LAUREN GRAHAM on 'FLASH OF GENIUS' Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
September 12, 2008
Based on a true story, Flash of Genius dramatizes the struggles of professor and engineer Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear) against the Ford Motor Company over the invention of the intermittent windshield wiper. When the company begins to roll out a design that is eerily similar to his own, Kearns embarks on a lifetime of legal battles that insidiously erode his relationship with his wife Phyllis (Lauren Graham) and their six children. Refusing an astonishing amount of monetary settlements, Kearns obsessively continues to demand that the auto giant admit they stole his creation, and finds himself unable to deter himself from his single-minded crusade, despite the ultimate consequences it brings upon his family.
Flash of Genius includes several noteworthy supporting performances, not the least of which is Alan Alda's turn as a lawyer who, rooted in an understanding of the corporate machine, tries to persuade Kearns to take a more logical course of action.
In this interview, Lauren Graham talks about working on this nostalgic David-and-Goliath story. Lauren is noted for being comical during these types of Q&As, and she lives up to the reputation by kicking things off with a playful jab at the Flash of Genius questions with which she has been inundated.
LAUREN: We've been counting, this morning, the number of times that someone asks, "What was the last flash of genius you had?" and/or "What's an invention you couldn't imagine living without?" [laughs] And I only make fun of the questions because I have no clever answers for them. Alan Alda said, in Toronto, that he thinks an important invention was cement. Which is such an Alan Alda answer, because he's so smart, and I'm sure there's a really good reason, but it's also sort of abstract. Like what does it mean, you know? Cement. That's going to be my answer for everything.
MEDIA: How did you get involved with this project?
Well... [laughs] I'm not really sure, exactly. I don't think [director] Marc Abraham knew me, which, in the film world, actually, can be a good thing--you know, if somebody does not know you from television or doesn't know a character, doesn't identify you as one thing. But I happened to be on [The Ellen DeGeneres Show] when my agent was talking about me on the phone. And [Marc] said, "Oh yeah, I guess I know who she is. I don't know." And so my agent was like, "She's on right now!" And he turned on the show, and somehow based on that, was interested in meeting me for the movie, which is so strange because it has nothing to do with the tone or anything of the movie. But I think we just kind of connected. Because we definitely connected as people, all of us. And I just did a lot of research...There's a whole other world of preparation you can do when something's based on a true story that I never get to do. So I just looked up everything I could. And I really loved the script. The part is a supporting part for sure, and so sometimes the challenge is to kind of flesh it out for yourself, and maybe for the story. And so I just had a lot of thoughts about it. And so that's it. [gets distracted by cell phone] Oh look, my agent's calling me...
What did you find particularly interesting about Bob Kearns' story? Were you able to relate to his struggle, and his refusal to settle for money?
What I think is interesting in the Bob Kearns case is his threshold for pain, for rejection, for obstacle. I mean, it's kind of astonishing, and I wonder if that had shown itself earlier in his life. He really became so single-minded about this quest. Where does that come from after all that time, and why wouldn't you just take a slightly easier road? I just love that speech that Alan has that says, "Nobody says it's fair. You get a check. That's justice today. That's America..." It's through the eyes of this sort of cynical, but realistic, lawyer. I mean, Alan was talking last weekend, he was like, "In this country, if you're in an accident, you lose this much, you get this much money." There is a whole world out there of equating money with suffering. And isn't that strange? I mean, when you think about it, it's really strange. And so in that way, I get how he thought, "This is not what I want. I want them to say that I was right. I want them to say that they were wrong. That's what's really important."
Did you collaborate with the real life Phyllis and her family to work out your character?
No. Marc had done a lot of that before we started, and so the script was in a place where he could answer most of the questions. And since we're not impersonating these people, I think he just felt sensitive about keeping a little bit of a boundary so that our work was what we were doing. Because you can only really work within the limits or the story of the script. But I did get to meet some of the family and Phyllis, who I played, at the end, on a day we were shooting the courtroom, as I say goodbye to [Greg Kinnear's character] and walk down the hall. It was very moving to meet her, actually. [laughs] I've never had that experience before, and just to see an actual person who shared their story with you and was so vulnerable in that way, and to think about what that must've been like for her...I mean, I thought about it for me as the character, as the person playing the part, but it kind of takes you out of yourself, and you think about it for her...I don't know, I've just never had that happen before. She was really sweet.
Did you learn about Bob and Phyllis' relationship in the aftermath of the lawsuits and the giant strain on the family that drove them apart?
