An adaptation of the 1992 Stephen King novel of the same name, Gerald’s Game tells the story of Jessie Burlingame, a woman who finds herself in a life-or-death situation after her husband, Gerald, dies during a sex game that leaves her half-naked and handcuffed to a bed. But far from the titillating sexual thriller its premise suggests, director Mike Flanagan’s film explores the unexamined truths in a lackluster marriage, and the buried secrets that prevent a woman from giving her husband – or anyone – the thing most essential to lasting relationships: intimacy. Carla Gugino (San Andreas) and Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek Into Darkness) explore these spouses’ sexual incompatibility as a prelude to a suspenseful, unsparing, cathartic journey of self-discovery for Jessie and her late husband.
SYFY WIRE recently sat down with Gugino and Greenwood for a spirited discussion about the challenges of bringing Jessie and Gerald’s relationship to life. In addition to talking about the process of finding a rhythm for their collaboration as on-screen spouses, Greenwood examined the challenges of playing a role that’s largely defined by his co-star's perspective, while Gugino revealed the process of trying to create a convincing dialogue between two subtly different versions of the same person and, finally, turning the gruesome circumstances of being handcuffed and incapacitated into not just a battle for survival, but an opportunity for redemption.
How difficult was it to get into the headspace of playing two versions of the same character – and two that were interacting with one another?
Carla Gugino: It was a really tight schedule and we shot it really fast, and it looked so beautiful for that. And yet they were really open to discoveries, which is also great, because as an actor you want to feel like you know what you're doing but also not be pinned in. So what was so great was that we had a full hour of rehearsal built in for each sequence, and we did them all in sequence for the most part every morning. Because I wasn't quite sure how that was going to happen either, because we were never going to have a situation where we could shoot one of me one day, and one the other day; it was going to have to always be one right after the other. And in fact, basically we had a 12-minute turnaround from looking like I was literally dying ...
Bruce Greenwood: Ravaged …
CG: … to being sort of [made up]. So what was key was that in those rehearsals I played each person and then remembered what I did for the other, and was able to find what that relationship was between the two of them. So it wasn't something I could prepare for; I could prepare each person, each aspect of her, so I think for me it was just really important to have a woman losing hope. Because I think we all have that feeling where the bottom drops out in life, and you really just don't know if you're going to make it. And then the other side that's like, I believe in you, but I'm going to give you tough love; this is not going to be easy and there's no way you're going to do this unless you look at everything you need to look at. So I was intrigued by that voice in ourselves; I was just really intrigued by the fact that I think inside our heads, we have similar conversations, and seeing those manifested was really fascinating.
Bruce, did you play Gerald via her interpretation or perception of him? Or how did you see him?
BG: That's one of the interesting things, figuring out through whose prism are these characters viewed. And when Gerald 2 stands up, is it her memory of Gerald? Is it her skewed memory of Gerald? Or is it who Gerald really was? You don't know, so you're left to wonder, well, that little bit might be how he really was or how it really was, and this might be something that she's projecting in order to help her get through it. She might have to demonize him here and there, and she might have to love him again here and there in order to make this journey.
CG: We kind of decided in the conversations about it, and I was so impressed just watching the nuances, because Mike [Flanagan] would have stuff, but we also played with different variations of it, and that sometimes it's good that we don't know as an audience. We will never know the real Gerald, because we will only have been able to see him through her eyes.
BG: Some of it might be true, and some of it might not.
Did you rely on Carla's interpretation of those moments?
BG: We talked all day, every day, and all night, every night. As soon as the day's work was over we would go and have a bite to eat and we'd talk about what we'd done that day and how that was going to reflect on tomorrow, what we planned to do tomorrow, and how that might change. So we sort of built it together, and it was really fun that way.
CG: Because we didn't have the luxury of time and we were doing large page counts in a day, it did feel a little like actor boot camp in that way. I got cast later in the process, so it was also just getting down there having literally six days before shooting to do everything and sort of get it going. And it's interesting, because as professionals, you have to kind of create chemistry if it's not there, or figure out how somebody's process is, and the great thing with this is that we had never met, and as soon as we did our first rehearsal, we were like, "Ah, we're in good hands. Here we go. Let’s jump off the cliff together."
As attractive as you both are, the love scene you two share is remarkably – and appropriately – awkward. What work did the two of you do to root underneath each of their motivations and responses?
CG: One of the things we talked about was that we had to have at one point had a really great relationship, great sex, all of those things, and a lot because yes, he has problems, but also because she has a huge part of herself she's never been able to access because of being abused. So in a strange way, he almost gives her this gift – he is sensing something that needs to be broken through, and he doesn't necessarily maybe do it in the best way. Bruce, you might even have something different to say about it, but one of the things I think we definitely felt was there had to be something that was lost to try to re-find, but then also the fact that even when she alludes to this other time when he kind of grabbed her wrists, there's a thing that it seems like there was an unspoken area in which they would never go further.
BG: I think it's implicit also that he did try and reach her; he didn't know how, but he tried to reach her back in the day when they had that moment of rough sex, thinking on a really subconscious level that there was a different place they could go, but it didn't really work and it didn't last. And I don't think either of them are really at fault; she's dealing with the stuff that she can't acknowledge, and he's trying to penetrate something that he doesn't understand and doing it in a way that doesn't reach gently into her but kind of forces its way in, and as a consequence, it's a replay of something she's experienced before but of which she's completely unaware.
CG: And probably also why she made the choice of him, as we do. I think that for sure she idolized her dad, and therefore had this intense level of intimacy that was then betrayed. But that's also, since she hasn't processed it, still kind of a part of who she is. So she would probably go for a strong man who was potentially a little emotionally distant.
BG: He doesn't go up there to abuse her. That's not his intention. His intention is to push it, but he gets so much pushback that he handles it poorly.
I wonder if you felt any envy in playing alternate versions of these characters who could have these unvarnished, clear-eyed conversations about themselves and their relationships?
BG: There's freedom there. Freedom and a lot of energy as a result of that freedom, so you could swing a little harder and push a little more. So it was fun for us to play with that with each other. Because you don't often get that unvarnished stuff; usually you're playing a lot of subtext, and here the subtext was really, really buried.
CG: And also it was so interesting that Stephen King chose to explore a really intense subject within a genre film, and a genre he's so brilliant at. I think our inner demons are the most horrifying, so it's a perfect marriage of those two things, but tonally that was a really interesting thing, and I was curious how we were going to find that. And it was great because Flanagan, there was this kind of, I don't know why this word keeps coming up, but this sobriety, this sort of [feeling] that he doesn't add a lot of extra, extra music, there's not a lot of extra jump scares, it's sort of pared-down in this kind of elegant way so the horror comes from within.
The scene where Jessie's father manipulates Jessie as a child into not saying anything about what happened between them feels like one that needed to have a female perspective. Mike said that the two of you were very involved in the film – what sort of conversations happened about that moment in the film?
CG: That scene was written like that in the script, and I don't think they changed anything about it. And I think [Henry Thomas] is brilliant in that scene, because it is so awful, and yet ...
BG: He puts it on her in such a slippery way.
CG: Yeah! He's got such a sweet demeanor, Henry does himself, and so he chose to play that in a way that I found was absolutely sickening, in the perfect way. And it was interesting because they shot that in the first week, so I was able to watch that very early on and it was incredibly helpful for me, just because it was done with such a light touch – which is what made it so gross. But I feel like maybe that was very close to what [was in the book].
BG: I don't want to say it was verbatim, but it was very close.
CG: And that scene was sort of the [pivot point] for the movie.
Gerald's Game is currently available on Netflix.