With her blond hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, skinny jeans, a chartreuse blouse and black flats, Cameron Diaz looks more like an older sister than a mother to her co-stars of the new Nick Cassavetes’ film, My Sister’s Keeper, based on the bestselling book from Jodi Picoult.
In the film, Diaz plays Sara Fitzgerald, a former lawyer and mother of Kate (Sofia Vassilieva), who is dying of leukemia and Anna (Abigail Breslin), who was specifically conceived with the intention to save Kate’s life. For some, such genetic engineering would raise both moral and ethical questions; for the Fitzgeralds, Sara in particular, there is no choice but to do whatever it takes to keep Kate alive. And what it takes is Anna. Until Anna says no. Seeking medical emancipation, she hires her own lawyer (Alec Baldwin), initiating a court case that divides the family…and that could leave Kate’s rapidly failing body in the hands of fate.
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota to parents that emigrated from Russia, relative newcomer Sofia Vassilieva (Kate Fitzgerald) has lived all over the United States, traveled extensively around the world and speaks several languages. Vassilieva was most recently seen in the fifth season of the NBC series “Medium,” opposite Patricia Arquette. In 2003, she starred opposite Julie Andrews as the title character in the classic television movies “Eloise at the Plaza” and “Eloise at Christmastime.”
While her character lives with the specter of death throughout the film, the teenaged actress says it was the universal bonds of family presented in the script that attracted her to the part.
“The beautiful, intricate relationship this family develops and the connections they form appealed to me,” says Vassilieva. “Although not all families go through something as drastic as the Fitzgeralds do, the story of how one person can affect the entire family unit struck me as very real, touching and beautiful.”
Upon taking the role as Anna Fitzgerald, Abigail Breslin, now age 13, initially worried that the mood on set might be sad and intense, but says this was not the case. “When I found out I got the role, I thought, there are parts of this that are so sad, everyone is going to be very serious about it all. But everyone was very nice and it was so much fun. Some of the scenes were sad but the set was not”
Breslin earned an Academy Award nomination as well as BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for her performance as an ambitious young girl obsessed with winning a beauty pageant in the critically acclaimed, irreverent comedy “Little Miss Sunshine.”
Breslin recently starred in Scott Hicks’ “No Reservations,” in Adam Brooks’ romantic comedy “Definitely, Maybe”; in the title role of “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl”; and as Nim in the family adventure “Nim’s Island.”
One of the busiest actresses of her generation, Breslin is set to voice characters in three upcoming animated features: this year’s “Quantum Quest: A Cassini Space Odyssey,” Gore Verbinski’s “Rango,” and “The Wild Bunch,” with Willem Dafoe and Chris Klein. Breslin can be seen later this year alongside Woody Harrelson, in the upcoming live action horror-comedy “Zombieland.”
Playing a mother on screen for the first time was an easy decision for superstar Cameron Diaz. Perhaps better-known for her comedic roles, Diaz has proven, in several dramas including “In Her Shoes” and “Gangs of New York” that she is not a one-trick pony. Directory Cassavetes states that Cameron was his first choice for the demanding role of Sara and shares that he is “so proud of her work in this film. She had to dare to be unsympathetic, because the character of Sara has tunnel vision; everyone around her seems to have some perspective, and she’s just ‘Save her, save her, save her, save her.'”
Diaz made her feature film debut in the 1994 Jim Carrey comedy “The Mask,” then went on to star in the smash hit romantic comedy “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” A four-time Golden Globe nominee, Diaz earned her first nod in 1999 for her performance in the title role of the Farrelly brothers’ smash hit “There’s Something About Mary.” In 2000, she teamed with Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu as “Charlie’s Angels” in the blockbuster hit. In 2001, Diaz gave voice to the feisty Princess Fiona, in the Oscar-winning mega-hit “Shrek” a role she reprised in “Shrek 2,” and in “Shrek the Third,” and she is currently voicing the character in “Shrek Goes Fourth,” which is planned for a 2010 release.
