In Union Square, a new film co-written and directed by acclaimed director Nancy Savoca, Mira Sorvino and Tammy Blanchard star as two estranged sisters who unexpectedly reunite over Thanksgiving in the Union Square of New York. As Bronx resident Lucy, Sorvino shines in a performance that blends the comic moments she’s known for in such films like Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and Mighty Aphrodite (for which she won an Academy Award) with a surprising and effective desperation. Blanchard’s uptight, perfectionist Jenny, on the other hand, is a wound-up ball of stress, thrown into a tailspin at the sudden reappearance of her sister in her life.
Filmed in sequence over a span of two weeks and a micro-budget, Union Square is a return to the independent films of the latter part of the last century in which storytelling and performances took precedence. I sat down with both Mira Sorvino and Tammy Blanchard this week to discuss the film.
Blanchard, whose career has included stints on Broadway in Gypsy and, most recently, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (two performances for which she was nominated for a Tony), films like Rabbit Hole and The Good Shepherd, and an Emmy-winning performance as a young Judy Garland in Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, completely disappears into her role as Jenny. In real life, the glamorous New Jersey native is bubbly and charming, the complete opposite of her most recent film appearance. We chatted about working on the film, the emotional byproduct of a small-budget film, and how she learned how to act from watching the best in the industry.
I overheard you when you came in—you were kind of joking about the clothes you had to wear in this film. Which is funny, because you came down the hall and I didn’t recognize you at all, because the two roles I know you the most from are this and Rabbit Hole, which are very dour, unflattering…
Oh, and twenty pounds heavier!
So, to begin: do you think the clothes helped you create the character a little bit? Getting you into that stuffy… Well, maybe not stuffy, but…
I’d say a little uptight—a little plain Jane, trying to keep everything together and organized. But when I watched it this last time, I was thinking, “Why did I let them put me in those pajamas in the streets of New York City?” What was I thinking? And the shoes! But usually I go into roles and I don’t really know who I am until they put the clothes on me.
And it makes easier to disappear into that, too?
What I loved about the movie is that it felt very much like a John Cassavetes film. It was very natural in the sense of the dialogue and the interactions between the actors. It felt like a filmed play, in a sense, because it only had a few settings. How much of it was scripted? Was there any improvisation between the two of you, or was it totally just following the book?
It’s funny, because I was just doing an interview with Mira, and she was like, “No, it was improv!” and I said, “No, I’m pretty sure we stuck to the script!” I don’t really remember improvising anything. Maybe if there was a line we had to cut or change or something like that. Sometimes a director will just keep the camera rolling and you’ll start going into other feelings and changing things and just improvise your emotions right in the moment. I don’t remember any of that at all; we were very much sticking to the script and getting it done as fast as we can. I was in such a daze making this film, because it was two weeks of 16-hour days. You’re waking up, you’re living with it, you’re going to sleep with it. My character was so uptight and so unhappy about her sister being there that I really don’t remember feeling anything else. At one point, I grabbed Nancy’s hands in between takes and said, “Is this real? Is this real or is this fake? Do I really hate Mira, or am I being crazy? I hate Lucy, right? Because I’m losing my mind!” I go into it. And shooting in sequence for such a short amount of time and doing three scenes a day… There was no escape from this imaginary world we were creating. And for me, it was painful.
So it was different from other work you’ve done where you got to let go a little bit?
Yes, especially on bigger films where you’ll sit for a half hour, you’ll get back to your trailer and make phone calls to your family and friends, and then you’ll shoot one scene and you’ll just carry one emotion for the day. With this, it was just non-stop living in it.
I love the scene where you go to Union Square and walk through the farmers market. When you were interacting with other people, did anyone recognize the two of you and that you were filming a movie? Obviously people must have realized that something was going on, because there was a camera following you.
But it’s a little camera.
So it really was a small-scale production.
