17-year-old Emanuel, the protoganist of The Truth About Emanuel, lost her mother at childbirth. Unsurprisingly, the mystery surrounding this absent maternal figure consumes Emanuel and appears to be her only source of wonder about the world. Emanuel will never know exactly why her mother named her after a former French lover, but her vow to learn French is the first step.
In some ways, Emanuel behaves like a typical teenager: her wit is sharp and precise, and her presence at the family dinner table lasts long enough to pass the salad and recall a sexual dream involving her determinedly cheery and conservative stepmother (Frances O’Connor). She resents her father (Alfred Molina) for his recent remarriage. Much to her intense dissatisfaction, her family’s Victorian house is the most romantic part of Emanuel’s suburban microcosm. Babysitting for her new, worldly neighbor Linda, played by Jessica Biel, nurtures Emanuel’s dreams of a bigger future.
British actress Kaya Scodelario, who plays Emanuel, had her breakout role as teenage bad girl on the English series Skins. As Emanuel, however, Scodelario transcends the trope of the moody teenager. Emanuel’s relentless cynicism is compromised upon discovering that Linda believes a doll is her baby daughter Chloe, who died from unknown causes. Emanuel plays along, realizing that to shatter Linda’s carefully constructed reality could mean the loss of Linda’s maternal affection and, in a larger sense, the unknown mother that she idolizes.
Like Scodelario, Jessica Biel has been acting since she was a young teen, and Biel plays Linda’s normalcy with an equal intensity. Giggling about a date, lending Emanuel a covetable sweater, and adopting a tone of distracted impatience when Chloe “cries” are touches that increase the preciousness of Linda’s secret and its inevitable public discovery. We spoke to Biel about insanity, how to approach the art of small talk, and the complexity of sexual attraction.
HANNAH GHORASHI: When the film debuted at Sundance last year, it was as Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes. How did the title of the film get changed?
BIEL: I don’t quite know. I think it was too long. I really liked that title. I thought it was really provocative—Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes.
GHORASHI: I liked the whole water theme, too, because it seemed really maternal, or womb-like.
BIEL: Yeah, me too.
GHORASHI: How did you envision the character of Linda playing out? At the beginning of the film, she seems very sane. Maybe the first time I thought there was something slightly off about her was when she told Emanuel to put her glass in the sink, a bit redundantly. How did you reconcile Linda’s being so normal with believing a doll is her baby?
BIEL: This is the ongoing question. You know how great villains just believe in what they’re doing? In their minds they’re not villains, they’re not doing anything wrong; they’re just self-righteous in their dedication to their cause. And that’s kind of the way I felt about Linda. This woman has had a traumatic reality break. Her brain is protecting her from the pain that she is experiencing, the emotional and physical pain that she is experiencing. She blames herself for what happened to her child. Is she crazy? I don’t know what the definition of crazy is. She can function in a social experience, in a private experience, but this is something that she truly believes in at this moment. She’s protecting herself. People have told me, “Oh my god, you’re playing a crazy person.” And I don’t see it that way. In my mind, she’s not a crazy person. She’s just—you believe her. She’s like any great villain.
GHORASHI: I really liked how the movie embraced uncomfortable silences, because that’s usually the one thing about movies that doesn’t imitate life. The scene where Emanuel’s stepmom comes out to the flower garden where they’re sitting there are just these couple seconds where no one really knows what to say, especially. Do you consider yourself good at small talk?
BIEL: [laughs] I’m not great at it. I can do it. I’m getting a lot better at it.
GHORASHI: It probably comes with age.
BIEL: It does, it does. For a long time you try to fake it, and then I think it even gets to a point where you’re like, “I don’t need to waste my breath; I don’t try to impress anybody anymore.”
GHORASHI: I’m interested in the French motif in the film—I really like France Gall, so I loved the inclusion of the song “Laisse tomber les filles”—but what’s your take on its significance to the rest of the movie?
