The “Answers to Nothing” star loved the freedom she had to plumb the depths of her indie character’s emotions
Sitting down with actress Elizabeth Mitchell was a challenge. As an admitted “Lost” fanatic, I was a staunch member of Team Juliet. I found Mitchell’s “is-she-good-or-is-s?he-evil” character, Dr. Juliet Burke, one of the most compelling reasons to stay with the often maddening series during its six-year run. Talking with Mitchell one-on-one, it was all I could do to keep from focusing on “Lost” for the duration of the interview, including the series’ controversial last episode. Mitchell went straight from “Lost” to another high-profile show, a remake of the sci-fi “V,” in which she got to do battle with some very smart and attractive aliens. Somehow, in between shooting the finale of “V” and the closer for “Lost” (Juliet had been killed off but death never meant much on that show!), Mitchell managed to fit in a deeply moving appearance in Matthew Leutwyler’s ensemble piece, “Answers to Nothing,” currently playing in cities around the country.
We first see Elizabeth’s character in a fertility clinic where she is waiting for her husband (played by Dane Cook) to drop off a needed specimen. But Cook is…um…otherwise engaged. His character’s actions are so reprehensible in the opening scenes that it’s a miracle he manages to win back the audience’s sympathy later in the film. I asked Mitchell if she was worried that her character in “Answers to Nothing” might be perceived by some as a doormat.
Elizabeth Mitchell: Yes! Oh God, yes, I worried about her a lot, but I also felt there was so much truth in her. I wanted to make sure she was always going toward something. She may not appeal to people who have a view of life that’s like, “this is going to be how it is!” but people who are questioning or who feel somewhat lost will definitely find a lot of interesting things in this character.
I love the moments in the film when we really see how lost she is, the moments right before she picks herself up again. Those moments are always so interesting to me because they’re not the ones we talk to our friends about! And remember, this woman was also on hormones for her fertility treatments so I wanted to make sure she was a little on the edge of things.
Have you found that men and women react to the film differently? In a way, it’s sort of a Rorschach test, especially the relationship between you and Dane Cook.
Mitchell: It’s fascinating because I know a lot of women who were really mad at my character. And also women who just quietly said, “I get her.” It was great working with Dane. I live with an improve guy (Mitchell’s husband is actor Chris Soldevilla), so I came in, jokes ready, prepared to banter with him, but Dane was just not that guy. He was incredibly prepared and focused and kind. I liked him a lot. He has a nice everyman kind of quality. You see how lost he is as well in this film. You can also see how she has taken herself away from him so you feel bad for him. We’ve all been there, when two people are just not there for each other and it’s so freaking sad. You want to scream, “Talk to each other! Do something!”
There were so many talented actors in this film including Julie Benz, Erik Palladino, Miranda Bailey, Zach Gilford, and Barbara Hershey as Dane Cook’s mother.
Mitchell: Oh my god, she is so good. My husband said, you know, it’s like a master class right now watching her, the way she does that, the way she’s so simple with it. Barbara Hershey doesn’t push anything, it was just so lovely watching her as that character.
You were coming right off two major series when you made this film. How would you compare being in a movie like this with starring in such high-profile TV projects?
Mitchell: It was so much easier! There’s so much that goes on with a big network show, it’s so fast. “Get in here! Do this! We have to finish this today!” There’s usually a massive amount of exposition. As a lead on a TV show, you’re basically explaining the whole thing. That was the hardest part for me on those shows. But in this film, I didn’t even have to talk very much, I just got to respond to people, to very gifted actors, and that was a gift, it was lovely. It felt like a little oasis in the midst of all the craziness. After pages and pages and pages of facts, here I got to dive right into the heart of things.
What did you think of Matthew Leutwyler’s style of directing?
Mitchell: Honestly, it was one of my best experiences to date. He had so much bravery, he knew exactly what he wanted, and he seemed to know everything we were capable of. He would push us to the limits of what we could do, and also let us fly in places where we needed to. I don’t have enough nice things to say, he was just wonderful.
He’s good with his actors, but at the same time, he wrote these things for a reason, so you didn’t feel you were going in with someone who was like “Oh, well, maybe we could this or that with the character.” This was his heart and soul on the page, it meant something to him, and I loved that because I come from the theater and I think we need to respect our playwrights!
I was amazed by your ability in this film to convey so much without using a lot of words.
Mitchell: Thank you, but that’s just because Matthew kept the camera rolling! No, really, he told a story in the silences. It was so nice to work with a director who does that, not many will take the chance.
He let us bring out the ugliest of the uglies, if that’s what we wanted to do. There were a few scenes we played where I just pushed, pushed, pushed with my emotions. Then sometimes we both said, “No, that doesn’t quite work, let’s try it this way.” I loved him, I would work with Matt again in a heartbeat!
Do you see any parallels between this character and Juliet from “Lost?”
Mitchell: Yes, both were very damaged! I loved Juliet, she was sort of an archetype and because she was kind of bad, they didn’t have a chance to make her wimpy! She was such a great character.
Here’s the thing: I love the darkness we all have inside of us. I think all those little places where the shadows are can be so fascinating for an actor. Especially with genuinely good people who are just messed up all over the place!