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The secret weapon in Women Talking? Women listening

Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, and Sheila McCarthy on the importance of faith, choice, and reacting in Sarah Polley's acclaimed film

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Women Talking: Sheila McCarthy (Jerod Harris/Getty Images), Claire Foy (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images), Judith Ivey (Jerod Harris/Getty Images)
(L-R:) Sheila McCarthy (Jerod Harris/Getty Images), Claire Foy (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images), Judith Ivey (Jerod Harris/Getty Images)
Graphic: The A.V. Club (Getty Images)

The title of Sarah Polley’s new film, Women Talking, implies almost everything you need to know about it. You’d be correct in assuming this is not a story that derives its drama from kinetic action or plot. You’d also be correct in guessing, given the pedigree of the artists involved, that Polley succeeds in investing the film’s dramatic weight in quiet conversation. Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, and Sheila McCarthy are part of a cast filled with awards contenders, alongside Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Ben Whishaw, and Frances McDormand, all playing members of a rural Mennonite colony in 2010 debating how to respond to revelations of physical and sexual abuse.

The follow-on to talking, of course, is listening—and that may be even more important, as Foy, Ivey, and McCarthy suggest to The A.V. Club. How do actors, in a film like Women Talking, dramatize that inherently inactive act? And given the many rehearsals and takes Polley used to capture her cast’s dialogue, how did they make such an ordinary state of receptivity extraordinary? Fresh off ensemble acting wins at the National Board of Review and Film Independent Spirit Awards, the three actors attempt to, well, talk it out.

WOMEN TALKING | Official Trailer 2

The A.V. Club: A personal question, but one this kind of film invites: How much are you bringing your own relationship with faith into telling this story and creating these characters, particularly in collaboration with your co-stars and Sarah Polley?

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Sheila McCarthy: You know, I think that was kept quite private between all of us. We actually didn’t discuss our own faiths. We just had such ultimate faith in this project and in Sarah—being our divine leader. You know, we’re actors and we have a palette and colors that we’re using. And then our own imaginations as well.

Judith Ivey: And we go to our own church. [Laughs] She was our minister. She was our pastor and led us in prayer.

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SM: And, you know, it was joyful. It was hard. We laughed a lot. But ultimately, the hayloft was our church.

Claire Foy: Yeah, I think the women’s faith is the central tenet of who they are and of that community, basically. Faith is incredibly important to them, it’s how they live their life. They live their life with God or the idea of God or the idea of redemption. All of those things are very prevalent and at the forefront of their minds every day that they live. They’re trying to live a good, faithful life and want to be in line with their faith. I think it was a real learning curve for all of us who aren’t religious, I suppose, to separate religion and faith. They’re two very, very, very different things. And to understand that the faith that these women have has so much good in it, despite the fact that the men in the community have used it to manipulate and have power over people. And I think separating those two things was a real lightbulb moment for me, and also really helpful in making the film.

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AVC: How often does your actorly process involve untangling your own personal feelings about something from what a character feels strongly about?

CF: It’s not about me being in a position of judgment. It’s only ever being in a position of understanding that other person and getting yourself to a point where you completely understand how that human being has made that choice or has those thoughts and feelings at that particular time. That’s basically my job, really. [Laughs] But I don’t think I’ve ever really disagreed with a character that I’ve played. I think I’ve always understood why they do what they do.

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AVC: I have to ask about listening in this film called Women Talking. How do you as actors approach that and make something that is, it seems, receptive and still? How do you make that act align with a believable and compelling screen presence?

SM: Well, we were together all day long, every day, which you don’t usually get on a film set. You get it in theater. So the listening was just part of our hours and hours and hours. And Sarah and the editor caught all that listening, take after take after take. And to me, that’s as important as talking.

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JI: It’s the other side of talking, listening. It’s one of my favorite parts of acting: How do I convey what’s going on with my character? And all I’m doing is listening.

The cast of Women Talking
Women Talking
Image: Universal Pictures
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CF: Yeah, listening is my favorite thing to do. I think listening is basically acting. You know, I can’t live or do my job without other actors. They’re my favorite people in the world, and also give me my performance, basically. I only ever really listen to what other people are saying, that’s what I do. Like, I’m not performing anything. I’m being there and I’m listening and I’m reacting, but in real time. And this film was the easiest to do that in. Every time, you’d do something different. Every time, you’d hear something different. We were all present to what was going on. We were all there with each other all the time, living every moment.

AVC: And so how different was each of Sarah Polley’s takes, generally?

CF: Really different. We would get into a groove. I think we did some scenes over a hundred times. So by that point, you’re sort of not able to see the wood for the trees. But then you start inventing and then you start trying different things. I think it was amazing to see how inventive and malleable people could be and how responsive to different kinds of things that were happening. So yeah, we always had to be open to that.

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SM: It was different whenever the person had a close-up. Everybody brought their A-game every single time, even if they were off-camera. It did change. The words did not change; Sarah was very steadfast in the script. But absolutely the approach changed. Or someone would do something differently and then we would react differently. We would listen differently. The choreography stayed the same, but, yeah.

JI: And didn’t she sometimes say, like if [the camera] came around on you, “Can you give that reaction?”

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SM: Yes, yeah.

JI: Because she fell in love with whatever was caught in somebody else’s take, but she knew that’s what Sheila did [for example].

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AVC: Lastly, the biggest question of all, and one this film contemplates: do you believe in predetermined fate? Or free will, choice?

JI: I think you have choice in your faith. And so it’s not an “either or.” I think that that’s a challenge to all these women in the story: We all believe. But which choice? Where do we go?

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SM: We created our own fate, I think, with our discussion. And if that’s predetermined, then that’s predetermined. But the discussion of it is what was interesting, I think.