Robin Wright: "There always has been a difficult slot in your late 30s for female roles"

The "House of Cards" and "Princess Bride" star on her odd role in Ari Folman's sci-fi brain-twister "The Congress"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 29, 2013 4:16PM (EDT)

Robin Wright (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
Robin Wright (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

CANNES, France – Robin Wright plays a character called Robin Wright in Israeli director Ari Folman’s bewildering, half-animated science-fiction argosy “The Congress.” It’s certainly tempting to believe that there might be a few elements of autobiography in the character, since the movie’s Robin Wright is a 40-something Hollywood actress who starred in “The Princess Bride” and “Forrest Gump.” (I don’t know whether the movie’s Robin used to be married to Sean Penn; the father of her children is never seen or mentioned.)

Wright looked as if she were on her way to an A-level star career and never quite got there. She’s taken time out to raise her two kids and has a long-standing reputation for being difficult and demanding. Her agent (played by Harvey Keitel) tells her early in the film that she’s got one last chance to save what’s left of her career -- by having herself scanned by the studio's computers and signing over her life rights, so producers can make whatever kind of "Robin Wright movie" they want.

But beyond the barest factual details – Wright was in those movies, obviously, and she has two children – she insists that the Robin Wright of “The Congress” is as distorted as everything else about Folman’s surrealist allegory about fame, celebrity and reality. Blending a live-action family story with tripped-out animation that suggests both classic Max Fleischer cartoons and “Yellow Submarine,” this (very loose) adaptation of science-fiction legend Stanislaw Lem’s “The Futurological Congress” is perhaps Cannes’ most distinctive “problem picture” this year. A visionary work from the director of “Waltz With Bashir” that exudes passion, ambition and creativity, “The Congress” is also needlessly tangled and repetitious, with passages of awkward dialogue and an inscrutable plot.

But Wright, who plays herself in the present tense and also 20 years in the future, both in live action and as an animated avatar attending a nightmarish identity-melting corporate event called the Futurist Congress, is not one of the movie’s problems. Indeed, “The Congress” – when and if Americans ever get to see it – offers a welcome opportunity to appreciate the passion and conviction Wright has brought to so many kinds of roles across her career. Unlike the movie’s Robin, the real-life Wright really hasn’t slackened her pace since the days of playing the titular Princess Buttercup in “The Princess Bride,” and says she’s busier now than she was in the ‘90s.

There may be some points of similarity between the real Wright and the character that she isn’t quite owning up to. Wright was well known for turning down roles right and left at the height of her fame, passing on chances to act in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “The Firm,” “Batman Forever” and “Sabrina,” among numerous others. But is the world a poorer place for that? More to the point, Wright says she has defined her own career the whole way along and has no regrets or second thoughts, unlike the movie Robin. With her striking blond hair cropped short, Wright met a small group of journalists in her oceanfront hotel suite just before the official premiere of “The Congress.”

This certainly isn’t the first movie where a professional actor plays a version of themselves – but this one almost makes "Being John Malkovich" seem normal! How did you get involved with this crazy project?

We were put together by producer Michael Barker, who is with Sony now. He loved “Waltz With Bashir,” loved Ari. I’ve known Michael since I started in this business. And he said, “I think this is the way to go. I know Ari wants to take this novel that Stanislaw Lem wrote about the justice system, about lawyers and turn it into almost a social commentary on Hollywood. Wouldn’t it be great to use the actresses from these two iconic films?” [Meaning “The Princess Bride” and “Forrest Gump.”] I happen to be the person who got to participate in those two films, instead of casting an actor to play one of those actors. He said, “Fuck, let’s do it, how cool would that be?” and we discussed on and off for – a year? Almost two years?

The question was, how to embellish and sensationalize the story of this actress, because none of it’s autobiographical. Some people today say, well, it is autobiographical in the sense that you didn’t have the career that Hollywood would have wanted you to have. And I say, “Thank God! How great!” (Laughter.) But outside of that it’s not anything to do with me. So we had to build her personal story around this loosely based idea of a thespian becoming a virtual thespian.

So does the character come from the media image of you, in a way? Rather than it being almost autobiographical, is this about what people think you might be like, or what it might be like to work in Hollywood?

Absolutely, yeah. And how I imagine they must believe that an agent talks. I imagine that must have been true in old Hollywood, in the ‘30s and ‘40s, when the studio did own the entity. They owned you. You were a trademark and they had a patent on you. Marilyn Monroe is a perfect example, and she killed herself because of it. To be usurped in that way – it’s devastating, the notion, and the potential for what happens in this movie to happen in reality is there. I did two motion-capture movies with Bob Zemeckis [“Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol”], and I was literally scanned to do that. You were in a machine – it wasn’t as big as the one we used in our movie, thankfully, because that was one of the worst days of shooting, being in that scanning bubble. Physically, you can’t breathe, you have to take breaks every five minutes. Your soul is being zapped – everything is being sucked out of you because there’s so much infrared that’s reading your every expression and the staccato lights. It’s damaging, without question.