The onscreen trio of Diaz, Breslin and Vassilieva, recently sat down to discuss the intense family drama, “My Sister’s Keeper”, due this month – the ultimate in counterprogramming to typical summer action blockbuster fare. MELISSA ALGAZE reports.
Question: Cameron, this is the first time you’re playing a mom, and playing a mom to teenagers is a big step for an actress. Was there any hesitation or concern about going that route, or was the material just too good to pass up?
Diaz: Yeah, I didn’t really think about it. I really don’t think about this stuff too hard. [Laughs] I just find my way through it. Nick [Cassavetes] brought me this script, and it was a wonderful script. I didn’t really even think about the fact that I would be playing a mother. I didn’t think about it, in terms of what it meant to my career. I thought of what it meant to the story, and who this woman was and what her life experience was and what was happening in front of her. I didn’t think, “Oh, my God, if I play a mother, and a mother of teenagers, how is this going to affect my career?” It didn’t even faze me.
Question: Cameron, having a sister yourself, how did you feel when you read this script?
Diaz: Family is so important. What drew all of us to this story was the family, and the stories of each of these characters. Neither Sofia nor Abigail has a sister.
Breslin: In the movie, my character and Sofia’s character, Kate, are sisters, and my character loves her sister so much that she’s willing to go to any lengths to help her. That’s what I liked about the movie. You think that this family is all in this big problem, which they are, but they all love each other, even though they’re going through this whole thing.
Diaz: Reading this script, I think we all related to the fact that there isn’t anything that you wouldn’t give someone that you love that deeply. You do whatever it takes to keep that person alive. I think that that’s something that spoke to most of us, for this film, and what I think is so effective, in the film.
Question: What are you grateful for, in your own life, and what makes you happy?
Breslin: I guess I’m grateful for my whole family and all of my friends, and everybody who has been there for me.
Vassilieva: I guess I’m grateful for the experiences that I’ve gone through and, finding a niche that I feel comfortable in, so early on. Working with incredible people who become your family and become so supportive, and become a foundation. And, the people I’ve come across, the incredible stories that I’ve heard and the relationships that I’ve built.
Diaz: Absolutely, I think the most important thing that I’ve found in my life is just my family and friends. Your wealth in life are the people that you get to love and who love you back, and all the experiences that you get to have with those people, throughout your life. Some come and some go. Some stay for a really long time, some leave quickly, some linger, and all of those experiences are the wealth of your soul. Those are the things that I’m most grateful for.
Question: Sofia, how did you feel the first time you looked in the mirror and saw yourself as this character?
Vassilieva: One day, when we were doing a screen test beforehand, we had just done one where it was the wig when the hair was falling out and it was the very beginning of it all, I remember I came into the trailer and I was hysterical. It was so hard to see yourself like that, and it was so hard to envision other people going through that, and that’s something that happens every single day. The two things that made that moment better were that Cammy and my mom were there, and they both fled in, when I was sitting in that chair, crying.
Diaz: It was so brave of her to do it. She was 15 when she did it. If anybody thinks back to when they were 15 years old, the last thing you want to do is shave your head and then your eyebrows. That’s when you’re getting a real sense of who you are. It’s so formidable. It was very brave for Sofia to do. It was amazing.
Vassilieva: And, I think that it let me see myself in a different light, being so new and pure, and having a completely fresh start. At 15, I wasn’t conformed to any idea of myself.
Question: Cameron, can you talk about working with Abigail and Sofia? Was there a specific scene with each of them where you felt like you hit that moment?
Diaz: Every scene with them. They are really amazing. They’re both extraordinary young women. What was amazing about working with Abby was that I realized you see her and you’re like, “Oh, she’s just a little girl,” but she’s got so much power within her. I went up to her mother and said, “Your daughter is a warrior.” She possesses something inside herself that is of the nature of a warrior, where she just knows how to push through. She can take all these things that are happening around her, that are these very adult, complicated, complex situations and ideas, and she’s able to somehow put something behind it with more strength than you see in most people. I was amazed by how strong she is. She’s just a powerhouse.
