Carla Gugino has spent the better part of the last decade playing some of the most complicated and interesting female characters in Hollywood. After early roles in lighthearted fare like Son in Law, she played an appropriately combative counterpart for Michael J. Fox's deputy Mayor on Spin City before appearing in Wayne Wang's The Center of the World as a troubled seductress, Robert Rodriguez' Sin City as a tough-as-nails parole officer, Ridley Scott's American Gangster as Russell Crowe's exasperated ex-wife, and most recently in Zack Snyder's Watchmen as a sexpot superheroine with a pitch-black past. This month, she's acting in Sebastian Gutierrez' Women in Trouble, where she plays a porn star coming to terms with the news that she's pregnant.
Cinematical recently spoke to Gugino at the film's Los Angeles press day, where in between pointing out some of the bruises she earned while shooting Zack Snyder's Watchmen follow-up, Sucker Punch, she offered a few insights into her character in Women in Trouble.
Cinematical: What immediately jumped out to me about Elektra is that even though she's at her own crossroads in Women in Trouble, she seems to have the most certainty of the characters about who she is.
Carla Gugino: It was interesting. I was kind of intrigued by the fact that this woman who was a porn star, which we all have varying ideas about what that means and what that kind of person might be like, [and] I think that's where Sebastian really kind of deserves the credit, because it was a structural thing, which was she is at the very top given a piece of information that is a wake-up call. It's a real "uh oh – I'd better take a look at my life, and I'd better look at it really clearly really fast." So therefore it did seem like all the scenes had this kind of resonance of, yeah, I have to look at what I've been doing, and I have a 13-year-old saying to me, "do you have fake boobs?" and sort of having to be like, I have to be accountable for all of these things, and kind of realizing like, oh wow, somebody else might have taken my childhood and done something better with it. Do I still have that chance? It's not even better like a judgment of someone who is in that profession, but I think for her, I think she definitely has become very famous for something that she isn't that proud of.
That was a really interesting thing as I was sitting there in the elevator; we were shooting that and that was one of the first scenes I shot. [Actually] we shot the Even Reverse Cowgirls Get the Blues scene and then we shot that, but I was sitting there and I thought, what an interesting thing! Because I reveal myself on an emotional level as an actress a lot; actresses, actors, that is what we do. We have to strip down, and you do it in a fairly private way [when] there are maybe 100 people on set, in this case it was ten people on set because we had such a small crew, and then you give it to the millions of people – you just give it to the world. But this is so interesting for her because she's physically completely revealing in her profession, but nobody knows anything about those people; you know very little about what they're like for real. Many porn stars have very faithful relationships they've had for many years, they're very homebodyish people, and it's a really interesting juxtaposition between their profession and their personal life, but from that I wanted her to be really no-nonsense and to be kind of unadorned, and that's what I think maybe is what you're saying, which I'm so appreciative that it came through.
Cinematical: Did that empathy and understanding of her come from what was on the page, or did you do any research into the private lives of real porn stars?
Gugino: It was kind of both. I think as an actor you end up being more empathetic than most people because you end up getting in the skin of other people so you see it from their perspective. I just finished doing Desire Under the Elms on Broadway a few months ago, and that's a character that literally has never had love in her entire life – [she] falls in love with her husband's son, has a child with him, and ultimately kills the child. So Elektra's a saint! (laughs) I mean, I really had to get into the heads of some people, and you end up understanding where they're coming from. You end up understanding the nature of humanity and the complexity of it. I'm not a very judgmental person anyway; I never say, "oh, I would never ever do that." We're all capable of everything, and life is complicated, and people are trying to do the best they can. But I think that he wrote this character and he wrote all of these characters with multiple levels, [and] I think we are all empathetic of people when we understand them. Which is of course the meaning of empathy, but I think if you are standing outside someone and you cannot see it from their perspective, then there is an innate separation. But even in something like this, with Connie Britton's character and my character, at first – and I think Connie plays that moment so beautifully too – she's like, "oh, you're an actress? What do you do, film, television?" And I'm like "porn," and she's like, "oh?" You can see the moment of this is a different woman than I thought she was, and she does it so well, but then very soon she also is like, (whispering) "so are you famous?" You realize we all want pretty much the same thing you know; we all want to be seen for who we are and we want to be loved.
