and respect for each other. That made it easy to jump off and be a married couple that was ignoring each other.
Oliver Platt: It always helps when you know each other. If it’s Allison Janney that you have to be married to then… When you like a person and you respect them tremendously as an actor that’s two big boxes checked, especially when you need to create the illusion that you’ve been living together all this time. I also give a tremendous amount of credit to Julian for creating an environment on the set. I don’t think this is really something that you can teach a director, creating an environment on the set that brings out the best in people. That is sort of playful, but constructive and fluid, but charged. It was just a really delightful day at work every day. They did another very enlightened thing which is that they, driven by economics, but instead of having trailers they put us in this house down the street. The doors were always open and Hugh had his piano and there was always extraordinary jazz wafting down. We took our clothes off and really lived a utopian existence.
Catherine Keener: I shopped at Target to put rugs in the rooms. It was really fun.
Julian, can you talk about the inclusion of the Heifer International Charity in this because I thought that was really wonderful.
Julian Farino: The barnyard thing. It was a feature of the script. If anything I had just encouraged [screenwriters] Jay [Reiss] and Ian [Helfer] to write a little bit more of it because I liked it because it was a little eccentric. It was that part for Keener’s character where you don’t really know what’s happening to you. Making a movie I didn’t have to give too many notes. This was a very easy cast to direct and embrace, but I do remember saying things. The main thing for me was a lot happens in the present tense, it’s not introspective, it’s not dark, it’s not brooding. You don’t always know what’s happening to you and that was a way of trying to keep it alive and support the story. The barnyard thing is a typical, Keener’s character is in the absolute depths of despair and sees this thing. It doesn’t really mean anything at that moment, it’s just a hunch. In terms of the characters traveling through the course of the story, I love the idea that the worst possible thing, the breakup of a household, could happen, and yet her character ends up in Africa achieving peace of mind and a greatness that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, which is many of the characters’ evolutions and encompasses the message of the movie. You don’t know where you’re going to travel. Apparent disaster can lead to progress and improvement and redemption and all those things.
Adam, can you talk about your upcoming films? You were making three this year?
Adam Brody: No big deal, guys. Umm, I don’t know. I did a few things this year that I’m excited about. However, this has been a long time coming. Julian? (to Julian Farino) Was I the first cast in this?
Julian Farino: Oh no, I’m sorry to tell you that you were not. (both laugh)
Adam Brody: I was not?
Julian Farino: Well, you were the only person ever in my mind for your part. I know you were there super-early, because I remember talking to your agent and you were always there to be had and we had everything else to sort out. You were pretty out there, too.
Oliver Platt: Good save, Julian. Good save.
Julian Farino: You were pretty front and center.
Adam Brody: Yeah, I know, I just feel like I’ve been on this in one way or another for like three years now.
Julian Farino: It was your destiny.
Adam Brody: … so, this is finally bearing fruit.
Oliver Platt: Get it?
Adam Brody: And, I don’t know, I’m just excited to be here with these guys. Other movies, another time, I don’t know. But thank you.
Was there any thought of casting Alia as Oliver Platt’s daughter, since there is more of a resemblance? Also, many of the cast members have interest in music and photography. Did that seep over to how you were on set?
Julian Farino: I’ve not had that question before. I actually quite like playing music on set where appropriate, but I wouldn’t say in this case there are any big party scenes or anything that was led by the music, apart from the carol singers, frankly. In terms of the casting process and putting together two families, really you have to go for the essence of part and character and everything else. Alia was always Vanessa for me, because she had that individuality and intelligence, that sort of point of view. Oliver, as he told me, was comedy gold, so I felt obliged to take advantage. I did have maps and pictures of where everybody fits, in terms of likenesses and this, that and the other. But, really, I went with energies more. Once we had all the correct characters in place, then the cast went to work to make the relationships feel like they had history and were plausible and the friendships needed to feel like they dated back twenty-five years. Which, when you have a half a day’s rehearsal, is not that easy. But that’s what the cast brought. And I have no problem with Alia as daughter of Hugh.
As two musicians, Hugh and Adam, what did you think of the film’s soundtrack?
Hugh Laurie: What do I think of the soundtrack? I…(to Adam) What do you think of it?
Adam Brody: I’m not up to date on it, to be perfectly honest.
Hugh Laurie: Thank you for being honest on my behalf, too. We are seeing it tonight.
Adam Brody: What do you think of the soundtrack?
I thought the songs were really well placed.
Hugh Laurie: Well placed? Like they were chosen…
Catherine Keener: Julian really has great taste in music. He does.
Julian Farino: The hardest song and the most controversial, in terms of debate, discussion, creative process for producers, etc., was the Atlantic City montage song. It had a sort of editorial job to do, as well. It was supposed to be both celebratory of Hugh and Leighton, and at the same time just to have some bigger picture sort of shadow. We had an enormous amount of variety of opinions on that. Ultimately, that song was written for the movie by Ian Bennett from a band called The Grand Nationals. For me, that was a big moment. In fact, in Toronto (Film Festival screening) we did not have that music, and we had a very, very last minute debate. We put in a song, a song I like, but it wasn’t correct on an emotional level.
Hugh Laurie: Def Leppard.
Julian Farino: Def Leppard, yeah. And that was driving the whole movie at that point, because all the actors were so slow, I felt I had a need for this. (Catherine laughs) That became the signature. The end title song is also written by Ian. He wrote two songs and they are both in the movie, I’m glad to say. It’s a delicate thing, music. It sounds like you know. But that Atlantic City montage right at the center of the story, that was a key one.
Do you think that this comedy could have taken place in England or Europe? What would have been the adjustment to the script?
Julian Farino: We do comedy in England as well. You can ask Hugh about that.
About this topic I mean.
