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August 2005
The Great Raid: An Interview with Connie Nielsen

The Great Raid: An Interview with Connie Nielsen

By Wilson Morales

In "Gladiator", she played a princess surrounded by many men. In "Basic", she played a DEA Agent investigating a crime in the military and in "The Hunted", she played an FBI agent looking for a trained assassin with the help of many men. Let's just that most of Connie Nielsen's films have her as the only female in the cast. Not bad for this striking Danish beauty who's tall enough to take on any man. In her latest film, "The Great Raid", she plays Margaret Utinsky who works as a nurse in the Philippines just close enough to be near her loved one, an imprisoned POW. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Nielsen talked about being in this film as well as her upcoming projects.

What was it like to be one of a few women in a cast with a lot of guys?

CN: It was very new for me. I've never tried that before, if that's a joke because I've never been in a movie where I wasn't. (Laughs). You will have to look at this film because it's shot in three different chapters. So I have my chapter, Joseph and his crew had his chapter and Benjamin and James had their chapter, so I met them all for dinner one night and that's really it. We didn't get to do any things together.

We were thinking that maybe a pre-story was cut and you actually had something with Joseph's character.

CN: It was written, but we didn't actually do it.

How much research did you do for your character?

CN: A lot. I decided because it wasn't going to be only about Margaret Utinsky, who did exist, but that they had incorporated into the role by the experiences of two other women in the Philippines resistance and there was an autobiography by Margaret Utinsky that I read and that I thought was so amazing and realized that what you see in the movie is actually in comparison to what she went through. She actually spent 40 days in that prison and was tortured for 40 days and didn't break, didn't betray anybody. She was up in the mountains with the guerillas fighting with them after that, after she had to leave Manilla and only got out of the jungle by the time they had to actually cross that mine on Luca, so she was quite a dame. And so knowing that I was not going to specifically only for her, I decided to take a different approach where I kind of looked at what was the spirit of the times; what kind of personality did they have as sort of as a wider cultural idea because I noticed between my mother and my grandmother there's a huge difference. My grandmother by ten o'clock in the morning, her hair was fully set in waves and braids and combs in there until she died and lipstick, whether she was on the beach or on a boat or whatever that lipstick was abide, and eyeliner too, so there was like a certain "pull yourself together in the morning" and "don't ever un-pull yourself". My mother was sort of...so no, yeah, definitely not.

Were are you in that continuum?

CN: I think I'm entirely different from either of those two. I don't think I'm capable of stating where exactly where that is.

You always look put together wherever we see you?

CN: You think so. Thank you. If it was just me, it would be a very different story. It would be of braids and bridges, so no, I don't know.

How important was the look of the character?

CN: I think it's enormously important. I used the physical a lot to get into character because even when I was a child, I noticed that my grandmother sat in a different way. My mother used to get out of the seat pulled under one over the other. There was a certain erectness in her, whereas my mother was very much more of a sloucher. The physical in my opinion does very much influence the mental, the psychological, and the vice-versa. I think that esthetics as a lot more to do with how we think than we realize I think; and I used it very much as an actor because if I wear something that for example constricting, it will make me sit and behave differently from when I wear something that does not constrict me and that goes for just about anything; and seeing something in the mirror helps you like emotionally pinpoint in on what does that mean.

We'll talk about the underwear from that time. Did you go down to that in your costume?

CN: You know what. It was wartime so it was 1945 and we did have a few things but we also kind of surmise at that time things would be so thin there and worn out. Everything I wore had had been just literally gone through that process of wearing down the fiber to get that thing that you know you haven't had ... a new dress for a long time. We didn't go for the girdle and stuff like that. I don't think that if you are living in the tropics that you would have to be...it would be an interesting personality to explore. I kind of think that if you had been living in the tropics and Margaret had been living there for ten years before the outbreak of the war during the American occupation of the Philippines and she was obviously at ....

Did you get any feedback from women?

CN: No, I didn't. Actually I think people tried to contact them as well, but there's anything more we could get to know; but also it became beside the point the moment we started to involve other characters and experiences and based it sort of like a composite way.

During the movie, almost every scene that you are in there's angst and being tortured. What's that like for an actress?

