In November of 2010, I ventured over to Anchorage, Alaska to visit the set of Universal Pictures’ Big Miracle, which tells the true story of how three gray whales were trapped in a hole in Point Barrow, Alaska in 1988. Rounding out the extraordinary cast was John Krasinski, Drew Barrymore, Kristen Stewart, Ted Danson, Tim Blake Nelson and Dermot Mulroney, and here are the transcripts from the interviews that were conducted while on set.
Q: You guys have been here for a while so give us some tips on how you handle Alaska? And what are your Alaska must-haves in terms of staying cozy?
JK: Must-haves would be these little beauties!
DB: Yeah, the hot packs.
JK: I think they’re called little hotties. You’re going to want to trust that.
DB: It’s hard though. You’ve got the mittens and I’ve got gloves and what I’d love for those little hotties to do is develop little fingers. And then life would be really good. The fingers and the toes are most important. Smart wool, definitely windy proof layers, lots and lots of layers and the feet warmers.
JK: It’s like you’re writing a survival guide.
DB: I have to say it was a total trial and error thing. When I got here I had nothing and I didn’t know what was going to work and what wasn’t. You just start piling on the things you like and get rid of the things that aren’t working.
JK: It’s also so deceiving when you arrive and it wasn’t that cold. The first time I came up it was like 50 degrees and I remember thinking everybody on the production’s insane. They’re like “it gets so cold!” And then coming from LA you’re throwing in light sweaters and then days like this hit and you’re like “does anyone have a caribou carcass?”
Q: When did you guys get here?
DB: In September. He was doing double duty with The Office which is insane, pulling a double shift which is really really hard.
JK: So I officially landed permanently, a month ago in October.
Q: We’ve been asking everyone and they’re all kinda saying the same thing, but I was wondering what drew you individually to the role?
DB: Is that a subtly veiled insult that they’re all kinda saying the same thing?
Q: No no no, they’re all saying the cast is so tight and –
JK: But they didn’t know that when they signed on, so they lied to you. For me the opportunity to play a whale is a once in a lifetime gig and to actually play a human and a whale (laughs). No, I was immediately drawn to the project because of Drew. I knew that Drew was going to be a part of it and I had always wanted to work with her in a very very very major way. And then I think I might have already said yes to it and then they were like “read the script” and really when you read the script…it’s one of those movies where I think it’s this pocket of a very unique and special project. There’s a little bit of romance, a little bit of comedy, and a little bit of drama and it doesn’t really fit into any certain realm that people are used to and in doing this it becomes this really special storytelling and the fact that all of it’s true is incredible. And I remember thinking this is a perfect movie, but I can’t wait to ask how much of this is true and it’s wild, certain things. Like I still to this day can’t believe that Dermot’s character and Vinessa’s character actually did meet on this adventure and did get married after talking to each other on the phone. If I wrote that in the script for myself people would be like that’s not getting made, it’s not good, it’s not real, it can’t be done. So I was just blown away by a bunch of people coming together for whales and realizing there’s just so much more to be said, the bigger picture.
DB: That’s a good, solid, hefty answer. I just want to make films for….I love collective experiences and I think it’s very good to make films that are personal to you and you know what they are. But I think it’s for certain types of people and you sort of know the people that you’re making for. There aren’t a lot of films that you get to make that are very diverse and for a large group of people. We all want to be a part of something that makes us believe that good things happen in the world and that people actually put aside their agendas and came together on something that was really extraordinary, and the fact that there is levity to the really cool important message in this movie makes it not medicine. It’s just a beautiful story and incredible things happen and I think because it’s true, we know that it happened, it sort of gives us that hope that we need in life. But Ken Kwapis, who is just the most…one of the best directors who I’ve ever worked with in my life, was so profoundly smart and insightful about how to approach every single tone in this movie. I knew going into it because of the writing, how good it would be, and I loved the people that Ken was putting together and I knew this was going to special and I couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to get to be a part of it. And then watching it unfold every day, it just continues to exceed my expectations. I need this kind of hope in life. I need movies like this that are just really great storytelling and there’s something just a bit old fashioned in it. It is just extraordinary storytelling and it’s wonderful. It’s a wonderful, wonderful movie.
Q: So your character is the sort of go-getter, save the world kinda thing. What advice would you give to people who want to sign up for a cause?
DB: The same thing that the woman I’m playing, Cindy Lowery did and what I totally believe in is just if it takes staying up 23, 24 hours in a day then do it. If it takes researching until you get to the core of your argument or your passion or your fight, find it then do it. Nothing comes from passion alone. It comes from this incredible diligence and I think you can change things, you can have an effect, you can pull off impossible if you really work at something. And I love that about my character. I love that she is inexhaustible! And then also it’s fun to play someone who’s a bit righteous and stubborn and just almost humorously petty in a way because she has to do what she needs to do, and that’s a really interesting challenge — to not make someone like that someone you just want to write off, but someone that you want to get behind. And another thing that Ken, our director, is doing which is really just so astute and profound is every side has their convictions and their set of beliefs and I don’t think it’s interesting to see an argument where someone’s right and someone’s wrong. It’s interesting to see an argument where both sides have their traditions, their beliefs, a profound sort of connection and the effect it has on the world and what they do and then put those two people in a room together and make them debate and it’s far more intelligent and far more interesting.
