TORONTO - Anne Hathaway still doesn’t quite get what Jonathan Demme saw in her to make him believe she’d be right for the lead in “Rachel Getting Married.”
“I mean, was it my work on ‘The Princess Diaries’ that convinced you I could play a recovering drug addict?” she says, laughing, eyeballing her director, who’s seated alongside her in a big round booth at a bar.
Indeed, audiences who know Hathaway from the two fairy-tale “Princess Diaries” hits, or from her star turn as a guileless gal dropped into the wicked world of couture in “The Devil Wears Prada,” will be startled to see the selfish, self-destructive rehabber who comes home for her sister’s wedding in Demme’s new film. It’s a jolting performance.
Enthusiastically received at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, “Rachel Getting Married” features “Mad Men’s” Rosemarie DeWitt in the title role, and a typically diverse Demme cast that includes a thrice-Oscar-nominated actress (Debra Winger), a pop star (Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio), and a stage actor/professional clown (Bill Irwin).
Demme, who is 64 but gushes with the enthusiasm of a 16-year-old, says he first saw Hathaway at an awards ceremony six or seven years ago.
“It was a red-carpet situation, and I was a producer of a film that was up for some awards,” he recalls. “I love the ‘red carpet,’ you know, because there’s Donald Sutherland! There’s Charlize Theron! There’s EVERYBODY! ...
“And amidst this chaos of glamour and celebrity, my eye was taken by this incredibly vivacious young woman. There was something about her that was just wonderful to see. And I said to my companion, ‘Who’s that down there in that red dress?’ And they said, ‘Oh, that’s Anne Hathaway, the girl from “The Princess Diaries.”’
“I could see that she was different, that there was something going on there. And in my professional head I noted that.”
Cut to early 2007, and Demme had just read Jenny Lumet’s screenplay for “Rachel Getting Married.” (Yes, she’s director Sidney Lumet’s daughter.) Demme was sitting there, getting excited about the story’s possibilities - a weekend of family rites and family wrongs, folks brimming with emotion - and wondering who could play the central character, this messed-up, narcissistic, one-woman freak show.
“I thought, well, I love this script, but it’s really going to take a hell of a young actor to pull this part off,” he says. “And ding-ding-ding, the first person I thought of, only person I contacted, Ms. Hathaway here.”
“I love that story,” Hathaway says, looking on.
Yup, it’s a lovefest here at the film festival.
But Demme’s instincts were right: Hathaway has scenes in the verite-style “Rachel Getting Married” that are so raw and desperate that you start to feel uncomfortable watching her. Her character, Kym, toasts her sister and her sister’s soon-to-be-husband at a rehearsal dinner, in front of a long table of family and friends, and, well, it’s just like one of those awkward, embarrassing toasts that most of us have witnessed in real life. Squirming stuff.
And the stuff of Oscars, too. The buzz has already begun.
“I knew she’d be terrific in this film, and I knew I could trust her to work really hard,” Demme says.
As for Hathaway, she knew it, too. The usual self-doubt, this time, wasn’t there.
“I feel like my life has been one big, long moment of self-doubt, and I decided, with this one, that I was going to give it a rest,” says the actress, 25.
“From the minute I read the character, I knew who she was, and from the minute I met Jonathan I knew I could be her. My imagination was the limit. That as long as I had a willingness to go there, Jonathan would never let me fall, basically. So I decided not to think about whether or not I could do it. Just go for it, and actually for once in my life believe that I could.”
On Oct. 24, Hathaway has another film coming: “Passengers,” a mystery thriller with supernatural currents, which also stars Patrick Wilson, Andre Braugher, Dianne Wiest and David Morse.
“It’s the story of survivors of a plane crash, and I play the grief counselor that’s trying to get them through their post-traumatic stress syndrome,” Hathaway reports. “And as my clients, my patients, have breakthroughs, they start disappearing one by one and _”
“Stop! Say no more,” Demme says.
So Hathaway does as she’s told. And then, prompted by a question about playing a grief counselor after playing Kym, this girl drenched in grief and guilt, the New Jersey native ruminates about the roles she’s been handed, and taken.
“It’s funny, because the progression of my films were ‘Devil Wears Prada,’ where I play a character that’s hemmed in by her inexperience,” she says. “And then I went to play Jane Austen (in “Becoming Jane”) who’s a girl caged in by society. Then I played this role in ‘Passengers,’ a girl who’s caged in by herself - just because she has this kind of self-imposed loneliness.
“And then I played Agent 99 (in “Get Smart”), who thinks she can do anything. And then I came to play Kym who had been caged in, and then basically burns the cage down.”