“The Oranges” is a comedy about two families in suburban New Jersey who have been lifelong friends. Married couples David and Paige Walling (played by Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener) and Terry and Cathy Ostroff (played by Oliver Platt and Allison Janney) have their lives turned upside down when the Ostroffs’ prodigal daughter Nina (played by Leighton Meester) and David begin having a torrid affair.
The betrayal cuts even deeper because the Wallings’ daughter Vanessa (played by Alia Shawkat) is a close friend of Nina’s, and the Wallings’ son Toby (played by Adam Brody) has had a longtime crush on Nina. Here is what Laurie, Keener, Platt, Janney, Shawkat, Brody and “The Oranges” director Julian Farino said when they gathered for “The Oranges” press conference in New York City.
Was there any thought of casting Alia Shawkat as the daughter of Oliver Platt/Terry Ostroff, since they have more of a physical resemblance to each other?
Farino: I actually quite like playing music on set where appropriate, but I wouldn’t say in this case there were any big party scenes or anything that was led by the music apart from the carol singers, frankly. In terms of the casting process, putting together two families, really you have to go to the essence of a part and character and everything else. Alia was always Vanessa for me because she had that sort of individuality and intelligence, that sort of point of view.
Oliver, as he told me, was comedy gold, so I felt obliged. I did have maps of pictures of would everybody fit in terms of likenesses and this that and the other, but really I went with sort of energies more. Once we had all of the correct characters in place then the cast went to work to sort of make the relationships feel like they had history and were plausible, and the friendships needed to feel like they dated back 25 years, which when you have half a day’s rehearsal it’s not that easy. But that’s what the cast brought. I have no problem with Alia as the daughter.
What did you think of “The Oranges” soundtrack?
Farino: The hardest song and the most controversial in terms of debate, discussion, creative process, et cetera, was the Atlantic City montage song because it had such an editorial job to do as well. It was supposed to be both celebratory of Hugh and Leighton and at the same time just to have some bigger picture sort of shadow. And we had an enormous amount of variety of opinion on that, and ultimately that song was written for the movie by Ian Bennett from a band called The Grand Nationals.
And for me that was a big moment. In Toronto we didn’t have that piece of music and we had a very, very last minute debate. We put in a song I liked but it wasn’t correct on an emotional level. So that became the signature and the end title song was also written by Ian. He wrote two songs and they were both in the movie. It’s a delicate thing, music. But that Atlantic City montage right at the center of the story, that was a key one.
What drew each of you to “The Oranges”?
Janney: Initially, I think the script spoke to me. I thought wow, what a crazy thing to happen to two families and how would I deal with something like that? An extraordinary, awful thing that happens and I loved the character’s development through dealing with it, navigating that kind of event. And then the cast falling into place and meeting with Julian it was a no-brainer to me. I wanted to play with these people and they’re all very willing to be silly and playful.
Farino: Maybe Hugh should answer that because you have an interesting character in the piece and you took the part on.
Laurie: Yeah, I’ve got an interesting character. I think we all share the same response. I read the script and I thought it was beautifully done. I thought it was very funny but I also thought it took people’s lives seriously and it took people’s feelings seriously and it did it in a way that wasn’t condescending or judgmental in any way. It was very humane I thought.
It’s a very delicate line to tread, and I think Julian has trodden it with elegance and grace. It is a tricky one. It could either be sort of “ha ha ha” and yet not really be believable or respectful portrayal of real relationships and real consequences to things. But I just thought it was beautifully done. And then once you hear the other actors’ names and of course you begin to salivate in a slightly unseemly fashion. And it’s an enormous thrill to be part of it. Go, Oliver, you’re on.
Platt: For me, there’s this wonderful tension in the movie in the narrative between how people think that they should respond to an event like this and then how they actually do. And as Hugh said, it’s done in a very mysterious yet believable way. And it’s constructed here you choose to have set the story in the time of year when there’s so much pressure on everybody to be humane a loving and civil with each other because it’s the holidays and what better environment to lob this sensational grenade of an event into and then watch the consequences.