Sofia is the most tender of tender. Everything is right there on the surface, at all times. You don’t want to fall into her depth too deep because you don’t where it’s going to end. She has such a depth of feeling and emotion. Both of these girls were so generous with me, as actors, every time. Abby was crying off camera, and I was like, “Sweetheart, you don’t have to cry off camera,” and she was like, “It’s okay. I’ve got it.” They were just so generous. And, Sofia, having to play a girl who is having to tell her mother that it’s okay for her to day was something where Sofia held me for those moments. It was such an enriching experience on a level that was totally new for me, so it was great.
Question: Can you talk about Nick Cassavetes, as a director, and whether you were familiar with his or his father’s work before you got involved with the project?
Breslin: My experience with Nick was that I met with him before we started filming, and he said, “Abby, I’m just going to tell you right now, this is going to be a work out and you’re going to have to do things in this movie that you probably don’t want to do,” and I was like, “Okay.” And then, I got to set and I was like, “Wow, he wasn’t lying.” But, I think that Nick is a really good director. He just really sets the tone for the day. If it was a scene that was a really hard scene for someone, he would just say, “Okay, you’ve gotta be serious today. No joking around. This is a serious day.” But, that’s what makes it good because you’re really into it, from the beginning. You’re in that mind-set of the scene.
Vassilieva: I had been a little bit familiar with Nick’s work, before we met. And, last Christmas, I got very familiar with Nick’s father’s work. But, working with Nick was incredible on a level that I had never experienced. As Abby said, he was really, really great at setting a tone, but what was different for me was that it was very personal and very connected. He has that incredible ability to just tune into that right feeling. He can really get that essence. You can just look at him and feel it, and it’s this incredible energy that overpowers the set, that was phenomenal to me.
Breslin: And, also, something I noticed was that I felt very comfortable to go up to him and say, “Do you think that it would be all right, if I did it this way?” He was very open to any contributions.
Sofia: Nick was this leader of all of us, and he would give everybody their place to play and create, whether it was the actors or the prop department, or anything like that. He chose the right people to surround himself with that were the best of their craft and could create on their own, and he gave everybody that space, and the opportunity and freedom to go with it where they wanted to.
Diaz: I think him being an actor himself, prior to being the director he is today, really helps his ability to communicate with his actors. If you ask Nick, he’ll say that he loves actors, and he really does. He’s incredibly generous with his actors. He gives so much of himself, particularly in this movie, because it’s a very personal thing. He’s gone through having a sick child, and so he knew, really intimately, what this experience was like and he was able to give that to all of us, and communicate it in a way that really went to the core and essence of the experience and the moment. He just has a wonderful sense of humanity and what it really is to feel things on the level that these people feel.
Question: Cameron, did playing a mom to these young ladies knock loose any thoughts about where and when motherhood might fit into your life?
Diaz: No. Nope.
Question: Did you meet cancer patients before filming this?
Vassilieva: I had met with cancer patients and doctors, and visited City of Hope. We all fell in love with a few incredible kids, including Nicole, Paul and Kelsey. They really were there, on a daily basis, to be a guide and a reference point, and lead the way.
Question: What did you do in between takes to raise your spirits?
Vassilieva: Being in that condition was incredibly difficult. I don’t think there are words to describe it. And, I felt very isolated. Even though you’re the strength of the family and you’re telling them everything’s going to be okay, whether you’re here or not, you have to separate yourself from this world. You have to cut that off, and still be a part of it. So, in a way, I felt very alone. But, we did balance all of that nightmare that we were going through. There would be days when we’d have the most powerful scenes of the film and, when we were shooting, we would be going through that, over and over again. And then, we’d cut and we’d be telling ridiculous jokes that I still can’t bring up, to this day. So, the strength of the people around me — Nick, Abby, Cammy, Jason and the whole family — was such a strong unit, outside of the film, and they gave me strength.