Q: What is it like being on the other side of the industry? Being a member of the press versus being –
JK: Oh my God, good question. You guys have it rough, let me tell you. It was actually one of the coolest parts about taking this role was to see the process that the press goes through with a huge story in a media frenzy. It was really really inspiring to see the footage because my character’s sort of an amalgam of a couple people, so it’s not one person that I could go talk to. So to me, my whole angle of doing research was the media itself and how much attention was placed on it and you know there is, like Drew was saying, an extreme power in the knowledge that a certain amount of focus can make a huge difference and that obviously these whales are representatives of much bigger things in this movie, and they were in real life. So to me it was the dichotomy between someone who just wanted to break a really good story for personal gain (which is totally part of this) and learning later that the attention being brought to the story had such an effect, not only on the world as a whole, but on certain people. And like Drew said, I think that most recent thing I can think of is when George Clooney did that Hope For Haiti telethon I was manning the phones, I was so blown away to hear that everybody’s number one comment was “thank you guys for doing this,” not because we love seeing celebrities do a bunch of different things, but because we didn’t know exactly what to do and we needed to do something so when there’s focus put on one certain pinpoint idea it allows people to feel like they do have a voice and a say in all this.
Q: Once you both had read the script, what other sorta things – did you surf videos on YouTube or whatever sort of things did you –
DB: That’s too surface for me, I go way deeper than that.
Q: Read other things, read old news articles or did you just kinda stick to what was in the script?
DB: I read a bunch of books. I spent week upon week upon week traveling to different places with Cindy Lowery, the woman that I’m playing. I met with different people in this field, like Paul Watson who’s the whale wars gentleman. I went up to his island and spent Labor Day weekend with him and chasing pods of orcas. I researched and met with the head of Greenpeace and spent time with them. Ken really put me on track with constant research, some of which yes, I pulled off the internet. But just book after book after article and then Ken gave me these books that were just profound: Leviathan by Philip Hoare, which is just an amazing sort of evaluation and dissection of not only Moby Dick, but just every piece of information about the history of whales, whaling. I studied different types of whales from a scientific level and then he also had me read this book called Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, which when I started reading it I wondered why he was having me read this because it didn’t seem on point since it’s about factory farming. And I found myself after months of months of traveling and doing all this research and spending all this time with people and being a book worm, you know, a questioner or whatever. But it was the one thing that set me into me being that guy at a dinner table who’s like “and you know what, that chicken that you’re eating is filled with puss and poison. You don’t want to be eating that and what you should be doing and what the government is doing.” And I was like oh my God, Ken Kwapis is a genius. Forget everything I just spent months on. Thank God I felt like I had that in my arsenal because I like to show up with a lot of homework, but it was the very thing that Ken said “please read this” and I remember him saying it will make you angry. But it was like 2 months before I read it and that turned me in one foul swoop more of the kind of person who I think I wanted to be for this character, and who is that someone who is in your face with a lot of information about things and they’re very passionate about it. And they may ruin dinner parties and hopefully they’re still funny and charming enough that you don’t write them off and you want to hang out with them, but it was the thing that forced me into being someone I’m…you know, I’m very passionate about things but it certainly wasn’t in this particular field that I was so that’s just a few things that I can think of.
JK: Why would I ever answer that question after what you just said.
DB: (laughs) I just wanted to show that I go a lot deeper than YouTube.
Go on to the second page to read an interview with Dermot Mulroney!
Interview with Dermot Mulroney
Q: Look at your boots. You have the most serious boots I’ve seen.
DM: They are actually vintage 1984 army issue – like cold weather boots.
Q: Can you seriously, you know how there’s ice outside, can you walk on it?
DM: Yeah, but the flip side is on that plastic it’s more slippery and it almost makes a nails on a chalkboard sound so it has a downside. But I was pretty impressed. In fact, all this is western costume, you know it’s like the classic costume shop in LA, but they’re the ones that have legitimate, vintage, authentic.
Q: That’s really cool. Are they heavy?
DM: They were heavy at first. I thought we were getting a little sore because we were wearing more clothing weight like you know Rob Riggle is a big guy. It’s just like a little sore in the back you know. But yeah they’re heavier than normal shoes. It’s like wearing those ankle weights. It keeps you in shape.
Q: So what appealed to you about this when you read the script?
