The ensemble cast of Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” is a hurricane of talent, from the palpable fury of Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley to the conflicted sadness of Michelle McLeod and Kate Hallett. However, no one is perhaps more awed by his simplicity and grace than Judith Ivy. The long-time stage and screen actor delivers a career-best performance.
As one of two matriarchs ravaged by drugs and rape at the hands of their own men in a Mennonite colony, Ivey navigates a violent and devastating betrayal with the perspective and empathy of a seasoned diplomat — without ever being cloying or, worse, in denial.
diversity recently sat down with Ivey to discuss Polly’s landmark film, the challenges of working with such intense source material for female actors, and how your line is the best acting tool.
How often does a part like this come up for you as an actor?
Judith Ivey: Unfortunately not often enough. This is an amazing role. I have never seen a movie like this. This character is kind of the glue of his community. That’s a pretty powerful place to be in a story.
Have you had any fears about this disturbing content, especially as it relates to sexual harassment?
No, it’s time. It’s time to get it out there and get people thinking about it. What is unique is the way this community looks, the way they dress and do their hair and the way they live. You may think, ‘I have nothing in common with these people.’ But very quickly you discover how similar the experience is. It’s sad, but the fact that these women live this way in 2008, you’re constantly reminded that these problems and these tortures these women went through didn’t happen in 1894. It is now. We certainly have a parallel to this, which has come to light in the last 3-4 years.
Agatha has high emotional intelligence and patience. He often prays and sympathizes. Where does his grace come from?
When I read the script it was one of the themes that I took to the most and that was forgiveness. These women are told that if they forgive their abusers and let life go on, they will be accepted into heaven. It is emotional blackmail. But there is something to be said about forgiveness. This is important so that we can move forward, and not turn it into a death sentence. This is the great controversy surrounding the Capitol Punishment. Can you forgive me? This is the center of Agata. How can we overcome it?
I discovered a little back story for Agatha that isn’t in the movie or the book. What was his past? I think he probably befriended members of the community who were excommunicated, because they shared the same views and questions. At one point, I asked Sarah if she thought Agat’s husband, who is dead and not in the picture, was someone who asked the big question. Perhaps he was more enlightened than these other men. This scene hates someone who says, ‘No. We have to talk about this.’ And in the process these women unwittingly create democracy. Everyone gets a vote.
I think you see Agatha’s compassion in her daughter Ona (Rooney Mara). As a woman giving this performance, do you ever underestimate the patience and grace that Agata always maintains?
If Judy was in the movie, I would break shit. I had to act, so I found a quiet place.
What did you do on set to get to that quiet place?
It was such a beautiful script, it was all. And Sarah is a wonderful director. He kept his eyes on me, because I am not Agata. Whenever there was a more animated or inspired response from me, most of the notes he gave me were, ‘You can just say the lines.’ Agatha is a straightforward woman in control of her emotions. He is gracious. It was always, ‘Judy – just say it.’
Sarah mentions that she has professionals on hand for cast and crew, in case something gets too intense and people need to talk. How does that play out?
Well, I thought it was very caring and respectful of what could happen. That being said, let’s anticipate it and not wait until we have a play that we don’t know what to do with. Because Sarah was an actor, especially a child actor, she went through some things and earned from them. That’s how he can be so protective of everyone, but of course the young actors for many of whom it was their first movie. These young actors feel protected and safe, I hear them say. The film has a wonderful way of looking not only at empowering and honoring women, but at all, it asks, what is faith? What is democracy? If the vote is taken away, is it democracy? That is what is happening in our country now. If we don’t get it right, we all lose.
You’ve had such a long and varied career. I can’t leave you without mentioning one of my favorite movies, “Hello Again” with you and Shelley Long.
Oh, I love that movie. Don’t you wish they could do more these days?
You also did two seasons of “Designing Women”?
t was a season. It was the last one! But it was such a joy.
It’s amazing to see actors like you and Gene Smart doing career-best work right now.
Here’s a little trivia — we did a Broadway show called “Piaf.” She played Marlena Dietrich and I played Piaf once a week. The remaining seven times I was the secretary. After that, the rest is history, she moved on to “Designing Women”. I wish he had been around when I was on. It will be an amazing reunion.
“Woman Talking” opens in select theaters on Dec. 23