Actress/director Jodie Markell first read Tennessee Williams screenplay for The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond while she was in drama school in New York. It was apparently meant to be filmed in the late 1950s, by Elia Kazan, but for some reason the project fell apart.
Now, 50 years later, Markell is bringing the story to the screen, starring Bryce Dallas Howard as the movie’s heroine, Fisher Willow, a renegade socialite living in the Roaring Twenties in Memphis, Tennessee. In an act of rebellion, the young heiress decides to undertake a business relationship with the impoverished son of her father’s caretaker, Jimmy Dobyne (Chris Evans), paying him to escort her to the major social events of the season. But when she discovers that she is in love with him, she realizes it’s impossible to earn the affections she tried to buy.
Were you a big fan of Tennessee Williams’ work?
When I was fifteen, growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, I was cast as Laura Wingfield in a high school production of The Glass Menagerie. From that moment on, I was hooked. By the time I was seventeen, I had already read everything I could find on Williams.
I felt an immediate affinity. His people are so unusual, so idiosyncratic, and his syntax so specific that, even at a fairly young age, I saw his universal appeal. He takes a humanistic approach to his characters. He doesn’t judge them. He makes you understand them.
Can you tell a little about the background of the film?
It was always written as a screenplay and was one of the few that Williams said he wrote directly for film. He wrote it in 1957, and up until that time he said it was the first one he’d written.
When I was in acting school a teacher showed me the collection of screenplays and I read it then and carried it in my heart until I was a little more savvy in the business, and figured out, ‘I think I could direct this film.’ I went to Brad Michael Gilbert, who is the producer, and he felt the same way about the material and he secured the rights.
How did you choose Bryce for the role of Fisher Willow?
I wanted to work with Bryce because she is so genuine, grounded and so present, and that is what I was so excited about with her work, because I wanted to bring that kind of style to the acting.
In the fifty-two years since this was written, there has been some changes and approaches in terms of the way films are put together and what audiences expect, there are a lot of words in this, did you have to adapt your approach to it.
I wanted to use actors that had theatrical experience so that they knew how to approach the work, and it is almost like Shakespeare, it has its own rhythm, its own tricks to get to the meaning, and we loved exploring that.
Also I think it helped me select cinemascope to shoot with because you can get two actors in a close up together without cutting back and forth, which enables this language heavy film to have a life where you see the actors making the transitions. You allow them to go through their emotional transitions and not be moving the camera in a crazy way to just get back and forth close ups.
Can you talk about working with Chris Evans in this?
We were so excited that Chris could do this role, because it really shows a whole new side of him as an actor. I think his career is going in a way of a big action star (with Star Trek), and I think he’s really interested in branching out and trying new things. I was looking for actor who could smolder and who could be someone a wild woman could project upon.
It’s really hard to find a contemporary actor that can do that, because we get very busy with our work these days as actors, we’re flashy, and somebody who can stand in his shoes and just be there and be such a presence [is wonderful]; he’s like another Montgomery Clift.
I was very impressed with Bryce’s performance, you know she’s playing a Tennessee Williams’ character but she did it in a new way for me, throwing away the dialogue
It’s that brutal honesty, that’s what Williams’ wrote and I always felt that a lot of people put things on top of the characters that they think are southern, or they use their hands too much, and I just wanted to strip all that away and let these great actors do the work that they know how to do. Luckily they were creating these characters so they didn’t need to do any kind of imitation.
Each one of the actors grabbed the opportunity to own their character and I think that’s what contemporary actors know how to do best, and that’s another reason why I wanted to do this story is because the two lead characters are young and fresh in a way that I was hoping to bring a new generation to Tennessee Williams.