Paula Patton Relishes Role of Ambitious Journalist in ‘Swing Vote’
by Paul Fischer
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Thirty-two-year old Paula Patton is making quite a splash in Hollywood these days. Apart from playing an ambitious journalist who has an impact on the life of Kevin Costner in the wry comedy Swing Vote, the actress will also be seen opposite Kiefer Sutherland in the horror film Mirrors, due out later this year. Her family lived across the street from the 20th Century Fox lot when she was growing up and she was a fan of films from her earliest years. Her mother, who also appreciated good films, was a schoolteacher, and her father was a lawyer. Paula claims that as a girl she would escape by “pretending to be someone else” so it was not a surprise that she acted in high school plays at Hamilton Magnet Arts High School. Her favorite role was that of Abigail in The Crucible. However, she went on to study film at the University of Southern California in a summer program, and won a 3-month assignment making documentaries for PBS. This led to her working as a production assistant for TV documentaries, and also for Howie Mandel’s talk show. She progressed to actually producing documentary segments for Medical Diaries (2000), airing on Discovery Health Channel. Paula now professes that she liked what she was doing, but her dream remained the same as when she was small so she took acting lessons and shifted gears to become a performer. She was almost immediately successful and, within three years, had played parts in major features, Hitch (2005) and Idlewild (2006) and the female lead in Déjà Vu (2006), opposite Denzel Washington.
The accomplished producer/actress talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer: So, how did this come to you, Paula?
Paula Patton: You know, I was in Bucharest, Romania, shooting this film I have coming out in a couple weeks with Kieffer Sutherland called Mirrors and my agent sent me some scripts, and I read Swing Vote, and I laughed out loud. I mean, I just thought, “Wow! This is amazing, that I laughed out loud while reading alone, you know?” Then, beyond that, I just thought the story was so clever and well-written. And I think the character is great, Kate Madison, but just—a fun character to play. I’d been doing this intense horror film for two months, and I thought, “What would be better than going on to comedy?” The material was just so great, so I said, “I’ll do anything I can to get this role.” And they were like, “Well, you’ve got to meet with the director.” Now I’m in Bucharest, Romania! What am I gonna do? And he said, “Well, let’s see. Maybe he’ll talk to you on the phone, and we’ll see how that goes.” So I think it was 1:00 a.m. my time. I called him. We talked on the phone for an hour, or maybe more. And it was a great conversation between Josh and I. And two days later, I found out I got the role. It was just a miracle, I think. But I’m so happy.
PF: She’s an extremely ambitious journalist.
PP: Yes. She has ambition on steroids.
PF: Quite. [laughs] What kind of research did you find yourself having to do, to get into this character?
PP: Well, when I got to New Mexico, we were doing prep and I said, you know, “I really want to find a local reporter that I can shadow.” They found a woman for me. Her name’s Antoinette Antonio. And she was a local newscaster in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And I shadowed her around. I went into the studio with her and saw her do a newscast. And out in the field, and getting stories. And interviewing her, and just getting a sense of her personality. What the personality type is of someone who wants to—and she did—become a national news broadcaster. And how you can work your way through those small markets. You’ve got to be—you know, you’ve got to be a hustler to win at that game. And I also watched a ton of news. Whenever I had time off, I would just watch CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, all of it, to try to get a cadence for the newscaster, as best I could.
PF: Can you identify with this woman’s sense of ambition?
PF: To what end?
PP: I think that the goal that she wants is a difficult one and to be an actress is a difficult one, so I think that there’s always that question of, how far are you willing to go to succeed, and what boundaries are you willing to cross? I think also in the celebrity world we live in, always making sure you remember why you decided to become an actress, instead of just going so hard at becoming an celebrity, if that makes any sense. I think that “by any means necessary” adage could be applied to many actors and actresses, and the same with a newscaster. So I’m ambitious, but I’m not willing to sell my soul by any means. So, I’ll take less money, and keep my soul.
PF: Did you get any advice from Kevin?
PP: Yeah. I have to tell you—I mean, he’s just such a great guy, and a really generous actor and also a terrific director. I mean, when you think of what he directed beyond Dances with Wolves, it’s pretty remarkable, and he’s produced a lot of movies. And so he has a real sense of making sure everybody’s happy. And that goes from the crew, to the cast. And that everybody shines. He’s so not selfish. You know, he can—“Oh, you know what would be funny?” He didn’t try to hog the spotlight. He wanted everybody to do their best. And what I also learned from him is just, he saw the entire world of what it takes to make a film. And by that I mean—there are so many details. It’s a little bit hard to explain. But when you’re working, to be aware of. And he was hyper-aware of all of them, and I learned a lot from that, because I think the more you are in tune with what it takes to make the film, and what’s going on, the better actor you become.
PF: Now, with Swing Vote, is there a danger that the film became too political? I mean, do you think it treats both political parties equally?
PP: You know what? I basically do. I’m sure people can make arguments either way, but I think that as you know, the way the film ends, it really leaves it—the main issue is that we’ve really become apathetic Americans, and understandably so. Our lives are so busy. You know, people have their phones on 24/7, their bosses can call them at any time. I have friends who sleep with their Blackberries on by their night table. So, we never stop, you know? And then you’ve got—you have kids, and you’re trying to figure out put gas in your car, feed your children, get them ready to go back to school. I mean, you know, life is so crazy and chaotic for most people, that they don’t have time to care about politics. But what the film is saying, is that you’ve got to find the time. Because if you don’t, you’re gonna end up—we’re going to end up being ruled by this small, elite group of people. And we’re not gonna have much say. So it’s our civic responsibility to go out there and vote, and be—you know, good citizens of this country. And make it the America we want it to be.
PF: Are you surprised that Disney did not try to release this closer to the election?