DM: I didn’t know anything about the story. Believe it or not I was alive in 1988, an adult, but I missed this somehow and really the appeal was the script just reads great and it’s rare to see a script that’s just so well compiled. You know, all these separate stories that make sense on their own and then add up to one good story, when they all intersect. I had always hoped to work with Ken as much for the work he’s done as a director but also because I have friends that know him and I just knew that he was one of the top nice guys in town. In fact, we had mutual friends enough that we felt like we’d already met each other when I know that we hadn’t, so it was that thing where I said “nice to meet you Ken” and he says “nice to see you” because he’s not sure if he’s met me or not, you know that thing? Where you say “nice to see you” in case you have met before. But I knew that we hadn’t. I’d met his kids and his wife, but anyway that was one of the appeals, the director – and the cast that was already in place. They already had Drew and John and Ted when he put me in and then the very next day I get a call from James, who’s my best friend who I’ve worked with a number of times. He’s in it too so that was the kicker for me to work with him. That would be our sixth movie together. We’re friends in real life so an added bonus.
Q: What kind of pressure did that put on having to play this role? Especially not knowing the story, what kind of research did it entail – how did that play out for you?
DM: Well it was a little bit…I was concerned at first. I had never had any military training. I’ve never really, that I can remember, played someone in the military and this guy’s a colonel and I ended up learning from the national guardsmen. The best luck I had was that a lot of smaller roles and the extras are actually guardsmen, so they know how a colonel is supposed to act and they told me, but it’s like top brass, it’s not just a private or an enlisted man, so an officer. And Bonnie (Vinessa Shaw’s character) helped a lot when I met her. Really what I recognized when I met her that added to that sort of officious, by the book type of character as I read it was how in love he was with her. He’s since passed away, the guy that I’m playing, which is Tom Carroll. I didn’t know if you knew that but what she revealed to me that I added to the character from meeting the real person was how sensitive he was. I read some of his letters to her that are really beautiful love letters, like almost poetry, so put that together with a guy that’s a straight-shooter, sorta Ram-rod colonel, makes the character even more interesting that it was this combination. And I think it’s true to who he actually was according to those who knew him.
Q: How would you say you’re like and unlike the character?
DM: I don’t know. For me this is an interesting part because obviously I’ve played a number of romantic roles so to do it in this costume and in this character is a nice turn for me. It comes kinda unexpectedly in the story to a certain extent, but with all these other things going on that there’s this budding romance and they’re not kids either so it’s not really cute, it just felt really real to me. There’s nothing like matinee-ish about it. At least that’s how I see it, I mean I have to see it that way at my age. To be falling in love in a movie it has to kinda be a grown up version of it. And I think Vinessa and I saw eye-to-eye on that and Ken. As touching and as sensitive as he is as a director, he’s also just very real. He doesn’t want any drippy stuff. I liked the way he’s directed our storyline without making it too cheesy. We’ll see when they add the soundtrack and she’s got the pretty hat it could go that way, but that wasn’t my intention.
Q: How have you enjoyed Alaska? Are you sort of itching to get out, have you had your fill of it?
DM: No, I like it and every time I do a movie even if I work 3 days, I’m done when it’s done. I’ve never felt that feeling about “ugh, get me out of here” so I don’t suffer from that at all. I always like working right up until the end. Anchorage has been great. I saw a little bit of the surrounding area but not enough to satisfy my curiosity of Alaska, which is obviously rich in farm life and terrain. I mean, beyond description. It’s incredible, so the local people have been great. I’ve run into a number of them who knew the character that I’m playing. It’s not a small city but it’s a small town type of small city. I mean everyone knows everybody so the story still has its own life in Anchorage, even though we’re hundreds of miles from where it took place. The people in Anchorage are thrilled that this story is being told, so it’s been a really warm reception in a cold environment. But today was actually the first day that I felt cold. It’s fine now, you know the sun’s out. So that’s been a non-issue. It’s fun to feel like it’s not all cushy – in the trailer to a warm, set, sunshine. At least it feels a little more rugged which is nice. It’s not like it’s high action, but it’s not all cushy.
Q: What are your Alaska must-haves?
DM: You know what they have up here? I’ve gone twice, and I guess I won’t be here for the next week, but they have something called Thursday Night Fights. Did anyone else tell you about this? It is home grown amateur boxing where people call each other out. It’s challenge boxing so a guy will go up and challenge somebody for the next week. And they try to match up weights pretty well. So there’s like 7 or 8 fights, three rounds, one and half minute rounds from sometimes good boxers, but mainly not good boxers. I was tempted to [do it]. If I challenged I would have a random challenge. Anybody that is over 45 and angry and has never boxed before is who I would challenge. Probably the best match would be Ken Kwapis. I’d have to try to take him out. But it’s a local phenomenon. People love it. They show up. It’s sponsored just not by the bar, but by the towing company and the carpet cleaning business. It’s really a site to behold and a fixture of the local nightlife. That’s what I gathered anyway.
Q: What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the army?
