Julia Ormond for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

A decade and a half ago, Julia Ormond had the world at her feet. She was Hollywood’s ‘it’ girl, with films opposite the biggest stars, including Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford and Richard Gere.

As quickly as she succeeded, she disappeared, but now she’s back in another Brad Pitt film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

But this time there are no scenes with the superstar, as she really stars with a heavily made up Cate Blanchett, as the once true love of Benjamin Button whose story is told through a journal read by Ormond’s character.

In this exclusive interview, Ormond talks about Button and her reasons for fleeing Hollywood all those years ago.

Question: I suppose the obvious question to start with is that, even though you don’t work with him, this is the first time you’ve appeared in a Brad Pitt movie since Legends of the Fall.

Ormond: Yeah.

Question: Did you sense the irony of that when you signed on to do this? And were you disappointed that you not only didn’t end up doing any scenes together?

Ormond: I would have loved to have been in something where we got to do scenes together. I guess the way that I’ve been talking about the role is that I’m Daisy’s daughter, because I feel that to start with that, it’s – kind of pre-empts what happens. But, it was just rather – it was just rather nice. But what I have found professionally, is, now it’s rare that I go on a movie and I don’t find someone in it that I’ve worked with before. And it makes you feel like you’re part of a professional family.

Question: Did David see you in anything earlier, that wanted him to cast you?

Ormond: I don’t know. I mean, I think his casting process is very much to see what people do in the audition. And I think he took it – I think he took it from that.

Question: It’s a very strange kind of part, really, because it’s kind of detached from everything else and it’s very much you reading and reacting to a heavily made-up Cate, and reading materials. What kinds of choices did you make as an actor, to play a character like that, in the way that it was presented in this movie, in this bookended way?

Ormond: What I really loved about it was the sparseness of – at the end of someone’s life, very often for a lot of people, it happens in a room. It’s a painful, claustrophobic few days of whatever the myriad journey someone has gone on, and all the experiences they’ve had. It comes down to a sort of no-frills ending.

So that, for me, fed into trying – just trying to get the temperature of it right. And not have it be sentimental. We sort of discussed whether or not there was – there’s kind of a tension in their relationship. To a certain degree. And I talked to a lot of people about their experience of losing a parent, or seeing someone to the point of death. And that was very moving. It was kind of amazing, the way people opened up and shared those stories.

For me, there was this challenge of, how do you make that live, when you haven’t got the backdrop of amazing sets and costumes, and being able to move around a lot? And – thank goodness it was with somebody like Fincher, who was able to film for two weeks, and find set-ups that changed it, and all the rest of it.

Question: He deliberately avoids sentiment in the entire movie, really. Do you think that was a good thing, that the film avoided sentiment?

Ormond: Yeah. When I read the script, I was really intrigued by the fact that David was the one who was directing it. Because so much of his stuff had been – I loved his previous work. But so much of it was dark and violent, and thriller-oriented, or crime-oriented. And it was such an interesting choice, for something that I think in other hands could have taken a very sentimental leaning. And I think he – by not having it be sentimental, he actually ends up with something that’s more resonant for more people.

From my perspective of seeing it, what I love about the movie is, it kind of accumulates, like a life accumulates, in terms of the experiences. And there’s very often – there are choices made that mean the big climactic scene is actually not played. It’s – for me, it works and it has more resonance, because of the stuff that isn’t in. In my journey, there I am with my mother as she’s dying, but I’m not there when she dies. You don’t get to see that moment. And you don’t need it.

Question: Is there a distinction between unsentimental and unemotional?

Ormond: I think what he wanted to go for was real. And that’s kind of risky. I always remember Sydney Pollock talking about the fact that, when you hear that someone has died, that it’s more real to him that you don’t burst into tears, and instantly start grieving. It’s more of a – you’re more taking it in, and it’s more shock. So, I like it. I love the choices that he made with it. There’s a moment in it when Brad is leaving Cate, or when Benjamin is leaving Daisy, and he’s stealing out at night, and looks at her in the bed. And she’s looking right back at him, and nothing is said. And I think that’s the – I think it’s a dangerous choice, and I think it works, and I think it’s somehow more painful than anything that could have been said. I like those moments when he’s made those choices.

