introducing Brenda, Cherie . . . and Jean
Brenda, Cherie
. . . and Jean             


Photo of Clubland,  Brenda Blethyn Photo of Clubland,  Cherie Nowlan

Cherie Nowlan, Brenda Blethyn (and not her alter ego Jean Dwight) talk to The Popcorn Reel

By Omar P.L. Moore

June 25, 2007


Hear hear!  The audio transcript of Cherie Nowlan and Brenda Blethyn talking to The Popcorn Reel  (21:50)

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I f you ever get to meet Cherie Nowlan and Brenda Blethyn just once you will feel like you have known a couple of good friends for quite some time.  The director of "Introducing The Dwights" from Australia and the renowned actor from England had a few laughs with The Popcorn Reel just prior to attending a Q&A for a screening of the film in San Francisco three nights ago.  These two charming lovely ladies sparkled with warmth, wit, smiles and insights during a conversation with the writer of this story at the St. Regis Hotel.  "Introducing The Dwights" opens in Australia on June 28, in New York and Los Angeles on July 4, and will open in twelve additional U.S. cities (plus an expanded release in New York) on July 13.  The film enjoyed its North American premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier in the year in January.  Then the film was known as "Clubland" before its name change to "Introducing The Dwights", thanks to the film's U.S. distributor Warner Independent Pictures, which re-titled the film for American audiences.  ("I'll end up calling it just "The Dwights", said director Nowlan after the interview.)

If you ever get to meet Jean Dwight and you happen to be her adolescent son there are times that you might want to get away from her, no matter how much you are touched by her love.  However cloying, Jean means well.  Just ask Brenda Blethyn, who inhabits Jean in Ms. Nowlan's new film, written by Keith Thompson, which chronicles the comedy, anxiety, embarrassment and pains of a showbiz family that has fallen apart at the seams.  When Jean's late adolescent-blooming son Tim (played by Khan Chittenden) stumbles into sex and love with the confident and precocious Jill (Emma Booth), Jean refers to Tim's previous mishaps with the opposite sex with one "Samantha problem" reference after another and keeps herself an ever-present force in Tim's life, occasionally at the most inopportune moments, to the detriment of Tim's growth as a young man in his most precious developmental years.

Brenda Blethyn describes what she was so attracted to in "Introducing The Dwights" and her character Jean.  "What I think is wonderful about the film is that it's exploring new emotions.  This is a new emotion for her, just because she's, you know, an adult -- she should know how to deal with -- she's never dealt with this before.  She's dealt with a lot of her husband going off with some waitress . . . but to lose -- we all know what it's like to lose a loved one who moves away -- but her son -- who is 20 going on 12, who is emotionally naive -- and to give him up . . . it's new to her.  That's a struggle for her.  So I forgive her a lot of things.  She's got a harsh tongue.  But most of that I think is just pride and anger, which we all do."  As she explains this it is apparent that Brenda Blethyn has a cozy relationship with Jean Dwight.  She playfully invokes the two personas -- herself and her character -- during the conversation.

"It was an honor (to direct Brenda)," said Nowlan, who had not directed the two-time Oscar nominee before.  "The part was written for her, actually -- with her in mind by the writer Keith Thompson, and I idolized her in "Secrets and Lies", so it was a gift to be able to offer it to her and then she accepted it -- it was fantastic.  We wouldn't have been able to make the film without her.  And to play that kind of role with that amount of empathy and lovability I think is a rare thing.  I can't imagine anyone else being able to pull it off."  She added that she would love to work with Brenda again.  In the film's production notes Nowlan is quoted as saying of her star actor: "I think she is one of the greatest actresses of all time and I really can't think of anyone apart from Meryl Streep who's in her sphere."

