Stars venture out of comfort zones for 'Gravity'

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TORONTO - It was sort of bad news-bad news: The takes would be very, very long, and actors Sandra Bullock and George Clooney would be trapped in uncomfortable positions.

The good news was the contortions were in the service of a movie, "Gravity," that would earn nearly universal praise from critics and early audiences.

At the time, there was no guarantee of that as director Alfonso Cuaron and his team had to invent tools to do their jobs and create a universe of constant motion (even if it looked as if nothing were moving) but no horizons, ups, downs, weight or sound.

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"It was more like being a part of Cirque du Soleil than it was what we'd been used to as actors," Ms. Bullock told a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

Unlike some TIFF movies, such as "August: Osage County," which stretched seven or more actors across the stage, she comfortably carried this flag alone, with help from the director, his co-writer son and a producer.

She encountered "the most bizarre series of contraptions" while filming her role as first-time astronaut Ryan Stone, who becomes marooned in space.

The tools were imaginative and torturous at times. Among them: An office chair on a hydraulic, a pole with a bicycle seat (mounted with one leg strapped down to help simulate weightlessness), a 12-wire system allowing the actors to be manipulated by puppeteers or their own weight, and a specially lit box in a sea of darkness.

"It was genius what they were able to come up with," the long-haired actress clad in a vibrant Roland Mouret dress, said. "It was frustrating and lonely and bizarre and you had to sort of dig deep into your imagination and pray that something came up but I loved it. I loved that I got to do it and no one else had done it before."

Mr. Cuaron, who wrote the screenplay with his son, Jonas Cuaron, said it took 4-1/2 years to make the movie and he wasn't ready for serious conversations (other actresses had been linked to the role) until roughly two years ago when the Mexican-born director flew to Austin, Texas.

"Sandra had read the screenplay. The beautiful thing for me is that for all that afternoon and evening, we didn't talk about space, we didn't talk about techniques, we didn't talk about action films or anything, we were just talking about the themes."

And she was in tune with its underpinnings about adversity and its role in rebirth.

Ms. Bullock, who exercised "seriously scary" discipline during the production, didn't know that the day before filming was to start, a key piece of camera equipment once used to make cars in Detroit wasn't working, producer David Heyman said.

"When Sandra talks about this 'Light Box' and this 2-ton robot that is coming on the track, often at a really fast speed and stopping on a dime, it has to stop on a dime because if it doesn't, it goes straight through her face."

Ms. Bullock's response: "I love my job."

Mr. Cuaron's confession: "We didn't tell her any of this."

The 49-year-old actress, who won an Academy Award for "The Blind Side," appreciated not playing herself or repeating a previous role. "To be out of your comfort zone, as I learned on this, just unlocks things that scare you, frustrate you, make you so insecure but it also forces you to dig very deep.

"When this came along, it scared me on every single level, primarily because it was originally going to be shot in the 'Vomit Comet,' which is a plane that plummets out of the sky to achieve weightlessness and I'm deathly afraid of flying. It's one of my greatest fears. I thought it was just time to sort of get over that fear. I'm grateful we didn't do it that way."

To prepare for the role, she trained with two Australian women from the world of dance. She wanted, as much as she could in a healthy way, to allow Ryan to shed what reminded her of being feminine or motherly "just so that the body was a machine."

She trained every day for months to prepare for the physical rigors but the emotional side of the character was akin to the wild, wild west with Mr. Cuaron the sometime target of her frustration and anger.

"I didn't have all the tools I was used to, to help me get where I wanted to go," she said. "I missed being in the sun, being with my son, being with people and having communication. It was just lonely. But I got to get out of it at the end of the day and appreciate the sunshine or my boy," she said of 3-year-old Louis.

"It made you grateful for what rain was existing in London. Ah, an element. So, it was bizarre and great; it worked perfectly for what we had to do."

Although her character is named Ryan, the first-time astronaut always was envisioned as a woman.

"The first pages had 'the woman.' For us it was very important to have a female presence, it's a movie that in many ways has two things: It talks about this possibility of rebirth ... and as soon as we started writing, we knew it was going to be a beautiful movie, because it was going to have this backdrop of Earth," co-writer Jonas Cuaron said.

"In a way it was a very fertile movie, so it was important for us to have this female presence." And to make sure it was embodied by Ms. Bullock.

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Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: First Published October 3, 2013 5:45 PM


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