Building an Ensemble in What They Had

How Elizabeth Chomko's talented cast became a family

Written by Peter Bowen

When Ruth (Blythe Danner) gets lost wandering into Chicago's snowy streets one night, her family comes together to help her in Elizabeth Chomko's What They Had. Her son Nick (Michael Shannon) pushes for her to receive full time care at a professional facility. Her daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank) flies back with her daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) from Los Angeles to see how she can help. Ruth's husband Bert (Robert Forster), overwhelmed and frustrated, just wants to be left alone to take care of his wife on his own. Singularly, each actor embodies the complexity of his or her character. In putting them together, however, Chomko succeeds "in building an ensemble that feels like a true family with a significant amount of history," according to Collider.

"Ensemble is hard to do," quipped playwright Eric Bogosian. "It's like 3-D chess." To create her family, Chomko first need to give her cast-comprised of winners of Tony, Emmy, and Academy Awards-characters that would fit together as an ensemble. "One of the best parts of the process," for Chomko, was "tailoring the roles to these wonderful actors, allowing them to push the characters that ten or twenty percent that made them tangible, real people." Matching their individual talents to her story enabled her to create characters so real, that, as The Observer notes, "you leave the theater feeling like you just flew back from seeing your parents, even if they're nothing like the parents portrayed in the film."

 

The Daughter, Mother, and Sister | Hilary Swank

For Chomko, Hilary Swank brought "an amazing strength to the role" of a daughter who returns home to help with her mother's illness, only to confront her own crises, from an unfulfilling career to an unhappy marriage. Having begun acting as a teenager, Swank acknowledges the influence of her own mother. "Her belief made me believe in myself, which is everything," Swank told The GuardianSwank quickly rose from playing side characters on TV and in family films to playing unforgettable women under pressure. By the age of 30, two of her performances-in 1999's Boys Don't Cry and 2004's Million Dollar Baby-won her Best Actress Academy Awards. Expanding her role to both actress and producer in such films as Freedom Writers and Amelia, Swank has exemplified independence and strength.

Her character needing to balance her personal life with being a daughter in What They Had struck a personal note for Swank. Three years ago, Swank put her career on pause to take care of her father who was suffering from life-threatening health issues. "I was really thankful I got the opportunity to be able to take time off work to care of him," Swank told CBS News. "It very much mirrored the story in a way having a crisis in a family and how the family comes together and it shines a bright light on the strengths and weaknesses of a family,"


The Mother and Wife | Blythe Danner

Since stepping on the stage in The Glass Menagerie in 1965, Blythe Danner has been one of America's most versatile and dynamic actresses. She won her first Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play in 1969 ofButterflies are Free, and was nominated for a Tony in 1980 for Betrayal, in 1988 for A Streetcar Named Desire, and 2001 for Follies. She started making films in the early seventies, playing every type of role from Robert Duvall's over-caring wife inThe Great Santini to Ben Stiller's waspy mother-in-law in Meet the Parents to her acclaimed performance as a widow given a new lease on life in I'll See You in My Dreams. On television she guest starred on everything from Columbo to M*A*S*H to Tales from the Crypt.

It was, however, her various maternal roles that won her the most acclaim. As Will's self-consumed, cocktail-sipping mother on Will & Grace, Danner was twice nominated for an Emmy Award. She was also nominated for Emmys for playing a mother torn apart by a family trauma in the Lifetime adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates's We Were the Mulvaneys and the loving matriarch in the Hallmark Movies adaptation of Anne Tyler's Back When We Were Grownups. In 2005 and 2006, she won back-to-back Emmys as Hank Azaria's mother-and Robert Forster's wife-in the Showtime drama Huff. While she's mastered playing mothers in film and television, she relished most her role as the mother to Gwyneth and Jake Paltrow. "I'm a devoted mother." She joked with Vulture. "That's the one thing I know how to do."


The Father and Husband | Robert Forster

For Bert, Robert Forster drew on more than fifty years as an actor to play Ruth's loyal husband. "The way Bert looks at life is that you do the right thing…with commitment and fierce loyalty," Chomko notes, adding, "Robert got that moral compass so instinctively." Having had a career of highs (an 1997 Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Jackie Brown) and lows (several decades of working in B-movies), Forster intuitively understood the power of commitment. As he told the AV Club, "You've got kids. You've got to work. You've got to scrape it out. You've got to hang in there." Forster has even turned his experience into a motivational address about committing to excellence in any job you do.

On set, Forster and Danner found a connection both as parent and professionals, having already played husband and wife in Huff. "He is so committed to the work," Danner says of her on-screen spouse. "We lived quite close to one another during the shoot and had dinner together some nights." Having already honed the character of the traditional patriarch in films like The Descendants and TV shows likeKaren Sisco, Forster refines his character of Bert to be, as The Observer describes it, "a diamond-hard rendering of a certain kind of American male that belongs to an earlier generation."


The Son and Brother | Michael Shannon

In What They Had, Michael Shannon plays Nicky, the son who finds himself caught in the crossfire of his family's multiple conflicts. His father never fully gives him his due, despite having worked night and day to run his own downtown bar and support his family. His sister remains hesitant to support his plans for their mother. In the end, Shannon's character gets the difficult job of saying the things nobody wants to hear. "Nicky is not the antagonist in the story - the only antagonist is time-but he does serve as that voice, confronting them all with painful truths," explains Chomko. Danner, who knows Shannon through her own son Jake Paltrow, reveled at the chance to play his mother. "Michael came in with so much that wasn't on the page," Danner recalls. "He is an extremely talented actor with a real gift for improvisation that brought so much authenticity to his character."

Having begun his career doing theater in Chicago-an extra plus for Chomko who wanted to capture the texture of the city in her film-Shannon gained a reputation for bringing an exhilarating, uncertain edge to his characters. In 2009, Shannon received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road. Playing the unstable neighbor's son, Shannon decimates Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet's staid suburban world with his knife-turning honesty. In 2017, he got his second Oscar nod playing a sheriff willing to go beyond the law to achieve justice in Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals. While often cast as the heavy in films like The Shape of Water99 Homes, and Man of Steel, it is Shannon's skill at mixing the dark with the light that has created some of his most memorable parts, such as the obsessive father in Take Shelter, the erratic rock icon inElvis & Nixon, or the corrupted government agent in Boardwalk Empire. As the brother fighting to assert his version of reason in What They Had, Shannon rounds out the family dynamic. For SlashFilm, Shannon shines as a "gentler man left to navigate a minefield of self-doubt, bitterness and familial duty."


The Daughter and Granddaughter | Taissa Farmiga

As Bridget's daughter Emma, Taissa Farmiga adds a new layer to the family dynamic. "Emma is a girl on the brink of adulthood struggling hard to live up to her mother's expectations," says Farmiga. "So hard that she hasn't taken the time to figure out her own expectations." Farmiga understands the complexities of family all too well. The youngest of seven, she began her professional career by agreeing to appear in Higher Ground, the directorial debut of her sister Vera Farmiga. Her performance as a younger version of her sister won rave reviews and lead to being cast inAmerican Horror Story and then in Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring.

Farmiga connected to What They Had on multiple layers. Personally, her own grandmother had suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Artistically, she explains, "I'm drawn to projects that show what it's like to miscommunicate, to not be the perfect sibling or parent." Having never grown up in Chicago, her character serves as more observer than active participant, a role perfect for Farmiga's talents. "Taissa has these eyes that take you places," Chomko notes. "She tells a compelling story by just inhabiting the frame."





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