Winner of the Filmmakers Trophy at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, Tumbleweeds is a bittersweet story of a unique mother/daughter relationship, based in friendship, love and raunchy humor. Co-written by Angela Shelton and her ex-husband Gavin O’Connor, who also directs and plays the character of Jack, the jerk of a boyfriend, the film is loosely based on Shelton’s own experiences growing up on the road with her own mother.
British stage actress, Janet McTeer defies convention by playing the sexy, saucy North Carolina mom, Mary Jo Walker. Kimberly J. Brown, an impressive young actress, portrays daughter, Ava.
I sat down with Shelton, O’Connor, McTeer and Brown to discuss the making of this independent feature.
JM: You can all sing “Happy Birthday” to Kimberly.
KB: Thank you.
How old are you?
KB: I’m fifteen. Finally. But I feel like I’m kind of in that in-between mark because a lot of the stuff, a lot of the projects people are writing are like all seventeen-year-olds and it’s all older stuff. And it’s weird to be in like an in-between period because you’re too young to play the older stuff, but you’re too mature to play like a thirteen-year-old.
JM: There aren’t that many wonderful projects for women over the age of nine.
Kimberly and Janet, your on-screen chemistry is captivating. Did you immediately hit it off?
JM: We never liked each other.
JM: It’s been a real problem. From the moment we met, we never laughed. Not once.
KB: It’s depressing.
KB: Gavin told me she had been on Broadway and won the Tony in 1997. So I had the tapes from the ‘97 Tonys. She still hates me when I tell this…
JM: I hate you even more because you brought it to the set.
KB: I go “You’re gonna hate me.” And she goes, “No, I could never hate you.” And I go, “I brought the Tonys tape.” And she goes “I hate you. Get out.”
What was it like working with Gavin?
KB: We call him our big Teddy Bear because he plays a mean guy, but he’s the sweetest guy in the world. He’s a great actor. I loved him playing Jack, and he’s a great director, too. He’s a director that doesn’t think that just because he’s the director he has to have the final word and what he says goes and he’s the head and everything. He always let us have input and was always open to new ideas and he worked toward a common goal of making the film great, and he wasn’t concerned that he was the head or anything. He’s just a great guy.
JM: He’s a wonderful director. He really is. He leaves his ego at the door when he’s directing. Everybody’s input is important. He makes you feel very supported and that makes you feel very free. Gavin has a dog called Maggie who is an American pit bull terrier. And she looks very frightening and very beautiful. But she is the softest, sweetest dog in the world. And that’s Gavin. Gavin is his dog.
GO: I hope so.
How close is the character of Jack to you, Gavin?
GO: Somewhere I guess. He’s down there, deep, deep. He’s not that bad a guy…
No, I actually liked him.
GO: Well, alright…It could’ve been very easy to just play it black and white and to make him just “The Bad Guy” and that would’ve been boring --
AS: Plus, it just makes Mary Jo look bad.
GO: Yeah, it would’ve reflected on Mary Jo like “What the hell’s she with this guy if there are no redeeming qualities whatsoever.” And really what we were doing in the film in regard to all the characters was sort of swimming in gray areas. I just don’t think life is black and white. I just viewed Jack as not a bad guy -- just not the right guy for her. You know, it’s funny. Men and women have such different reactions to this guy. Most women I know come up to me and go, “Oo, I hated you in that movie…”
GO: And then I have men come up to me and go, “Ah, I thought you were pretty cool.”
Well, when Jack takes the play away from Ava, she was being petulant. Which isn’t to say that his behavior was proper, but there was an impetus for him to explode. It wasn’t like it came out of nowhere.
GO: I think so. But then I can also understand why Mary Jo responded the way she did. I think that’s what makes life interesting.
GO: (The varied reactions to this movie) informs the difference in some ways how men and women think and respond to things. How they bring their own life experiences to situations and have a reaction. It’s been pretty consistent that women despise Jack and men empathize with him. It says a lot about us, I guess.
So how did you come to consider Janet, a British stage actress, for the role of Mary Jo, a decidedly American working class woman from North Carolina?
GO: I called the film “a documentary within the context of a drama…” and when we were writing it, I always had in my head that I wanted it to have this sort of verite feel, too -- look very pretty, but still have a grittiness to it. I wanted a loose sort of camera, and I never wanted the actors to have to accommodate for the camera in any way. I just wanted to give them the freedom to perform. What was the question?
AS: How did you find Janet?
GO: I saw Janet on “The Charlie Rose Show” being interviewed. I had read about her in New York, in the papers. She was the toast of the town. She had won the Tony Award. She revolutionized this role on Broadway and everyone was just raving about this performance. I knew she was gonna be on “Charlie…” and I watched it just to see who she was. I never had any intention of casting her in this film, but within moments of watching this interview, the lightbulbs just went off. “That’s Mary Jo.”
Were you fearful that she wouldn’t be able nail the accent?
GO: Very early on when she signed on to do this, I had a conversation with her about this very specific western North Carolina dialect. And I got her voice coach that Janet worked with.
AS: Doesn’t she teach dialects in London?
