Julie Taymor: ‘The Glorias’

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Julie Taymor. Photo by Annie Lebovitz, courtesy of Taymor.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis Mitchell welcomes Tony-winning director of theater and film Julie Taymor to discuss her newest feature ‘The Glorias.’ The film tells the story of the iconic activist Gloria Steinem in her early years, as four actresses portray her at different stages of her life. Taymor previously directed films including ‘Titus,’ ‘Frida,’ and ‘Across The Universe’ and won a Tony Award for ‘The Lion King.’ Mitchell and Taymor discuss the enduring relevance of her films that chart the stories of political movements and how she uses the fantastical elements of her film to express the emotion of the story and relationships.


Transcribed Q and A

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. It's always good to have old friends of the show on, and I first had director Julie Taymor on in 1999 for her film adaptation of 'Titus,' a film that becomes more and more relevant as time goes on. Her newest project is the film 'The Glorias,' which she co-wrote and directed.  And I guess we've got to talk about 'Titus' a little bit because it couldn't feel more potent than it does right now.

Julie Taymor: Well, you know, you there was great hope back in 1999 when we did it, that as we ushered in a new millennium, we would have less violence. And, guess what? Human beings don't change, do they? With all the information, all the knowledge, all the openness, they seem to not listen to their greater angels.

KCRW: People were shocked by it, I remember, and it's kind of amazing now how it really stood the test of time, and I watched it again, preparing for this. First of all, Harry is so terrific in it.

Taymor: You should put that out there because it's one of the greatest performances and Anthony Hopkins noted that he thought Harry was astounding as I did. 

KCRW: What we're talking about now is reminding people what a terrific actor Harry Lennix is. I find myself thinking about what you do, as a creative person. And it really sort of dovetails into 'The Glorias.' Between 'Frida,' 'Across the Universe,' and now 'The Glorias,' these are three films about people kind of raised by their era who then rebel against the era.

Taymor: You're right. That's a good point. I guess I like rebellion. Can't let things just stay the same.

KCRW: At some point for all these people in these films, these protagonists, they break from what's going on around them because it literally doesn't make sense to them. I mean, it's as if they've all in some way been transported from the future into the past, and they just kind of go, "no, this isn't the way things should be."

Taymor: Well, I think in 'Across The Universe,' Lucy was amongst many people who rebelled against the Vietnam War and war in general. So she was part of a movement, and I think what you get in 'The Glorias' is that the women in the film, not just Gloria Steinem, but all the women: the women of color; Flo Kennedy, Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Bella Abzug, because back then being Jewish was a woman of color. Probably still is in many societies. Wilma Mankiller and Dolores Huerta; I wouldn't say Dolores as much in the feminist movement, but as a radical, as an activist and as a changer of the status quo of her culture, she was really there. She was an equal partner with Cesar Chavez and not recognized enough by the way; si se puede as her cry to arms. Yes, we can. And Obama acknowledged that he got it from Dolores Huerta. 

Now, I think that those women were definitely out front. And they were the second wave of feminism. So there had already been a wave to get the vote. We've seen movies about suffragettes over and over and over again, whether they're documentaries or features, but no one had ever done a feature film on this time in America with this angle, because remember, 'Across The Universe' is almost the same time; it's the 60s. But it was much more about anti-war. I love when Flo Kennedy says sexism and racism are intertwined and cannot be torn apart. So this one is about feminism and sexism and equal rights for women and choice. I mean, my god, what is on the chopping block coming up right now, a week after November's election if they get this Supreme Court Justice in there is terrifying because you'll see in the movie how much went into getting Roe v Wade. You know how much time and how much work on the Equal Rights Amendment and on all kinds of issues that are still on the front burner today.

KCRW: We can say there's a movement that takes place around Frida in 'Frida' and certainly a movement around Gloria in this film as well. But this really is about these characters who basically find like-minded people, basically people looking for fellow travelers and once they find them, they find this tribe that is like them. And in each case, in the second act, the pace of the film changes; it accelerates.

Taymor: Oh, well, I think the whole point is that even with 'Frida' and Lucy in 'Across the Universe' and Gloria Steinem, in the first part of their lives, they are finding their voice. All of them. Frida had to find out: is she a painter, before she was recognized which took her whole life, really and her whole life ended at age 47. So that's not very long, is it? But for Lucy, it was Max, her brother, going to war and coming home wounded, and seeing all the other nonsense and crap that went on with the Vietnam War that catapulted her into being an activist. And yes, once you sign on for the mission, it does have a momentum with you; you don't get off that track. 

