Jodie Comer, Penelope Cruz and Ruth Negga Talk Portraying Women at Turning Points

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Some of the best films are about people making life-altering decisions that not only change the course of events, but also their own actions and personalities.

And this year’s films are filled with women making some doozies. From Lady Gaga’s Patrizia Reggiani taking a murderous turn to Nicole Kidman’s Lucille Ball dealing with a pivotal week for her marriage and career to Rachel Zegler’s Maria debating whether to leave her family for love in “West Side Story” to Kristen Stewart’s fictitious depiction of a Princess Diana who left it all behind in “Spencer,” it’s suggested that a different decision could have spared lives (and perhaps changed history).

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Other characters, including Jodie Comer’s Middle Ages-era French wife Marguerite de Carrouges in “The Last Duel” and Penélope Cruz’s Spanish photographer Janis in “Parallel Mothers,” put themselves in jeopardy in the name of speaking up and sharing the truth.

“The Last Duel” is a story told from three perspectives: that of a knight (Matt Damon’s Sir Jean de Carrouges), his wife (Comer) and his ex-friend, whom she accuses of rape (Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris).

“The thing about the perspective is it has to be so subtle,” Comer says. “The change has to be so minor in order for it to work correctly.”

She mentions a scene in which Marguerite meets Le Gris before the attack. Gathered at a party, Damon’s Carrouges encourages (or perhaps orders) his bride to kiss his estranged friend.

“I think it was very clear that, in her husband’s story, this is just the formality and you are expected to do as I tell you,” Comer says, while Le Gris “feels an immediate connection and she is instigating an openness.” When, in reality, Comer says Marguerite feels how most every woman in such a situation, that “This is absurd and I am not comfortable, and I am not OK with it.”

As if that continuality wasn’t challenging enough for a performer, Comer says one of the hardest scenes to film was the one with the linchpin to the tail: when Marguerite tells her husband that this man, with whom he already has a testy relationship, has forced himself into their home and on her.

“The most challenging part of this script was … always wanting to make sure that Marguerite’s truth was very clear and told so then I could feel comfortable in kind of giving the male characters what it is that they need in order for their story to ring true,” Comer says of the film directed by Ridley Scott and co-written by Damon with Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener.

This meant not matching the energy that Damon let off when his character is, justifiably, outraged of learning of his wife’s attack. In this scene, Marguerite is soft-spoken and softly crying as she knows that sharing this information is a lot harder than staying quiet.

In “Parallel Mothers,” Cruz’s Janis has her own secret that’s weighing on her: The baby girl she’s brought home from the hospital is not hers; she was accidentally switched with the daughter belonging to teen mother Ana (Milena Smit). Although her first instincts are to run and hide (and call an attorney), a chance encounter some time later causes Janis to slowly let Ana into her life until she divulges the truth.

“Because she’s a good person, she’s forcing herself to be put in a situation where she will have to speak the truth,” Cruz says of why Janis decides to risk losing the baby by reconnecting with her biological mother. “Imagine the process of going through something like that and putting together the strength to speak.”

Cruz says she spent about four or five months finding the character for writer-director Pedro Almodóvar’s script. She says this includes the “process of drying our own tears, because he didn’t want our tears … to mix with, with whatever it was from the character.”

Cruz, who is a mother of two, says she’s “somebody that cries a lot more than [Janis] or would express things in a different way.” She likes that there’s a point in the movie after the discovery “where Janis has that explosion and she’s not just crying, but throwing up on the floor and passing out. I think, also, the audience needs to have that with her.”
But what about characters who’ve made their most controversial decisions in the preamble to the plot of the film? In “Passing,” writer-director Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of author Nella Larsen’s novella, Ruth Negga plays Clare Bellew. Set in 1920s New York, this seemingly carefree woman — and probably delightful dinner companion — is married to a racist businessman (Alexander Skarsgård’s John), who is unaware she is passing as a white woman. When she reconnects with old friend Irene (Tessa Thompson), Clare risks her safety and security by routinely venturing to Harlem without telling John. She begins to feel more comfortable there, even as the more nervous Irene begins to worry about how much her husband, Brian (André Holland), has become entranced with Clare’s sparkling persona.

“Where she finds a secret thrill is being close to the danger but always managing to avoid it,” Negga says of a character she describes as “always skirting between safety and exposure” and who has “reinvented herself as a Southern belle” because her husband feels that’s “the epitome of white maidenhood.”

She adds that “for a woman of color at that time to have control over their own lives … let alone, the external circumstances of her surroundings, control is a privilege. And to see her accessing some kind of control like that is exciting and very, very worrying to me.”

A peril with the stories, however, is that — no matter how great it might be to see women making such monumental decisions — they don’t always end happily for the protagonists. Why, then are we still drawn to them?

“We have a very hard time abandoning familiar, even if it’s toxic,” Negga says.

Sometimes we need to weigh the consequences of embracing change.

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