Russell Harbaugh’s Love After Love, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday night, is an understated, much-deserved showcase for Andie MacDowell. MacDowell plays Suzanne, a woman who, along with her adult sons (Chris O’Dowd and James Adomian), copes with the painful loss of her beloved husband (Gareth Williams) over the course of several years. Harbaugh refreshes this boilerplate story by telling it unconventionally: eschewing explanatory dialogue in favor of meaningful looks and expressive body language, dropping us midway into deceptively mundane conversations, and filming from around corners and through cracked doorways in ways that feel both intimate and politely removed. In several scenes, MacDowell doesn’t speak at all, the camera instead training on her face for long beats or catching her briefly as she shoots a dark look at a family member; in others, she’s allowed to take her time building to a convincing crescendo of anger or sadness or joy. For the first time in her career, MacDowell is also shown partially nude, albeit in naturalistic and nonexploitative ways, her back to us as she clasps her bra.
When I met up with MacDowell, 59, at New York’s Smyth Hotel a few days after the premiere, it was clear that she was thrilled about the role, which has already been called her “most nuanced in years.” In a conversation appropriately peppered with long, thoughtful pauses, MacDowell talked about the singular experience of filming Love After Love, the time she told off a director who explained that audiences “go to movies to see men,” how she responds to people who tell her she’s “beautiful even though she’s old,” and why she takes to Twitter to feel less lonely.
This movie is pretty unorthodox structurally, dialogue-wise, and character-wise. Did it feel really different from other things you’ve done?
Andie MacDowell: I liked that it was about the behaviors of these people, rather than a bunch of dialogue or having to explain things. That’s the most interesting work to do. Yes, it was unique for me. If I had to compare it to anything, it’d be Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which had the same sense of being a voyeur, watching people and their behaviors. A lot of times, when you’re acting, you have to explain things to the audience, and it’s boring work to do that. It’s really hard to make that interesting. I like the discovery of characters. I think people are smart. Audiences are intelligent and can figure things out by just watching behaviors.
The process was the most interesting process I’ve ever been a participant in. [Harbaugh] gave us so many films to watch, which was great — À Nos Amours, Lulu, [Ingmar] Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage, Woody Allen, the Godfather dinners. I see that coming now from new directors, a visual road map. So I knew what he wanted before we even started. And he had us improv a lot, not necessarily to be used but to get into the scene. So we’d start that way, or somebody might improv within the dialogue. You never knew what was going to be in the movie, and not knowing, you just kind of relaxed. You didn’t have to focus on what was “necessary,” you were just playing make-believe, pretending.
In that sense, did you know when it was time to step out of the roles, or did you stay in that sort of family structure between takes? How’d you build those convincing relationships?
MacDowell: I didn’t walk around [in character] — I mean, actually, unconsciously, yes. It wasn’t like I consciously didn’t want anybody to talk to me like my own personal self; I could still have a conversation about things that were happening in my life. But you wore it regardless. You wore the feelings because they were so deep, you were so immersed in this character. In your free time, it was still there. Watching all of those movies helped. I don’t know about you, but when I watch a movie, I’m in it for days. Does that happen to you?
Yeah, for sure.
MacDowell: It puts you in this weird mood, because you’re carrying it around with you. And then the set was — it had a really sweet quality to it. Russ is a sweet man. He was carrying his emotions with him a lot. He’d cry openly in front of us before we’d do scenes. I’ve never seen a director do that. The film is about the loss of his father, and he’d be so immensely touched by certain scenes that he’d revert back to the loss. He’s a gentle man, and that made you want so much more to give him everything you possibly could.
Before we shot the nude scene — because I was scared about that — in the end, it didn’t have any effect on me, seeing me naked. I’ve seen myself naked before, now everybody else is going to [laughs]. I was a little scared, and we were in this weird, cold hotel, and in the room next door, before we were gonna shoot, [Russ] said, “What are you thinking about this? How do you want to do this?” And I said, “Well, should I just show you?” And he said, “Yeah, sure!” And he was just standing there and I took my clothes off. But I really didn’t feel anything! It was interesting. I felt no shame.
I went in the bathroom, and I’ve never had a man just stand there and tell me how beautiful I was. “You’re so beautiful, you’re just so beautiful, that’s perfect.” I was moving my body around, trying to figure out how to not show the front part, and [wondering], What’s my ass look like? But everything I did, it didn’t matter. I could tell he genuinely thought I was beautiful, and I just relaxed, and went in, and it wasn’t that big of a deal.
You recently told The Hollywood Reporter, “It’s unusual for a mature woman to be offered something like this.” What sort of roles are you usually offered?
MacDowell: I’ve been working with these other women on material about mature women, and the answer you get a lot [from the industry] is that people don’t want to see programs or shows or movies about mature women. That’s what they say to you. This is not new. This has been around for a long time. And everybody says we’ve made progress. Yes, we’ve made progress. But then you see there’s so many examples of successful programming or movies — this year [in particular]. 20th Century Women I loved.
Big Little Lies.
MacDowell: Big Little Lies, Hidden Figures. There are all of these examples, but somehow, it doesn’t seem to register. There should be a greater register that the public is quite interested in mature women. It’s really about the story; it shouldn’t matter whether it’s male- or female-driven. What should matter is if the story is powerful and interesting. And this has been going on forever.
