Robin Wright is an actress of remarkable range, having wowed us as the dazzling Buttercup in The Princess Bride, the vulnerable Jenny in Forrest Gump and icy Claire Underwood in House of Cards, which won her a Golden Globe.
Her new film, opening in theaters today, showcases Wright as lead actor and director of what feels like a testament for our times. For those suffering the worst of the pandemic, grief is the air they breathe. In Land, grief is the river that runs through it.
Grief is the force that allows Wright — born in North Texas 54 years ago — to plumb the emotional depths of a woman suffering a truly horrific loss. As director, Wright brought to the project an impressive history. She directed 10 episodes of House of Cards before it ended in 2018 and multiple episodes of the upcoming season of another Netflix staple, Ozark.
Dual assignments forced Wright to navigate not only the on-screen drama but also the real-life perils of filming Land. Set in the remote mountain wilderness of Wyoming, most of Land was shot even farther north, on Moose Mountain in Alberta, Canada. This is not a film that relies on fakery. The snow, the biting cold and killer wind turned out to be all too real. As are the emotions that Wright and her cast display in a searing portrait of death and rebirth. (Land emerged Thursday as a New York Times Critic’s Pick.)
“Obstacles is a good word,” she says with a laugh. “We had 29 days to shoot this movie. We started shooting it in mid-September [of 2019]. But we weren’t hopeful that we were going to get, quote, ‘winter.’ We thought we would have to come back in January and do additional photography, et cetera, to catch that season.
“We started shooting and had maybe two days of summer weather where it was green, the flowers were out, and we were able to get all of the summer footage. And then out of the blue, winter came. And just dumped 4 feet of snow. So, we missed autumn.
“We had to redo our schedule every day because of the unpredictable weather.”
It was, she says, “wicked and scary. We had to shut down sometimes, because the winds, the Chinooks, were so strong.”
And yet, it served as a perfect counterpoint to the story, which doesn’t shy from grief. Rather, it embraces it.
“I keep going to the word resilience,” Wright says. “Everybody is feeling the need for human resilience right now, especially this last year. That is about being open to something new, and this is a story about one woman’s journey through her grief, reaching resilience with the kindness of another human being that allows her to have faith again. And then there’s a rebirth, and that’s the empowering feeling you get at the end of this story, how uplifting it is, how we can get through adversity. But it generally takes somebody else who guides you through it.”
The somebody who helps her through it is Miguel, played by Demián Bichir, a Mexico City-born actor whose performance illuminates Wright’s prowess as a director.
“He is an incredible thespian,” she says. “He grew up in an acting family, renowned actors in Mexico, his mother and father. I had seen him in the movie A Better Life, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. Then I saw him in The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino’s movie, and I was on the floor in hysterics. I thought, ‘This guy is hysterically funny.’ He’s violent in the movie, and he’s fully comedic. And I thought, ‘What a range! He’s so underrated. I want to see more of this actor.’ "
He read the script, drove to Wright’s house and proclaimed, “I need to do this movie,” to which she replied, “Good, because I want no one else but you.” Bichir, his director says, “has had his own personal experience with grief, in the same way” as his character and hers. “He said, ‘I need to do this, for my soul. I understand completely who this character is to Edee [Wright’s character]. Because this is what happened to me in my life.’ ”
At one point in Land, Edee asks Miguel why he’s helping her. “You were in my path” is his sweetly simple reply.
Wright loves how Land revels in “the beautiful side of humanity. We need that message out there with all the ugliness that we’ve been witnessing and having to endure the last four years.”
Speaking of the last four years, I share with Wright my first impressions of House of Cards, which, back in 2013, lured us in, introducing us to the term binge-watching, but in the end left us thinking, “Well, yes, that was interesting, but way too bizarre to be real.”
But by the time it ended six seasons later, it felt entirely too real. So, in the end, was House of Cards ... prophetic?
“Yes!” she says resoundingly. “That is exactly the word. I don’t think any of us thought it would be to the degree that it was. We literally had to rewrite episodes because he [former President Donald J. Trump] was stealing our ideas.”
The shooting for each season of House of Cards wrapped up a year before its release on Netflix, “so we would shoot an episode — scenes of such lunacy, as incredulous and operatic as that show was — and he [Trump] would top us! And we would have to go and re-shoot a different scene and try to top him and then say to ourselves, ‘What could be worse than that?’ ”
In Land, Wright so inhabits the soul of a woman whose pain appears boundless that it makes one wonder: Has she suffered a loss as deep as Edee’s in Land?
“It wasn’t so much needing to have had that exact experience. We’ve all experienced trauma in our own way. The reason I wanted to make the movie and the reason it resonated so deeply with me is that I received it about three years ago, when we were all witnessing these random shootings. And it kept increasing. I read the script, and I said, ‘We need this message.’ Because it is so empowering in the end. It is what people want. They want to know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, that we’re going to get through this, and we need each other. We need human connection.”
In the end, she says, “You’re not alone. You don’t have to be alone.”
IMDb and other biographical sources list Wright’s birthplace as Dallas. So, of course, I felt compelled to ask: “Were you born in Dallas?”
“At the Fort Worth hospital,” she says.
So, you were born in Fort Worth?
“Yes,” she says, making me wonder if I need to tell the internet to make a correction.
Wright and her family left North Texas and moved to Louisiana before settling in California when she was “three or four.” She graduated from La Jolla High School in San Diego, whose notable alumni include fellow award-winning actors Raquel Welch and Cliff Robertson.
“My entire extended family live in Texas and Louisiana still,” Wright says. “We visit all the time.”
Wright is the mother of two grown children, whose father is her former husband, Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn. And just as Edee in Land benefits from someone who serves as a guardian angel on her odyssey of grief, Wright has played a similar role.
She’s a good friend of Dallas resident Leslie Lanahan, who in 2004 suffered the death of her son, Gordie Bailey. He was an incoming freshman at the University of Colorado. As part of a hazing ritual, he and other fraternity pledges were taken to the top of a mountain and forced to drink large amounts of alcohol. Back at the fraternity house, Gordie passed out and never woke up.
He died of alcohol poisoning.
Leslie and her husband, Dallas businessman Michael Lanahan, launched The Gordie Foundation, whose mission is “to provide today’s young people with the skills to navigate the dangers of alcohol, binge drinking, peer pressure and hazing.”
Wright is the honorary spokeswoman for The Gordie Foundation and a vital part of the community, says Leslie Lanahan, that helped her with her grief. In other words, Wright was there, because her Dallas friend was in her path.
“Robin just has a really big heart, and she just thought the story” — Gordie’s story — “was outrageous. She was so sweet. She offered to do the intro to our movie, Haze, our documentary about Gordie. She does a minute and a half intro and says she’s a mom, and this is a story that needs to be told. At the time, everybody knew her as Jenny from Forrest Gump, so it really gave it some credibility. She was so dear to do that for us.”
Which brings us to Land, yet another story of grief and loss, in our immersive age of grief and loss. So many movies nowadays are full of noise and mayhem and puerile effects, and Land, refreshingly, has none of that.
It is calming, soulful, disarmingly introspective. “And I,” Wright says, “wanted all of those wonderful adjectives. They encompass the quiet of this story. It’s very spare with its words in dialogue, so that you can feel the emotion, you can feel the connection, you can feel the bond between people.”
And most of all, she says, it carries a message we all need to hear — never more so than in 2021.