The new film Hateship Loveship was adapted from an Alice Munro short story and stars Saturday Night Live alumna Kristen Wiig in a performance that's a far cry from her outrageous characters on the comedy show.
In it, Wiig plays Johanna, a caretaker in Iowa assigned to help a grandfather, played by Nick Nolte, look after his 14-year-old granddaughter, Sabitha. Sabitha's mother died in a car accident when Sabitha's father, Ken, played by Guy Pearce, was driving drunk and high.
Ken still struggles with addiction, and on her first day, Johanna finds him going through his father-in-law's medicine cabinet. After that brief interaction, Ken leaves for Chicago but writes Johanna a short note of thanks for watching his daughter. Struck by this small act of kindness, Johanna writes him back. Their letters turn into emails, and a long-distance romance blossoms.
What Johanna doesn't realize is that she's not really writing to Ken at all. Her letter was intercepted by Sabitha and a friend, and they've been pretending to write back as Ken all along. Johanna has no idea she's the victim of a cruel teenage prank — not until she's reunited with a drugged-out Ken in a ramshackle Chicago motel.
Wiig and the film's director, Liza Johnson, tell NPR's David Greene about the film's restrained style and what they hope viewers will take away from it.
On what makes Johanna different from any other role Wiig has played
Wiig: She's always been there for other people, and because of that has never really fulfilled any desires or even thought about what her desires may be. And I think everything just gets triggered when ... Nick [Nolte's character] hires her to take care of his granddaughter.
On why Wiig's SNL character Dooneese made Johnson think Wiig might be interested in playing Johanna
Johnson: I do love that character, and I love a lot of Kristen's characters. And a lot of those characters, I mean, they're commonly, in comedy, referred to as "awkward." And when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize, Margaret Atwood wrote of her that she feels like Munro's characters are all grounded in responding to shame and embarrassment. ...
And Kristen's comedy characters are very soulful, and they really mean something to me and, I think, to a lot of people. And I think that, in a way, underneath the awkwardness is a real core of soulful emotions that include shame and embarrassment.
On Johanna realizing she's been the butt of a cruel joke, and why her reaction is to start scrubbing Ken's floor
Wiig: I think this is probably the most emotion she's felt in probably a really long time, and that's the way that she knows how to express it, or not express it. I think it's an automatic expression for her to, as soon as she feels pain, to just start cleaning.
On how Johnson hopes Johanna will come across
Johnson: I hope she just comes across as a very specific character [rather than an example of gender roles]. And I think if you walk into the life of a person with addiction issues and decide that you can fix them by caring for them, you're wildly mistaken. That's just certainly not the case. But I think, in the specifics of this story, he's been hoping to change his life; he hasn't had luck doing that. But I do think that if you get to a place in your life where you're ready to accept some care, keeping better company can actually help you get better.
On the criticism that Hateship Loveship exercises too much restraint
Wiig: I love watching films where you're not told how to feel, or you can kind of imagine what a character is thinking. And Johanna doesn't speak that much, but you kind of still know what she's saying without her really saying it. And there's nothing wrong with having silence and those breaths in film. I personally really like that.
Johnson: I think it's also an effort to honor the source material. You know, I come from Ohio, and I think Alice Munro is always writing these sort of taciturn Midwestern characters where there are sort of still waters that are running deep. And I just don't think that there is an Alice Munro melodrama, but what I love about her work is that she lets the big feelings of everyday life be expressed in a restrained way that I think lets you feel them differently than if they're really in your face.
On what they hope people take away from the film
Wiig: God, it's really hard to say what I hope people take away because so many people that I've talked to that have seen it have taken away different things, and I want to sort of honor all of them. But I mean — this is going to sound so cheesy, but I'm gonna say it anyway: The fact that Johanna just in some ways had this one-track mind to just do this thing — and she didn't even think about it, she just packed her bags and went after this guy, did this courageous thing, and all because she loved someone — I think that's a really beautiful message.
Johnson: You know, the original story is set in the '40s, and the movie is set in the present, and it did actually start to feel really contemporary in the sense that Johanna suffers from this trick and she falls in love with a fake person, or an idea of a person. And sometimes for me now, when I watch the movie, I feel like that's how love really is — you know, that you fall in love with an idealized version of someone, and then the meat of the story is you have to figure out whether you can really accept them once you find out who they really are.
Wiig: I like your answer so much better. When you edit this, can you just say you're asking Kristen and then just play Liza's answer, and say, "Thank you, Kristen. That was Kristen?"