Winning Hearts and Minds
An interview with the cast of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
By Devin D. O'Leary
Written by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) and directed by music video pioneer Michel Gondry (Beck, The Foo Fighters), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is not your ordinary romantic comedy. The film follows a badly broken-up couple (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) who use an experimental procedure to erase each other from their memories. The film also features former Hobbit Elijah Wood as a computer technician in charge of scrubbing Carrey's mind, who uses those memories to seduce Kate Winslet. Alibi had the chance to chat with Winslet and Wood during the film's recent premiere in Hollywood.
Charlie Kaufman has to have such a reputation in Hollywood these days, when a new script like this comes out does everyone just dogpile on it?
Winslet: Yes and you pee your pants and chase it and call everyone and you say that you'll commit a murder to get the part. I mean, it is extraordinary what Charlie has done with his career and the beautiful, wonderful scripts that he's written and the movies that have been made as a result of his wonderful writing. You know, when you see a script like this as an actor you just literally want to inhale it and eat it, because the characters were so fleshed out. It was the most extraordinary story, but at the same time very sort of simple, very kind of typical love story. There's just these layers of wonderful comedy and craziness piled on top, and I just personally was delighted to be sent a script like this. Because often I'm known for doing the kind of period movies and so on and this was just so different and a massive kind of departure for me really and very, very challenging. So I just loved it. I was there just sort of knocking on the door, [saying] "I'm here."
Were you asked to play the role of Clementine?
I was. I was asked to play it, yeah. I said to Michel, ’What possessed you? What possessed you to want me to do this? How did you see these Clementine qualities in performances I've given? In Hamlet?' I was amazed that he was asking me to do it. He just said that, [adopting her best Inspector Clouseau accent] "I saw somezing zat I love about you, zat you do." And I was like, "Great!"
Normally, on a set I would think you would be required to hold your own against Jim Carrey. But in this case you're playing the chaotic character and he's the introverted character.
Uh-huh. It was unusual for both of us. I was playing the more Jim Carrey part—louder and more crazy in the way that we're used to seeing Jim. And Jim—he's this sort of introverted guy. We had a very good working relationship together. He still does those crazy things off the set. He would be always making people laugh and all of that, but then he would have this quiet side too when he'd really have to concentrate on a particular scene. I would learn to kind of gauge that, to sense that he was in his own head about something. We really got to know each other very, very well. We had too. It was a very intense on-screen relationship we had to have.
The story in this is very unusual. How do you get yourself into that strange situation? It's not something that really happens to a lot of people.
No, it isn't something that happens to a lot of people. But the whole idea of these two people having their memories erased, to me was completely fascinating because I think that we all—although I personally have never done so—wish that we could just erase some parts of our past that have been horrible or that we haven't liked or whatever. It was just an incredible story and we have to go with the flow. We rehearsed for two weeks as well, which was great because it meant that we completely understood the characters and understood this story and how it was going to sort of unravel itself and reveal itself. But the crux of it is really quite simple—It's just two people who absolutely love each other, opposites attracting. They have a relationship that's good, bad and ugly. And it just goes sour. But when they've erased all memory of each other from their minds, they meet again. I just think it says something wonderful about if you're meant to be with someone, you're really meant to be with someone, no matter what happens. It's very funny and very touching.
When you got the script did you immediately eyeball what you wanted to do in it, did you say I want to be this person?
Wood: It kind of came to me with Patrick in mind, which I absolutely loved right away. To play that sad, slightly pathetic character, who manipulates his way into Kate Winslet's life, I was like yes!
That seems like a bit of a change, you seem like such a nice guy and to play this character who is kind of a little bit sleazy ...
There is something kind of sleazy, but the way I see it he doesn't have a lot of confidence in life and he wouldn't be necessarily able to get a woman or have a romantic relationship any other way. He just doesn't have the facilities to do that. So he sees an opportunity and takes it, and in his mind there is something really romantic about it, he tries to make it seem like it is totally natural and fine. It doesn't come from a malicious place, I think that there's a kind of innocence, naiveté to him as well.
It's an unusual situation, how do you put yourself in that place, emotionally?
It's not hard to fall in love with Kate Winslet, so in that sense that was easy. Then everything else, playing that kind of pathetic nature was actually just good fun. Especially with Mark Ruffalo. I had most of my scenes with Mark, and—my God—we had such a good time, so much fun. We never knew what we would do from one day to the next. We would sort of have a scene written on the page but that wouldn't necessarily be an indication of what we were going to do. Because we would change and mutate. Working with Michel was utterly fascinating in that sense.
It seems like there was a lot of innovation on the set.
Oh, there was absolutely. Like I said, we never really had an idea of what we were doing. We had this freedom, a great sense of freedom, to take things in different directions. Sometimes, in the first couple of weeks, there were certain scenes people didn't know that the camera was rolling and that kept you on your toes. But there was something exciting about it as well.
It seems like you must of gone through a pretty big sea change coming on to this film, you come on set, you work for a few months, then you go home.
Yeah. On this set, I would work a couple of days, then I would have like a week or so off and then work a couple of days. It was a totally different process. Which was welcomed. After coming off something like Lord of the Rings, the last thing I wanted to do was jump on to another giant production. In my mind, I had it set that I wanted to work on something small. I was lucky enough to have this come around.
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