Question: You’ve had a very interesting career. It began with a bang and then the world lost you for so long after that. That period, where there were so many high expectations, and you were this ” It” girl, you were this extraordinarily beautiful woman who was in these films that got savagely-treated by the press. [LAUGHTER] Do you have regrets, and did you think that you, looking back, maybe would have made different choices? Maybe would not have had some of the things that you did and didn’t, and did you treat – do you feel you were burnt by those experiences?

Ormond: I think I got burnt out, because essentially, what happened was, I felt – when the hype hit, part of it was that so many movies came on at once. Work that had been done over a period of – I don’t know, 2 1/2 years or something, suddenly all came out in the same year. And I think all of us, I would say as a team – agents, publicists, or whatever – I think all of us were highly aware of the fact that that was really set up to backfire, because it’s like, what do you do next? And I think for me it was that – I don’t really feel like I ever bought into it. I think that’s something that, you just work as an actor. You focus on the work, you focus on your craft. You do your thing. And that other stuff kind of goes on as – outside of you.

I’ve never felt like I – I think Ralph Fiennes said to me at one point that you don’t believe the really positive stuff, and you also don’t believe the really nasty, negative stuff. You’re sort of somewhere in the middle. It’s really nice when people are saying really great things. But I think you have to take it with a pinch of salt, and just get on with your job. And I think what happened to me professionally was that I had three big Hollywood movies, and then chose to do Smilla. As you do big Hollywood movies that are a success, the amount of money that you can bring to a budget of a movie goes up and it’s like being dealt a terrific hand in poker, that you then spend, you cash in, on being able to do these more risky European films.

I feel like I spent it on Smilla and Barber of Siberia. Barber of Siberia was a long, long film that was in Russia and I think I came out of that experience just so creatively spent. It was hard to look at another script. And I felt somewhat lost, in terms of – I felt like I got into a rut. There was me thinking I was making – even with Legends and Sabrina and First Knight, three very different movies. Yet the press would always come and say, ” So, here you are again. You’re the romantic lead, and you’ve got two men around you,” or three men. And I somehow got into this rut.

So I really wanted to break that, and do something different and then got creatively spent. At that point, when you decide to take a step back and pull out and – and re-think, you do it consciously knowing that – okay, that means either you don’t come back in, or it’s going to be a really hard struggle to come back.

Question: How do you feel about the fact that it took so long for you to get back in, in a way?

Ormond: Now, I feel really good about it.

Question: Do you think you’re a better actress now?

Ormond: Yeah.

Question: As well as a better human being?

Ormond: No, I think I am. I think the whole experience of – of the up and the down, has really helped me, because during the time that I was out, I developed a lot of projects, and got to see how hard it was to get a movie off the ground. To put something together. I got to see it more from the producer’s side of it. I got to – you learn a lot from the struggle. And – yeah, there were – there was a – there was a period that was a painful period of feeling like – I’d meet people in the profession, and it was like you had a lurgey. You could feel it in the handshake, that they were sort of like – ” Don’t touch that.” Because there was this feeling that some disaster had happened, by this person being hyped up and then not delivering. And you just have to – you learn that you just have to let people have that. And I think also it was a combination of other stuff. I reached a point where I was in that kind of – I was too old to play the ingenue still, and too young for them to put me into the mother role. And I sort of feel, even just with the passing of time, it makes more sense for me to be playing different roles now. And I feel as if the last – in the last two years, I’ve really looked for roles that are really different.

Question: What have you done recently? You did something since Sundance?

Ormond: The first piece that I did that actually got distribution after a while was working with David Lynch. Which was in Inland Empire and that was completely. Different. So doing that at Inland Empire was great. Then I worked with Soderbergh on Che.

Question: What was that experience like?

Ormond: It was wonderful, because I’ve always really admired Benicio. I’ve always really admired Steven. And it was so interesting to go from working with David Lynch, who was working on mini-DV, and the camera was here, and he would do all of his coverage in about 20 minutes. He would cover the whole scene, give you direction. It was such an interesting and fascinating approach. And then Steven is so gifted, and knows so much about film. Is his own cinematographer, is his own cameraman, does the whole thing. Doesn’t want – keeps the momentum going to a very high degree. So, you are kind of almost always in character on set. Because you know you could turn around and he’s filming you, No down time. And you’d sort of watch art department in certain places, the lighting crew suddenly would go into a panic and say, ” He’s filming, he’s filming.” and sort of scrambling. But he’s ready to go, so he just goes.

