We talk to the actress about her new movie and the chance to work with Nicolas Cage.
Robin Tunney cannot believe she gets to act alongside Nicolas Cage. To hear her tell it, titans like Robert De Niro have nothing on the man who drowned misery in Leaving Las Vegas and overshadowed James Bond in The Rock. Frequent readers of Film School Rejects already know this. If you have not been consuming Chris Coffel’s weekly excursions into The Tao of Cage, then you’ve simply been doing life wrong. Cage is a major presence in cinema, and every film he has blessed is worth your attention. Fellow actors are scrambling over themselves to work with him, and to study him. Tunney rearranged her life to make it happen.
Looking Glass, from director Tim Hunter (River’s Edge), is a ruthless little thriller. After a couple loses their child to an unnamed tragedy, they uproot themselves from their safe and knowable surroundings to rediscover purpose as motel proprietors. They need a distraction. They need a new life. As anyone who has checked-in to Psycho, or taken a detour for Vacancy can tell you, roadside motels are a one-way ticket to terror. Nothing pleasant happens there. Ever.
Speaking to Tunney over the phone, it was clear to me that she was overjoyed to act against Cage. She’s as much of a fan as anyone. We discussed her unabashed enthusiasm for her co-star, the small town creepy aesthetic of drive-by motor inns, and the challenges of falling too far into the terror of the part. And no, this is not a B-movie.
FSR: So, well, what I loved was the motel set. My understanding is that it was all constructed in Utah, inside an airplane hangar.
Robin Tunney: The interior of the hotel was, yeah.
Well, it looked gorgeous.
I think the movie has kind of surprised a lot of people. It’s sort of like a Twin Peaks episode, or like a ’70s-themed movie that just sort of works. Do you know what I mean?
A twisted little character piece.
Yeah. I enjoyed it too. I thought it was really good.
Well, you know…
And Nick, I think, is really great.
Oh, he’s fantastic.
A muted version of himself.
I’ve always wondered about that roadside motel lifestyle. You know, who sleeps there? Who runs that type of place? It’s the perfect setting for lost characters.
What was your initial appeal for the screenplay?
One or two things. I mean, I was mostly… I’m just a huge Nicolas Cage fan. I have been since I can remember. I think he’s one of the greatest living actors. I know that sounds like crazy, but Adaptation I think is the best twins anybody has done.
Wild at Heart, Raising Arizona, Moonstruck. There are so many. Leaving Las Vegas! So many movies that he’s brilliant in. I’m not even sure you could say Robert De Niro has had as many amazing performances. He really is brilliant. And if you look at how different the movies are? He’s so good. I was so nervous to meet him. I literally have admired him for so many years.
And I knew Tim Hunter. There were these true stories about the Holocaust in the ’90s [Rescuers: Stories of Courage: Two Families]. Barbra Streisand had produced them. So, I met him on that. And he just had offered me the movie, and I just had a baby. And they were like, “Look, you can have the house right next door to the set and be right there with your baby.” And it was just perfect. It was great to go back to work. Because after my show, I took time off. I did a play in New York. And then I had a baby. I hadn’t been on a film set in a while. And it was nice to be around friendly people.
A comfortable situation.
And I don’t know, I felt like at the very least it would be interesting. And that I would learn something, from Nic. And I did. I think he’s so good in the movie, too. It’s such a muted performance. It’s super interesting. He was really prepared for every fucking moment.
Usually what happens when you do a movie is you rehearse it, the scene, right? Before you shoot it, and you stand around and everybody has these little miniature sides, right?
And they hold them. And they’ve worked on it a bit before. He never even holds his sides.
Your character — both of your characters — have suffered such a tragedy before the film even starts. How do you establish that specific emotional place with Nicolas Cage? Before all the thriller aspects of Looking Glass even begin to unravel, the two of you are broken.
