Terrence Malick is such an enigmatic figure in Hollywood that most of the coverage surrounding "Knight of Cups" is basically just film journalists asking the movie's stars, "So what's this guy like?" Since Malick's debut feature, "Badlands," wowed at the New York Film Festival in 1973, the Oscar-nominated director has renounced interviews and upheld a somewhat erroneous reputation for being reclusive, even as "The Thin Red Line" and "The Tree of Life" found mainstream success. His supposed hermit life has become enough of a narrative that a video of Malick dancing at a country bar was a minor Internet sensation in 2012, when he was filming "Knight of Cups" and the still-unreleased "Weightless."
The Huffington Post hopped on the phone with first-time Malick collaborator Freida Pinto earlier this week. In "Cups," Pinto plays one of several women who float through the life of an adrift Los Angeles screenwriter named Rick (Christian Bale, who appeared in "The New World"). As was the case with 2012's "To the Wonder," Malick didn't provide the cast with a script. In fact, Pinto hardly knew what the movie was about before seeing the final cut. Why commit to such an amorphous experience? Because it's Terrence Malick, of course. And because Jessica Chastain said it was a good thing to do.
Many actors see working with Terrence Malick as a career milestone. Does your life feel different, having now made a Malick movie?
It definitely feels different. For any actor to have been part of a Terrence Malick film is a huge achievement, in many ways, and not just an achievement because he’s an amazing filmmaker and has been a legendary filmmaker since “Days of Heaven” and “Badlands,” but more so because you are given the opportunity to have this experience that only the actors who work on a Terrence Malick film can have.
You hear Jessica Chastain doing "The Tree of Life” promotions and talking about this experience and you go, “God, I want to experience that too.” And here I am, finally having had that experience, and I get it. I totally get it. It was one of those really liberating experiences that you almost can’t have on a film with a script. This is us going in absolutely unprepared and not knowing where we’re going to go, which can be daunting. But at the same time, just letting yourself be in that moment is very, very freeing and quite revealing of ourselves, as well, like, “This is how far I can really take myself.” And I’m surprised that I can actually say that and I’m surprised that I can actually do this. The word is “free.” I can’t think of any other word -- the word is “free.”
Since there's no script, what information were you given about the part before showing up?
No information whatsoever. The only thing that I had in hand was six pages of something that was written just as a reference. It had nothing to do with my character or what he wanted me to do on set.
And it was something Terrence wrote?
It was just something he wrote, like his stream-of-consciousness typed out. He uses a typewriter, so that makes it even better.
Of course he uses a typewriter. Was there a narrative in those six pages?
It was very philosophical. It was a lot of quotes form philosophers that I assume Terry really likes to read. There were a lot of Mother Teresa lines in there. It was just a guide. It was not in any way lines I had to repeat on set. Sometimes I did and it would be fine, and sometimes it didn’t make any sense. He would also say, “You can say this line or you can not say it if you don’t want to.” That kind of freedom is very rare. There couldn’t have been preparations on a film like this.
Does that mean you named the character too? She introduces herself as Helen.
No, that was the one thing that I did know, that the character was going to be called Helen. Terry gave me that name.
How long were you on set?
I think it was about a four- or five-day thing.
When you arrived, there must have been some sort of guidance about the scene you'd be shooting. Was it, "Okay, we're doing a party scene, action," or was it, "Just start talking and we'll figure it out"?
The first scene I shot was not the party scene, actually. I shot a scene with Christian by the window where I ask him, “Is this a friendship we have? I don’t want to wreak havoc in men’s lives anymore.” I arrived and I was like, “Terry, what do you want me to say?” I even asked Christian, “Do you think you could help me out here?” And he said, “No! I do want to help you, but you’re going to do all the talking and I’m going to do all the listening.”
The only thing I did get in terms of references from Terry was that Christian Bale’s character is on this search and he gets his answers in half-fragments from these women and I’m playing one of them. I said, “OK.” Initially I was a singer and then all of a sudden I became a dancer because that’s what was happening in my life at that point of time -- I was training for this other film where I played a dancer. And then I was a yogi and I was a model, so you know what? It didn’t matter at that point because I was going to be very in the moment and very present. Even if Terrence had said, “Be a singer,” but I felt like dancing, he would have accepted that. I just know it.