Question: Cameron, can you talk about shaving your head, since that’s not easy to do?
Diaz: Yeah, I didn’t shave my head. My hair wouldn’t be this long if I shaved my head. Don’t listen to paparazzi, they know nothing.
Question: Cameron, did you ever feel like you really were the mom?
Diaz: The wonderful thing about our job is that we pretend. There’s a place of pretending, and that is on set and in the film, when we were rolling. But, I would never try to be these two girls’ moms, outside of that. It’s inappropriate, and I don’t feel that way about these girls. I had just met them, so our experience was very authentic to who we are, as Abby and Sophie and myself and Evan. So, we would hang out with one another, like people who just knew each other, as we did, which was a lot more fun. I don’t think they would like me as much, if I was actually their mother. [Laughs]
Breslin: Of course, doing the scenes, there is a certain time where you do have to stay in it, in between takes. There was one scene that me and Sophia did, where her character is trying to take these pills, and I remember thinking to myself, when we were in this dark room for a day and a half, doing this scene, and then walking outside for lunch and thinking, “It’s daylight still?” There’s definitely a time when you do have to stay in it, but I think that we also managed to [do other things]. Cameron would cook in her trailer for us a lot. She made chili cheese fries, one day.
Cameron: I would ask the kids, “What do you want to eat today?,” and each one of them got to pick what they got to eat for lunch, for a day. Evan always wanted fajitas, Abby wanted chili cheese fries and Sophia was on a special diet for the whole thing, so I would try to force her to eat stuff that she wasn’t supposed to.
Vassilieva: But, I held my ground.
Diaz: Her discipline was amazing. Her discipline is beyond. I had to talk her down from it, a couple of times. I was like, “After this, it’s over. No more discipline like this. “We talked about balance. It’s okay to be disciplined for a period of time, but after that, it’s about balance. You can still have it in your life, but you can’t be so strict. But, she got out of it.
Question: Can you talk about feeling a connection with people who have actually gone through this, and how difficult it will be for someone who has had a family member go through this, or have a personal experience with it?
Vassilieva: One of my very big concerns, after having met with Nicole, was how is this movie going to affect those who have gone through it and who’ve lived this, day in and day out.
Diaz: Nicole was one of the girls who was Sofia’s advisor.
Vassilieva: She was my guiding light. And so, I sat down with her and said, “You’ve been through this, you’ve seen this, you know this firsthand. How can you go see it?” And, she looked at me and told me that we’d be telling the story of these people and these families. When people’s stories are told, it’s always very important to give that lesson that they’ve learned and the stories that they’ve lived. She told me, “You go do them justice. You go show these people what lives are like. Don’t shy away from hiding it, or being overly kind. Show the reality of it because that’s what it was.” We’re not a family, we’re not related, we weren’t going through it, but I felt pretty confident that we did everything in our power and pushed every line we could to create this story, to honor it, and to create relationships that would make it significantly real and important.
Diaz: All we can do, as actors, is do the best that we can, if we don’t actually have the experience of it. Sofia looked like she was dying, but she was a vital, young girl. Same with myself. I’m not a parent, but I know what it is to love, very deeply, something that I wouldn’t want to have taken away from me. So, all we can do is just empathize with that. We can only guess what it might feel like, from our own experiences. Would the movie have been different if Sofia had had cancer, or if Abigail had had her marrow sucked out of her, or if I’d had a child that I was close to losing? Yes, it certainly would have been a different film. But, we had a director who knew what that was, and we were fortunate to have the director be as generous as he was, in sharing what those emotions felt like, on a very real level and in a very realistic, up front, unsympathetic way. We just tried to show what the reality of that situation is and honor it the best that we could. We were fortunate to have that going for us.
Breslin: My grandpa had cancer, so I have had personal experience with it. You just take from what you do know and what you are familiar with. And, Nick was great. He just really put us in the situation, which was really great to do. It was not really fun to be in, but great to do. So, he really helped with it, but you also just have to take from what you know.
