Sunday night, The Hours won for Best Dramatic Picture at the Golden Globes foreign press awards, while Nicole Kidman won for Best Actress in a Drama film for her portrayal in the film.
Michael Cunningham's novels take on a life of their own. His second novel, A Home At The End Of The World, originally published in 1990, was adapted into an award-winning stage play by Chicago's About Face Theatre Company in 1998. His fourth novel, The Hours (1998), received both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. The movie version of The Hours is also receiving a lot of attention, earning 'best picture' honors from the National Board of Review and Southeastern Film Critics Association, along with nods to the cast from film critic's societies and associations in Boston, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Seven Golden Globe nominations for the film also hold the promise for recognition when the Academy Award Nominations are announced. I had the pleasure of speaking with Cunningham when he was in Chicago on a surprisingly warm day in January.
Gregg Shapiro: Do you remember what your initial reaction was when you were first approached about the potential for a movie version of The Hours?
Michael Cunningham: My first reaction was, 'You're kidding! (Smiles wide) You must have me mixed up with some other Michael Cunningham who wrote a thriller with sex and car chases in it. You don't mean me. You don't mean this book.' And, in fact, they did. To my complete surprise.
GS: What was it like for you to watch your characters Laura and Clarissa being brought to life on-screen by Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep?
MC: It is a very strange experience. Before the movie deal was made, people would sometimes ask me, 'If there were a movie made of my book, who do I see playing my characters?' My response was always, 'Well, my characters would have to play themselves, because I have such a clear idea of them.' It's like saying, 'Who would play your mother in the film version of your mother's life?' Well, your mother would have to play your mother. No one else is like her (takes a drag from his cigarette). I found, watching these amazing women play these characters, two of whom I invented, one of whom I sort of invented and sort of didn't … it's a little bit like this, it's a little bit like having known someone intimately who died and then meeting that person reincarnated and understanding from their eyes, from their gestures, from some essential thing that they exude, that this is that person, but back in another body.
GS: People talk a lot about the transformation that took place in Nicole Kidman for the role of Virginia Woolf. What do you think about it?
MC: I can't believe how good Nicole is. Nicole was the biggest question mark in the cast. She's great. I've loved her work for a long, long time. But there was nothing in what she'd done, so far, that made it necessarily true or inevitable that she could manage something like this. This was a big acting job. So it's all the more thrilling to see how completely she nailed it, how brilliant she is. They took a big risk with the nose. They actually just sort of tried it out on the set. (Director) Stephen (Daldry) said, 'Let's see what you look like in a Virginia Woolf nose.' And she looked great. They did it, worrying the whole time, 'Is it going to be distracting? Is it going to look fake? Will people laugh every time she's on-screen?' You take these risks and you hope they pay off, and in this case, it did.
GS: She really disappears into the character.
MC: Part of what's so remarkable about Nicole's performance is that you realize that she didn't need the nose. She could have done it without.
GS: How do feel about Ed Harris's portrayal of Richard, another of the characters that you created?
MC: Richard, in the movie, is more unlike my image of a character than any of the other actors. Ed takes it in a very different direction. My Richard was a little more of a holy fool. Was a little flossier and grander, and more out of Oscar Wilde than he was out of Jackson Pollack. Ed took more getting used to, for me, than anybody else. Before Ed was cast, before anyone had thought of Ed, I talked to Stephen Daldry, who said, 'I don't want Richard to be the stereotypical delicate little poet. I would like Richard to be the wreckage of a once-handsome, big, muscular man.' We started tossing around names and we couldn't think of anybody. We didn't think of Ed Harris for some reason. We thought that Harrison Ford probably wouldn't or couldn't do it. It was clear that we couldn't think of a big deal, macho Hollywood actor who would be remotely believable as a poet.
GS: And could also physically take on that role.
MC: Yeah. Then Stephen called me a couple of days later and said, 'What about Ed Harris?' Oh, yeah! The one, big, handsome macho actor that I know of who you would actually buy as a poet.
GS: An amazing aspect of this movie is that one of the main characters has AIDS, which is a subject that seems to have been swept aside in films in recent years. Do you think that the presence of Richard's character in a film that is being so enthusiastically received will have any impact on the public's consciousness?
MC: I very much hope so. One of the things that is so thrilling to me about the way that the movie is being received is that people are taking it as a whole. No one is talking about it as an AIDS movie. No one is talking about it as lesbian movie. Which is exactly my hope, from the book and the movie, that we understand that AIDS and lesbians and gay men are simply a part of our lives. Now, what's the story?
GS: I'm really glad that you brought that up, because I was a little bit surprised by some of the responses from the audience at the screening of The Hours that I attended. These are three bisexual women, on-screen, and I was surprised that there was a little bit of a collective intake of breath during the two kisses—between Virginia and Vanessa, and between Laura and Kitty. Have you heard about audiences having that kind of reaction?
MC: I haven't. I'm sure there will be that kind of a response. It doesn't seem, to me, to be the overwhelming response. I hope, at least, that those two kisses are shocking to people for other reasons. That you just don't expect Laura Brown to kiss Kitty.
GS: I have a friend who said if she was a '50s housewife and Kitty was sitting in her kitchen, she would have kissed her too.
MC: Yeah, yeah. Which is exactly the point. It's nothing quite so simple as Laura is a lesbian living a life of lies. She has lesbianism in her, she has other things in her, and she has her own sexuality. She feels this moment of profound connection with Kitty that isn't just about lust. It isn't primarily about lust, it's about something else. Nicole's (Virginia's) kiss (long pause), that shocking, desperate crazy kiss she plants on Miranda (Vanessa) is appalling for all kinds of reasons. The least of which is lesbianism.
GS: Miranda (Richardson), who is one of the supporting actors in a cast including Allison Janney as Sally and Toni Collette as Kitty, were all so amazing. Did you have an opportunity to meet the entire cast?
MC: I haven't met Ed, because he hasn't been around. But I've pretty much met everyone else now. I know this will sound like some P.R. thing, but they're lovely, they're great. All the divas are, in fact, intelligent, fabulous, interesting, funny people.
GS: Before there was the film adaptation of The Hours, there was About Face Theater's stage adaptation of A Home At The End of The World. What does it mean to you to have your literary work lifted from the page and reinterpreted in a dramatic setting?
MC: I love it. I don't have that thing that a lot of novelists do about 'my sacred text.' It feels more fluid than that to me. Any book I publish is simply the best book I could write at that moment in my life. Ten years later, I would write the book completely differently. This is where I got to with this story right now. The idea that somebody gifted and smart —it has to be somebody gifted and smart, of course, somebody like the boys at About Face or David Hare and Stephen Daldry—the idea that somebody like that wants to take it some place else and see what they can do with it is purely thrilling to me. I love that. I didn't get to see it, but when I was in Brazil, somebody told me that there is an entirely illegal, Internet soap opera version of Flesh And Blood, which I was so excited about.
GS: So then the question would be if there is going to be a 'legal' film version of Flesh And Blood or A Home At The End Of The World?
MC: A Home At The End Of The World starts filming in May, with Colin Farrell.
GS: Oh, wow!
MC: Dreamy, I know. And some other great people whose names I can't tell you because it's not definite yet. You can't (say their names) until they've actually signed up. But, if these people do it, I will be the happiest man on earth. I wrote the adaptation for that. That's all set to go. It's a much more low-budget thing than The Hours. It's Killer Films, the people who did Far From Heaven and Boys Don't Cry. It's a slightly different enterprise. We're kind of scraping the money together.
GS: It's still exciting.
MC: Really exciting. Every bit as exciting. Almost more so. I'm much more a part of this.