But again it’s this idea of this is unquestionably morally it’s a taboo thing in our culture and I would imagine a lot of different cultures, and so there’s how you think you should respond and then there’s how you actually do respond. To me the brilliance of the script is that this event happens on page 30 instead of on page 90 because it’s really about the consequences. It’s about what happens to this little community that’s created by these two families and how these mysterious things occur in their lives which are not necessarily named. They’re shown. That’s definitely part of it and then all the other stuff everybody else said.
Keener: I had a beautiful meeting with Julian and I’ll always remember it. And then everything else was fantastic. We had a really, really fine time together. I care a lot about everyone here and I know they do for me. Where’s Leighton? I’m just curious. Oh she’s filming. Because we miss her because she was awesome. It was really kind of ideal. You probably can gather how warm everyone is from seeing the film because you can’t hide that. So I think that was all in the casting, Julian, I really do. I know you were very careful about that.
Did any one of you draw from past experiences or from someone you knew to actually give you more motivation in your characters and in performing it?
Janney: Thankfully no, I didn’t have this experience at all, I’m so glad. But it was fun to just imagine if something like that happened, and for my character, Cathy, who was so controlling, to have something like this happen made her apoplectic, and it was fun to live through that in an imaginary reality.
Keener: I’ve been in a situation where I think we all have, where we felt caught in something, and what do you do about that when kind of the truth comes crashing in and you have to sort of face it. That was a feeling that I had a lot on this movie. You learn that you’ll come up again, you’ll be all right. No matter what, there’s another day that’s going to happen and yesterday will pass and it will be OK. In terms of that I’ve had that experience. Kind of every day I have that experience.
Farino: I’m not from New Jersey. The whole reason for the thing for me was I thought this subject matter in the States today may be a tricky concept for an American audience. And as an outsider coming to America and experiencing, I’ve lived here seven years now, different sets of moral values to Europeans and so on. I thought that story may rub people up the wrong way, but the beauty of the story was that it’s really about forgiveness and human frailty and weaknesses and the ability that we can all transcend those things that was the heart of the movie.
And the people that may object to the movie or the concept of the movie, they’re actually the ones that you want to hit in a funny way. It is the most generous view, and that was a universal thing, it wasn’t very specific, so I had no experience of a family cat among the pigeons like this, but that was what made sense to me.
Was there a bit of a “six degrees of separation” among this cast where people have worked together in some capacity in the past? Did that familiarity with each other help make it easy for you to attack this subject matter in a way that the actual characters themselves would base on their on screen relationships?
Laurie: It was a terrific help. Undeniably, it was a terrific help. Apart from anything else I knew that we could do it, that we could work together and we could play scenes together and I knew I liked Leighton a lot. She’s an absolute hoot. We had a very good time doing it.
You made the earlier reference about being scared away by it. It’s kind of weird that we’re having to sort of explain or sort of nervously frame a set of circumstances that are actually considerably less difficult to digest than a film from 50, 60 years ago. It’s a strange thing that we have reached that point, particularly in a story which is so palpably humane and compassionate and which nobody is acting malevolently. Nobody is seeking to dominate or exploit or make mischief.
These are the great foaming waters of the human heart. And after all, to tell stories about endless human perfecting is (a) dull and (b) impossible I think actually because there is no such thing that I know of. If anything it’s the other way around, we are sort of drawn to the imperfection and drawn to the mistakes that human beings make, particularly mistakes that are made out of good intentions or at least kind intentions. But it’s not to say that this is of no consequences.
Absolutely, as I said, it’s one of the things that I think attracted us all to the script is that the consequences are taken very seriously and respectfully. I think the characters are treated with respect. But yes, I absolutely would agree that having known Leighton did two episodes of “House” so for a few weeks we were acting together, I think that was an enormous help. I’m sure if we hadn’t known each other we would probably have jumped in and somehow found our way, but I personally was very relieved. I can’t speak for her because she isn’t.
