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Tribeca interview: Carla Gugino on 'Wolves' and Michael Shannon

The actor talks about how the most interesting roles are in indies and television, and the cult around "Troop Beverly Hills."

Since her film debut as a teen in 1989’s “Troop Beverly Hills,” Carla Gugino has freely jumped between big-budget fare and indies, and even TV before that became fashionable. The “Spy Kids” and “San Andreas” co-star is still thankful when something as meaty as Bart Freundlich’s “Wolves” comes along.

In the new drama — which just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival — the actress, 44, plays the wife of a gambling addict (Michael Shannon) and the mother of a high school basketball star (Taylor John Smith), whose future prospects she’s sometimes scarily adamant about protecting.

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What you often see in films about someone with a gambling addiction is if they have a spouse or lover, that person is usually haranguing them. It’s unusual to see your character as someone who often goes along with his addiction, not realizing how destructive it can be till it’s too late.
I was really enamored with how Bart wrote these characters with all the complexities of what it is to be a human being. She doesn’t realize she’s in an enabling situation until it’s too late. It makes sense, especially in a situation like that, where the father figure is so unstable. It really puts everyone in survival mode. A lot of families have that. I was so appreciative that wasn’t painted over and she didn’t become a hero at the end.

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He’s so charismatic, and you get the sense that she’s still holding onto that original attraction.
That’s true. Often times we see what we want to see when we’re falling in love with somebody. It was important to us in the few scenes we had together to convey that there was still this spark, that you can see why they’re with each other. We’re just finding them at a particularly bad moment.

Did you bother with heaps of backstory, or is it a situation where you just throw yourselves into their dynamic?
A little bit of both. We did speak about it. But Michael’s one of those exceptional actors you trust. It winds up that you just get to live in it, as opposed to acting it. That’s the best of both worlds.

Shannon also seems like an actor who surprises you when the takes begin.
He’s technically so adept and absolutely collaborative and present. But there’s this wonderful thing about him. The only actor I’ve worked with who I’ve had a similar feeling with — though they’re very different actors, and both amazing — is Robert De Niro. [Ed. They acted together in “Righteous Kill.”] The moment the camera’s rolling you really don’t know what’s going to happen, in the most exciting way.

It’s not because he was out of control. There’s just an innate trust that you’re in good hands, and you know there’s this wonderful, visceral nature of what will happen when the camera rolls.

The biggest scene you have finds you talking to your son in the bathroom, holding him tight as you reminisce about hanging out in bed when he was younger. There’s even a bit of sexual tension there.
When I read the script that scene jumped out at me. There are dynamics there that are very complicated between mothers and sons, especially as the son becomes a young man and he’s having sex. He was yours, to some extent, then all of a sudden he’s coming into his own manhood.

One of my very first questions for Bart was, “Hey, do you mean for this to have a little bit of a sexual undertone?” He said, “I don’t want you to shy away from that.” This movie was all about delving into those nooks and crannies that people are uncomfortable with, that if you actually look at them are very relatable.

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Even 10 years ago a film like this would be made by a major studio. Now these films are indies or, increasingly, TV shows.
I mean, the ’70s, right? You look at all those films from the ’70s and they’re all independent films now. It’s disheartening. We’re in a very interesting time. I’m working on a show with Cameron Crowe for Showtime called “Roadies.” We were discussing how cable television is where we do more often what we used to do in independent films. It’s a very interesting climate change.

I have to admit when I was a kid my sister would watch “Troop Beverly Hills” — one of your first movies, when you were a teenager — almost every day. So I’ve seen that more than most movies.
Awwwww. [Laughs] She’s not alone. For whatever reason that still has a stalwart following. I appreciate that. I’m glad I’ve moved on from “Troop Beverly Hills,” but I have fond feelings for it.

"Wolves" plays this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. Visit the site for showtimes and tickets.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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