DM: They were shooting at the Meryl Field, it’s like the municipal air field. Everybody’s a pilot up here. Oh I won’t say everybody, but it’s certainly more per capita than any other state. That’s a statistic that we know. I mean, just a lot of people fly and you need to be able to or know someone who does so you can get anywhere cause everything’s so remote. We’re shooting a scene at the air field and we have an advisor or two here, Berney Kal, who I’ve been working with from the National Guard, and he was desperate to get me on the black hawk helicopter we were using that day. I’m going to try and arrange it and what I learned is that you can’t just hitch a ride on an army helicopter. There’s a little bit of paperwork that’s involved. So he’s trying and he calls Major Hayes – it literally goes through the Pentagon. It’s the PR guy for the army, you know, a warfare general he’s dealing with so when he gets an actor on the plane, when he does an interview, he talks about how cool the National Guard was. The guy in Washington wants it to happen and the guys on the ground, Berney and Guy want it to happen and then there’s the army bureaucracy that stands in between their goal, and so it never happened and actually what put it to rest was that they had a – one of their pilots went down the other day and it took them two days to find the wreckage. He didn’t survive and all that so that became their priority – handling that story rather than dealing with the joker actor who wants to go for an amusement park ride. It’s weird how it turned and got suddenly serious.
Q: What’s been your favorite day so far?
DM: It was today until I came here and sat next to this heater, so the day’s shot. I’ll have to say yesterday. You know I’ve been on a number of movies like this, but they aren’t that common. It’s got a group of people and it’s become right from the start so much about who you’re working with. So when they say cut and are setting up another shot and normally, you make your way back to your trailer or go find a chair and sit down and do your thing. These people – they can’t even get the actors off the set. We’re standing around laughing. Drew I knew. I had worked with her on Bad Girls in 1993. James LeGros was on that as well. We worked with her when she was… I think she was 18 then. You don’t have to quote the age and the date because people will do the math, but I hadn’t seen her in a long time. It’s just this great group of actors and we all did our own little parts for 6 weeks or more so you’d kinda see them or catch them for dinner, but suddenly on this set out here, this amazing thing that they put together. Everybody works all day long standing, slipping on the ice and it really became one of those movies that none of us will ever forget. We were all there on the same day doing a huge set piece like this. It’s a lot more memorable than a scene on a couch with two different people. Or you’ll do a movie with your buddy like James, you never even see him because his part doesn’t work with your part, and this is just everybody all at once. It’s just really fun and there’s animatronic whales, there’s computer generation, there’s weather, there’s schedules, there’s cranes, there’s plastic ice, there’s real snow. I mean as much as anything, this is a producer’s movie. So many different aspects that needed to be organized and I mean Ken, obviously the director, but to get all that stuff in the same place and organized at the right time — that’s been really fun to watch and they’re doing it.
Go onto the third page to read an interview with Ted Danson!
Interview with Ted Danson
Q: Tell us about your character.
TD: I never know until I watch them. He’s based on a real character, but very very loosely based. He is – what I love about this film is that everybody’s has a self interest. Everybody’s…even Greenpeace is slightly promoting themselves, you know, they’re getting millions of members. My character is an oil exec and he was – well my character, the real guy was actually in oil equipment and stuff, but he falls in love with the whales, and yet at the end he’s still the oil guy. He got the contract to clean up Exxon Valdez spill, you know and made a fortune cleaning up this spill and so that’s the guy. I think he surprises himself by how much he is moved by the whales and ends up truly caring and we’ve had some real people around like the person who plays Rachel, actually said that my guy did show up at one point and it really moved her by how much he cared about the whales.
Q: What kind of research did you do for the role?
TD: Very little. No truthfully because it wasn’t built on a real guy. You know something, I’ve gotten to the point where if I have to learn how to do something, if I have to learn how to climb trees or cut them down with a chainsaw or something, then you need to practice that so you look like you know what you’re doing. But if you don’t have to do that and the material’s good, your job is to really show up in the moment cause if you’re not totally spontaneously discovering stuff as the camera rolls, who cares? That’s my new philosophy in life. I love the piece, I thought it was brilliant. It’s hard to find a sweet and environmentally correct movie without making people gag, so here is something where you have a lot of… not cynical, but there’s a little bit of a everybody’s out doing their thing, for their reasons and yet somehow all these bedfellows get together and do the right thing and save the whales and it’s very compelling… compellingly told and it’s very fast paced and they have wonderful characters. There are about twelve major characters and they all have their own arcs that make people like Dermot want to show up even though the parts aren’t huge. Everybody wanted to play because it was such a great story. What I also loved about it was the opportunity because I spend most of my time when I’m not acting, I’m part of something called Oceana which is an international ocean advocacy organization…pretty much do that all the time, so it was fun to play a character and say things that people used to say to me like, “did you ride your bicycle here today, Ted? You want to stop off-shore oil drilling, but what kind of car do you drive?”
Q: Dermot was saying that this movie is so production heavy because you’re in Alaska and then the snow and there’s so many pieces that come together to make this movie – were there any challenges that you encountered in dealing with all these other components?