And even in 'The Glorias,' when she's 50, she feels like she's on a treadmill and can't get off the track. But it keeps the momentum going, because she's not going to get off that treadmill. It's just a feeling she has sometimes, which is, are we there yet? You know, the little girl says, "are we there yet?" How many times does she have to go to Washington, DC and do a march for Martin Luther King, for civil rights in 1963. And many, many other marches right up to 2016, January, with the Women's March.

KCRW: As much as these films are about these characters, they're also, to me, movies that are biographies of movements, which I think is unusual. And as much as these pieces are about the characters, they're also kind of about the psychology of these movements, which is what draws so many different disparate kinds of people together, looking to make the same kind of changes in the first place. There's something Shakespearean, in that sort of way that an enormous group of characters get together to basically help us understand who the protagonist is. 

Taymor: Well, anything Shakespearean is good in my world. I love Shakespeare. He is forever contemporary. And so when you say that 'Titus' is more resonant today, it just is forever resonant. It depends on how you do it. Of course, you can make it into a grand you know, piece of fluff, just raw entertainment, gratuitous violence. But that's not what I got out of the script of the play that I did on the stage

I think the thing that all of them have, hopefully, and I know that Gloria feels this about the film, is true emotion. You know, what's important to me is: yes, they're all the symbols of the movement and the time periods and the events, and the color and the details of the movements. But in all of them, there are relationships that are critical, because I've always said that 'Frida' was really more about the love story than about her rebellion, or her painting or her politics. It was really about a love story between Diego and Frida. And I think the same about 'Across the Universe.' It's a rocky love affair. Now one of the reasons it's rocky is because of people's values. That Jude just doesn't share the kind of militant reaction to what's going on. He can't; he's English, he's there, when he comes back, illegally. But he also isn't going to fight in the war because he's not American and will not be drafted. And he's also about individual freedom, and she's really about larger issues. 

So you get to talk about these movements, but through the relationships that are so meaningful, and in 'The Glorias,' you go from an incredible family. I love her early life. That's a big part of why I did it. And Gloria says that's the part that really got her because we see Gloria Steinem from about age 40 on, so Julianne Moore represents the Gloria who found her voice, who founded Ms. magazine with a number of other incredible women, editors and writers who joined together because they couldn't get their writing published. So we recognize the glasses, the streaked hair, the tone of voice.  That's the Gloria, the icon that people are most familiar with, but why I wanted to do the movie was: how do you get there? What's the journey to becoming a person who can go out and speak to thousands of people at once?

She had no self confidence as you see in this film. She wanted to be a dancer, not speak at all. And, you watch her go through the stages of not being able not to speak, from her journeys to India, where she learned about the talking circles through followers of Gandhi, who are trying to help villagers with caste riots. Caste riots in India, are the systemic racism of India. And these people are brutalized by other castes and raped and beaten and their farmland is burned. And she went on these journeys, that Gandhi took on these third class trains with women for two years and learned how grassroots activism really can do something.

KCRW: So often in these films that you do, there's this kind of accretion of information for the protagonists, and what you're talking about in India, but also, that devastating moment, with her finding out about her mother being a writer, not being able to literally use your own voice. It becomes almost like this kind of emotional procedural, when you're building up all these pieces of information that help us understand who these people are.

Taymor: Her whole life, Gloria, when she was interviewed, especially by male interviewers, ask "are you married yet?" You know what I mean? Or no children yet? You know, think about yourself, Elvis, how many people say to you, are you married yet? 

KCRW: What I like so much about this movie is that it really speaks to your ability to act as both an artist and a kind of a curator, where you cull these moments and really offer kind of a collage of mixed media to tell the story.

Taymor: Well, because I do theater, opera and film, I find in each of those mediums, what they do best. For me the possibility of using the tools of animation, hand-painted animation, 3D animation and CGI to go into different levels, different states of reality. So yes, I think 'The Glorias,' like 'Across the Universe,' and more than 'Across the Universe' and 'Frida' because I also use documentary footage, archival footage a lot, you have a real reality in the archival. Then you have dramatic reality which is through the fabulous actors Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore, Bette Midler, Janelle Monae, Lorraine Toussant, those fabulous actresses. And then you have an inner reality, which is definitely something that is natural to me. I don't force it on anything. It's the way I think. 