So back to the thing of is it possible, can it happen? Yeah. Do I think actors are gonna become extinct? I think there would be a revolution of some kind if that was to happen. But what we’re trying to say is, look at how easy it could be. Because it is all about commerce. Look at the industry today. Look at the biggest movies out there. They’re animation or they’re comic strips or they’re big actors with AK-47s getting the terrorists. It’s saddening, in a way, because that middle area of artistry is evaporating slowly. It’s starting to become more prevalent where you get just the independents that are under $3 million and then you get the big blockbusters that are over $50 million. That middle ground is going away.

Were there any times in the movie where you caught yourself playing yourself? Did you bring your own anxieties, your own way of behaving?

No. Zero. (Laughter) What we did is we took a few things – like the character, I have a daughter and a son and my daughter’s older. That’s what we took from me. We took that I was in those two films at that time of my life. Everybody, to this day every day I get approached: “I love Buttercup,” or “I love Jenny.” And that’s almost 25 years now, right? But I don’t live in a hangar, I don’t have an agent who ever uttered those fucking words to me. (Laughter.) All he ever said to me was, “How great that you didn’t become a celebrity and sell out and do every movie you were offered and do every big studio movie and burn yourself out.” Which was never in my nature anyway. He was always my biggest advocate, and I’ve been with him for that long because of that. So no, none of it is autobiographical in that sense.

You are, however, an actress who’s over 40, and that’s a more general question, almost a social question -- the fact that the industry’s view of you changes after you reach a certain point. Do you think that happened to you?

No. I’ve never worked more than I have in the last few years. There always has been a difficult slot in your late 30s for female roles. Back in the day, when Sally Field was doing “Norma Rae” and Meryl Streep was doing “Silkwood,” those parts were written for a 36- to 40-year-old. It’s just – it’s hard to find those great meaty roles, and the industry is not what it was even 10 years ago or five years ago. We’re navigating in different waters today. So none of those questions apply, like, well, do you regret the choices you made because of your personal life? I chose to raise my kids instead of doing movies during the school year. But I knew when I had my children and I was 23 that I was gonna do that, and the way it started to unfold – the kids are in college, they’ve moved out of the house, and I’m not carpooling anymore, you know? That reality is evident, but the industry is what shifted. The business mechanism shifted. There’s a paradigm shift, and we’re all affected by it, in good ways and bad.

Well, one example of that would be “House of Cards,” which is basically a TV show that’s not even on TV. Your role there has introduced you to new audiences who might not even remember “Forrest Gump,” I imagine.

But, see, that’s good writing. And as I’m sure you all know, television is able to take every risk. There’s no deterrent. They don’t have ratings issues the way films do, where they come in and they watch your film and they say, “You can only have one ‘fuck.’ You can only have a kiss that long if you’re gonna show a breast.” It’s insane in that country how restrictive they are. Television has no restrictions. So that’s where the material is and David Fincher – the reason I got on board there is there wasn’t anything going on in the industry at the time. At that moment, where David said, “Come do this thing with Spacey and I, we’re gonna build this character,” I thought, how great! After being in this business now for 25-plus years, I just want to work and be in a collaboration with savvy, formidable peeps, and I get to do this on the show. We’re also a part of this new movement, which, again – this is the shift. It’s going into TV and we’re now revolutionizing this new medium, where we’re able to give people what they want, when they want it, in the format they want it in.

In the film it’s often suggested that Robin Wright, the character, may have misgivings about the career decisions she made. Have you ever regretted any of your decisions? Have you ever thought, well, I could go another way?

Never. That’s why we did that. Never have I had any regrets. And that’s the whole point. They have to set up this environment for this actress, Robin Wright, which is: You blew it. You didn’t become – I don’t know, who’s just a megastar? – a Marilyn Monroe type. You blew it because you didn’t become a celebrity. And it’s never about the actress to the industry. Celebrity is money. So you fucked up, you didn’t follow the path which is our formula.

That must be something you’ve seen happen? Because on our side of the fence we see people being groomed for a certain type of stardom, and more often than not it doesn’t happen. How aware are you of that, from your side?

Come on! (Laughter.) I mean, yeah, they’re masters at it. It’s a machine, yeah, of course. Think about it. It’s merchandising. It’s trademarking. You’re building a commodity. Of course.

We may be guilty of it too, because we often say, “Oh, it didn’t happen for this actor.” We make that same value judgment.

And there’s always a reference point, right? Everyone’s a derivative of something else. Jennifer Lawrence is the new – oh, I don’t know, she’s the new somebody. There’s always somebody every year. And they’re always in their 20s. I was in that position after "Princess Bride," and then they disappear.

Did you have to fend off expectations in a certain way? Build a wall around your career and your personal life where you said you were going to drive your own car and not surrender to this larger narrative?

Yeah. It wasn’t that hard to do, actually, because I didn’t live in L.A. I moved away, and I think that helped a lot. I moved out of that vortex. Maybe it would have been more seductive. I probably would’ve had a facelift by now. You think of all those things, women in Los Angeles, plasticized and … [Pulls her face taut.] I think that was a salvation, truthfully: Living in Marin County, Calif. Raising my kids and not being surrounded by that circus.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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