Had you met him before the first day on the set?
No, the first day I met him was on set.
Had you spoken to him at all?
I did speak to him over the phone. He said he really liked my tape and he asked me a lot about myself and he asked me how long I’ve been living in LA and what my experience with LA was like. He asked me a few questions. In his head, I’m assuming, he was trying to piece together how these women would impact Rick’s life. Now that I’ve actually watched the film, a lot of what he asked me and a lot of what we did on set makes sense. It’s really an exploration of self in a city like Los Angeles that can be very polarizing in many ways. You can make of it whatever you want to make of it. It can be that place where you find answers and peace, or it can be a place that many associate with debauchery and excess and fake pretentiousness. Whatever you associate with it is what it is for you, right? So if you asked me about my first couple of days in LA -- actually I didn’t have a very good experience in LA because I just thought it wasn’t the same kind of vibrant, exhilarating city that London or Mumbai was for me. But I feel like my character is a passenger of sorts in the film. She goes through LA like she would through life.
Do you think he had the movie in his head, or did he film vignettes and then find the story in the editing process?
I’m sure he had a baseline for what he was trying to do and I’m sure he discussed it with Christian, because Christian is in every frame of the film. But I’m sure it was just like us being free to explore and to surprise ourselves. I’m sure he wanted some surprises, as well. He had no idea what we were going to say, so as much as he would construct the film in his head. Ultimately, the fact that he had given us so much freedom, whatever he expected was probably not going to be the only thing he thought. I’m sure the film actually gets made at the editing table, in this case.
Do you do takes and then get feedback? Does he tell you he doesn’t like something?
Terry never says he does not like anything. That’s not him. Whether it’s wrong or right, it just happens. But if there’s something he likes and he wants us to do more of it, he’ll definitely be very vocal about that. Like, “Continue talking about this incident in your life and give us more of an insight,” or whatever. If we went in the wrong direction and it felt out of character, then he just won’t use it in the film.
Did you understand what “Knight of Cups” was about before seeing the actual movie?
Definitely after seeing the finished product because I had no idea what the film was going to be. But I have to say, while I was shooting the film, I was already on a quest for my own answers, in many ways. I think doing the film with Terry and all the questions of validation that have been the biggest looming questions over my head, like how much validation do we seek in life? Especially as actors, our lives depend on critics and validation and ratings and God knows what. Is that what we work toward? Or do we work toward a certain level of finding that happiness within ourselves? I think that spiraled those questions into a process, which I’m really grateful for.
Are you in the movie more or less than you expected?
I didn’t know what to expect because literally the only thing I knew was scenes that I’d shot with Christian. I had no idea who the other women were playing. It was all a surprise for me, as well. Even some of my own scenes were a surprise to me.
What do you make of people who’ve had bad experiences with Malick? That's always been part of his reputation. Christopher Plummer said he’d never work with him again.
Because I’d read Jessica Chastain’s interviews, I really wanted to be part of the experience. Everybody has a different experience and a different takeaway from working with a director, and I think it’s perfectly fine to like someone’s style and also to not like someone’s style.
If you had to characterize him for the many people who want to know what Terrence Malick is actually like, how would you describe him?
Wow. He is like a spiritual guide, in many ways. He’s like a child, actually. He’s like a child with such vivid imagination. If he did have preconceived notions or ideas, he doesn’t have them anymore, so he comes with very little judgment, and that’s very evident in the women who play the various characters in the film. One character is a stripper, another is having an affair -- there is no judgment whatsoever. He made it feel very comfortable.
Is he the type of guy you'd grab a drink with after work?
Well, Terry and I made dinner plans. They didn’t materialize, but we made plans because he loves Indian food. But he likes the not-spicy kind of Indian food, which is not Indian food! He and I kept in touch, and we’ve been in a touch a lot since making the film. Even if he wasn’t in touch, I would still have the nicest things to say about him.
"Knight of Cups" opens in limited release on March 4.