Yeah, it was weird, and I think part of it is writing… I tried to talk to him about what I thought had happened, specifically. What the timeline of the relationship was. And how it went down, and what was wrong. And to be very specific about… Because it’s only alluded to in the script. And I think it was, clearly like the movie was never supposed to be Manchester by the Sea, you know what I mean?
(Laughter) Sure, of course.
It’s a different take on that, and all of the histrionics of it are sort of in the past. It’s just supposed to sort of be… It’s sort of an explanation as to why this guy needs to escape. And how he gets lost in other people’s lives. Do you know what I mean? It’s sort of the hurt before the movie.
But I think he was very specific as to time and place. You know, we both… It’s difficult to translate what happened, and to keep it in the past and not necessarily… It’s underneath the scenes and you’re not playing it. That’s difficult. So we don’t talk about it. For the most part.
Right. But, you do have to descend into some pretty dark depths, especially towards the climax of the film. Is it easy for you to leave those emotions on set? I mean, what are you guys like when Hunter says “cut”?
Pretty drained and sad and all that stuff, but you leave it. And it was a very, very, very, very pleasant working environment. I feel like when you have to do scenes like that, and you don’t feel safe with the other actor, or you feel like they’re judging you, or the scene, or they screw with you to try to get the performance out of you, or any of that stuff, that’s when it feels really bad. You don’t feel like the director appreciates it. But I feel like Tim was super supportive of me, and the producers… I don’t know, I mean it was just such a friendly environment. No, it’s not sad.
But you know what’s sad is when you do the scenes and leave, and you feel like you’ve given everything, and it’s gonna be terrible anyway. It’s really hard for you. That’s the thing that keeps me up at night. Where I feel like, “Okay, did I do it badly?” And I think that scene where he pulled me out of the shower, and it has to go from one point to another point, there were parts when it was like, “Oh my god, is this gonna be terrible?”
It looked like it could be pretty rough.
Yeah. Yeah, but it was the nicest environment that that could have been in. I don’t know. I feel like, as an actor, you have to be in pain all the time, you know? You just kind of have to try to leave it behind and, I don’t know. It’s just part of it. It’s better than having to… I spent seven years on a show where a lot of the time I talked about license plate numbers and ligature marks. And there were so many scenes that weren’t about emotion, and they were about facts. That it was nice to, sort of, do scenes that weren’t so caught up in story. You know? But, then again, if I had to do that every day at work, that would be hard.
Do you ever think about the lives of your character after they’ve moved on beyond the credits of the movie?
Sometimes, yeah. I do.
I’m really curious to see where this couple goes after Looking Glass ends.
Yeah, I think the ending’s trying to be optimistic, but I think after what they went through that I don’t know that there’s any happy ending.
I couldn’t imagine…
I think for a while things are better. But I’m not sure Maggie and Ray are gonna have an easy time of it ever. I feel like that’s the one tragedy that is impossible for a couple to get over. Or pretty close. It is so difficult.
What is your hope for Looking Glass?
I don’t know. I mean I imagine that people would turn it on and just be pleasantly surprised by it.
What do you want the audience to take away?
You know, how weird it is. I mean it really is unique. I mean it’s crazy. I mean, I think you sort of, you can hear the critics, and hear that news, they’re like, “Is this a B-movie?” But it’s really artistic and truthful. I think it’s better than people will think it is. Does that sound like a terrible advertisement?
I think Nic is great in it. And I think, considering we made the film in 19 days, Tim Hunter did such a great job. And, obviously, you know he did direct Twin Peaks episodes. It does remind me of that a bit, you know? Like that sort of weird next level drama. And I think there’s a lot of him in it. You’re watching it and you’re like, “Wow! This could have been a very bad movie.” And it just works for what it is. I think it’s super entertaining and people will walk away feeling a surprise. It’s a situation where low expectations are in your favor.
Looking Glass opens theatrically in select cities, as well as release on VOD and Digital HD, on February 16th.