Question: Can each of you give us a preview of your upcoming films? Cameron, can you talk about recording for Shrek 4, as well as The Box with Richard Kelly, which he’s described as his attempt at a mainstream thriller?
Diaz: It’s more Kubrick-esque. It’s coming out in October, and I’d be happy to talk about it when it’s coming out. I’m very excited about it, just to have worked with Richard. And, I’m just so honored to be a part of Shrek still. It’s a wonderful gift that gives to everyone, and I love being part of it.
Breslin: I have Zombieland coming out, in October.
Vassilieva: I go back to Medium for Season 6, now on CBS on Fridays at 9 pm.
Question: This film deals with so many provocative themes. Were there any scenes that were difficult to film because they differed from your own personal beliefs?
Diaz: I think this film succeeded, period, on what it set out to do, which is to make people feel. It’s successful in doing that. When I first read the script, I wasn’t worried about how to play somebody who other people might think is so unsympathetic. People might think, “How does this woman justify doing this to this other child?” The whole moral questioning about this really goes out the door. You think you’re going to really feel like she’s wrong, but you find, at the end, that you really cannot judge her. When I went to play her and understand her, I found that I can’t judge this woman. I don’t know what it’s like to have a child who’s dying. I don’t know what it feels like. All I know is that every parent that I’ve spoken to says the same thing. You do whatever it takes to save your child, period, whether it hurts another child of your own to do so. That is what you do. You jump off a cliff, you step in front of a train, you do whatever you can to keep that child alive. That, at the end of it all, made it so much easier for me to just know that there’s no judgment in this movie, as far as I was concerned.
Breslin: My character is put in a really hard situation, from the day that she’s born, where she is giving her sister blood and bone marrow, and all this stuff, and she doesn’t mind doing it. She’s happy to do it, but she’s put in this really hard, really tough position, in the movie, when her sister doesn’t want her to do it anymore. She has to make a decision about whether or not she proves her love for her sister, or she alienates herself from her family. That was one of the hard things. I remember, when I was first reading it, it was at night and my mom was like, “Okay, you’ve gotta go to bed now,” and I was like, “I don’t want to go to bed. I want to finish reading it.” And then, I got home the next day and started reading it and I was like, “Wow, why doesn’t this girl want to help her sister? That’s not very nice.” Then, when I finished it, I was like, “Wow!” It’s a very, very difficult situation to choose between sides. It’s hard to think about that.
Vassilieva: For me, the strength of Kate was to be able to let go and be the first one in the family to say, “Look, this is going to happen and it’s time. It’s been 14 years of being sick, and you need to let go.” Off camera, I’d be crying hysterically between every take. I’d be like, “I can’t do it!,” and Nick would be like, “Okay, you have to do this,” and off we’d go. The journey for me was that balance of letting go, and then being scared to my wit’s end. We’re so separate and so together, at the same time. You feel for every single one of these characters. You can stand by every single one of them and understand why every single person is being the way they are. You can really get into their mind-set.
Breslin: What I found interesting about the movie, when I read it, was that there really are no bad guys. Everybody’s doing what they think is right. They’re not trying to do anything wrong. They’re just doing what they think they should be doing.
Question: After making this film, have any of you thought about becoming advocates for the cause?
Vassilieva: I’m an honorary ambassador for Stand Up To Cancer. And, I recently took a trip to t St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis and visited the kids in the hospital, and really learned about this incredible facility, founded by Danny Thomas, that really, surprisingly goes all the way. They don’t just care about the child. If you can’t cover your medical expenses, they’ll do it for you. They care about the family, to a point where, when you have bone marrow aspirations and you’re getting transplants and you’re in isolation for weeks on end, they create a room next door for your parents with a shower and a couch, and they really make sure that everybody’s okay. They don’t max out your insurance, so that when something else happens to a family member, you’re covered there too. The walls are covered in murals that were chosen by kids, and that they’ve created. That love and that detail can’t go unnoticed. That was really, really empowering for me, to see that and hear the stories of these kids.
