Diaz and Marsden talk about The Box's moral dilemma

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

We previewed Richard Kelly's The Box at Comic-Con, and while it didn't make as much of a splash as Avatar or Kick-Ass, the sci-fi thriller movie intrigued us enough to sit down with co-stars Cameron Diaz and James Marsden for an exclusive discussion about the movie.

Based on Richard Matheson's six-page short story "Button, Button," The Box expands on the premise: What if someone gave you a box with a red button and told you that you would get $1 million tax-free if you pressed it, but that someone you don't know would die?

Director Kelly (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales) has taken the short story as the first event in a longer, original story that explores who and what is behind that odd little wooden box and how the main characters can uncover that truth and perhaps, in the process, find redemption.

Diaz plays Norma Lewis, a wife and mother in 1976, and Marsden plays her husband, Arthur. Kelly based the characters in part on his real-life mother and father. The Box also stars Frank Langella as the mysterious Mr. Steward.

Following is an edited version of our excusive interview with Diaz and Marsden. The Box is slated to open Oct. 30.

I talked to Richard Kelly a couple of weeks ago and got a lot of lowdown on the movie. He said that you guys actually hung out with his parents for a while?

Diaz: We did.

Can you talk about that?

Marsden: ... It was great. His parents came up to visit, and he told me that some of these characters, the main characters, are based on his mother and his father. ... Because I'd read the script, and I thought it was all just fiction, ... but he told me his father worked on the Viking mission and helped create the camera, which is obviously aligned with the story, and then Norma's his mother, so you know ... It was really an honor ... for him to trust us in that regard to play his parents. ... He took certain liberties and creative license to sort of weave that into his own, into the Richard Matheson story, but it was pretty cool.

Cameron, can you talk about hanging out with his mother?

Diaz: Yeah, she's lovely. ... She was very generous. ... One of the things that Norma shares with her is there's disfigurement of her foot, and the way it's written in the script is exactly the way that it happened for her, his mother as well. ... It was through an X-ray, an accident with being X-rayed for a broken foot. And the X-ray was left on too long, and it radiated too long on her foot, and for a couple of months it burned her foot basically off, like her toes. She had to have several surgeries to try to save her foot. And so it was literally his mother's story. And ... she was very generous in telling what that experience was like and how it shaped her life. ...

And, also, ... I did her accent, because she was from Texas originally, and then moved to Virginia, so I kind of took on her accent. And, also, ... she has a very, a beautiful stillness to her. And I think that's from her having to be with a cast on her foot and having ... the skin graft from her thigh to her foot. Back in those days they had to sit very still for a long period of time, for months, so the skin could graft over. So I think she has ... this stillness to her that I kind of brought to Norma as well. ...

And then, also, ... her love for her family and the depth of her love for her family. ... Richard wanted to pay homage to that as well. Sort of the strength of the family he grew up with. And the strength of his parents' love for one another. ...

Richard Kelly

Did you gain any insights from Richard's parents into him?

Marsden: ... There was a lot of love between Richard and his family. ... It seemed up to a certain point that his parents were not aware of the fact ... that these characters were based on them until a certain point in the shoot.

Diaz: ... They had never read the script. So they didn't know what it was.

Marsden: They didn't know whether or not to be angry with him or pleased. ... They had a good sense of humor about the whole thing and their relationship in it. ...

What I got from them was they seemed sort of puzzled by Richard. By a lot of his ... endeavors and ideas. ... It's like this mosaic that he's creating in his head, and not everybody can follow it, but you just know that it's going to mean something and make sense and be this beautiful piece of art. ...

Diaz: ... You can tell they've always accepted him for who he is. ... They've always ... supported him in being an artist. ... He always drew when he was younger. ... Where he grew up, it was all jocks, and he was supposed to be sports and all these things, but he's really ... an artist, and they always supported him in that, even when he was sort of afraid to show it, that side of himself, to his other [peers]. ...

Marsden (left) and Diaz

When you guys got approached for this film, this is the guy who made Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, which are not exactly mainstream cinema, but are very brave in a way and pushing the boundaries of what cinema can do. This movie kind of pulls back a little bit, I guess, from some of that. So what did you think about signing on to work with a guy like that?

Diaz: It's the reason why I signed on with him. ... I'm a firm believer in—and Jimmy has said this— ... [wanting to] work with the best directors. That's sort of your goal as an actor, is to work with the best directors. ... I consider Richard one of those really great ... young voices of filmmaking, and ... he's very authentic to himself. And the script, I thought, ... seemed, ... on an existential level, a very mature [piece], more mature than those past ones, because he's always been on that sort of bend of that existential [question]: ... Who [humans] are. Why they do what they do? Where do we come from? ... Are we on our own? Have we been created? Is there some other alternate universe? How do we live parallel to it? ... All these ... thoughts where you go, "Ahh!" So I felt like, in that vein, it was ... a more mature version of what he'd already done. ... With a filmmaker like that, you really just want to work with them at any point in their career, and as they realize themselves as an artist more and more.

Marsden: ... I love how bizarre sometimes and how inventive Richard can be. ... It's so easy for a director to take the easy road and give people schlock or something that's formulaic, and Richard's not interested in that at all. He's not interested in celebrity at all. He's interested in being an artist. And what that entails for him is ... a great deal of courage and a great deal of ... inventiveness, is what I keep going back to. Just bravery to go and do something unique. Something different, something new, something that ... maybe is not what you would find when you drive past the multiplex these days. ... And, like you said, I think this film is a good mix of ... his ... attempt to ... steer it back towards a little bit more mainstream [fare], but still keep the integrity of a really great film. And not just a popcorn movie, you know? I admire that. ...

The short story is like a perfect crystallization of a moral dilemma that we all face in the 21st century: You can have what you want, but at what cost? And if you're separated from that cost, does it make it easier to be morally compromised?

Diaz: ... That's what drew me into it. ... We push buttons all day long, and every decision that we make, especially in the world that we live in today, in a global society, ... we're no longer ignorant to the fact that what we do over here affects the other side of the world. What we purchase ... on a day-to-day basis is affecting other people's lives. Whether it's in the way of ... social justice or environmental justice or whatever it might be: We know that every day we affect someone by pushing the proverbial button, and we push them all day long. ...

It does really sort of simplify it, by putting it into this [form]. We're like, "Well, OK. Let's put a monetary value on this, between life and death." And that says a lot, especially at this moment in our time, historically, economically. ... It's crystallized a little bit even more from ... where it was when we were doing the movie, because we hadn't quite slumped into the position [we are now]. ... We shot this two years ago, nearly, so ... the world has changed even from then. ...

There's only one right answer in this, you know? There's right and wrong, and that's it. There's something, I think, [that's] very clear in this: ... You don't push the button. That's the right choice. But, unfortunately, we can't live our lives without pushing buttons.