The character of Jean, while perhaps an occasional nag of sorts to her son Tim, was a revelation for Brenda.  Keith Thompson's screenplay presents a balanced picture of life in a broken Dwight household, with a mentally challenged younger brother Mark (superbly acted by Richard Watson), Tim, the eldest son, and Jean, a British comedian with 20 years of fame under her belt, and whose career at Clubland as an entertainer with quick wit and bawdy humor is a hit with audiences in Australia, her new residence.  Jean's husband John (Frankie J. Holden, an Australian singer and performer off screen) is estranged and living elsewhere and maintaining his showbiz talents as a performer while alternately moonlighting as a local supermarket security guard. 

Photo of Clubland,  Emma Booth, Khan Chittenden, Cherie Nowlan, Brenda Blethyn, Katie Wall
At Sundance in January: from left, Emma Booth, Cherie Nowlan, Brenda Blethyn (seated), Katie Wall and Khan Chittenden (seated).  (Photo: WireImage)  Second photo: A boy's best friend . . . : Brenda Blethyn as Jean, in a heart-to-heart with Khan Chittenden, who plays Jean's older son, Tim.  (Photo: Warner Independent Pictures)

Keith's script also resists the temptation to make judgments, another attraction for Brenda.  "I don't judge Jean.  There might be a temptation to smooth off the edges [of her character].  I think that would be patronizing to both her and to the audience.  It was a journey of Tim's going on this journey of discovery with romance and sex I found so refreshingly written.  And also, I could see from reading it that the audience were going to meet Jill, this gorgeous girl, and see how happy Tim is with her before Jean does.  So while the audience have total empathy for him in his journey, they forget sometimes I think, that Jean doesn't know where he is.  She's concerned for her boy." 

Jean is the "lioness protecting her cub", Blethyn laughs as she recalls Jean's perception that Jill is running and controlling the whole sex and romance show with Tim.  Mother's instincts.  Brenda then slips into the skin of the third person.  "Whether one approves, that's the way she deals with it.  I [Jean] don't [approve].  Brenda doesn't entirely.  But, you know, Jean doesn't know Brenda.  Jean cannot phone Brenda and ask her.  Nor does she care what Brenda thinks." 

Everyone is laughing at this moment. 

This playful intersection of Jean and Brenda by the actor may lead one to believe that they are one and the same person.  Blethyn herself throws cold water on that notion however, declaring that the two are very unlike one another.  (Later it was learned that Jean could not call Brenda anyway, or vice versa, for that matter: Blethyn's cell phone apparently went missing in her hotel room, possibly swept up inadvertently by one of the hotel's housekeeping staff.  Or by Jean herself?)

Brenda Blethyn was born in Kent, England, and did several years of stage, radio and television work in England before acting in prominent films elsewhere.  She has frequently worked with Mike Leigh, the British director with a penchant for unscripted films, including on "Secrets And Lies" (1996), for which she received an Academy Award nomination, and won BAFTA and Golden Globe Awards.  She has appeared in such films as "Pride And Prejudice" (2005), alongside fellow British stars Keira Knightley and Hugh Dancy.  Her early forays with Mr. Leigh came in the 1980's on the BBC television Playhouse series "Grown Ups".  Prior to working with Mike Leigh, Blethyn honed her craft at London's famed Royal National Theatre beginning in 1976, performing several seasons on the stage after studying at the Guildford School of Acting.  She also appeared in several BBC Shakespeare plays as well as on BBC Radio Four in the comedy "Delve Special".  In 1990 she debuted on the big screen in "The Witches", based on the book by Roald Dahl, and two years later played the mother of Brad Pitt's and Craig Sheffer's characters in Robert Redford's "A River Runs Through It".  In 1999 she received her second Oscar nomination, this time for her supporting role in "Little Voice", opposite Michael Caine.  In between film roles during the nineties, Blethyn continued to work in British television and on stage at the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Now she has several film projects in the pipeline including "War And Peace", which has just finished filming, and a comedy called "No One Gets Off In This Town".

The actor's success onscreen was further illuminated offscreen in 2003 when Queen Elizabeth II of England bestowed Brenda Blethyn with an Order of The British Empire (OBE) New Year's Honor for her services to drama and the arts.  And just last October, Blethyn's autobiography Mixed Fancies was released.


