Rosemarie DeWitt navigates her way through a soul-searching identity crisis in Lynn Shelton’s new indie dramedy, Touchy Feely, about people uncomfortable in their own skin. DeWitt plays Abby, a popular massage therapist and free spirit who suddenly develops an uncontrollable aversion to bodily contact. The unexpected crisis, which coincides with her brother’s (Josh Pais) equally abrupt transformation, not only makes Abby’s occupation impossible, but severely hinders her passionate love life with her boyfriend (Scoot McNairy). Now available on iTunes/On Demand, and in theaters September 6th, the film features an impressive ensemble cast that also includes Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, and Tomo Nakayama.
During our recent interview, DeWitt talked about reuniting with Shelton on a more traditionally scripted film compared to their earlier collaboration on the largely improvised Your Sister’s Sister, building the awkward brother/sister dynamic with Pais, finding it scary playing her character without the usual anchors, and experiencing the beneficial effects of Reiki while acting opposite the talented Janney. She also discussed the impact of Rachel Getting Married on her career, Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, and her upcoming films Kill the Messenger, a fact-based drama with Jeremy Renner, and the Poltergeist remake with Sam Rockwell. Check out the interview after the jump.
ROSEMARIE DEWITT: Well, that’s funny. I did a movie with her before, Your Sister’s Sister. I had jumped into it literally maybe 48 hours before filming started. There was just one big, long conversation and then we were off and running. It was a completely improvised movie other than some backstory that she and Mark Duplass (the film’s executive producer) and everyone had combed over. This one was the opposite in that she told me the idea for this movie a year before and then said, “I’m going to go off and write this script. Would you like to do it?” As it is with Lynn, she says, “Oh, it’s about a massage therapist who develops a body repulsion and a brother who’s closed off and then develops a gift for healing” and I’m like, “I’ve never seen that movie. So, yeah, I want to tell that with you.” Where Your Sister’s Sister was — I’ve heard Lynn say this — probably about 75% improvised and 25% scripted, I would flip this on its head. This is a more traditional approach, but Lynn gives the actors so much freedom and permission. So, while you’re going to say all those words and do these things, she wants you to just try things and she doesn’t interfere very much. She never stops the camera. There was this one night. I actually haven’t told this story at all. Scoot was kind enough to call Seattle from L.A. He wasn’t there because we had a phone call [scene]. I was so tired. A lot of this performance is just Abby alone, and I had been acting all day by myself. It was like Abby is meditating; Abby is looking at this; Abby is looking at that. It was late at night. I guess the human contact was a little too much, because he said something and I just started laughing so hard during the take, but Lynn just let it roll because she’s like, “You never know.” It was almost to the point where I’m like, “Please tell me she’s going to cut.” But she’ll just keep watching because she never knows where that lightening in a bottle moment is going to happen. Most people don’t do that because they’re so worried about making their day or they think they know what it is. “We’ve got it. We’re moving on.” Lynn just hovers and watches. It’s beautiful the way she works.
Were there any unusual challenges you encountered while playing this role?
DEWITT: For me, it was that I didn’t understand what was causing the body repulsion. Lynn was clear that it’s not a pathology. It’s not a phobia. It’s just this moment in this woman’s life. We shot a bunch of things that aren’t in the movie. There were some dream sequences that Lynn said when she started screening it, people were like, “Is this like a David Cronenberg movie?” They didn’t understand it, so she took them out. Those were my way of making sense of the journey a little bit and they’re no longer there. So, what was scary was just to not [know]. Usually, you have some hooks where you’re like, “I know this about my character. This we’ll find out in front of the camera, but I know these anchors.” And, on this movie, I didn’t really have them. I trust Lynn, but often times I’d feel like, “Is this what you want?” because I just felt like I was sitting there, and she’d go, “No, it’s good.” It was so internal. I didn’t know what was happening, but when I watched the movie last, and my character says to Allison Janney’s character, “Fix me,” I realized that it was that moment where you just don’t understand anything, and it was right that I didn’t fully understand it. It was better that I didn’t. So that was the scary part.
Can you talk about the first time you met with Josh? How did you guys build your relationship as brother and sister?
DEWITT: Again, a lot of it is Lynn. I mean, Lynn knew she wanted to work with Josh forever and she had seen him in this role. She invited Ellen, Josh and I to have dinner and we all made curry together. It was kind of awkward. We were all a little shy with each other, but it was perfect because rather than impose something onto it, we were like, “Oh, this is this family. This is how they are.” They’re not great at communicating. They’re really different people. I mean, now it’s so easy and loose with Josh, but it was great how they just didn’t plug into each other, and they wanted to love each other well, and they were failing. And then, by the end of the movie, something allows them to touch each other. They’re never going to have great talks. They’re not cut from the same cloth.
What was it like acting in those scenes opposite Allison Janney?
DEWITT: It was heaven on earth. To me, she’s just one of our great actors. Lynn yelled, “Action” and then she went, “Cut,” and I didn’t realize that we were acting. I thought I was just having a conversation and then we were going to start acting, and I loved that. She’s one of those actors that makes everybody better, whatever that quality is. I can see that with her because you just lose yourself. And, she’s really kind of Reiki. (laughs) When I would lie down in the scene, she would have my head and be hitting these spots, and I would get so relaxed. She worked with a Reiki master to [prepare for the role] and I swear she picked it up, just in case you ever see her in the future and want to ask her to do something.