GO: Yeah, she does. She’s great with dialects. She just has a really good ear. She had a lot of time to work on it. She never did it for me, though. We’d be out, in a restaurant, and I’d be like, “Let me hear a little bit.” But she would never do it.
AS: She’d do it with me, though.
GO: She’d do it with her. But she’s never do it for me, until she knew that she had nailed it. I never heard it until rehearsals.
JM: You can do the accent, but it’s easy to make it sound stereotypical, but it’s quite hard to make it sound like a voice. That’s harder. Doing the whole American thing rather than being a character and sitting a voice on top. The noise itself is quite easy, yeah, but being American is tough.
KB: I don’t know, I just thought it was pretty cool that she was able to switch so fast between British and Southern.
JM: Kimberly was wonderful helping me. She had done the accent before, a couple of years before.
In “being American,” what was the process of getting there?
JM: We went to North Carolina for awhile and sort of watched everybody, talked to lots of people, tried to understand the upbringing of a Southern American in that kind of space, those kinds of mores. I watched every Southern movie I could get my hands on. I think know how many freckles Sissy Spacek has.
GO: Janet did a lot of homework. Janet spent time with Angela’s mom, spent time down there just to soak up that atmosphere. And the chick can act. She can just act her ass off. She’s amazing.
What was most challenging for you, Janet?
JM: Being American. And working with Kimberly.
What was most challenging for you, Kimberly?
KB: Working with her. No… different work hours and working in the desert and stuff. If we had one scene to finish, we might go a little longer than usual. It wasn’t the most comfortable working conditions, but I had a blast.
Gavin, of the many hats you wore -- writer, director, producer, actor -- what was most gratifying?
GO: Being behind the camera is where I feel comfortable. I’m a filmmaker: a writer and a director. I had a difficult time with that transition of having to go in front of the camera and do the work as an actor when there were days I just didn’t want to do it. I was fried and I was so concentrated on the other actors’ performances and telling the story. One of the reasons I played the role--
AS: …was to save money.
GO: We had shopped the script around and everyone passed, so once we decided to do it low budget, as an executive producer, we were always looking for ways to obviously save money. With SAG, if you’re an actor in a film and it’s a SAG film, you have to take a paycheck. So what I did was, I worked and I took my paycheck from SAG and then I put it right back into the production. So I could pay people. I never made any money as an actor off it.
How did this project come to fruition?
GO: We got married…
AS: Do you remember when?
GO: Uh, in November…
AS: November of ’94.
GO: That summer…
AS: Yeah, the next summer we started writing.
GO: That June. I had read Angela’s manuscript and we started to make this into a film and then we got into my car and drove across the country. I went to the places where Angela grew up and lived. I met her mom who was living in Seattle at the time. Drove back across the country, hung out in North Carolina for awhile and then we started writing the script. Then, I guess we were married for a year when we split up, but we worked on the script for another three years after that and then the making of the film. So, four years altogether and we were married for one of the four.
AS: (laughs) I think it’s made the film more loving, actually.
GO: I mean, we love each other -- it’s just we weren’t meant to be married.
AS: We got divorced after the third draft.
Because of the third draft?
GO: No! When we split up, I was living in New York and Angela was living in California. I think we took like a month away from each other and I said, “Angela, I can’t let this go; this story -- it’s in me.” And Angela said, “I can’t let this go, either.” So let’s get back to it, figure if we can make this thing work.
AS: Actually, our friendship got even better.
GO: Oh, it’s great. I came out here and met her boyfriends -- some I liked, some I didn’t.
AS: Boyfriends? (laughs)
GO: I met a couple of them. She finally met this guy, he’s a great guy--
AS: Two years. I broke my record.
GO: Right. You know, sitting in a room together working every day and investing all this into the story. We sort of redefined our relationship.
AS: Now we’re doing a TV show so we’re back in the room together. It’s fun.
GO: The story kept us together really. It had nothing to do with us splitting up. We never fought over anything regarding…there was never disagreements over the story we were telling. In actuality, it really saved our relationship.
Angela, this script is not only your idea, but an idea based on events from your actual life. How did you muster the faith to hand it over to a director, especially your ex-husband?
AS: One of the main reasons (I had the faith and trust to hand over my script to Gavin) was because I was married to him, honestly. And he was in love with me. I think? First of all, he knows me so well. I completely trusted him. He was in love, first and foremost, with the characters, with my mom and I. And he really worked at doing justice with this love story. It wasn’t about a vanity piece for him. It was never about him acting in it. It was about truly telling a beautiful story. And I think he did a great job.
GO: Angela and I scouted locations, the two of us. We couldn’t afford a location scout until, officially, pre-production began and we knew we had so many locations. When I cast the film, Angela was in the sessions with the camera.
AS: I read with all the actors.
GO: Reading. She was there all the way through production. She was in the office. Whatever needed to be done.
AS: I’m convinced that everything happens for a reason -- my mother instilled that in me from when I was a little girl -- and I’m convinced that Gavin and I were married to make this movie. We’ve always seen it as our baby and now it’s like it grows up and it’s kind of going to college now. It did really well in school, you know, at Sundance, it won some awards and now it’s going out into Life. And we’re just kind of watching it. It’s really interesting.