You know, they always used to cast the male first. Even if the female role was the bigger role. I went in for something years ago, a great role that I knew I wasn’t really right for. I thought I was, like, 10 years too old. The director, this guy who was a well-known director, said, “Well, we’re gonna cast the man first.” I looked at him, because the movie was all about the woman, the man didn’t have hardly anything [to do]. And he said to me, “People go to movies to see men, not women.” As soon as he said it, I said, “You know what? I think you’re wrong.” I said, “And I really don’t think I’m right for this role.” I said, “The perfect person would be Renée …” I never say her last name right.
MacDowell: Yes. They never made the movie, but she would’ve been perfect. It was right after she’d done Bridget Jones’s Diary. I said, “People are going to see the movie if the movie is good.” Of course, I didn’t get that job. But I couldn’t resist.
I can’t believe he said that to your face.
MacDowell: I couldn’t either! I had heard it before, I’d heard rumors of people saying things like that. They’ll still say it — that people don’t want to go to movies to see women. It is thought to be a fact. That’s what they believe, that they’ve gathered from … wherever they gather their “information.” They’ll still use that against you. And they really think mature women aren’t interesting. It’s almost like we cross over to a death zone, while men never do.
It’s like “Last Fuckable Day.”
MacDowell: I could not do an interview after 40 without being asked, “How does it feel?” “How does this affect [your career]?”
It’s an interesting sort of catch-22, though, because it’s frustrating to have to talk about it, but if you don’t, then nobody talks about it.
MacDowell: But then you sound like you’re complaining.
I don’t think so. It just sounds like frankness. Do you think there’s hope of it changing?
MacDowell: I think there’s a shift that’s happening. I see younger women behaving in a different manner. I see young men behaving differently, who are just floored seeing women treated poorly. [Looks at publicist.] Should I say something political or not? That’s what I’m sitting here wondering.
You should feel free to!
MacDowell: OK. When the whole thing came out with Trump, when we heard about him grabbing the — that whole thing. A lot of people were defending him saying, “That’s just the way men talk.” I called my son up, because I wanted to ask him if that’s really how men talk. And he was like, “Good god! Do you really need to ask me that?” I said, “Do your friends ever talk like that?” And he said, “God, no, we don’t talk like that at all. We don’t see women like that, or talk about women like that.” And I don’t think they do. But I think the older generation has spoken poorly about women. I think the older generation has demeaned women as a way to empower themselves.
So I think there is a shift coming. I think we’ll see more women in powerful positions, in control of studios, where there’ll be more balance. And you’ll see more female-driven movies and television shows, without sitting here wondering whether people are gonna like it.
You’ve had the chance to play a lot of iconic characters over the course of your career — in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Groundhog Day, etc. Did those feel like exceptions, too?
MacDowell: I think, as a woman, in your thirties, it’s the best time. Women in their thirties are really beautiful. They are. I think that it’s hard for people to love women when they get older. But it’s easy for them to love men. Men have always been able to age and be perceived as more handsome. But really, we’re no different; we age exactly the same. But we’ve been having to play this role of “captivating person,” based solely on looks rather than our wisdom and our power. Powerful women scare men. I think that when you’re mature, you are powerful. And that’s what makes you beautiful. So until we’re able to see women as beautiful because they’re strong, we’re gonna have problems.
But yes, I did a lot of great work in my thirties. It’s much easier. I have a lot of people say to me now, “God, you’re still beautiful! And you’re old!” [Laughs.] I’m like, “Yeah …? That’s right …? I am a mature woman, and guess what? We don’t turn into something hideous.” It’s a surprise! It’s a surprise. We have some work to do.
To move to a lighter topic: I love your Twitter.
MacDowell: Oh, thank you. I’m corny as can be. I’m so corny. And [if you follow me] you better like dogs that are about to be put to sleep [laughs]. You know what it is? There’s so much anger out there. And I look at it, I follow political people. I’m just tired.
I’m also lonely. I’ll admit it. I go to Twitter because I’m lonely. I get my coffee in the morning, and I live alone. I get on Twitter, and I sit and have my coffee. Sometimes I’ll look at it for 30 minutes. I will waste a lot of time on Twitter [laughs]. I do! But it’s my guilty pleasure. And I’ll look for some happy stories to retweet, and I’ll say some uplifting things to people. I try not to get caught into — I used to get tangled up into some crazy stuff. But I try not to do that anymore.
What crazy stuff?
MacDowell: Trolls. I try not to respond to trolls. I’ve learned blocking. If anybody is truly mean to me, or says something arrogant — don’t respond, you’ll only empower them. If you give them anything! So I’ll block ’em. Or, if someone’s annoying, but yet I still kind of like them, I mute them. Because they don’t know! So then, it still looks like we’re connected, but I don’t have to listen [laughs].
That’s very kind. You’re big on replying, too. What makes you reply to specific people?
MacDowell: I like lifting people up, and by doing that, I lift myself up. I think that’s part of it. You can share a bit of your soul, I think. “This is how I feel, this is how I think.” I’m not really a sarcastic person, and I think so much of Twitter is people who are really good at being sarcastic. And that’s not my gift. So I just share what I think I’m good at.
What’s your gift?
MacDowell: I think because I can be sad, and I can be lonely, my gift would be trying to help other people feel less lonely and less sad. Because that’s what I understand.
OK, I’m gonna start tweeting at you.
MacDowell: [Laughs.] Yes! Please do.