Based on a true story, HBO’s new movie Temple Grandin, which premieres on February 6th, tells the tale of a young woman’s perseverance and determination while struggling with the isolating challenge of autism at a time when it was misunderstood.
The film chronicles her turbulent growth and development during her school years; and her emergence as a woman with an innate sensitivity and understanding of animal behavior, who went on to revolutionize the cattle industry, which laid the groundwork for her successful career as an author, lecturer and pioneering advocate for autism.
Claire Danes gives a remarkable performance as Temple Grandin, totally transforming herself into the character.
Was it a huge onus playing someone who is alive?
A huge onus, I was terrified of failing her or disappointing her, and she was really the only critic I cared anything about. And Temple has an eye for detail, but she liked it very much and I’m very grateful.
As I learned more about her and as I attempted to embody her, my appreciation for her and my love for her just deepened.
I never saw you in this movie; you were totally immersed as Temple. What kind of preparation did you do?
It was pretty extensive. There was no way I could take this role on casually. I have such incredible respect for Temple. I didn’t want to fail her or disappoint her in any way or all those other people who also hold her in such high esteem. And she’s wired differently than I am; she’s a great resource.
She was incredibly generous in sharing whatever information she thought might be helpful, and I grilled her, and was incredibly open and responsive. First I broke it down into the two magic chapters: her physicality and her voice.
It just took time and practice, and I had great help. Mick (Jackson, the director) and I also worked with a friend, Tamar, she’s a choreographer on a few dance pieces I did, and she’s really smart about the body and very observant, so I recruited her eyes and her observations and figured out what that would mean physically.
Did you spend a lot of time with Temple before you started shooting?
I spent an afternoon with her, but that was a very valuable afternoon, I was very anxious beforehand because I had a lot of questions for her and I needed to gather a lot of information to fuel me throughout the shoot I also read her books, and read books about autism in general.
Did anything surprise you about her?
She’s very skillful now at appropriating normal behavior, because she does this all the time, she tours constantly and speaks about autism, so she’s very sophisticated now, but when she was younger she was not so sophisticated, so I had to imagine how she would have been thirty years ago.
With a performance like this, how do you keep it real and not chew up the scenery?
Mick would tell me to do it again if I got it wrong. Of course one is always at risk of getting it wrong being too extreme with it or underplaying it. The scenes were very well written, and I was working with great actors, so I felt very protected in that sense.
I had to be very specific, and in between takes I would put my headphones on and hear her voice. If I strayed too far from her actual voice I would know it.
What’s the most intense scene you had to do as Temple?
She had so many panic attacks when she was young, she had a panic attack a day at least, and so there were a lot of them in the movie, and I was anxious about differentiating them so it wasn’t just another panic attack.
That was a challenge.
What did you learn about autism that you didn’t know before?
Autism is on such a vast spectrum and there are so many different expressions of it. In Temple’s case she’s autistic, she’s also brilliant, not every autistic person is, and she’s also incredibly resilient and imaginative, and I just think that’s her spirit and her personality.
My husband (Hugh Dancy) played an autistic person in the movie Adam, six months before I did this, so that was curious.
Temple is no ordinary autistic person, she’s a superstar, she’s a pioneer and was the first person to write about autism as somebody who has it, and that was radical.
Do you seek out roles that are difficult?
They are more interesting. I like playing characters that are dynamic and complex but really are able to undergo some kind of change and that certainly was the case with Temple, so it was very appealing.