BIEL: My take on that is that Emanuel, when she meets Linda, feels like her life is very small. She feels like she’s stuck in this house with a stepmother that she doesn’t want to like, and her father is her best friend in a sense. She has this small, limited experience. When she meets Linda—Linda is a traveled person, Linda is someone who’s lived in France and probably lived in other places, and someone who speaks a couple of languages possibly, and a life beyond her small existence, Emanuel’s small existence. I think in general, Emanuel is interested in these things, and Linda is someone who encourages it. She says, “Take these books, and you’re going to live in France, you have to live in France.” It’s already decided that Emanuel will be able to have the opportunities that she wants. I feel that as a young girl, meeting someone who’s 10 years older—that age range where you’re looking at that woman and going, “Oh my god.”
GHORASHI: I wish I had a neighbor like that.
BIEL: Yeah! You have a mentor almost—someone believes in me and isn’t going “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever. Sure, take French if you want, you’re never going to live there.” Linda immediately goes, “You’re going to live there, so you should know it.” It’s a bond.
GHORASHI: Linda’s style is decidedly boho. Do you think this was because she’s such a maternal person—that her style was an expression of fertility?
BIEL: That’s interesting. Yeah, that could have been a part of it. I think in our minds—Jessica, the director, and I—we wanted her to be effervescent and whimsical. Frances, Emanuel’s stepmom, is very proper and preppy. She’s very much more controlled, and the style is a very clean and stiff and Linda just floats through. She’s almost spirit-like, and this goddess of fertility kind of person. We just had this idea that we wanted to create this being that was so different, that Emanuel’s never seen before. This woman that doesn’t look like anyone else she knows except maybe, in her mind, resembles what her mother might have been like.
GHORASHI: There’s definitely an implication at a certain point in the movie that Linda and Emanuel might have had a romantic attraction between them, and, for example, we don’t see the Linda’s answer to Emanuel’s stepmom’s direct question about it. Do you think that’s a possible interpretation or do you think that’s the result of a confusion between the mother-daughter dynamic?
BIEL: I guess I think it’s more of a result of the dynamic. There’s nothing in the script that ever crossed the line between the two women, besides emotionally being very warm towards Emanuel. We talked about that—Emanuel is looking at this woman like, “This is the kind of woman I want to be,” before she realizes what’s going on. I think that’s a kind of infatuation. It was never meant to be sexual, but there is meant to be a question there. I definitely felt that when I watched it.
GHORASHI: Kaya had a lot of funny lines, especially at the beginning at the dinner table and on the train, but were there lighthearted moments during filming?
BIEL: Kaya’s fun and has a fresh spirit. And definitely the rest of the cast—everyone’s really, really lovely and fun. We were able to jump in and out a lot. We would do these scenes where it would be weird, and then there would be a cut and we would all kind of discuss, “How did that go for you?” Someone would make a joke, and we’d all laugh. It was very light, actually, it wasn’t at all a dark set where everyone was miserable the whole time. It’s amazing to work with such professionals who are able to jump in and out like that.
GHORASHI: At the end, when Linda finally has a breakdown—how do you work up to a big screaming session like that?
BIEL: You have to believe what it is. You have to believe what is happening is really happening, and then you start to feel all of this stuff. Which is what people talk about, when you’re there you’re really listening and you’re in the moment and you surprise yourself. You can’t even believe it sometimes.
GHORASHI: So are you not even aware you’re acting at some point? Do you make a transition between feeling like an actor and feeling like you actually are that character?
BIEL: I think that’s the goal, in those moments, to really forget. A lot of the times once you’ve finished a scene, the best reaction is to say you don’t really remember what happened. I don’t really remember what I did or the choices I made. I made them in that moment but I can’t tell you, “Oh, I did this there, or I did that there.” It’s just all happening so when you’re all done with it, it’s a bit of a blur. That’s a real successful day.