Julian Farino: I think so. For me personally it was always meant to be suburbia anywhere. The point of the story was to be as universal as possible. I thought the relationships in it were very universal. We all know of a friend that we grew up with because our parents were best friends. You spend many years and then something happens that takes you apart. Mother-daughter relationships with the slightly smothering mother, that’s recognizable. Dads as best friends. The dynamics were absolutely universal to me, and to try to describe suburbia in New Jersey as the story was set was only really suburbia anywhere. For me it was suburban because the values were not urban. I never wanted a pastiche suburbia or anything like that. The film’s not a dark film, nor is it edgy, and for that it’s more an urban story, and this became suburban where there was a sort of lightness of spirit and a little less darkness maybe. So in answer to your question yeah, I would like to think anywhere families make human mistakes.
I think one of the things that intrigued me about the film most was Vanessa’s reaction to her father. Can you talk a little bit about the thought and preparation that went into those scenes?
Alia Shawkat: I thought it was interesting that she’s the narrator. That’s a weird choice I think. Someone who’s not necessarily at peace of mind, naturally anyways. I found that interesting. She’s just reacting, as you said, as we all are in the film, but she separates herself from everybody. I didn’t really prepare too much, I was just trying to make her real and funny I guess. Funny and real. Real funny.
Julian Farino: It had to have love between the two of you in the general terms of everything being positive about human behavior. The script always had that generosity about human beings. A terribly fractured moment between Alia and Hugh’s characters had to come out of somewhere loving to really count. I love the fact that the script had an apparent outsider, or perhaps the one that had the least immediate sense of consequence, to be the narrator. The idea by the end of the movie that you understand this was a critical moment in Vanessa’s life as well was, for me, smart.
Allison, we actually spoke on the phone recently about Liberal Arts, but we did talk about this movie too and you said that this script gave you, I don’t remember if you said it was either your best or your craziest line. You said when I heard it I would know it and I definitely knew what it was. So I was wondering if you’ve gotten any reactions from people who have seen the film about that line? And if any of the other cast members want to jump off of that just talking about maybe some fun memories you’ve had of reactions from people who are close to you to something that you’ve done in your work.
Allison Janney: I had some friends who for some reason saw it in Minnesota. Why was it playing in Minnesota?
Julian Farino: It was a festival I think.
Allison Janney: I didn’t know that they were seeing it and they called me up afterwards and just sang the line into my phone. They loved it; they said it was their favorite moment to get to see me say that line. I’m going to screw it up if I try to say it because I don’t remember exactly how it goes, but it’s something about balls… old balls. It was very satisfying to say. It was hard because as an actor you know something’s going to have comic value and yet you don’t want to play it for the laugh. I have to play Cathy is just completely undone. She is so angry and she’s trying to be mature about the situation and it just comes flying out of her mouth. It was extremely rewarding to do right.
Catherine Keener: What’s the line?
Allison Janney: How does it…
Julian Farino: … feel sucking David’s old balls?
Allison Janney: “How are you going to feel with David’s old balls in your mouth,” or something like that. (They all laugh.)
Oliver Platt: Old hairy balls?
Hugh Laurie: It should be my hairy balls.
Catherine Keener: That is a funny line.
Allison Janney: I couldn’t wait to say it.
Hugh Laurie: I do remember though, I do remember… obviously you’re right, a line like that takes some fine judgment. But, I do remember you doing it about 85 different ways. And every single one of them was brilliant. (They all laugh again.) That was a great day for us getting to see you [curse]. Oh, great, it’s Allison’s old balls day. That was a good day.
Oliver Platt: She totally did get it on the first take, but we were like…
Hugh Laurie: Yeah, do it again!
Oliver Platt: Do you think you can do it some more?
Allison, we’ve seen you win lots of awards on the stage for serious roles, and here you were almost like Lucille Ball with the comic moves. Was this different for you?
Allison Janney: You know, it’s all the same for me. There must be some subtle differences I do, but I approach everything whether it is Arthur Miller, or The Arches, or whatever I’m doing, I approach it from the same place of grounding it in reality. I’ve never considered myself particularly a funny person off camera, just myself. But I know what makes people funny is their behavior and their reality of why they are behaving that way. Basically it’s my mother. The things my mother does are hilarious to me. She thinks things are so important to her. I’m like, why do you care if there is a hot towel rack in the bathroom or not? The things that she thinks are so important and she invests herself in are hysterical for me. I try to invest any character I play with whatever passion of their reality, what’s important to them, and it comes across as being funny.
It was funny when you were trying to hide behind the bushes.
Allison Janney: Whatever, I’m going to invest it. If I have to hide behind a lamppost, I’m going to hide behind that lamppost. You are not going to see me, no matter how large I am. I’m going to do the same for whatever. Comedy, tragedy, whatever. It’s going to have my stamp on it.
One of the themes of the movie is what happiness really means. What did you learn from each other living in those homes – your interests, passions, etc?
Adam Brody: What was the question? (everyone laughs) I don’t recall talking about it with anybody. But, that said, just speaking for myself, I really enjoy company and I really enjoy making movies, so this was – not to keep it too on point – but this was actually a really, really fun time. I enjoyed the hell out of it. But in terms of extracurricular, there was a lot. It was fun.
Catherine Keener: I think for me, I know that being attached to this movie, thinking about it there is a truthfulness that is valued. I very much value it and try and see it for what it is worth and how credibility is important. Knowing that it’s going to pass. Whatever it is, it’s going to pass. The moments will be remembered and treasured, but you can’t freeze time. That feeling is very comforting to me. I’m happy that I understand that, as much as I can, anyway. And continue to try.
Adam Brody: I want to refine my answer. Collaboration was the word I was looking for.
Hugh Laurie: We should have helped you with that word.
Oliver Platt: We’re collaborating now.