Breslin: I went to a Stand Up To Cancer event and I got to actually take calls and talk to some of the people who were making donations. It was a telethon.
Diaz: I think all the organizations that have come to light, in the last decade since we’ve found ourselves, as a society, riddled with cancer, are amazing. For me, a lot of my focus is going towards environmental thought of what’s creating this cancer for our society. What’s our overall health and what are we doing to cause this? We don’t know what causes it because it’s such a variable. There’s a variety of things that they think might be causing it. So, my focus is more on education of how we can be healthy overall, every day, and hopefully cut out some of these things that might be causing the cancer.
Vassilieva: When you visit hospitals and talk to people, everybody is trying to find out how to cure it. It’s triage. The matter at hand is saving a life. There’s not as much thought going to what’s causing it and, long term, how we can eliminate whatever it is that’s causing it, rather than fighting it as it’s there.
Diaz: It’s called preventative.
Question: Having just seen the mother who took off with her son because she didn’t want him to have chemotherapy, when you talked to the moms that you did for this film, did you also talk to parents that had to let go, at some point?
Diaz: I don’t think the mother who took her child is any different than any mother who has a child that’s dying of cancer. I think she was just doing what she thought was right. We can’t judge her on that. Now I know I can really judge anybody on that. You don’t know what it’s like, until you have a child dying in front of you. And, if she’d looked a little bit closer, Sara might not have put her whole family through what she had, had she listened to her daughter and just let her go. The parents that I spoke to all said that this script really reflected what happens to a family who has a child with special needs. Everybody falls away and everyone else’s needs, in the family, fall away. It only becomes really focused on that child. As far as speaking to a mother who had to let go of a child, we didn’t have any parents who had had to do that. Unfortunately, we lost one of the boys, Paul, who was in the film with us. Speaking with his mother, during that time, you really get this sense that there’s never really a time that you let go. You really don’t. I don’t think, as a parent, that you can actually ever let go, even when you honor your child’s decision to be released or the child is finally taken from you. That’s really what was coming from all these parents. I don’t think anybody ever really lets go.
Question: Can you talk about how the journal came about?
Breslin: We had the journal picked out and it was on set.
Vassilieva: The journal is basically what Kate leaves behind for her family.
Diaz: It was Kate’s scrapbook that she was making for the family.
Vassilieva: With anybody, we always have a fear of being forgotten and left behind. Even though I think she knew that she had such an impact on these people and that they couldn’t forget her, she tried to leave everything she could. She tried to teach Anna all the lessons she could, before she passed on, like kissing a boy and all those normal fears of a teenage girl. And, Kate’s journal was an extended version of that. It was this life that we’ve had together, the journeys that we’ve been on, the memories that we’ve created, that impacted Kate, so she wanted to leave that behind to those closest to her. We had a journal with some of our pictures in it.
Diaz: It was just a series of photos that we collected, over the period of the filming. Some were photo shoots that were set up for the younger stuff, when Jason [Patric] and I were supposed to be younger and pregnant, and the kids were younger. And then, we did some stuff altogether and took some pictures on the set.
Breslin: The last day, we did a whole photo shoot at the house. That was actually pretty fun. There was no dialogue.
Diaz: Oh, there was plenty of dialogue, it just wasn’t being recorded.
Breslin: That was really fun. It was the last day.
Diaz: And then, the wonderful production team created it, built it and put it all together for us. Different artists contributed to it, to create Kate’s legacy.
Vassilieva: There was such detail to it. If you look at the pages, you notice one thing, and then, if you look at it again, you notice another, and everything is connected. Each page is its own story, from one corner to the next, even though it’s in pictures and drawings.
Diaz: It was built throughout the shooting of the film, and then we actually filmed the book later on, after we had wrapped the film. That’s our movie magic. I just gave it up. But, it was great.