CN: At the end of a movie I always...it feels like there's this houseguest who cannot just wait to leave. (Laughs) That's what it feels like. You just cannot wait for that person's behavior and problems to leave. It feels like that. It really does. I remember that at the end of "Demonlover", I hated my character. I just literally loathed her at the end. I said, "Can you just not be a little practical".

But Joseph's character was so noble.

CN: It's just, "Does he have to care so much about these people?" It's a war, people die. (Laughs) Seriously, at the end I was so tired. Shooting in Shanghai, it was freezing cold and was walking around in little summer dresses pretending it was tropical, which was not. I was getting sick, physically sick all the time. I felt like your immune system starts breaking down from all the pain. Everybody knows this. If you are emotionally and so distraught, your body starts responding to that and it starts breaking down. After two months of not getting a lot of sleep of being emotionally upset, it crashes all the time. It really is.

Can you talk a little bit about John Dahl? Were you surprised that he was the guy selected to direct this?

CN: Well, of course. He's that guy that really makes those independent, black comedy, film noir, sort of thing. I was like, "This could be interesting", but then again when I looked over his curriculum he's done so many different movies. I feel like I'm a little bit like John Dahl. I just like try very different things. I don't want to identify with very specific style or story or character. I want to keep on being surprised and so in a way it wasn't so surprising that he would want to direct this after the other kinds of films he's done and it reassured me to; that you take something like this that could easily go over and become some nationalistic real great movie and instead it looks at the human aspects of that experience and it is a true experience so to take someone like that who I knew would have the integrity, artistic integrity to handle that subject matter was very reassuring. When I started working with him and also discovered that he is in himself almost like the essence of the type that we are portraying in this film. He's like this decent man. He's so decent and so full of integrity and a family man. I love the guy; pity he's married. (Laughs)

What do you have coming up next?

CN: "Ice Harvest" is coming up, and then "Return to Sender" and also "The Situation". In "Ice Harvest", I'm a strip joint owner in Kansas City and the film happens on Christmas Eve and there's not a lot of customers in my place so I'm annoyed and really hate Christmas and then John Cusack's character comes into my bar and he's like one of those regulars who just watches the girls and leave, and this time I realize there's something going on in him cause he's sort of like an idiot and so he looks a little too happy with himself so I smell something's up; and there's two million dollars up that's he stolen from a gangster and the film is all about who ends up with those two million dollars. His partner in crime is Billy Bob Thornton who's the handler of my competition of strip clubs and there's also some blackmail scheme in the whole thing with some politician who wants to ban strip clubs but was photographed having sex with a baby blonde kind of thing.

Will you be using a southern accent?

CN: No. Actually, we decided it would be more fun if she was one of those newly arrived eastern European girls so that she has that kind of "I have been places and I know stuff and no one can fool me". She has survived communism so she knows what's up; that kind of personality. I thought more in terms of Russia because some of those girls that come from over there, they are tough as nails.

And "Return to Sender"?

CN: "Return to Sender" is a death row drama based on a true story where this guy who was arrested for impersonating a person so that the death row, the ones who are gong to be executed would write him their last letter and he would sell them on auctions and I play a woman who's a baby killer who comes up for execution and Aidan Quinn plays this guy who's trying to get my confidence so he can get my letter and sell it but then he then realizes that there's something wrong with my story and probably not who I say I am and he has to find out what that is and gets involve my life. The thing is that you write a lot about yourself in that last letter and there is a market for all kinds of letter and documents. There's a huge market for the letters of the civil war. That kind of thing is a collector's item so there's a business in there and "The Situation" is a drama about the situation in Iraq where I play a journalist who is trying the story that will make it worth her while having been several months and just wants to have to some closure and wants to find one story that sort of explains what's going on because she says that there was a road side explosion, the guy lost a hand and it's lying in the dirt and this and this and that and so and so many people die inside a story. It does not tell us what's going on over there. And she's on a hunt for a story and you get to see all the different sides of the American military, the state department intelligent officials, the Iraqi politicians, the Iraqi normal people; you get to see them all and you get kaleidoscopic look at the situation in Iraq and it helped me so much to deal with my feelings about watching the news and not getting what in the hell is going on and all of a sudden after I read the script, that feeling evaporated and I felt that now I had some human understanding of who these people are and what's going on and it's a relief, and I went and did the movie.


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