TD: Not really, you know, I mean it’s cold. You feel like a 4 year-old being bundled up by mom every day before you go out in the snow. It’s awkward to walk around with all this equipment. For the director, for the crew, huge problems. Well not problems, but just challenges cause it is hard to move this many extras and right off the bat there’s about $6 million worth of computer generated special effects. Before you start the movie you can guarantee it’s going to cost you at least $6 million or $7 million more just to do the whales and to turn this little slice – did you look at it all, the set? – this little slice of Barrow and yet after they finish shooting all the Barrow and place our little slice in it, it’s astounding. You feel like you’re in the middle of this vast nowhere, like you do when you’re up in Barrow. Have you been to Barrow, anybody? Amazing. I got to go up there and it’s astounding. One of the things I don’t think we have captured was how cold it is. Sometimes Ken the director will say, “remember it’s cold” but when I went up there and it was 8 below…man, you almost involuntarily scream it’s so cold. What else, what are the other challenges…the challenge in acting in any special effects movie is acting in your own little world, not realizing there’s this huge vast thing around you that will be added later, and that the whales will be way more cool than they are now and so you have to kind of imagine in a large group what it is that you’re looking at. Ken…I cannot sing Ken Kwapis’ praises enough. He is astoundingly calm. He knows exactly what he wants and he lets you explore. No one’s ever seen him get angry, literally. Even when things fall apart he’s like this really cool, efficient, mellow leader and there are people who have worked with him over the years who would go anywhere to work with him and I’ve become one of those people. Love him.
Q: Is there a lot of comedy from your character? Is he a bit of a buffoon?
TD: Yes, that’s my revenge for the real guy (people laugh). My guy kinda misbehaved in life. So my little revenge is yes, the way I play him he’s a bit of a fool.
Q: Did you ever get to meet him?
TD: No and no need really cause it’s not…we remain a comedy. We are taking gentle kinda shots at you know…we’re all a little bit foolish in our own ways for this film, so yeah it’s fun.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about Alaska?
TD: I love it, but I don’t want to make it sound like….I think, I had two huge experiences. One was going to Barrow because I was doing Oceana stuff when I went up there. I met with Mayor Pippin and he’s a guy who’s literally right in the middle of the oil energy, natural resources, sustainable fishing discussion because here oil is what’s kept his people alive the last 10, 15 years. And yet now, drilling in the Chukchi sea could actually destroy that part of their life that is their spiritual core which is hunting, bowhead whales. If there were an oil spill it could really mess up their life big time, so I got this great introduction and met almost all the people in Barrow and there was a reception and a this and a that and I got to drive out to the most northern point and I got to eat in the restaurant that we have here. We call ours Amigos. So it was just…if you haven’t been to this, it’s huge. You really are in another world, and another world surrounded by Indian culture and Eskimo culture that is so rich that I loved it. It made me feel like “wow, now I’ve really been someplace else.” Anchorage is fantastic and they’ve been so sweet to us, it’s great. The hotel is great, but everybody here says get out, go out and they’re right. Alaska is getting outdoors. Went to Chena Hotsprings — that was fun and on the way we took a little plane. We flew down and then down to the great gorge. Do you know what that is? Kinda right smack dab in the middle of …. There’s these sheer cliffs that form this gorge and our plane just went (plane noise) and we were like going down this hallway of mountain. It was just astounding. Yeah I grew up around Hogan Navajo Indians. My father was an archeologist and directed the museum. All of my friends growing up were Hogan Navajo, so to hang around the Indians here on this set, it lowers my blood pressure. There’s something so real and calming and what’s really important in life gets paired down to their sensibility so it’s really a treat to be around them. And I think Ken Kwapis really captures that on film through the whales and through them. The rest of us are kinda satellites that are kinda foolish whether, it’s Greenpeace and the oil man or the military and Regan and the Russians…the foolish people from Minnesota that have intention to save the whales, you know all these kind of do-gooders and selfish people all coming together. They are kinda satellites around, they are kind of wonderfully silly, but the core, the whales… I love that part of the film. Now ask me something.
Q: What’s been the worst part?
TD: Being away from home. These clothes…I feel like you’ve got about 20 pounds on you, slipping and sliding on the ice, but it’s also the fun part, but it’s the worst part. It’s a little bit of a Pollyanna mood around here because all of the actors hang out and play and have dinner and drink and they all have dogs and we play – you know it’s like this little family unit in the hotel because we’re all in one place. It’s been like an actor’s summer camp for actors. It’s been great. People I haven’t seen in a long time, people I’ve gotten to know. Drew is scrumptious, man, she’s astounding. I know what’s been the hardest part – being twice as old as everybody else.
Q: You had mentioned last time we talked that over the years there’s always been talk of a Cheers reunion. Getting close to the 20th anniversary…
TD: I think the 30th or 40th would be the funny one when we’re all in walkers.
Q: No real thoughts though?
TD: No they’re not going to do that. Ten years ago we asked them. We had this thought that when Kelsey and Fraiser…that Fraiser should walk back to the bar in Boston after he quits his job and walk in the doors and go “hey, what’s been happening?” and we’re all older, you know, 20 years later and they thought it was a dumb idea.
Q: Is it hard for you knowing one day you’re going up and helping Oceana and the next day you’re playing the oil tycoon?