I enjoyed watching you and Ron onscreen together. Is that fun for you to do or is it a little strange depending on the project? How do you guys like to navigate those waters?
DEWITT: We met doing a TV show so we didn’t have any history. It was fun. It makes it easier because it’s not weird to act together. And then, we did another movie that we were both in, but we didn’t act together. This is the first time we’ve acted together since we met. Lynn had said to me, “Oh I’m thinking about asking Ron to do this part” and I was like, “Oh.” Actors are always weird about acting with their spouse or their boyfriend or girlfriend, but more because they think audiences will find it boring. But then, when I read the script, I thought, oh no, these are people who have a history together. They’ve known each other. There is a level of familiarity. Lynn had met Ron at Sundance and she just thought he was so different than what she thought he was like from his movies. There was a quality of something she wanted to put in the movie, and I didn’t want to rob her of that. So I’m like, “Let’s go for it.” It was fun and lovely. I don’t think you have that thing where you look in an actor’s eyes who you don’t know or you just met that day and have to tell the truth and it’s scary. It’s not that scary to do that with Ron because hopefully I’m doing that every night at home.
How did you like his look in the film?
DEWITT: I loved it. I love those pork chops that he has. He’s so Seattle. He put me to shame a little bit with his Seattle-ness.
You’ve worked extensively in both film and television. Was there one project in particular that you feel led to more roles and a higher profile for you?
DEWITT: There are the jobs you get that do something for your confidence, like “I can do this with my life” kind of thing. And then, there are the jobs that maybe bring a certain level of awareness about you as an actor where other people feel like they can hire you. A lot of times they can’t hire actors just because there’s this obligation that the audiences don’t know who they are, and it’s about making money. For me, the project that felt like all of it was Rachel Getting Married because I had such a good time on that movie. Jonathan Demme, to me, is one of the most actor friendly directors. It’s the whole experience. I didn’t even know we were making a movie. I just felt like we were showing up at his house every day. (laughs) It was just so incredible. I remember Ron, my then boyfriend, saying, “Oh you won’t even feel this for maybe three years. It takes people a long time to see movies.” And it did. It set a nice tone because it was so beautifully done to the way people thought of you. So, you do a movie like that and then other like-minded directors watch each other’s work. I just felt lucky that if that was a movie that someone recognized me from, it was that kind of movie. It’s harder when you’re put into a box and you try to get out of a box. I did get offered a lot of sister parts after that because people like you to do what they know. Their imagination sometimes can only go in that direction. It’s the kind of movie that I want to do again.
DEWITT: Yes. I knew Kenneth Lonergan a little bit from working in the theater in New York and I shot that maybe a year or two before. It’s so funny because that movie took so many years to come out. To me, that was one of the saddest things ever because I know everybody in that movie was just floored by that script. Everyone felt so excited to be part of telling that story. And then, for it to sit in an editing bay somewhere in litigation or whatever happened, I don’t even know what happened, but it was sad. I’m glad that people found it later, but I can only imagine what would have happened if it had just been released the way it was intended. Again, and with movies like this too, it’s about having more people have access to seeing and experiencing the movie. We’re inundated with the billboards we see around here, and you can’t not watch whatever because it’s in your face every day. But with these [smaller independent] movies, you have to seek them out. You’ll write about them and then somebody will say, “I saw something about Lynn Shelton. She sounds like a cool filmmaker.” And then, they’ll go see it.
What do you have coming up next?
DEWITT: I just finished a movie this weekend with Jeremy Renner. It’s an indie called Kill the Messenger. It’s a true story about this journalist, Gary Webb. I’m playing his wife. I will say right off the bat that it’s a wife part. I was just so energized and excited by it. Jeremy’s character exposes all this stuff about the CIA and the government and he ultimately kills himself. She’s alive. It was so moving and awesome to get to go meet her and talk. We all felt like we had a real obligation to get this story right. For me, it was more than just being the wife, because there was so much meat on the bone and so much stuff to be faithful to. When I wrapped, I thought this is great. It just met and exceeded all my expectations. Jeremy is great. He’s going to be phenomenal in it.
And then, I’m doing Poltergeist which will be great. It’s a crazy different [film]. Maybe I’ve done one before, like a genre-y kind of a movie, but I’ve never done a horror movie. I play the mom. David Lindsay-Abaire wrote the script. Again, he’s someone I know from working in the theater. I auditioned for his plays and always wanted to work with him, and the script is fantastic. It’s scary because the original is perfect. I know you don’t need to remake it. I don’t know if it’s a remake exactly because I haven’t seen it in a hundred years, but there’s a new audience. Sam Rockwell is going to do it. So there’s a lot to love about it. But it will be a whole new experience compared to when you talk about with these quiet little movies. I’m sure I’ll be hanging off something and screaming with mud in my hair, and that will be fun, too, I hope.
You’ll be like Ron who did The Conjuring and then The Drinking Buddies.
DEWITT: It’s interesting because I saw The Conjuring right around the time when this all came about. I was in the movie theater and I screamed, and then I started laughing so hard because I screamed. I realized because I’ve been doing these very small, character-driven movies that this is entertainment. This is so much fun. I’m having a whole experience with all these other people, and I was like, “Yeah. I’d love to try to do that to an audience.” So we’ll see what happens.