Q&A: A Chat with Robin Weigert, This Year’s Festival Breakthrough

Director Stacie Passon and actress Robin Weigert at the premiere of Concussion.

Eric Hynes

Every Sundance Film Festival introduces the world to a new crop of filmmaking talent, with previously unknown directors and performers becoming Sundance-approved sensations overnight—or at least over 10 swift January nights. But not every one of those artists fits the cliché about the prodigious first-timer, or about the 20-something It girl of the year. In fact, one of this year’s great breakout performances comes courtesy of a TV and stage veteran, a 43-year-old actress whose work in the likes of Deadwood and Sons of Anarchy won her admirers but few high profile roles to date.

That seems destined to change after her alarmingly appealing turn in Concussion, a U.S. Dramatic Competition film in which she plays Abby, a suburban mom whose sexual restlessness leads to her becoming—unbeknownst to her adoring but physically remote wife—a high-class, highly sought-after call girl. Physically bold, emotionally mercurial, and utterly singular, Robin Weigert is a revelation in Concussion. Right before the Festival began—just a few days before decades of hard work were about to pay off “overnight”—she talked to us about the film, collaborating with director Stacie Passon, and the apparent epistolary misogyny of Sigmund Freud

When I spoke to your director, Stacie Passon, she recounted that a seemingly secondary detail about your character’s dedication to physical fitness prompted you to start an ambitious workout and diet regimen, and that you showed up on set as a lean, mean, zero-body-weight machine.

I had a window that you almost never have before you work on a project—I had a full three months, so I thought I should use it. It was a bit of a self-punishing thing, and though it obviously changed my body, it also changed my feeling state in a way. It kind of leveled everything out—there was none of the usual ups and downs of the day, and it gave a sort of flatness to the landscape. And that entered into Abby, that sense that she was on a treadmill in a metaphorical sense. Pushing herself and pushing herself towards what she doesn’t really know anymore.

One of the things that I love about Concussion is how nonjudgmental it is toward Abby, no mater how misguided or worrisome her actions become.

There was just no place for that anywhere. You can’t help but get lost inside of the subjectivity of the protagonist. You can’t really stand outside of it and judge her.

Often actors are looking for the center in their characters, but Abby doesn’t really have a center. Were you being more intuitive than you would normally be?

Anybody who’s in a period of change has a sort of surreal relationship to herself. There starts to be something seismic that goes on, these eruptions, which are expressed in some of the sex scenes—little journeys down this and that avenue. Because there’s so much mirroring in those sexual liaisons she gets into, she could be looking into her own face as a chubby teenager or as a sad older woman.

She’s reaching out through her acting out, and going down more wrong alleys than right alleys in that process of discovery. And the place that is home, the place of true intimacy, she can’t get what she needs. She keeps trying to get water from a stone, and those scenes are very painful. That’s extremely recognizable—to love each other so much but there’s this impossible divide. What then do you do?

There’s something very gratifying to see something like that dramatized, the intricacy of those truths.

All of that stuff on Stacie’s part is extremely well observed. I was struck by how sophisticated an understanding she has of these things that most people don’t dare talk about. It sort of goes right in there, to the eye of the storm. It’s a very brave script.

There’s also something still shocking, or I should say shocking in that it’s shocking, to see female desire and pleasure being portrayed this way.

It’s funny because as it happens I come from a line of psychoanalysts—my father and my grandmother. The only letter that still exists that was written by Sigmund Freud to my grandmother was a letter in which he claimed that the libido was essentially male, and that she was wrong to say that it was also female. [Laughs] So it’s interesting that a few generations later I would be doing something like this. Because libido is absolutely not just a male [phenomenon].

But it’s true that when a woman has an appetite she’s usually portrayed as sinister or almost like an action figure–type person. You don’t see it as a vital, intense, human need. Women are objects, still, so much of the time in cinema. So it was challenging to play in those waters. It felt new, and felt therefore scary. But I think it’s one of the reasons why I so wanted to do the movie, ultimately. I couldn’t let go of it. I got somewhat possessed by it. And one of the reasons is that this is just not done. And it was what I felt needed to be done.

It feels like a stake in the ground somehow. Revolutionary, even though it shouldn’t have to be. Did you feel at all that you were in control during the sex scenes, that you were the one that needed to take care of the revolving door of co-star conquests?

I watched various movies in preparation for the film, like Belle de Jour and American Gigolo and such—anything where somebody had played a prostitute and did something interesting with it. Then on set, each time I encountered one of these actresses—and sometimes they would only show up for that scene, because they were just tricks, without a lot of storyline—I felt like it was my job to make her feel beautiful, and open and desirable and available, and I was like, my god: that’s what gigolos need to do.

It’s not the same as what a prostitute does, which is to present herself as an object and try to be as desirable as possible and have things done to her. It’s more like the intimate psychology of trying to open the woman up to herself. So that was a fascinating bit of reversal. In order to save it from feeling literally and figuratively, wham, bam, thank you, ma’am, there had to be this fast work of making it comfortable—I was the actress doing that and the character doing that.

Is there any way to compare this to anything you’ve done before? It would seem to be nothing like your TV work, for example.

This was nothing like anything that’s been asked of me before. The big difference here was that I was inhabiting a somewhat different body and a somewhat different chemistry. And I had to give myself blindly over to someone who I hadn’t known before the experience. It’s like being on a really interesting cliff. Just out there.

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