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We all face life-altering turns every day: Do we stay where we are, or strike out on our own? Do we live in anger, or try and forgive? Are we the results of our own — or other people’s — bad decisions, or are we the sum total of our own judgment calls?
Tallulah (Ellen Page), or, as she prefers to be called, Lu, is the center of writer-director Sian Heder’s thought-provoking, deeply felt drama Tallulah, and she’s a young woman who finds herself at the intersection of choices. Tallulah lives life on her own terms, caring for only herself. She lives out of a van around New York City, and when we first meet her, she’s ending a just-for-now relationship with Nico (Evan Jonigkeit). After spending some time drifting, Nico wants to move on from his and Tallulah’s life of dumpster-diving and stealing food from convenience stores.
That goes against the freedom Tallulah craves, and so she and Nico part ways. Soon after, roaming a swanky hotel to eat whatever leftover meals she finds in the hallways, Tallulah is mistaken for an employee by an inebriated, affluent woman, Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard). Carolyn, railing loudly against what motherhood has done to her marriage, her body, and her life, is preparing to meet her lover, but first she needs someone to watch her one-year-old daughter, Madison. Accepting $100, Tallulah takes on the role of caregiver for a few hours.
But when Carolyn returns and passes out on the bed, Tallulah judges Carolyn as someone who can’t (or won’t) care for her child. So Tallulah makes a split-second decision to take Madison. Tallulah then seeks out Margo (Allison Janney), Nico’s estranged mother. An edgy academic ensconced in a Manhattan apartment, the quietly seething Margo hasn’t gotten over her husband (John Benjamin Hickey) leaving her years ago for another man. Margo assumes the baby girl Tallulah is holding is also Nico’s. Tallulah, cagily, doesn’t correct the miscommunication.
Initially hesitant, Margo is later appalled to see Tallulah selling lemonade out of the back of the van, and brings Tallulah — and the child she believes is her granddaughter — into her home. As Margo takes tentative steps towards mending the rifts within herself and her family, and Carolyn goes to the police for help, Tallulah discovers a connection she wasn’t anticipating. And all three women find themselves coming to grips with the choices they’ve made.
THE BIRTH OF TALLULAH
“Tallulah is the story of three very different women whose lives intersect through the impulsive and wellintentioned kidnapping of a child,” says Heder. “It’s a story about motherhood, about looking for a mother and becoming a mother. But mostly it’s a story about humanity, about the blurry lines of morality, and about deeply flawed human behavior.”
The story began in real life, in two different situations. Heder, a veteran writer on Netflix’s hit series Orange is the New Black, had a friend in New York many years ago who was, Heder says, “living a very hand-to-mouth existence. She also felt very liberated and free. She didn’t seem to need anyone and didn’t seem to be needed. But there was incredible pain involved with that.”
“I thought the idea of a person who was living a consequence-free existence, who was living truly in the moment, was fascinating,” continues Heder. “This friend of mine could act from a sense of pure instinct, as opposed to living by societal rules and norms. And there was something I found kind of inspiring – and also very terrifying — about that.”
With her main character in mind, Heder needed a situation that would serve her themes. She discovered that when she found herself in a very alien situation.
“When I first moved to Los Angeles, I worked as a nanny at several high-end hotels,” recalls Heder, who grew up in Massachusetts. “At the time, I was broke, driving an old Buick. When I would pull up to the Four Seasons or the Beverly Hills Hotel, the valet would be forced to crawl through the passenger side door, since the driver’s side door didn’t open.”
“While most of the parents I dealt with were great, I had a couple of truly strange experiences,” the filmmaker says. “One of the mothers I worked for had come to the hotel to have an affair. She had brought her toddler with her, but not the nanny, as she was afraid the nanny would tattle to the husband. This woman had never been alone with her child before. Over the course of the night, I became just as much her confidante as the child’s caregiver. She confided in me that she blamed the loss of her sexuality and freedom on her child. She was desperate to get out of the life she had found herself in. She ended the night passed out drunk. I wanted to take the baby before this woman could screw her up any further. “I was convinced that I could do a better job of raising that child,” says Heder. “Of course, I didn’t steal the baby. But it raised the question for me … Who would?”
And with that, the strands of a movie began to merge.
