Warning: Participating in one of Steven Soderbergh’s final projects has a noticeable side effect.
Nausea? Dizziness? Hallucinations?
Try a personal life. “The days were ludicrously short. You’d go home at 2 o’clock,” says Jude Law, 40, over breakfast at the Four Seasons, referring to the director’s extraordinarily swift decision-making on set.
Rooney Mara, 27, was mystified, a justifiable reaction after a grueling two years dedicated to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. “When you’re making a film with Steven, you actually have a life,” she says, sitting to Law’s right in a crisp white Rachel Comey top and a black Givenchy jacket. She scans the smoothie offerings, deciding on acai. “I hadn’t had a life in a very long time. We’d be done, I could go out to dinner, I could go to the gym,” she marvels. “You could go to a movie.”
Quality of life is similarly toyed with — by physicians — in the prescription-heavy culture of Side Effects, Soderbergh’s psychological thriller out Friday.
Dark and gritty, the film opens on Emily Taylor (Mara), a wisp of a woman approaching what appears to be the light at the end of the tunnel: Her ex-banker husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is set be released from prison after serving four years for insider trading. Their luxurious life in tatters, Emily has spent the duration of his sentence living alone in a drab apartment in New York City’s Morningside Heights.
At the prison gate, she dabs on lipstick, grinning as her husband is freed. Days later, she attempts to hurt herself.
“She had this sort of amazing life before,” says Mara, describing Emily’s state of mind. “And then it was all taken away from her very suddenly. She’s waited four years, and now her husband is coming back, and that seems to be almost even harder than him leaving in the first place. So they’re sort of re-getting to know each other and finding their way with each other. And through that, she sort of sinks into a depression.”
Enter Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law), an enterprising psychiatrist who “genuinely likes solving problems,” says Law. “He likes the riddles. And this is one he can’t figure out, and it sort of obsesses him.”
Slowly, each character’s compass becomes upended by her treatment. Emily complains her meds aren’t working. Dr. Banks agrees to a $50,000 pharmaceutical contract to test a new drug.
In fairness to a film that becomes an intense scramble of culpability, it’s best to stop here.
Soderbergh says Side Effects is a salute to bygone smart popcorn thrillers such as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. “All those movies that were really popular and really fun to watch. And then they just went away.”
To assemble Side Effects, Soderbergh enlisted Tatum, who used a vocal coach to get down the crisp dialogue and mannerisms of the well-heeled Martin. It marked the pair’s third film together, after 2011’s Haywire and last year’s Magic Mike. Law “plays really good obsessives,” says Soderbergh, who also cast Catherine Zeta-Jones as the antagonistic Dr. Victoria Siebert. “She just belongs in this kind of movie,” he adds.
But Mara orbited into the director’s path thanks to a bit of chance geography.
“I’d seen a very early cut of The Social Network, and I said, ‘Who’s that girl in the open? She’s fantastic,'” recalls Soderbergh. “I hadn’t heard of her. And then I was renting an editing room in (David) Fincher’s building when he was going through all the casting stuff on Tattoo. I had a sort of front-row view of that whole process. And I knew from that how much he wanted her to have it. And when he was done, how happy he was with her performance. He did a lot of excavating for me.”
Mara, often described as withdrawn around press, is confident today, more self-assured. The experience of Dragon Tattoo (which resulted in her first Oscar nomination) helped, she says, but “I think growing up has made me less shy, less co-dependent, more able to speak up for myself.”
The loquacious Law cuts in. “Did you feel an obvious shift after the attention of Dragon Tattoo and the acclaim you got from it? Did you feel, ‘Oh, this is recognizably different’?”
Mara: “A little bit, but not like I expected or like people were warning me of. Because I look so different in the film. And even now, people don’t really recognize me, ever. And also, I have this weird gift of being able to walk through a room or walk through anywhere and, like, I can really go under the radar.”
Law: “You have an invisible mode.”
Mara: “I think growing up, I was so shy, and I have such a huge family, I know how to make myself unseen.”
Mara’s lived in L.A. for six years, but her family hails from the East Coast, including her great-grandfathers, Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. and New York Giants founder Tim Mara. She isn’t the only family member in Hollywood: Her sister, Kate, is currently starring on Netflix’s House of Cards.
No such invisible mode has been afforded to the London-based Law, a constant target of the tabloid press.
“I’ve had a nightmare,” acknowledges the actor, who last year received both an apology and a settlement from Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper group for illegally putting Law under surveillance for four years. “They had a tracker on my car, they were hacking my phone, they were hacking my computer. They had the phone numbers of all of my family and friends. They knew my credit card details. I found all this out. They brought the evidence to me. They had a book with my name in it with all my information. I was one of hundreds.”