Stuck in the middle with two: Tim (Khan Chittenden) has a joker to the left of him Jean (Brenda Blethyn) and a no-nonsense, non-clown to the right in Jill (Emma Booth), in "Introducing The Dwights", which opens in Australia on June 28, and in New York and Los Angeles on July 4, before expanding to other U.S. cities on July 13.  (Photo: Warner Independent Pictures)

With "Introducing The Dwights", the Australian director Cherie Nowlan directs her third feature length film (after "Thank God He Met Lizzie" -- aka "The Wedding Party", with Cate Blanchett and Frances O'Connor, and "Marking Time", an epic film made for Australian television, plus several other television films and series.)  Cherie's skill and adept capabilities with actors convinced "Dwights" producer Rosemary Blight that she was the right person to direct the film.  Nowlan had also directed Keith Thompson's scripts in previous works.  Keith was born in Dover, England, not inordinately far from where Brenda Blethyn was born, but has lived in Australia for numerous years.  These interweaving threads made perfect sense to Blight, and the project soon came together.  Cherie had also worked before with New Zealand-born actor Rebecca Gibney (who plays Jean's friend Lana in "Dwights") on prior occasions, such as in "Small Claims", an Australian TV series.

Cherie sees her new film in the following way: "I don't think in terms of characters because of the truth of the story.  To me though, Jean is just part of a universal story.  It's a coming of age for her as much as it is of him.  And that kind of rite of passage when you leave home, you know, whether it's to be with someone else or you're just leaving home -- I identify with that completely, that angst my mother felt when I left home.  It wasn't to get married, it was just to leave home and get off and have my own life.  But it was really difficult for her.  I've had friends sit through this film with their sons and say it was really uncomfortable because it was their emotion on the screen if not the exact words.  So to me it's about what is the truth of this particular story, and that is what I was trying to serve."

As a director Nowlan serves her actors, giving them the latitude to play things out as they lay.  More accurately put, she allows the actors to lay the foundations on the celluloid canvas as a scene unfolds.  Says Nowlan's lead actor: "Mark and I would just completely stay in the moment until Cherie said 'cut'."  (Wait a second.  Wasn't that Jean talking?  After all, Mark is Jean's son in "Introducing The Dwights".  And Mark is played by Richard Watson.  Hmm.  Is Jean taking over the conversation in her own inimitable way?)  Preparation for scenes typically required Blethyn and Holden collaborating and discussing character histories among themselves and the director.  Brenda and Cherie had a great working relationship on the set and Blethyn said that the improvisational acting style she used on Nowlan's film was part of the fabric woven into her acting DNA from years of working with Mike Leigh.  In addition, "Cherie gave us three weeks of rehearsal which is pretty rare in film, although people are beginning to see the merits of it, with these four young actors, and it broke down all barriers, you know -- I'm wondering whether I'm going to come up to scratch, and they're thinking the same about me." 

Cherie and Brenda could be sisters.  During their time talking about "Introducing The Dwights" there is genuine harmony.  While some actors and directors might come pre-packaged or shrink-wrapped to interviews as commodities, Cherie Nowlan and Brenda Blethyn clearly like the idea of working together and talking about their experience on "Introducing The Dwights". 

Jean, on the other hand . . .

Well, where Jean is concerned, an audience may take some time getting used to her.  Blethyn's onscreen character is an endearing, loving and entertaining person but appreciating her attitude and behavior towards Tim and later Jill is an acquired taste.  Says Blethyn of some of Jean's rash behavior: "Everyone says things they don't mean.  People say things in the heat of the moment that they don't mean.  Vile things.  Just awful things.  And it doesn't make them bad people.  It just makes them not very [good] at negotiating in the heat of the moment."  Jean seems to be adept at saying the wrong things at the wrong time.  There is a scene in which she utters some cruel words ("your spastic son") about her mentally challenged younger son Mark during a quarrel with her estranged husband John (Frankie J. Holden) and when she utters them they cut through the audience.  "Brenda cringes also, you know, at that," says Blethyn.  "I don't -- you know I think, god, why does she says that!?!?  God, she's her own worst enemy, this woman!  What's she say that for?  But also I think that if you met these people a week earlier you'd think . . . what an interesting, what a fun mum they've got, how well they got on -- [Tim's] part of her act.  She always pulls him out of the audience.  He's her fall guy, but it doesn't look like that in the film.  It looks like he's just embarrassed because she's there."