Platt: Just to put it a slightly different way, the writers don’t editorialize. They don’t ask you to root for one character or another. They don’t approve or disapprove of the behavior. They’re laying it out there and showing us. There isn’t any sort of happy ending. The movie ends in my favorite kind of way, which is suspended and ambiguous but somehow satisfying, which I think is very artful and it’s also very truthful. This is not a movie that advocates or doesn’t advocate for anything, except for humanity.
The lack of comfort in the subject matter is more about the closeness of the characters than the social mores around it. There’s sort of a contradiction in the sense that you guys all sort of knew each other before. Did that make it easier to play people who were conflicted?
Platt: I think it always does. In my experience anyway.
Keener: I think, yes. And I agree with you that it’s more about the manner definitely. Because really when you look at the other that’s not really that farfetched, it happens all the time, but what’s unique about this situation, which is also quite possible, is that our families are so tight and the crossover is really shocking.
Farino: I didn’t know who knew who beforehand. I’d seen the episode of Leighton and Hugh together and I had a feeling that they could be chemically great, which is obviously crucial for the movie. I didn’t know there was history for everyone else. But it became the job of the cast and the spirit in which the thing was made.
That was the quality of acting thing that everybody jumped into that and tried to engineer a situation where you felt that there was closeness and there was history and chemistry. It’s the great unknown when you go in, especially in an ensemble, and even more so when you’ve got families involved. But that’s the credit of the cast that they made those relationships believable. I don’t think it relied on all them all being mates beforehand did it.
Keener: You do that on a hunch and sometimes hunches are good and sometimes they don’t work out. But this one the hunches kind of worked out I think.
Julian, why wasn’t “The Oranges” shot in New Jersey? Did you want to shoot the movie there at any point?
Farino: It was shot in New Rochelle [in New York], actually, so for me that’s production money and budget and what you can allow and where you can be and New York tax breaks and fairly tedious stuff. How far out of New York we were actually able to go. So for me the main thing was to create somewhere that visually was believable to be a New Jersey story.
Beyond that, the only thing I was concerned about I didn’t want the houses to be so big that it looked like a story about rich people, which it wasn’t, I just wanted to be comfortable and welcoming and warm and so on, and to find a real spot where that relationship with the two houses was practically possible. Of course, the first thing I did when we started was go to West Orange, and where we ended up shooting to me seemed like it was believable. Certainly, no one in London won’t know that we weren’t in West Orange. That was my way of thinking.
Keener: But it was perfect proximity. It was kind of perfectly laid out. It made such sense. It just supported the story so much just the logistics of the location.
Farino: It was great to have two complete houses that we took over and that all the rooms were the rooms that we shot in. We always tried to shoot out with windows in the back where you would see the other house just to bed in that these two families are completely locked together.
This question is for Allison and Oliver. Having worked together on “The West Wing,” was it easier coming to play a married couple in “The Oranges”? And also for Julian, can you talk about the inclusion of the Heifer International Charity?
Janney: When I heard that Oliver was going to do this, we just had fun together. And I think we even knew each other before “West Wing.” I just know that he has a sense of playfulness that makes it really easy. He’s very easy to be around and easy to have fun with, and this relationship with the two of them, I just knew that he was going to make it more exciting to do. So yeah, it helped and it definitely gave us, we had a common ground or something that we came in on, just our mutual love and respect for each other, that made it easy to jump off and be a married couple that was ignoring each other.
Platt: It always helps when you know each other. And if it’s Allison Janney that you have to be married to then it’s just, it’s a very, when you like a person and you respect them tremendously as an actor that’s two big boxes checked, especially when you need to create the illusion that you’ve been living together all this time. I also give a tremendous amount of credit to Julian for creating an environment on the set. And I don’t think this is really something that you can teach a director, creating an environment on the set that brings out the best in people.
That is sort of playful but constructive and fluid but charged. It was just a really delightful day at work every day. They did another very enlightened thing which is that they, driven by economics, but instead of having trailers they put us in this house down the street. The doors were always open and Hugh had his piano and there was always extraordinary jazz wafting down. We took our clothes off and really lived a utopian existence.