Yeah...She ended up with somebody, he didn't. And the story from there, frankly, gets darker. I mean, he had many victories along the way, but he never gave up that fight. And that's sort of hinted in the movie. And we had talked about how much you [show]. It's a movie, and this is a story of a triumph. It's already kind of sad, and a story of a lot of conflict. Do you put a thing at the end that says "he died surrounded by documents and still fighting lots of cases, and spent a lot of the money he got in pursuit of that same goal"? So that wasn't the focus of this. [jokes] That's Flash of Genius 2! It's going to be a water ride at Universal! [laughs]
You have a big onscreen family in this movie. Was it chaotic filming with so many kids?
It wasn't that chaotic...You know, they were mostly Canadian kids, and they just happened to be incredibly well behaved. And actually, we, if anything, had to kind of incite them to more violence and riotous behavior. They just were really well behaved. We'd be like, "No, hit him! Hit him! No, go ahead, hit him!" It should feel messy. But what I got from just being with them is how much the older ones look after the younger ones...It was really fun, they were great. And the older kids were, I thought, really good. They did so much with just little parts, and I thought they were great.
What do you think this story says about the American Dream, and can it give hope to people today, in a time of financial struggles and crises?
I don't know...I think personally, my experience of seeing the movie is that there's something about it that is inspiring even though it's a story of someone who sacrificed a great deal to follow his vision. So I think it's kind of complicated...What you're left with, I think that's probably pretty personal. I don't know what it says about where we are today. I think the theme of it is just being committed to something to the degree that you may experience some loss, and is that worth it? Is it not? I don't know. That's for everyone to decide. But I do think it's entertaining, and it's a good drama because it's not an easy answer.
Do you think Bob's victories were worth his sacrifices, and those of his family?
For him? You know, honestly, those people exist, you know what I mean? [laughs] And so I would never [comment on that]. I already played the lady. It was none of my business if it was like the right thing or the wrong thing. They had the experience they had as a family, and I'm sure they all have a feeling about it. I hope [that] for them to see this story and kind of lift up what was heroic about their father and also show what was flawed...I would hope that that's a satisfying experience for them.
How did you enjoy working with Greg Kinnear?
I loved it. We had such a good time. And the beauty of [the fact] that this movie's kind of been doing nicely and going to festivals and stuff is honestly that we just continue to have fun. And it's been one of the changes since the Gilmore Girls ended--having an experience that is with a certain group of people, and then you leave and then you come back, and you're refreshed, you've fallen in love with each other again because you're not with them every day. [laughs] But this is such a particular group. I think we were bonded, and I think we all ended up working together because I think we have kind of a similar aesthetic...For me, I know the movie is a sentimental story, but I think it is very cleanly told. It could be way more melodramatic, especially the stuff between [Greg] and I. And the director is a fan of classic movies of the '70s that have a slightly more, hopefully, documentary style. He didn't make a big deal out of the period. It wasn't like a "costume movie." And I think we also shared a similar way of working. We'd really talk it out, we'd really do our work, and then like go to dinner at the end of the day and have a good time. It just was a very functional, fun relationship. And I think Greg's amazing.
So he wasn't constantly in character off-camera?
I don't know anybody, except maybe Daniel Day-Lewis, who [does that]. I mean, honestly, that is a very particular way of working. I think we're all always thinking about it in the way that you leave work at the end of the day and you're like, "God, I wish I had...I should have, I could have...Maybe tomorrow I'll..." You never leave it in that way, especially when you're doing something challenging like this. Like I would imagine (although I can't speak for him) that Greg went to Ghost Town, which he did right after this, and had an easier time because it's just a different kind of work. It's more "you're using you," and it's not that transformation that I think is taxing. And also, the tone of what you're dealing with...You kind of take it on. You can feel [it]. You walk onto a movie set and it needs to be a little quieter because you're doing stuff that takes that level of concentration. That's just tiring, you know? But he wasn't like taking apart things at the table or anything. [laughs]
I have a variation of the invention question you talked about at the start of the interview: Do you have an idea for an invention of you own? Something that might make your own life easier?
[laughs] In fact, I'm in the opposite world. Like, I grew up in a family where we had the same crappy car for a long time. My father drove like a little hatchback, and then one day, in his '50s, pulled up to a stoplight and looked over, and there was like a college girl driving the exact same car. And he was like, "Wait a minute. I'm an older man who works! I could have a [better] car!" [laughs] But we didn't have a microwave, we didn't have a VCR. Not because we were backwards--it's just, you didn't need it. So I'm like catching up with things that have already been invented that I didn't need, but now I'm trying to use because somebody invented them, so surely I am sadly lacking if I don't use this fabulous new invention! Consequently, I have like my CDs all in a thing because I'm trying to put them in the computer so I can put them in the iPod, that then crashes. So I actually feel behind. And I don't need any new inventions for a while. [pauses] Cement! [laughs]
[Editor's note: Props to Lauren for actually going full circle with that cement bit.]