For instance, the young 12-year old Gloria wants to be a tap dancer and dreams of Hollywood. So what better thing to do in her darkest moment when her mother has sent out the police to find her because her mother's out of her mind and thinks that she's been absconded by the Nazis. She's just gone out to a barber shop where she's tap dancing with her new friend. And the police take her home through these really dark neighborhoods of East Toledo at the time because she had no money and was living in these environments. And she looks out the window and sees her whole neighborhood turned into Hollywood, the Golden 30s of Hollywood. You know, with the lights, it's almost like gingerbread houses happen, and I remember my Hansel and Gretel days, you know, gingerbread houses and the lights and the sounds. I love the sound score there and Elliott's music coming in. And then you see Fred Astaire jumping off of a marquee and landing on the window of her car, which is also the bus that's traveling, and I mixed black and white and color. And then quickly, as she arrives at her home in the neighborhood, it all disappears, and she's got a nasty flashlight on her face and her mother screaming at her. 

Then you have the treadmill I talked about which ends up being an Escher-like painting of seven or eight highways and Gloria Steinem, seven or eight of her running in her red shoes, which refers obviously to the red shoes of the Michael Powell film and the Wizard of Oz, the ruby slippers. So I like to play with these images as black and white, but the yellow dashed line and the red shoes, they conjure up memories, and because it's a road picture, of course, I use that road over and over again. So it's what she's feeling. I have to externalize. That's what I do as a filmmaker. That's what we're free to do. We just don't stick a camera on what we call naturalism or reality. I did it in Titus. I've done it in pretty much every film I've done.

KCRW: The thing that connects everything, theater and film for you is sound. And I'm so aware of the way you use sound in this movie. It's really to get emotional points across. The sequence you were talking about, which, we should also note, starts off with her tap dancing with a person of color, which was a radical thing to have done in that period. And then to be swept into that incredible thing you were talking about, I was very aware of the way you use sound there, too. And you're also using sound as telegraphing to us the emotional states of the characters.

Taymor: Paul Hsu put together that sound montage for the sequence outside her window that reflects in her head. We did that tap dancing sequence in the African American barbershop. It was a real barbershop. It was in Savannah, that was an amazing neighborhood that we used for East Toledo. And the little girl we found had never acted before. And she's just amongst many that we auditioned all over the country for that, because she had to be a superb tap dancer, but also feel real and be able to improvise. So I rehearsed with Lulu Wilson, who plays the 12-year-old Gloria, who had never tapped before, so she had to take some lessons. But Gloria was never a great tap dancer. Sorry, Gloria, but she knows that. That's why she went into journalism. But this other little girl brings her home with her to her daddy's barbershop. 

And you're right. At that time in the early 40s: impossible. But this is the thing about Gloria:  from an early age, she crossed over racial boundaries. She went right in; she did it her whole life. That's why going to India, being on the third class trains with those Indian women talking about babies and life and Gandhi. She's amazing and she was absolutely equal partners with Flo Kennedy and Dorothy Pittman Hughes on the road when they would give speaking engagements. 

Now, whether our society picks out the white woman with the glasses and the blonde streaks to be the cover of Newsweek, remember what she says when she's called up and the editor says they want you for the cover of Newsweek. And Gloria says, No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, I won't do a cover. But they won't do the article about the women's movement if you don't. She says a movement is lots of people moving. It's not one woman. It's not one white woman. But that is Gloria. So what happens? Newsweek sends out a photographer to one of her rallies when she's giving a speech and he does a telephoto and boom, she's the cover against her will. She's the cover of Newsweek, which of course, gets other comrades angry. And, you know, that's not who Gloria is. Gloria never looked for being out front. She's like the opposite of Trump, dare I say? Really her style and her way, her soft, powerful nature.

KCRW: I really think of it now as a trilogy between 'Frida' and 'Across The Universe' and 'The Glorias.’ They are really about the biography of a movement. They're certainly about the protagonists in these cases, but you're attracted to these things, because they're as much about these periods, these periods where people are kind of raised by the time, and then they decide how they want to plant their flag during that time. They feel like they're almost made of the same DNA in some ways.

Taymor: Well, it's interesting that you put it like “plant a flag,” because I understand it's expedient to say it, but that's not really what the aim is at all. It's more what you started to say, which is the times demand that they speak out, or they act. They don't intentionally go out there to plant a flag. They just can't do otherwise. And you see that happening with Gloria when she's a young journalist at The New York Times or or even at New York Magazine, the lack of understanding of the editors of what's going on with women. It forces her; she has no choice but to become a speaker because they won't publish the stories that she wants to write. 

So you know, the one about abortion, she goes to that very famous first abortion speak-out in Washington Square Methodist Church in New York City. And she's utterly shocked by these women talking about these really rough stories and one in particular, where a young high school girl uses a coat hanger, because she's afraid her parents will get mad at her if she has an abortion and has to pay money. And of course, she dies. Now, if you grew up in those times, you know these stories, but young women now don't know these stories. They take for granted the freedom that they've had for choice. 