PP: You know what? I’m not. I actually figure it’s a really smart move, to be honest with you. I think that by the time election comes, I would worry that the people were just sort of tired of all of it, you know? Right now, I feel like people are excited by it, and it’s fresh and it’s new. And we have our two Presidential nominees, and it—we haven’t quite hit the storm of it all yet. And I think that timing is actually quite good.
PF: Who do you think will like the film better, Obama or McCain?
PP: I think both of them would like it. I think both of them would find redeeming qualities in it. But they probably would, like, really to make an opinion at the end. But my opinion is Obama.
PF: I take it you’re an Obama supporter.
PP: Absolutely. Absolutely.
PF: Why did you want to become an actress in the first place? What was the draw to the profession?
PP: I wanted to be an actor when I was little. I just loved to perform. I was always embarrassing my brother, putting on shows, and making his friends watch the stuff. I loved to perform, since I was a little girl and then I went to a performing arts high school. I think I was a bit insecure, and I just didn’t think that I could pursue it as a profession, but I loved filmmaking. I’ve always loved the art of filmmaking. I grew up, and I didn’t have—you know, didn’t have a great childhood. Probably like a ton of people. And movies are my way of escaping. So I realized I wanted to be in the filmmaking—in any way, you know? And so I decided, “Well, maybe I can be a filmmaker. I’ll write and direct films.” And so to make a long story short, I ended up going to USC film school. I graduated, did PA work, assistant work. And then worked my way up to working in documentaries, producing and directing stuff. Then I was working on a show called Discovery Health Channel and when the series ended after two years, which was a series called Medical Diaries, I just found myself—you know, lost, because I liked what I did, but I didn’t love it. And I was 27 years old. I remember, I was trying to write a screenplay at my desk, and just stuck. You know, just uninspired. And I thought, “What have I wanted to do since I was a little girl?” Because I really feel like people should do what they wanted to do when they were kids. Maybe. You know? And I thought, “Well, I loved to act.” So I thought—I’m really at a time in my life, I said, “Screw it. I’ve got nothing to lose. Let me give it a shot.” So I started taking lessons, and classes, and I studied for a year. And I knew immediately that this is something I have passion for, and this is something I’m willing to suffer for. And I stayed.
PF: You mentioned that you just finished doing Mirrors. Who do you play in that?
PP: I play Kiefer Sutherland’s estranged wife and in the movie, he happens to have been essentially fired from police work. And he is someone who started with an alcohol problem, a recovering alcohol problem. But he’s taking this medication that I think is making him crazy, and making him see things. I feel like he’s endangering our children. And then I start to realize that perhaps what he’s seeing is real and that it’s something that comes in, and I have to protect my family from these evil forces.
PF: What was it like shooting in Bucharest?
PP: It was an amazing experience, I have to tell you. I got to see a whole other world that—it was fascinating. Because Bucharest, Romania, was a Communist country up until 17 years ago, which is really not a lot of time and so it’s really interesting to see a country in transition. It just became part of the European Union, and it just a fascinating place to shoot. And then the movie itself was a real challenge. You know, people don’t always take horror films seriously, but when you think about what you actually are doing in the movie, you realize, “This is really intense stuff. And I’m gonna be as honest as I can be, and true to what’s happening. I’m going to have to really dig deep.” You know, you’re fighting for your life, your children’s life. You’re scared of your husband. Everything was intense emotion, every day. Day in, day out. By the time I left Bucharest, I was exhausted. I had bruises and scratches all over my leg, and—you know.
PF: Did you do a lot of screaming? Is it a very reactive character/
PP: Yeah—you know, it’s not—I think we wait for the screams. You know, you try to hold onto them until you need them. So it’s not a whole scream movie. You sort of build the tension, build the tension. And then—come the screams. [laughs]
PF: What are your plans next?
PP: What’s my next plan? Well, I have another movie that’s in the can. It’s called Push. It’s an independent film [not to ber confused with the thriller starring Dakota Fanning]. It’s a really intense drama.
PF: Who’s in it?
PP: Mo’nique is in it, and a new girl plays the lead role. It’s a beautiful film, but it’s a very intense drama. it’s about a young girl growing up in Harlem, who has basically been left behind by her family. She’s pregnant with her second child. Somehow she’s got all the way through eighth grade, and no one noticed that she didn’t know how to read. And she’s sort of on her last legs of hope. And she finds her way to this alternative school. And I’m the teacher. And I’m struggling with my own issues. I’m a lesbian, I’m not accepted by my family. But we both end up pushing each other to find hope in our lives, and in our world, and peace. And I push her to say that anything’s possible. You don’t—I’m no only gonna teach you how to read, but you could go to college, too. You can do anything. And she pushes me to understand that—that I’m okay just the way I am, and I don’t necessarily need to have approval and love from my mother.
PF: Do you want to do anything more creative in your career? Apart from acting, would you like to do some more writing, or some directing?
PP: Absolutely. You know what? I do. I’m always working on things, you know? I jot down a lot of ideas, and—finishing things are my issue! But now that I’ve got a little bit of time on my hands, I definitely see myself creating some vehicles for myself and for others. I really—I love the filmmaking process. At first when I got back in, when I became an actress professionally, I thought, “Well, I don’t want to be a filmmaker any more. It’s so—it’s scary and hard seeming,” you know, to see—this movie with Tony Scott, to see the amount of work and vision you have to have to be that kind of filmmaker, was intimidating to me. But now that I’ve been in it a bit longer, I do—I have a sense of renewed interest in the filmmaking side. I don’t think I’ll be the director. Now, I don’t want to say never. But I see more on a writing-producing side of it. And the truth of it is, sometimes there’s not a lot of material out there for you. And you’ve got to be proactive. You’ve got to try to make it for yourself.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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