“How do you survive that?” asks Mara. “That would literally destroy my spirit.”
“I feel more cynical, genuinely, about people, unfortunately,” admits Law. “It kind of dented my sense of hope in the human spirit, if I’m really being honest. And I’m always a little bit let down by just the appetite we have now to consume utter rubbish in the newspapers and fluff. I personally never — I have no interest in what people wear when they go out and buy their milk. I don’t understand it.”
Law apologizes for the rant. “I feel a certain amount of closure,” he says, “but not completely.”
Medicine and politics
Closure is a lofty goal inside the convoluted world of pharmaceutical politicking. Side Effects uses Hitchcockian devices to explore clinical depression, with a particular focus on the marketing of newer, more magical drugs — in this case, a (fake) new depression medication called Ablixa, whose slogan, ‘Take back tomorrow,’ sounds like it could pop up in the 2016 elections.
With advertisements for drugs legal in the USA, “they are everywhere,” says Mara. “I don’t even notice them. But they are everywhere.”
Soderbergh says screenwriter and collaborator Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, The Informant!) didn’t set out to write an exposé, but after doing research at New York’s Bellevue Hospital psychiatric facility for another project, he was drawn in by the complexities of psychopharmacology.
“He came up with this premise that takes advantage of all the associations we have with pharmaceuticals and with people who are depressed,” Soderbergh says.
Both Law and Mara conferred with psychiatrists for the role; Law even sat in on public sessions with the U.K.’s National Health Service. Mara also met with patients who had dealt with severe clinical depression. Both recall chilling days shooting in an abandoned psychiatric ward at Bellevue.
Law: “It was pretty dark, I’ve got to be honest with you. They weren’t happy places.”
Mara: “It was really creepy and dark.”
Law: “And apart from the atmosphere, it just feels grubby and unhygienic. The air is kind of — it’s scary.”
In doing his research, “the one thing that surprised me is that you can’t help but sympathize and have great respect for the skill of diagnosing and prescribing medicine to the right people,” says Law. “I was quite shocked at some of the cases and the people I met who clearly needed medicinal help. At the same time, I personally — I don’t really even take painkillers. I’m not a big fan of them. But that’s easy for me to say, do you know what I mean? (Knock on) wood, so far I don’t need to take any of them.”
“I think there’s, like, an abuse and excess of pretty much everything in this country, not just pharmaceuticals,” adds Mara. “That’s really interesting, and an important topic, because of what a large business it is and how much money people are making off of it. And I do think things are overprescribed. It’s so easy to get a prescription to just about anything. It’s shockingly easy.”
A final act?
Side Effects marks Soderbergh’s last theatrical release before his “retirement” from filmmaking. His Liberace project with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas, Behind the Candelabra, is set to air on HBO this May (“We were not shy,” he says). Then he’s turning his lens to painting, television and maybe Broadway.
Choosing his final films, “I just thought, I don’t want to do some heavy thing the last couple times,” says Soderbergh. “I want to really enjoy myself. (Burns) found a way to take a social issue and use it as a way to misdirect the audience (in a way) that I found really smart.”
Steve Weintraub, editor in chief of movies website Collider, says Soderbergh is leaving on a high note — if he’s really leaving at all. “I think the reason why this is a shocking decision for most is that he’s a pinnacle of success right now in terms of being able to get projects made, get major actors to star in them, and be able to make movies about what he wants to,” Weintraub says. Soderbergh’s also a rare triple threat, known for both directing and operating the camera, then editing his footage by night.
“I don’t think he’s going to be done with films forever,” Weintraub adds. “I think he’s making the choice to pursue other interests for the next few years.”
But the director says he’s ready to turn the page. “I feel completely ready to try some other stuff,” Soderbergh says. “If I were not to go back, I’m really happy with this last handful of movies.”
For Mara, the jury’s out on whether The Girl Who Played With Fire will see the light of day. “No one’s calling me,” she says with a shrug. She recently brought indie Ain’t Them Bodies Saints to Sundance.
Law, too, is balancing projects, determined to play “characters I haven’t gone near.” On his horizon: British indie Don Hemingway and a turn on the West End this fall.
But first, all are hoping that in the age of Twitter, spoilers don’t subdue the twists that await their pill-popping thriller. Soderbergh laughs while retelling a bait-and-switch marketing theory he tested on Mara. “I said, ‘Look, if we really want to make some money here, (Tatum) needs to come and give you a lap dance. And if Channing can learn how to use a potter’s wheel, this thing’s going to explode.’ But they didn’t bite.”