Left photo: All (not) in the family: Jean Dwight (Brenda Blethyn) is comforted by Ronnie Stubbs (Philip Quast) as Jean's son Mark (Richard Watson) looks on, in "Introducing The Dwights", which opens in Australia on June 28 and next week in the United States.  Right photo: Comedian and magician Tommy Cooper, born in Wales, made a living out of making millions laugh with his jokes and magic performances for more than 30 years.  Cooper died live on stage in London, before a theater audience in 1984.  (Photo: Lovefilm.com)

Jean Dwight belongs to the same tradition of performers as the legendary British comedian Tommy Cooper, who had entertained millions for more than a generation.  In the film Jean references the funnyman, who died on stage before a live theater audience at Her Majesty's Theater in London.  Cooper's death was also witnessed live by millions of television viewers in England in 1984 on the popular variety show "Live From Her Majesty's".  Cooper's signature line was, "just like that!"  And those were the last words he ever spoke before he slowly collapsed on stage of a massive heart attack.  At first, audience members in the theater laughed, believing that it was part of Cooper's act.  But then it became clear that something else went sadly very wrong.

Cooper made a living out of making people laugh from embarrassing moments in his own comedy routines.  "What a lovely man," Blethyn said, when recalling Cooper's comedy and funnyman persona.

"Introducing The Dwights" has its moments of pain and anguish, as well as its episodes of ribald comedy.  It has long been said that comedy evolves out of pain, and that somehow that pain needs a laugh to ease its deep sting. 

Tommy Cooper would have been proud of Jean Dwight. 

Cherie Nowlan has crafted an adolescent story, a family drama, a comedy caper and cultivated episodes of reality involving real people.  It's the only kind of cinema she is interested in creating.  She referred to those films in the world that have an empty, bubble-gum feel to them, and mentioned that such films aren't ones she desires to make.  On the acting side, Brenda Blethyn has crafted characters with nuance and complexity more than once in her acting career, and while she admits she's not much of a singer -- she termed her first singing effort for a scene in "Dwights" as "absolutely dreadful" -- she became more comfortable with her subsequent singing efforts, which she said were much better.  Hopefully Blethyn, who looks destined for another Academy Award nomination for her performance in "Introducing The Dwights", will look at working in a musical on film or perhaps a reuniting with Nowlan for a future film project.  Hopefully Brenda will have been able to retrieve the cell phone that went missing in her hotel room.  This writer wonders aloud who has the phone. 

How about Jean Dwight?  Jean.  That Jean -- she's a smart, sassy, funny, sexy, cheeky devil. 

See for yourself, at a theater near you . . . soon.


"Introducing The Dwights" opens in Australia tomorrow (June 28) and in the United States (New York and Los Angeles) on July 4.  The film expands on July 13 to more than ten other U.S. cities.



Left photo at the top of this page: Brenda Blethyn (courtesy: WireImage).  Right photo at the top of the page: Cherie Nowlan (courtesy: WireImage)  Bottom left photo at the top: Brenda Blethyn as Jean Dwight, entertainer extraordinaire, in Cherie Nowlan's "Introducing The Dwights".  (Photo: Warner Independent Pictures)


Hear! Hear!  The audio transcript of Cherie Nowlan and Brenda Blethyn talking to The Popcorn Reel  (21:50)
 

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  PopcornReel.com.  2007.  All Rights Reserved.
 

 


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