Son of noted director John Cassavetes, Nick has carved out a thriving career of his own, helming such eclectic movies as Alpha Dog, John Q, and the mega-successful weeper The Notebook. His new movie My Sister’s Keeper might rival The Notebook, hanky-for-hanky. Based on the best-selling novel by Jodi Picoult, the film spotlights Annie Fitzgerald’s (Abigail Breslin) plight to sue her parents for the rights to her own body, as she was conceived in order to be a genetic match for her sister, Kate (Sophia Vassilieva) who has leukemia. I spoke with Cassavetes about his controversy-themed movie.
I imagine audiences might find some of the ideas contentious in this film – the mother wanting to protect the child at all costs, the character of Anna perhaps being a little selfish?
Families aren’t logical. Families are emotional. There’s always some weird person in the family and, if you’re like my family, all of us are strange. When things happen, people are entitled to have opinions that aren’t politically correct. I don’t believe the mother is particularly sympathetic in this movie, but I understand her completely. I think that the daughter wanting to stop being poked, prodded and cut upon is perfectly logical, but I don’t sympathize with her. If things were so politically correct and pat, then they’re not worth exploring. The fact that this family doesn’t come together and all the pieces don’t exactly fit is what makes the story worth telling.
This film works because of the two young actresses. Can you talk about the process of finding the two young women who play the sisters?
Casting children is hard, not because they can’t talk eloquently about their part, it’s that they don’t have the body of work to support your absolute belief in them. With Abigail, that wasn’t the case. I’d seen her work. She’s a 70-year-old woman in a 12-year-old’s body. She’s so soulful and so gets it. I find myself trying to catch up to her intellectually as opposed to dragging her along. There’s something very, very special, still, knowing and nurturing about Abigail Breslin. It’s astonishing when you think this child who’s so caring, and she just gives that off, that she’s not going to help her sister, which really helps our film.
Sophia was something completely different. Sophia was on a television show [Medium]. I had never heard of her. My casting director said, “You’ve got to see this girl.” I said, “I’m busy right now.” She said, “No, you’ve got to see this.” So I came in and I read with her. With Sophia, her beauty is she leads with her heart, sometimes she almost feels too much. Her sensors are wide open to the world.
Can you talk about casting Cameron Diaz as their mother? What did you see in her that made you feel she was right for the role?
I’ve known Cameron for a number of years, she can make people laugh, she’s pretty, but that’s not her. She’s a woman who cares about the planet. She has a lot of thoughts about being responsible to this world and to her community. She’s just a great person and a very mature person. Casting is part of the overall process of storytelling, at least from a director’s point-of-view. It’s weird that she has never played a mother in a movie and she’s playing a mother of three in this one, and they’re teenagers. It’s weird, but that didn’t scare me. I knew she was up for it. I thought it was fresh casting. I think she’s terrific in the film. I’m more proud of her performance in the film than I’m proud of a lot of things in my life.
Did you have to reassure Cameron she could do it?
That’s a very good question. Actors sometimes feel the need for their character to be universal. They want the audience to relate to their characters. Usually what that translates into is they suck around for sympathy a lot. Her character is one that has singleness of vision. She wants to take care of her daughter. She doesn’t give a damn what anybody thinks about her. She’s just doing that and if anybody gets in her way, she’s going to bulldoze them. So when I explained to her that’s what I wanted, she said, “Really!” I said, “Really.” And to her credit, she said, “Okay.” She’s a tough character. Sara Fitzgerald is exactly the mother that I would want if I were sick. It’s a brave performance. It’s brave in concept and I had no doubt she could do this. This is a really wonderful actress and over the next few years you’re going to see, she’s going to be borne out to be one of the finest actors of our generation.