Short of that, everyone goes about it in different ways, but in terms of the question you asked, yes, some of it was from the page, but also I watched this really cool documentary that I had Tivo'd so I'm pretty sure it was on HBO, and it was a bunch of porn stars talking about their profession. Some of them were extremely successful, some of them were just starting out, so I was like this is so fascinating because they're talking about these things just as if [an ordinary person were saying] "yeah, when I wanted to become a secretary I could only type 20 words a minute, but then I ended up being able to..." and meanwhile they're saying "I could only take one guy but now I can take three." Then you also realize, how cool is that, the power of words? It's just words, but words make people so uncomfortable, and that's the thing about this movie too, that I love is that there's nothing really physically explicit. I mean, you see women in lingerie and hopefully they look sexy, and there's that aspect of things. But the truth is it's much more of an emotional bareness, and verbally it's very evocative and provocative. I love that – the simplicity of like, you could do all of these things but mostly people just want to see their neighbor naked. it's nice because Sebastian loves women but it's not like, "she's smart so she can't be sexy," or "she's sexy so she must not be very smart." It's like, they can be everything – they can be complicated and everything that we are.
Cinematical: You've had some really interesting opportunities to play strong female characters. Whether or not it's out of a sense of responsibility – because certainly no one asks men if they feel a sense of responsibility to portray men in a flattering way – do you feel a sense in a film like this which is representing so many different kinds of women that you might tend to play up a character's, say, resilience rather than her vulnerability? Or is vulnerability an inherent part of female strength?
Gugino: I do, actually. I guess I feel like Elektra is super-vulnerable ultimately, but resilient, and I guess that's the thing. I feel like human beings are really resilient; people have survived just insurmountable things. Did you ever see Steve Jobs' commencement speech for Harvard? It is one of the most inspiring speeches I've ever heard, but one of the things he says is, "all of the pieces connect, but you just don't know when you're in it how they're going to connect. But you will know later, so just trust that they will." I do think people are resilient, and also, I've played some really tragic characters too, but I guess for me, I want you to come out feeling a little hope. I want a shift to have been made. There are characters I've played, like in Center of the World, this Wayne Wang movie, she's pretty tragic and you don't ever really get out of that hole with her. But that was also what I needed to serve in that movie, so that's a woman who's sort of stripped-down and hasn't found her way back yet. So it's not like I feel like they always have to be resilient, but nor am I afraid of vulnerability in those instances.
[But] I think you said it perfectly - they don't ask men these questions – but the reason they ask women these questions is because there are so few portrayals, [so it's like they're saying] you have a full character here so you really owe it to the women to get everything in there, you know? If I looked at it like I was in any way representing my entire sex, it would be too overwhelming and I wouldn't know because you're sort of boxed in. the only thing I can do is be true to the story and the character, and maybe kind of like a little hidden thing I might want to [include] is to go, "you might think there is no way to get out of this situation, but there will be some way." I think that's the good thing with Sebastian as well; he has the ability of cutting to the core or the heart of somebody, but he's innately optimistic.
Cinematical: Is it challenging then to play a character where you know what their trajectory is going to be? Or is it freeing to know that endpoint and in the process of getting them to that you can construct the formative moments in between?
Gugino: It's funny because I've asked writers that question too, and mostly they don't know where it's going, or they might have a sense where it's ending, but then it's that thing of like, all of a sudden a new character appears and it's like, "oh, I didn't know she was coming in." So I kind of like the beginning, middle and end, because in that I have no idea how certain things are going to manifest, but it does give me a sense of, if I have to get there, if this scene doesn't deliver what it needs to deliver, I never want to be in a position where you don't believe how I got there. So laying groundwork, just as a technical thing, it's actually really helpful. I've been a part of movies where there's a lot of improve; ...Center of the World was a film where things were changed by how we shot it. Like after the scene where I came into the hotel room, that scene changed everything so much; they were supposed to have a big sex scene right after that, and they were like, "we would never be having sex right now – that was too intense." So it's cool when you can change those things, but you still kind of know somewhat of a sense where you might be going.