It wasn’t a big deal. I think New Yorkers are used to people filming on the streets. They just don’t care; they just aren’t star-struck people. You can live here and be a star and walk down the streets. Recently, I saw Kevin Bacon just walking down the street. That’s what’s so great about New York and what’s so great about the film: we captured the essence of New York. There’s the fight at the farmers market that we really had with a guy selling things in his booth; he really got pissed off. When Mira was crying, one person asked if she was okay. One person told her, “Fuck him, you don’t need him.”
That’s pretty surprising to hear, as someone who lives in New York.
I love it. That’s what’s so great about this film, too, and I love that it’s coming out at the Angelika, because that’s the first theater I ever saw a movie at in New York. I saw Trainspotting there. Love that theater.
It’s interesting that the sisters are from the Bronx, which is in New York but feels so separate. Your character even refers to Lucy coming into the city. And you’re from Jersey, so you’re sort of from the larger area of New York, as well. Do you have a connection to New York, coming here when you were growing up, and now seeing it differently?
As soon as I had my license at 16, I was driving over here, going to auditions. I was ten minutes away through the Holland Tunnel. This was the place where my dreams existed, this was where I had to come, and this was where I could make my dreams come true. It’s so much energy, it’s non-stop. People don’t stop here, the streets are never empty. I like to go back to New Jersey and sit on my porch, lay out on my yard, enjoy the silence, and to have both of those worlds at my feet. I’m really blessed. I don’t think I could live in the city. I’m a bit spoiled with my own space and my own peace and quiet and privacy. It’s also very expensive.
So you don’t live here full time?
I don’t live in New York. I lived here when I was in Gypsy. And compared to Jenny, I am a totally loyal person to my family and my friends. I want to see them every day. I want to know that if anything happens, I’m two blocks away. When I moved to the city, nobody came to visit. If you’re in the city, it’s like Hawaii: you are unreachable. I become nonexistent in their world, and I can’t take that. I need my family. I need my friends.
Do you have a sister?
No, I have two brothers, so it’s always hard for me to find a woman that I can connect with as a friend because I’m not really good communicating with women. I’ll always hang out with the boys because I get them, I understand them. I wish I had a sister, though.
Another thing I liked about your character was that as the movie goes on, her Bronx accent comes out more. It’s funny to hear you in real life, because you speak like you’re from Jersey. Did you kind of incorporate that, or create a whole new voice for the character?
That just naturally happened through the process of hanging out with Mira, who [puts on a heavy Italian accent] was talking like this and saying that. Through the process, I wanted to be as tight and as far away from where the character was from as I could be. That was definitely a natural process that started seeping out, and I realized that it happened when I saw it. I think I really go into alternate universes when I do these things, because sometimes people say things that happen, and I’m like, “I don’t remember.” I really think that I throw Tammy aside and I dive into whoever I’m playing at that moment and whatever I’m dealing with becomes reality for me, and when it’s over, I’m like, “What just happened?”
How close was this to when you were in How to Succeed?
I had already auditioned, and I was talking to Nancy about How to Succeed and asked, “Should I do it? Should I do it?” My representation was like, “It’s a small role, it’s never been nominated for a Tony…” but I really thought there was something special about this it. Nancy said, “Do it! Absolutely!” And then I ended up doing it in a way that no one else had done before, and it got a lot of attention and the Tony nomination, and I spent sixteen months on Broadway. Sixteen months on Broadway is like jail time—you come out clean. Daniel Radcliffe was in it for a year, Darren Criss came in for three weeks, then Nick Jonas. Every time I heard who else was taking over the lead role, I was like, “I can’t get away. I have to work with these people. I want to stay!”
Did you work at all with Patty LuPone, who plays Lucy and Jenny’s mother?
No, I think the powers that be are saving that moment for something special.
But you have worked with an amazing group of actors in your career.
Yeah! Jessica Lange, Nicole Kidman, Matt Damon. Just people who are great at what they do. I’ve never taken an acting course in my life. I’ve learned just by doing it. To be able to work with people who know what they’re doing, being directed by Sam Mendes, spending a year on Broadway with Bernadette Peters—these are the people who taught me and groomed me. People ask, “You never took a dramatic class?” I did; I worked with the best of the best.