That's what I really loved about doing this movie was watching the evolution of this very famous woman now, what people say as an icon. I don't see her as an icon because to me, she's so flesh and blood and living in with all of her funny things and her fears. I tried to show some of those. I think my style, that's another thing that I like to talk about, because people are aware that I use these various levels of reality and fantasy and flights of fancy or another level of reality, to expose what is going on inside. So for instance, when Gloria is invited to give the homily at the St. Joan of Arc church in Minneapolis by Father Egan, she's going to talk about choice in a Catholic Church. Okay? All right? So she's on her way in a taxi and arrives in Minneapolis at the church and lo and behold, she's surrounded by hundreds of protesters. They weren't called right to lifers then but basically anti abortion protesters with signs and screaming and beating on her window: “Steinem is a baby killer.” So because I set up this film with four Glorias: a six-year old, a 12-year old, the 20 to 40, the 40 to 80, at this point in her life, it's Julianne Moore, who's already created this magazine in her early 40s, with her comrades. And I decided that I would place the six year old in the taxi, so that you would see that really what she's feeling is a wall terror. And also, as they beat on the door, I wanted you to see the vulnerable part of Gloria that is impossible to see because of her serene exterior, and her ability to stay calm. So you see that for a moment, but when the police open the car door, who steps out, but Julianne Moore, as Gloria, composed and able to give this speech, but now we, as the audience, have lived through the terror. 

And a number of times I allowed these actresses, different ages, to hop into each other scenes, and always for a reason. I mean, I don't do any of my stylized effects for anything but a reason. Sometimes they come out of necessity. In 'Frida,' not the paintings coming alive because that was part of the autobiography. It's sort of the subjective experience of an objective story. But, in this one, I wanted to get to the layers of what's behind that face. What is she really thinking when that TV interviewer says, “Do you mind if I call you a very stunning sex object?” Well, the Alicia-Gloria can't say anything. She's so gobsmacked at his, what he's saying to her on television. But lo and behold, there's Julianne Moore, who's finally found her voice, who very kindly says, "Well, this is my uniform. It's more comfortable than yours."

KCRW: Connecting 'Frida' and the 'Glorias' and just this incredible group of people and finding actors. And first of all, Lorraine Toussaint is one of my favorites, and getting to see her play Flo Kennedy is just thrilling. Like Harry, because they're actors of color and, still in the 21st century here, never get a chance to do these kinds of pieces. But then there's Bella Abzug played by Bette Midler. Also, that wild group you got in 'Frida,' there's Fred Molina as Diego Rivera and Geoffrey Rush's Trotsky.

Taymor: Antonio Banderas, Ashley Judd.

KCRW: What is it you like about bringing these people who can almost be stamped on coins to life? 

Taymor: Well, the only one that was very different was when I did 'Across the Universe.’ Joe Roth, who was a producer, said, you don't have to have any stars in the six lead characters. And that was wonderful because Evan Rachel Wood wasn't known then. She was 17 years old, just turning 18, and she'd only done the movie 'Thirteen.' But I discovered Jim Sturgess and Joe Anderson and then Martin Luther and Dana Fuchs, who were singers not actors. And I think it's great for the film. But if they were stars, of course, it would have been seen more and the studio would have pushed it more. So you know, it's a double edged sword. 

When I did 'Frida,' it was demanded of me that I use stars in a way, not all characters, but there's no problem because Edward Norton was Salma's partner at the time. And he wrote co-wrote the script, and he was perfect to play Rockefeller. And I put in little cameos like Bono and Eddie Izzard and Salma and Joe Cocker, who is so incredible in ‘Across the Universe.’

KCRW: Harry Lennix, too.

Taymor: Oh, Harry said to me after 'Titus' that he had to be in every film of mine. So I asked him to be in The Glorias,’ but just to come down and dance. So he got me his friend to be in the scene where she turns 50, just to be representative of one of her major boyfriends, so he didn't do this one. But he's done a lot of them. And then I was so lucky to have Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange and Alan Cummings in addition to Harry in 'Titus.' And how about Helen Mirren? I mean, my cast of 'The Tempest' is astounding. And again, I didn't discover Felicity Jones, but I put her in her first American film.

KCRW: You got Felicity Jones. You got Tom Conti and Alan Cumming and again, Fred Molina, and Rusell Brand, who gives an amazing performance in the movie.

Taymor: I think Russell's terrific is Trinculo because he is a court jester. A court jester is a commentator on society through humor. And that's what Russell is. So I didn't think it was a stretch for him. And he was so happy to be partnering with a true, as he said, thespian, Alfred Molina.



Rebecca Mooney