Before I continue with this post, take a look at this wackadoodle trailer for Robin Wright’s new live action–animated movie The Congress, from Waltz with Bashir director Ari Folman, which debuted at Cannes earlier this week and feels like the most uninhibitedly ambitious film of the festival so far.
Okay, now we can talk, because the movie itself is even more out-there than what the trailer would have you believe. Picture a part-live-action, part-animated Yellow Submarine–esque version of Being John Malkovich (but starring Wright), combined with the Hollywood satire of Robert Altman’s The Player and a dystopian futurist vision of the celebrity obsession depicted in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (which also premiered at Cannes). Based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 novel The Futurological Congress, it starts out with Robin Wright playing Robin Wright, an actress who starred in The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, and could have been a star were it not for her “lousy choices” like refusing to do sci-fi. “Lousy movies, lousy men,” her agent (Harvey Keitel) berates her. Now she’s got two teenagers, and her son is slowly losing his sight and hearing. Even her daughter thinks she should be more flexible about the roles she’ll do: “Every B-grade actress does a Holocaust movie and wins something.”
She’s almost 45, and the slimy head of Miramount Pictures (Danny Huston doing his best Harvey Weinstein) is offering her the last contract she’ll ever get. She agrees to sign over the rights to “this thing called Robin Wright”; her cinematic identity will be scanned into a computer and she’ll stop acting for twenty years while the studio puts the computer version of her into all the big-budget movies she’s been foolishly refusing to do out of some deluded notion of integrity. She agrees; she can use the money and time to help her son.
Then we skip ahead twenty years to an “animation zone.” Robin Wright is the biggest star in the world, thanks to her Rebel Rocket Robin sci-fi franchise, and things get really confusing with the introduction of a drug that allows people to be whomever they want to be, and most choose celebrities. Michael Jackson appears as a waiter who can de-shell a lobster with the wave of his hand. Jon Hamm (not playing himself) voices the role of Robin Wright’s guide, a man who’s fallen in love with her over the course of animating her for twenty years. They have hallucinogenic cartoon sex.
The Congress is a leading candidate for the festival’s craziest film, an unofficial designation won last year by Holy Motors. It’s not getting the same raves as Motors — “[Congress] doesn’t quite come together,” said Variety; “Ambition markedly outstrips achievement,” wrote Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter — but no one who saw it could refute Wright’s courage in skewering her own career and using the film as a tool to comment on the plight of aging actresses in Hollywood. Folman had developed the movie for years with another actress in mind, but scrapped that when he met Wright at an awards show five years ago and could immediately picture the opening shot, a close-up on her face, streaked with tears, as Keitel enumerates in a magnificent monologue what a failure she is. Folman pitched the idea to her over a cigarette at that award show. “He told me the concept, and I was like, ‘I’m in. Let’s do it. What a cool journey,’” said Wright, who also co-produced the film, during a roundtable interview last week. Folman wanted to use her, said Wright, “because I’m in two of the most iconic films — in my country, anyway.”
Wright did agree to let Folman take certain details from her life, such as her filmography and the fact that she has two children, a boy and a girl, but she insists, “That character called ‘Robin Wright’ in the movie called The Congress has nothing to do to me. None of the words that I have ever said to my children are in there; they couldn’t be less like my kids. I have never had an agent utter one word of that speech that he gave me. I have never been in front of a studio head that’s ever spoken to me that way, and I’ve never felt that way about my life choices, career, etc.”
She’s had a career of mostly independent movies by choice, she says. “I have zero regrets.” Not that she didn’t have people around her who wished she’d tried to capitalize on those big roles and make some money. “Is it a given in Hollywood? Yeah, it’s, ‘If you do the dog and pony show, you’re gonna get more treats,’” says Wright. “And I was like, ‘I’m okay. I’ll starve.’ I’d rather do She’s So Lovely that John Cassavetes wrote versus doing Batman. They’re like, ‘Okay, I’m just saying you’re not going to be in the A-list category and you’re not gonna get the offers that Cate Blanchett or Nicole Kidman are going to get.’ So did they want to probably capitalize on building an ingénue because of the success of Princess Bride? Fuck, yeah! Of course they did. That’s a business. That’s shrewd … It’s money. And then because I made those choices — happily, mind you — I didn’t get to be a part of that zone for a period of time. Because I’m not bankable. If you don’t do that, you don’t become bankable. And it’s not lucrative for them, and that’s literally what it is. I remember trying to get movies made, and it’s like, ‘Eh, can we replace her with so-and-so? Because so-and-so brings money into the theater.’”
Does it make her upset that she’s not considered “bankable”? “It makes me sad,” she said. “Because what we do is we share stories. That’s our craft. That’s our livelihood. It’s our passion. So in that sense it hurts, because you’re like, ‘I want to go play, too! I just don’t want to play that way.’” She couldn’t get out of that hole because she’d refused to do television, the lifeline for so many actresses over 40. That is until David Fincher came along with Netflix’s House of Cards. On the Stockholm set of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he spent three hours wooing her to play the role of politician Kevin Spacey’s wife, Claire Underwood. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to do TV. I don’t want to play just the wife. Again. Like I’ve done so many times.’” Then he told her he wanted to create a Lady Macbeth, and that bit of bait worked. Wright says she and Fincher worked over season one to start off with a character she calls “the bust of Claire” and crack and erode her. “I was like, ‘Give me somewhere to go,’” says Wright. “That’s why I turned down so many movies in the last 25 years. Because if I’m just going to be arm candy or go, ‘I’m sorry, honey, let me get you a beer,’ I just … I can’t! I’d rather go work at a menial labor job where you’re actually getting your hands dirty.”
Wright flew back to the House of Cards set the day after this interview; they’re in the middle of shooting season two. So she’s ironically having a career resurgence right as this movie about the death of her career is debuting, a film that she started working on four years ago, when some might have told her it would all be over soon. There’s even a line in the movie in which the head of Miramount tells her that once she turns 45 as an actress she might as well be dead. (Too late! She’s 47.) Wright loved that and asked Folman why he didn’t just have Robin Wright (the character) get Botox. “He said, ‘But Robin, then the movie would be over!’ We couldn’t go anywhere with that movie.”