A FACE-TO-FACE CONFRONTATION
In 2006, Heder made a short film, Mother, from the idea. It consisted of the character of Tallulah meeting with an unstable woman in a hotel room, and ends with Tallulah taking the woman’s baby.
“Everybody who saw it asked, ‘What happens next?’” Heder says.
Mother won a Cinéfondation award for emerging filmmakers at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. Heder then began to expand the story. And as she grew as a person, the script grew as well.
“Sometimes, when a project takes a long time to get made, it can be frustrating. But then you look back and see that it was actually helpful it took that long, because I had to evolve as a person and an artist,” says Heder. “When I first wrote the script for Tallulah, I was judgmental toward a certain kind of woman who I thought shouldn’t have kids. But by the time I made the feature, I became more like her, and in fact more like the other characters, too. Your perspective changes.”
Part of that perspective shift came with the filmmaker becoming a mother herself. “At about the same time I found out the movie was green-lit, I found out I was pregnant with my second child,” says Heder.
As the film started shooting in summer 2015, Heder had even more experience to draw from.
“When the movie was being shot, I was six months pregnant and also had a 16-month old daughter,” she says. “So there’s a lot about identity as a woman in the movie, and how we struggle with our perception of ourselves: Who we’re supposed to be versus who we feel like. I found I had a great deal of empathy for all of the characters — and when you feel for the person who is supposed to be your villain, it’s fascinating. When I first wrote the script, Carolyn was just a clear-cut bad mom. And it ended up being a more complex look at parenthood, and how complicated that is.”
FINDING THREE POINTS OF VIEW
Tallulah may be named after the character who drives the story, but at its heart, Heder says, is “A triptych of archetypal women” – Tallulah, Margo and Carolyn.
“All of these characters are morally ambiguous,” says Heder. “I like that the person you’re rooting for is a kidnapper, while the ‘villain’ is a mom who had her child stolen — and you grow to care about her, too. And Margo is someone who thought she had her life all planned out, but is in fact someone who hasn’t taken responsibility for her life.”
“I like it when the audience realizes that they care about everybody in the film, because then there’s no easy outcome,” Heder continues. “The film is about those crossroads in our lives, the moment we think we’ve hit rock-bottom. I was interested in exploring a much more complex and complicated view of what that experience is, and I used these three women to be different facets of that conversation.”
THE WOMEN OF TALLULAH
To bring the character of Tallulah to life, Ellen Page taps into the razor-sharp intelligence audiences have come to expect from the Oscar-nominated star of Juno. The actress is always able to find the soulful-butyouthful point where self-resolve and survival blends with selflessness and soul. But when Heder first started writing the script for Tallulah, she thought it might be a bit too early for Page to jump aboard.
“Ellen was someone whose work I always loved, but when I began the project, she was too young,” says Heder. “But that was another benefit to the film coming together later. Ellen had read the script and we met and clicked right away. I knew that the part of Tallulah could be a bit unlikeable – when we first encounter her, she’s a thief and a scam artist who makes questionable choices — so I wanted someone who felt a bit feral, yet also had charm and charisma to counteract the questionable morality.”
“Ellen is also just so funny and dry, and has such a great wit and a lot of charm and warmth. So I knew all that would help to bring Tallulah to life,” adds Heder.
“My friend that I based the character on had this winning way about her — she could go up to a food truck and say ‘Hey, can I have some of that,’ and people would just give her stuff! She had a kind of magical aura about her, and I was looking for an actress who had that, as well as an emotional depth to go to this wounded place. Ellen had all of that.”
“This is one of those roles that was brand new to me,” says Page. “I had never really read a character like Lu before. She’s very unique.”
“Tallulah had a lot of trauma in her life, and has clearly spent her life running from the pain she feels,” adds Page. “And when she sees this baby, who hasn’t had pain yet in her life, she bonds with her.”
“Tallulah is sort of forced to stop and love something that ends up connecting to her, and loving her back,” Page continues. “And that makes her open up and understand herself a little bit more. And understand that maybe it’s okay to need people, and that maybe people need to rely on you, too.”
For the role of Margo, Heder needed an actress who had a similar duality. Enter Allison Janney. “Allison is also very funny and has a dry wit and intelligence to her, but she also has a big deep emotional well, and I loved that,” says Heder. “To me, her performance here is a master class on acting.”
Says Janney, “Margo is desperate for connection when Tallulah shows up. She’s stuck and can’t move forward, and Lu and the baby help Margo open her life. I felt for her, and I loved her journey.”