TD: It’s a wonderful irony actually cause sometimes being the goody-two-shoes is boring. You much prefer to be that certain “I’m drilling for oil, kiss my ass if you don’t like it, oh you don’t need oil?” – you know, that kind of….talking to an oil person is like talking to daddy and you’re like the adolescent kid cause what you’re asking for is kinda hard to put words to it and so it’s fun to play the certain “I have no doubts” person.
Click onto the next page to read an interview with Tim Blake Nelson!
Interview with Tim Blake Nelson
Q: Tell us about your character.
TBN: Oh, I play Pat Lafayette, who’s the head of Wildlife Management in the North Slope region. When this all occurs, he’s an amalgam of three characters — really who constituted the wildlife office at that time, but in terms of narrowing it down for a good 2 hour story, they gathered all those qualities in one character and I guess I’m doing my best not to play him as a split personality.
Q: Did you know much about wildlife before this?
TBN: No, most of what I knew about wildlife came from grade school and then also I have three children — three boys so when you help them with their homework you end up learning about wildlife and in particular ironically, or perhaps suitably, I’ve learned a lot about whales prior to this movie because my boys are really interested in whales. Yeah, they’re pretty excited and also heartbroken that because of school they can’t be here, but they’ll all be at the premiere.
Q: Is your character somewhat of a straight man or do you get to play a lot of the comedy in this?
TBN: Some comedy, you know the comedy that occurs in this movie is pretty natural and character driven and I would say doesn’t derive from intentionally written comic scenarios. It’s more quirky comedy than high concept comedy and I have a little bit of that that I get to do in the movie. But by a large most of the comedy in the film is wonderfully accidental and unintended in the right ways, it’s not unintended in the wrong ways. You know I think that the whales themselves are this weird dichotomy because they’re so enormous and yet also graceful and we don’t often think of those two words in the same sentence. And I think that there are little moments of comedy that derive from the absurdity of the situation and I guess I’m involved in a few of those. Mostly that ends up accruing Ted, Rob Riggle, and James LeGros. Their characters are pretty funny.
Q: Did you meet other wildlife experts in your preparation?
TBN: I didn’t unless you’re one.
Q: Did you have any idea who this guy would be or did you create that?
TBN: I did based on reading the Tom Rose book and what I find fascinating about this character is that even though he’s part of wildlife management (which in Alaska is called fish and game management — interesting distinction), he really represents the subsistence of whalers more than he does wildlife… at least in terms of this story. One of his main jobs is to help establish quotas for how many whales the Inupiats or the Eskimos can kill and so he occupies this interesting region between the polarities of Greenpeace and the whalers and that’s what I found most interesting about playing the role. To make it more interesting there’s no dialogue whatsoever which elucidates that or deals with it in any way and so it’s been interesting to try to navigate that on a totally unspoken, sub-textual level. It’s a fun challenge.
Q: What was it like when you first read the script?
TBN: It’s been an interesting journey just inside my own mind, a very local journey for me or interesting for me, probably not ultimately so interesting, but I read the script and I really liked it because I felt that even though it was potentially very sentimental as a story, very sentimental, the take wasn’t so sentimental. And then in talking to Ken on the phone, I was doing this bank heist movie in Louisiana, and so I talked to Ken on the phone in Louisiana and became convinced based on that conversation that he would make a script that already wasn’t too sentimental, even less sentimental. So I thought “well it’ll be really interesting to try and be a part of that effort” because of course just prima facie, a saving whales story is going to be sentimental so working in a way that contravenes that is always an interesting challenge and keeping it as a family movie. And so I was pretty excited, but then I read the Tom Rose book, which is really cynical and accurately so, I think. I really liked the book, but it made me wonder a little bit about the project because of course the book is subtitled you know how the news media – something like “How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event.” You know the book? Yeah, and largely the book is, in addition to telling the story about saving the whales, it’s this critique about media and it looks at the story in 1988 as this sort of gateway into this sensationalist media in which everyone was always looking for the new story and that a routine event (which the stranding of these whales really is), could be turned into something international by dent of the way it was covered and the way that people’s natural compassion for wildlife in peril could be exploited by the news media and it’s really really good book. And I thought oh my God, hang on, what are we doing here, this movie could almost be the epilogue of the book because it’s turning this, once again, routine natural selection moment where these whales didn’t get out of the ice and so probably shouldn’t survive anyway and are dying into this enormously sentimental story, but then being part of telling it while we’re shooting it and just being part of Ken’s approach and a part of this core of actors that seems really smart, cynical in their own ways. It’s just been great to get caught up in this story in a way that is unabashedly sentimental, but also appropriately so and so I’ve shifted away from cynicism and have just had a great time so I guess I started when I heard about the project being a little cynical. Then I read the script, was less cynical and kinda won over by it. Then I read the Tom Rose book, got cynical again and then shooting the movie I’ve lost all cynicism and I just find it a great project to be a part of. That’s a long answer.
7: What’s the experience been like living in Alaska?
