Going Down the Rabbit Hole
Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Sandra Oh, Miles Teller, David Lindsay-Abaire, and John Cameron Mitchell discuss making the film version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
At first glance, John Cameron Mitchell — best known as the writer and star of the glam fantasia Hedwig and the Angry Inch and director of the pansexual sex comedy, Shortbus — might not seem a logical choice to helm the film version of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rabbit Hole, about Becca and Howie, a married straight couple (played by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) struggling to deal with the untimely death of their 4-year-old son. But Mitchell had a very personal reason for taking on the project.
“I lost a brother when I was a teenager — my brother was the same age as the character in this film — and at the time there wasn’t a lot of grief counseling,” says Mitchell. “We had religion and it was about moving on and letting go before you were really ready to, so it was books and it was stories that helped me through that. But I realized when I read David’s adaptation of the play that it was some unfinished business for me to think about and maybe work through while working on this beautiful piece. It was really wonderful to work with these virtuoso actors, because as they did their scenes, I felt like I was in the scenes with them and feeling all the things they were feeling from behind the camera and it allowed me to release some stuff.”
Still, the film might never have happened at all if Kidman — who was in her native Australia — had not read a review of the play and sent one of her producing partners to New York to see the show. “I think I just immediately connected with the subject matter from the review,” she says. Then when I actually read the play, I thought the character and the story were so available. I could immediately just jump in. As we filmed, we didn’t approach it from an analytical point of view; we did it from a sort of visceral place.”
Nevertheless, the Oscar-winning actress reveals that she has a very structured way of working on her characters. “Part of the preparation that I do as an actor is that I create from birth through now, which is sort of like my homework, of where we met, how we got married, what happened to my father, even if you never see any of that. Then you come to the rehearsal period and then you do scenes and then you sort of slowly layer the performance.”
For his part, Eckhart says he approached his role differently than some of his previous film characters. “I remember Nicole and I would talk about marriage and family and kids and all that sort of stuff, which helped a lot,” he says. “We lived in this house together for I don’t know how many weeks. Nicole would often be in the kitchen chuckling it up with everybody and ordering everybody around.”
Playing Jason, the teenager responsible for the child’s death, was an extraordinary experience for newcomer Miles Teller. “The first day on set for me was actually the scene in the kitchen when I come in and Aaron’s character just goes off on me. I’d never met Aaron before in my life and I guess John had told Aaron to scare the crap out of me, which he does. Aaron can be very intense.”
Filming his big scenes with Kidman proved equally unusual. “I wasn’t hanging around on set, so Nicole and I hadn’t really had that many conversations up to that point,” he notes. “It was really interesting exploring a scene as I’m not only exploring the character but also desensitizing what I was going through as an actor coming into this new world.”
For Lindsay-Abaire, writing the screenplay was a chance to not only return to characters he knew a lot better than when he first wrote them, but the opportunity to expand the scope of the work. “The play is just five people in a house. It’s just the family members and the boy who comes into their lives, and that’s it. They talk about the support group; we hear about a potential affair, we hear about the sister having a bar fight — but in the movie we actually get to see that call in the middle of the night and Becca has to go bail her out,” he says. “It was a great opportunity to go to all of those places that I know in my head and meet all of those people. It was just exciting to me to reinvent the story and try and tell it in a completely different way without losing what I thought was important.”
One actress who is particularly happy with the screenplay is Emmy Award winner Sandra Oh, who plays Gabby, a pivotal member of the support group who is only mentioned in the play. “I really love her a lot. I think Gabby’s a great counterpoint to seeing the beginning of loss and then the continuation of loss,” she says.
“My personal feeling is that loss doesn’t go away, it just is. After the loss of anything — it can be your goldfish or your child or your job — somehow people are supposed to get over it. And I just don’t agree with that. I feel what I was trying to do with Gabby is that even though she’s further down the line in her process, and, as Howie sees her, she represents where you can go, you see she still needs this group.”
Indeed, if the film can help audience members deal with the grief in their own lives, than Mitchell, Kidman and company will have accomplished what they set out to do. “I hope that the move makes people feel not so alone,” says Kidman. “That was the point of doing it.”