When you see her in the opening shot of the splendid Rachel Getting Married, dragging casually yet also urgently on a cigarette, her flowing hair chopped, her expression cryptic and intense, it may take you a while to register her as Anne Hathaway.
That's just another way of saying you see her immediately as her character, Kym, a recovering drug addict about to return home for the wedding of her sister, Rachel. What's astonishing about Hathaway's performance in this wrenching tragicomedy is that it never loses that initial gleam of shock and surprise. Even as she zigzags across the screen in a blur of mixed emotions and confused intentions (the camera must move swiftly to catch up to her), she insinuates herself into your imagination and also breaks your heart.
It's not surprising to hear the 25-year-old actress say over the phone from New York that she felt she knew Kym not just to the bones, but "to the marrow, the cells, the atoms."
Hathaway talks about her work on Rachel easily and blithely, as "a particular kind of geeky fun" with a happy cast and an esteemed director, Jonathan Demme. "Working with him was like having a cool, passionate friend you could geek out with and, oh yeah, he's Jonathan Demme." For someone who's done heavy time in the tabloids this year, Hathaway speaks with energy and dispatch and a freewheeling humor that can make colloquial expressions click like blank verse.
Her mischievousness and poise on Saturday Night Live when joking about her ex-boyfriend, Raffaello Follieri, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering and received a 54-month sentence from a federal judge on Thursday, appear to be genuine reflections of her youthful resilience.
Her performance in The Princess Diaries intrigued Demme, the cuttingly empathetic filmmaker behind such masterpieces as Melvin and Howard and Neil Young: Heart of Gold.
"I didn't know Americans could make such eminently gifted actresses at such a young age," Demme says over the phone from Nyack, N.Y. Because of her ease at holding her own with Julie Andrews, he imagined her coming up the way British actors do, through intense theatrical experience and a stint at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
"She just had tremendous communication skills coupled with an awesome presence," Demme says. "She's got that extraordinary physicality. She's beautiful but she's like a human lava lamp - you can't get a fix on her face whether on-screen or in person. What she looks like changes from moment to moment."
So when Demme spotted her at the Golden Globes a few years ago, he didn't know who she was. "My jaw dropped at the vivacity of this young woman." When he learned it was Hathaway, he had one of his "great director moments" - he decided, "I'm never going to pass up a chance to bottle that."
Hathaway says, "I didn't meet him that night, and I had no idea Jonathan Demme was there. If I did, I probably would have done something stupid to mess it all up." Hathaway says that going to the Golden Globes to represent Nicholas Nickleby (2002) was her first "real red-carpet experience. ... A night full of very heady experiences." She had asked Shirley MacLaine if she wanted to move in front of her in line, only to have MacLaine step on the back of her dress and lift her shoe just before it tore the fabric. "Isn't it incredible to meet Shirley MacLaine," she thought; "and Miss MacLaine, thank you very much for that moment!"
She got to connect with other luminaries, such as Meryl Steep (her future co-star in The Devil Wears Prada). Hathaway kept thinking: "This can't be happening to me." She had "a rip-roaring time" cheering for such personal favorites as Spanish director Pedro Almodovar with her Nickleby costar, Charley Hunnam. Hathaway says if she caught Demme's eye that night, "Maybe it's because Jonathan likes happy people."
That he does, but he employs them only if they're talented. Talking to Hathaway about Rachel Getting Married, you feel she had the time of her life making the film that has done the most to stretch her actor's art. Hathaway loves its unselfconscious multiculturalism and its generous, open-minded attitude toward its characters, including addicts struggling for recovery. She says, "I think it's decidedly contemporary because it deals with what I consider to be a progressive part of society. It's certainly the most representative of experiences in my own life. It doesn't correspond directly to me beat for beat, definitely not, but it felt most present to me. Life is more complicated than you can usually talk about in movies. This film dared to broach that idea."
Her immersion in the role encompassed "tons of research," and furthered her "deep level of respect for the recovery community." The insight Hathaway gained from it makes her performance extraordinary. Rachel Getting Married hinges on a tragedy from Kym's past. Hathaway wanted to make sure the script clarified that Kym was an addict before that calamity occurred. She hoped to avoid the impression of a cause-and-effect relationship between dire circumstances and addiction.
That kind of choice reflects the intelligence of a major actor, but Hathaway means it when she says, "I kept it simple with Kym." What Hathaway says of Kym seems to be true of herself: "She's really intelligent and has no problem opening her mouth and not knowing where the end of a sentence is going to come."
In a virtuoso scene, she delivers a toast at a pre-wedding dinner that veers between heartfelt apologies to her family for the destructive path she tread in her drug days and rancor toward people who can't hide their distrust or disgust for her now. For many reasons, Kym has felt shoved to the periphery. Rachel, for example, slights Kym in favor of Rachel's best friend, Emma; Kym's sister hasn't even told her that she and her new husband are moving to Hawaii. No one even acknowledges Kym in the previous speeches. So she speaks from a base line of anger that she returns to only after oscillating into remorse and love and a sort of nerve-wracked cheerfulness.
"That's why Kym is so great to play," Hathaway says. "She's alive and smart and facile with her emotions. But the freedom of that speech is what [screenwriter Jenny Lumet] wrote into the script."
Demme says he and Hathaway, as collaborators, synchronized their heartbeats. At one point in the script, Kym drove off a road to avoid a deer; on the set Demme realized the deer wasn't necessary. Hathaway says she "really, really loved that beat," but knew Demme must have had a good reason for that elimination, even though he couldn't articulate it. A couple of weeks ago, they reminisced about it over the phone. Demme says he now knows "we had grown so used to looking at each other that when I couldn't come up with a good argument, she looked at me and said, 'OK, I get it' - just because she saw the look in my eye." Months after the fact, Hathaway constructed Demme's rationale for him: "Kym is so deeply into the descent imposed on her by her family, which has been alternating between suffocating and excluding her, she chooses not to stay on the road."
At the end of our talk, I tell Hathaway that she was a stitch on Saturday Night Live, especially when imitating her Princess co-star Andrews in a profane parody of Mary Poppins. She bubbles over at the compliment.
"On Saturday Night Live, I felt like I was in a sandbox with a lot of people with great imagination and a really game attitude who had it down to a science. But they treated me like I'd been there forever."
In Rachel Getting Married, Hathaway's ability to treat both comedy and drama as serious play produced a performance that in one fell swoop has turned her from kid-film princess to art-house queen.
Born: Nov. 12, 1982, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Education: Millburn High School, Millburn Township, N.J.; she also studied as a teenager at the Barrow Group Theater Company in New York
Evidence that she is Hollywood's secret box-office weapon:
Gross of The Princess Diaries: $108 million
Gross of The Devil Wears Prada: $125 million
Gross of Brokeback Mountain: $83 million
Gross of Get Smart: $130 million
Awards: Female Star of the Year (2008), ShoWest