Both Janney and Page threw themselves into their roles – literally: For one crucial moment in the film that finds Margo experiencing a giddy sense of floating in a park, Janney scaled the heights. “Allison was 50 feet in the air in Washington Square Park, dangling off of the most sketchy-looking filmset rig you’ve ever seen,” laughs Heder. “I had it set up for a green screen, and had a stunt double, but Allison was the one who wanted to do it. She did it about 7 or 8 times! It was really hard. At one point she got stuck up there as the crew was going to lunch. She yelled, ‘You all go to lunch, I’m fine here!’”
Page, too, dove right in.
“For one scene, Ellen actually dove into the Hudson River – I wouldn’t have done that,” says Heder. “But she was up for it. These actors are so professional and with such great experience, but they were also totally game for everything, take after take.”
A different kind of tightrope walk was needed for the character of Carolyn.
“That was hardest part to cast, in many ways,” says Heder. “Carolyn has to be an almost repulsive character with dark and ugly aspects to her, but then we have to see humanity in her. She’s sort of the movie’s Id, a crazy representation of a feeling that a lot of parents have. And I was looking for an actress who had the chops to be all those things and yet not judge the character. I wanted to find someone who understood that Carolyn was a complicated person.”
Heder found everything the character needed in Tammy Blanchard.
Explains the filmmaker, “Tammy’s someone who I think really really understood the role. She didn’t judge the character at all, and in fact had so much love and compassion for her, which is important.
“Plus, Tammy is sexy, with a sort of Marilyn Monroe quality. But there’s also the sense that you don’t know as the scenes go on what Carolyn might do. Tammy was also able to bring something dangerous.”
There’s an additional role that’s crucial to understanding the complexity of Tallulah: The New York police officer Detective Kinnie, played by Uzo Aduba, best known for her portrayal of “Crazy Eyes” Warren on Orange is the New Black.
“Detective Kinnie and Crazy Eyes couldn’t be more different,” laughs Heder. “Uzo as a person is very earthy, and Kinnie is in many ways the conscience of the movie.”
“I wanted someone who felt like this straight-talking ‘Voice of Truth,’ and I knew Uzo could come in and make a small part really feel like a fully-lived person,” adds Heder. “We spoke about how when people have a job like that, watching out for family disputes and child endangerment, there’s a way you could become desensitized. And this is a case that sort of throws the detective off her bearings.”
ANOTHER SIDE OF THE STORY
For the role of Margo’s ex-husband, Heder knew the close-knit cast would benefit from friendship.
“Ellen and Allison have a long history since costarring in Juno and Touchy Feely,” says Heder. “And it made my job easier in creating the way they spark to each other in the film. Similarly, Allison and John Benjamin Hickey (TV’s The Good Wife, Broadway’s Cabaret) have been best friends for 25 years. I wanted this feeling of Allison and John having a rich history as a couple.”
“So I knew that we would be able to feel like these people had been married, and have all these emotions and connections and love under the anger,” Heder says.
To play the boyfriend of Margo’s ex-husband, Heder turned to one of her own old pals: Zachary Quinto (Star Trek, Margin Call, Broadway’s The Glass Menagerie).
“Zach has been one of my closest friends for years,” says Heder. “We went to Carnegie Mellon together, and made a short film together years ago. He’s also a phenomenal actor, of course, so it was perfect.”
Adds Heder, “I wanted every character to feel like they were there for a reason, and hiring great actors does that.”
Heder – who wrote the film before she was a mom, began directing it when she was pregnant a second time, and locked the final print on the very day she went into labor – finds something poetic in so many aspects of the film. That includes the scene that started it all.
“The wild part is, when I went to shoot the feature, the scene that was the short film was virtually unchanged,” says Heder. “It’s based on a real thing in my life. The dialogue had even come from my life.”
Heder says that bringing all of her characters to a place they all belong was deeply satisfying.
“Each character gets the very things they needed,” says Heder. “Tallulah is scrappy and resourceful, but she was missing a family, and in the end she has that. Margo, you get the sense, has been awakened to the fact that she’s responsible for her own happiness. And Carolyn had to have the most important thing in her life ripped away from her in order to look inside herself and realize she loves her child.”
“Each of these women become transformed in the way they needed to be transformed.”