TBN: It’s my third time to Alaska. I did another movie here called White in Skagway, which in the winter has a population of around 50, but because it’s a resort community…no a cruise destination, big difference…. wehad a lot of hotel space so we, 300 or so of us – the crew and the cast, moved into this town and then we would commute everyday into Canada to shoot, take our passports to get to set cause it was after 9/11 so you had to take your passport. So this is a different sort of Alaska. I’m really really happy here. I think what’s – my background originally was in theater, I was in graduate school until I was 26 and really only intended ever intended to be a stage actor. What I love about doing movies, particularly on doing movies like this, a fully three dimensional experience, is you’re really put in scenes because they want to film what looks real that seems utterly unreal and so I love the weather for what we’re doing. I love this set they’ve built out here. I love the quality of the light. How real the whales look, the mechanical whales. Have you gotten to see them yet? It’s breathtaking and you know I couldn’t feel luckier. It’s great to get to go to these, I think exotic locations and be in a dimensional reality where everything is what it should be including the weather, but I miss my family. That’s always tough, but I’m really happy to be in Alaska. And you know the Ubics and the Inupiats and the Shupic Indians. It’s great to be among those faces and meet character who actually might have been involved in the actual story so it’s been splendid.
Click onto the next page to read an interview with Kristen Bell!
Interview with Kristen Bell
Q: Tell us about your character.
KB: I play Jill Gerard who is a fictional journalist and probably experienced what a lot of people in 1988 experienced… a lot of young journalists, especially the ones who were fighting their way up the ladder in that she heard about the story and felt that it could be her big break so she pitched it to her news station KABC in Los Angeles and volunteered to fly out there and was really excited about it until she got here and realized how bleak and expensive and cold and difficult it would be. And throughout the course of the film it turns out that her instincts were right and that it becomes such a huge news story that she is bumped off of the story, but she kind of refuses to accept that.
Q: How are you like and unlike her?
KB: I’m a fighter like she is. I don’t think I’m as much of a fighter as she is. I have a lot of qualities that Jill has, just not extremist Jill. I don’t know that I would volunteer to go to Barrow, Alaska, and I also don’t know what it’s like to try and be a female reporter in 1988. And I think she’s probably pushed up against the wall and bullied a lot and so she had to make a name for herself and do something extreme, but she’s a workaholic and I love to work, though I wouldn’t categorize myself as a workaholic. I don’t think I’m that much like Jill, now that I’m explaining it.
Q: How much comedy do you get to do with your character?
KB: A little bit, not a ton, not necessarily the type of comedy that I think I’ve done before. This is more like comedy that rears its head through funny situations, not necessarily by (drum noise) jokes. But you know there’s a certain level of comedy that you just get without doing anything when you put all of these human beings in the frigid weather and you dress them up like crazy snowmen and you have them stand out on the ice and their teeth are chattering. I mean that’s just kinda funny to watch, so there’s really nothing slapsticky about it. It’s more comedy that comes about when you’re up against all odds I guess.
Q: What kind of advice would you give to someone who is wanting to pursue something whether it’s acting or being a reporter or just going after a goal?
KB: A self-help book? No, I mean I’m definitely not probably qualified to give out that kind of advice, but for me personally just keeping your goal in mind every day and kind of having that be your mantra that you wake up to every morning is really important. I think that, I don’t know, if you want to be an actor you just need to be acting, you need to be experiencing, acting in some way or another at all times. You can’t just be experiencing everyone else’s acting. Like you can want to be an actor or you can want to be a movie buff. I think those are kind of two different things. I don’t know, I’d say if you want to be an actor get involved in community theater if that’s the only thing available to you because it’s a great sort of way to work your way up and I have no idea what to do if you want to be a reporter because I dropped my minor in journalism so I certainly did not do it right.
Q: Did you have your fill of Alaska here or do you think you’d want to come back if there was another production that you were offered?
KB: You know the cold is not the problem with me. I actually love the cold because I grew up in Detroit and I love bundling up and there’s a lot of cute stuff you can do with warm weather clothes, so it doesn’t get boring, but it’s the lack of sunlight that’s really getting to me and I may be turning into a vampire, for real. Like I’m having really dark thoughts, you know what I mean and I’m enjoying the night time. Last night, not a joke, I slept 12 hours. What human does that? Who needs to do that? Someone is not as familiar with sunlight would be doing that. I think for me personally because I’m spoiled and the fact that LA has such great weather and is so motivated by outdoor activities, it has been difficult adjusting here. It’s gone in weird phrases because the first couple weeks and, I’m sure you guys have met all the people in this movie and they rule and we have a really good, fun group and we’ve been having a blast off camera with each other, but then you hit kind of weird pockets where you’re like “oh I haven’t seen my family in a couple weeks” or “where is the sun” or “the food is unfamiliar,” so I think that for a short amount of time I would definitely come back to Alaska because it’s so beautiful and I don’t mind the cold, but staying here in the winter for an extended period of time without the sun, it takes a lot of Zen focus. As far as the beauty of Alaska, if you ever have a “ah-ha moment like oh my God I can’t believe I’m in Alaska” – I did, one of the first weeks I came up here I climbed Mount Alyeska which is like this big resort in Girdwood and it’s called Alyeska. It’s this hotel that has a tram that’s usually for skiing or the summer for mountain biking and it goes to the top and it was 30 degrees when you went to the top of the tram and when you hit the top of the mountain it was maybe 70-75, it was hot up there at the top of the mountain. It was a really foggy day so there were all of these crazy, beautiful mountains that you were on the summit of and then the pool beneath you was just full of clouds so we were taking all these funny pictures of us diving into the clouds like we were jumping off the mountain and when I was standing at the top of Alyeska I was thinking — this is real, this is why people move to Alaska cause some people need this around them all the time, you know? Which is totally understandable because it’s completely authentic and mesmerizing.