Question: Were you in Toronto?

Ormond: I wasn’t in Toronto, but I was in Cannes. So we did some press for Cannes. I have a very small role in it. But what was really fun for me was that Steven let me go completely out on a limb. And whether you’re playing a character that has two lines and is in one scene, it’s the same amount of work to build the – to fully flesh a character. And actually, for me, the preparation and the choices and the detail – all of the work that goes into creating a character, I really, really love. And sometimes the execution of it can be laborious and painful. So to do all the preparation that you love, and then get it over and done with in a week, or whatever – I actually really like.

Question: What are you doing next?

Ormond: The next thing to come out is Surveillance. And at the moment, I’m filming a few episodes on CSI: New York. And having a blast on that. And other than that, I don’t know.

Question: Do you live here?

Ormond: I live in Los Angeles. Yeah. So, I do feel that – not even so much because of the up and the down, professionally. And feeling a kind of – feeling a kind of shame that you hadn’t delivered for somehow – there’s a certain amount of sort of professional shame that you feel. And then you kind of think, ” let it go. Just – just focus on the work, and focus on trying to do stuff that’s good.”

Question: Do you get tired of people asking you questions about, ” What ever happened to,” questions? Because you’re going to get that a lot.

Ormond: No, because I think it’s understandable. I think people kind of want to know what happened. And I think I just got too creatively exhausted. I got disoriented, as to what I was doing. And I went away and did a bunch of other stuff. And worked with Harold Pinter.

Question: You had a Web site that you were talking to me about at Sundance. What was that?

Ormond: Well, I think what we talked about a lot at Sundance was Filmaid.

Question: That’s right.

Ormond: I started Filmaid with Caroline Barron.

Question: Is it still happening?

Ormond: Yeah. Yeah. I’m not as involved with it as I was. I kind of got it to a certain point, and then I pulled back, and now I’m working a lot more on slavery and trafficking. [LAUGHTER] Another cheerful little one.

Question: Why slavery and trafficking?

Ormond: Well, part of it, it has an overlap with refugees, but I really got into it because I’d worked so much in eastern Europe, and I’d worked a lot in Russia, and seen what was going on with the women. And have – I have a kind of strong passion for the Russian people, and what they’ve actually gone through. I’ve worked there in times that were so hard for them. And working with local crew, and local Russians. And it was just so heartbreaking, what was going on. And wanted to do something.

I think because Barber of Siberia was – is the biggest film they’ve ever – is the most successful film ever in Russia, I felt like I could have more weight as a spokesperson doing work in Russia. And then it has taken me, as Goodwill Ambassador to the UN, around the world to look at different situations of slavery and trafficking. And now I have an NGO called Asset, which is the Alliance to Stop Slavery and End Trafficking. It’s www.Assetcampaign.org. So if you’re interested in helping do something against slavery and trafficking, you can go onto that site. It’s really important for me to feel like I’m doing something.

Question: Where did that passion come from?

Ormond: I think part of it is just the way I was brought up. And I think part of it comes from not feeling comfortable with self-centered – there is something about the – about being an actor that feels so much – it’s all about me.

Question: And what about ego, too?

Ormond: Yeah. It just slightly sort of turns the stomach. And I think when you realize, as somebody who is constantly presented with the chance to do media, that you can use that voice to kind of swing it in a different direction, and – I’m quite sure if I wasn’t an actor, I would be doing something. But I honestly believe it gives me more sanity. It helps me when I pick up the newspaper, or hear the news, and it’s all so devastating and awful, to feel – ” Okay, it’s awful. But let’s try and do something to make it less awful.”

Question: So busy as you are, can you balance your personal life and your professional life?

Ormond: No, I’m not very good at that. I try! It’s a constant, constant, constant, struggle.

Question: You do have a personal life, right?

Ormond: I do, yeah. But I’m constantly trying to bring – every day is trying to do the balance. And be there for the long haul as well, and not get burnt out on the stuff that, really, when you work on this kind of stuff, it’s so devastating, and it can suck you in, in a way that burns you out. And ultimately, you know you have to be there for the long haul.