Keener: I shopped at Target to put rugs in the rooms. It was really fun.
Farino: The barnyard thing. It was a feature of the script, and if anything I had just encouraged Jay and Ian to write a little bit more it because I liked it because it was a little eccentric, and it was that part for Keener’s character where you don’t really know what’s happening to you. Making a movie I didn’t have to give too many notes, this was a very easy cast to direct and embrace, but I do remember saying things.
The main thing for me was a lot happens in the present tense, it’s not introspective, it’s not dark, it’s not brooding. You don’t always know what’s happening to you and that was a way of trying to keep it alive and support the story.
And the barnyard thing is a typical, Keener’s character is in the absolute sort of depths of despair, sees this thing, it doesn’t really mean anything at that moment, it’s just a hunch. And in terms of the characters traveling through the course of the story, I love the idea that the worst possible thing, the breakup of a household, could happen, and yet her character ends up in Africa achieving peace of mind and a greatness that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, which is many of the characters’ evolutions and encompasses the message of the movie. You don’t know where you’re going to travel. Apparent disaster can lead to progress and improvement and redemption and all those things.
Do you think that this comedy could have taken place in England or Europe? What would have been the adjustment to the script?
Farino: We do comedy in England as well. You can ask Hugh about that. For me, personally, it was always meant to be suburbia anywhere, and the point of the story was to be as universal as possible. The relationships in it were very I thought universal. We all know of a friend that we grew up with because our parents were best friends. You spend many years and then something happens that takes you apart. And you know, mother/daughter relationships with the slightly smothering mother, that’s recognizable. Dads as best friends.
The dynamics were absolutely universal to me, and to try to describe suburbia in New Jersey where the story was set was only really suburbia anywhere. For me it was suburban because the values were not urban. I never wanted a pastiche suburbia or anything like that. The film’s not a dark film, nor is it edgy, and for that it’s more an urban story, and this became suburban where there was a sort of lightness of spirit and a little less darkness maybe. So in answer to your question yeah, I would like to think anywhere families and human mistakes.
Hugh and Alia, can you talk a little bit about the thought and preparation that went into your scenes?
Shawkat: I thought it was interesting that she’s the narrator. That’s a weird choice I think so someone who’s not necessarily at peace of mind naturally anyways. So I found that interesting. And she’s kind of just reacting, as you said, as we all are in the film, but she’s kind of just in her own, she kind of separates herself from everybody. I didn’t really prepare too much, I was just trying to make her real and funny I guess. Funny and real. Real funny.
Farino: I think it had to have love between the two of you in the general terms of everything being positive about human behavior. The script always had that generosity about human beings. A terribly fractured moment between Alia and Hugh’s characters had to come out of somewhere loving to really count. I mean I love the fact that the script had an apparent outside, or perhaps the one that had the least immediate sense of consequence, to be the narrator. The idea by the end of the movie that you understand this was a critical moment in Vanessa’s life as well was for me sort of smart.
This question is for Allison. Have you gotten any reactions from people who have seen “The Oranges” about that the movie’s most memorable line? And if any of the other cast members want to jump off of that, just talking about maybe some fun memories you’ve had of reactions from people who are close to you to something that you’ve done in your work.
Janney: I had some friends who for some reason saw it in Minnesota. Why was it playing in Minnesota?
Farino: It was a festival, I think.
Janney: So I didn’t know that they were seeing it and they called me up afterwards and just sang the line into my phone. They loved it; they said it was their favorite moment to get to see me say that line. I’m going to screw it up if I try to say it because I don’t remember exactly how it goes, but it’s something about balls and old balls. It was very satisfying to say.
It was hard because as an actor you know something’s going to have comic value and yet you don’t want to play it for the laugh. I have to play Cathy is just completely undone and she is so angry and she’s trying to be mature about the situation and it just comes flying out of her mouth. It was extremely rewarding to do right.
Keener: What’s the line?
Janney: “How are you going to feel with David’s old balls in your mouth,” or something like that.
Keener: That is a funny line.
Janney: I couldn’t wait to say it.
For more info: “The Oranges” website