Q: What initially drew you to the part when you first read the script?
KB: Well when I first read it I was initially already excited because Ken was directing it and he’s a really good director and he has an unbelievable reputation for being the nicest man alive. And he knows how to make movies. He knows how to make funny movies, but he also knows how to real movies and I identified with Jill I guess in this way in that in my imagination I would have been Jill because my father was a news director and so I grew up kind of playing with teleprompters and running around his set and commenting on how I didn’t like that anchorman’s tie and then he wouldn’t be allowed to wear it on air again. You know, silly stuff like that. I was always at my dad’s station so I was very familiar with – and that’s why I started a minor in journalism when I was in college, so I think I was just kind of taken with the well, “what if I never wanted to act and what if I’d just stayed on that path?” I also really liked the situation that Jill was in, in that she had no choice but to be a fighter because there weren’t a lot of – it’s like Veronica Corningstone, there were just no female anchors. It’s a very interesting scenario as opposed to something very general which is like oh I want to move up in my station. She really has to prove herself if she’s going to move up in 1988 because they weren’t that keen to promote females I guess.
Q: Do you have any funny stories from being on set with everyone?
KB: I mean, I’ve been hearing rumors of a lot of sprinting today and yesterday but I don’t know if I have any funny anecdotes other than freezing.
Q: National Guard stories?
KB: We visited the base here where apparently – we had gotten all the actors together and just thought that this was something we should be responsible for and we can spread a little love and say thank you with the troops here. And it turned out, it was kind of a bummer because it turned out to be a drill day and there were like 15 people there. There were like 15 of us and 15 of them so we literally just socialized for like an hour, so it was kind of one-on-one contact, but it was wonderful and I think that visiting the base was important. Is that what you meant? But it was cool, it was really cool. And I know that a lot of the army guys had sort of been teaching Dermot the real skills of what you need to have, so it was a way to go say thank you and see their base. They were appreciative even though they couldn’t draw in big numbers.
Q: The seals?
KB: Oh that was fun. And that was so long ago. You know what happens when you go on location is like the first 2 weeks you are so excited and everything is new. You’re like I’m definitely going to do that, I’m going to summit everything, I’m going to see everything. And then the more you get here, the sort of quaintness tends to wear off and wear on you, so when we first got here though we got to go to the Aquatic Life Center. And so we got a backstage tour of the sea lions and stuff and it was really cool and they let you sort of interact with them which was really fun. It’s not really funny, but I liked it.
Q: What do you think the overall message of the story is?
KB: That’s not an easily answerable question because there are a lot of different points of view that fall into this story. It seems as though it’s about a whale rescue, so you feel like “oh it’s a heart-warming animal activist story.” The actuality of it is that it’s based on a book called “Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event” which – might be the elephant in the room, but we all know it’s happened. Some things are sensationalized that are not actually a story. I think the reason this script is so interesting is because there are a lot of different points of view – one being what the book was about, which is this particular scenario of whales being trapped. It happens every year and it’s kind of survival of the fittest since the ones that aren’t smart enough don’t make it out into the ocean. So the fact that someone caught it on camera and that everyone around the world flipped out and said we have to see them, we have to see them. The new kids up here were like “wait, what?” It has nothing to do with – culturally there, they have been surviving on the whales up here forever and we may disagree with it, but it’s their culture, you know what I mean? And from an anthropological point of view you have no right to tell them that that’s wrong. As crazy as it may be to us because I think we sense such an intelligence from them, I think the title kind of reigns it in because I don’t know anyone who hates whales, but it’s just kind of an interesting cross-fire to know that the Inupiats were like “we should be harvesting them.” This is what happens every year, you guys just don’t come here and then we’re fighting like – no, this is the year we have to save them because we witness it. It’s just there’s a lot of different themes to the movie and I don’t even know that, until I see it I’ll know exactly which one Ken is focusing in on or maybe there’s not one. I think the reason that I liked the script so much is because there is so many different things to take away from it. If you are an animal activist you will read it and see that this is about a whale rescue. If you are a journalist you could read this and see how – wow, this is a big story to break. If you’re another type of journalist or a critic you could read it and say – that was completely sensationalized, it never should have been a story, it was ridiculous and it’s like more comment on the human behavior around it. I think there is so many different opinions inside this script and that is one of the reasons I liked it.