Abigail Breslin tussled with tough role in 'August: Osage County'



Meryl Streep really can do anything, it would seem. She provided actress Abigail Breslin with a sweet keepsake from "August: Osage County."

"Meryl gave me a little drawing that she drew of my character at the end of filming. I kept that, for sure," the 17-year-old actress said in a recent phone call.

She plays the granddaughter of Ms. Streep's character, the pill-popping matriarch of the Weston family, and daughter of Julia Roberts in the movie version of Tracy Letts' play. It opens today in Pittsburgh.

That is no more intimidating than being nominated for an Academy Award at age 11, which was the case for the "Little Miss Sunshine" actress. She was part of another dysfunctional family, that one on a road trip paved with good intentions, deadly detours and one memorable beauty pageant.

Jennifer Hudson took the supporting statuette for "Dreamgirls," but Abigail's co-star, Alan Arkin, won for his supporting role as her grandpa and called acting with her a sheer delight.

"She is a lovely, delightful, charming child. ... It was like working with a woman of 40 years' experience. We were locked in the van for hours, and it was 95 degrees out, no air conditioning," and she busied herself with music, writing and conversation, he told reporters at the Academy Awards in 2007.

For some moviegoers or directors, Abigail is frozen in time as little Olive from "Sunshine," a role she tackled at age 9. In fact, "August: Osage County" director John Wells thought of her that way but said, "When she walked through the door as a 15-year-old to audition for the part, she was just perfect."

Asked about this disconnect, the teen said, "Sometimes before people meet me, they might assume that I'm younger than I am. The joke between me and my friends is that, for the past three years, every single article that's been written about me has said 'all grown up.' "

With no shortage of roles at her disposal -- in 2013 alone, she also played a kidnapping victim in "The Call" and the compassionate sister of the gifted Ender Wiggin in the sci-fi adventure "Ender's Game" -- Abigail is thinking about college.

"Possibly. I haven't ruled anything out," she said, although if she enrolled she might major in psychology. She could write a doctoral dissertation on crazy cinematic clans.

Unlike some of her co-stars, who also include Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson and Sam Shepard, Abigail had not seen "August: Osage County" on stage. The play premiered in June 2007 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and opened on Broadway in December of that year.

Charles Isherwood wrote in The New York Times, "All happy families are alike, Tolstoy told us, and each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. I'd bet the farm that no family has ever been as unhappy in as many ways -- and to such sensationally entertaining effect -- as the Westons of 'August: Osage County,' the new play by Tracy Letts that blazed open last night at the Imperial Theater."

It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and a Tony Award for best play but, as usual, the stage production (3 hours, 20 minutes) had to be trimmed for the screen.

"Nothing too drastic in my character was changed," said Abigail. "She's still very much the same girl that she was in the play."

Jean is 14 years old but desperate to be treated as though she were older, which may account for the smoking, for starters. She arrives at her maternal grandparents' home in Oklahoma under the watchful eyes of her parents.

"She wants to be kind of in control of every situation she's in, and she wants to be taken seriously and taken as an adult, but she's only 14. It's kind of a weird age where you're expected to be mature but you're not allowed to do anything that requires maturity. So she's going through a tough time," Abigail said.

"She's very angry at her parents -- mostly at her mom because it's easier for her to just be angry at her mom than to be angry at her dad. She's going through a pretty weird time in life, but I think at the end of the day, there's still hope for her, which I like."

During filming some 45 miles from Tulsa, the cast almost lived communally, Mr. Cooper told a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie had its world premiere last September.

"Hotel accommodations were hard to come by, so, God bless 'em, they found these newly finished condos, and everybody was right next door to each other and running into each other every day and we'd have potluck dinners. People would bring things, primarily over to Meryl's apartment. She was such a sweetheart," Mr. Cooper said.

The actors watched the 2012 presidential debates, tracked Superstorm Sandy in New York, where some of them live, and cultivated the feel of a family, especially when rehearsing for an extended dinner scene, a centerpiece of stage and movie.

Jean, for one, wants no part of the meat being served. "When you eat meat, you ingest an animal's fear," she explains, although someone mistakenly thinks she's said "fur" instead of fear. The body goes through a chemical process when it experiences fear, she adds in the conversational crosscurrents.

"I think it's Jean trying to seem like she knows a lot about that kind of stuff," Abigail says, although the actress once was a vegetarian so she can appreciate the sentiment.

Abigail, joined by her mother on location, had never been to that part of the country and called the area beautiful, "but it is definitely a big change from living in New York City." That's where she was headed in late December to spend the holidays with her family.

The prospect of acting opposite Ms. Streep and Ms. Roberts -- between them, 20 Oscar nominations (a figure likely to climb to 22) and four wins -- had been daunting.

"It was terrifying. It was terrifying, definitely. It was really scary going in on the first day, but then, once I got there and everybody was so, so nice to me, it was very comforting. ... Not to sound lame, but it was definitely a dream come true."

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.


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