Brothers: Jim Sheridan’s Drama, Starring Gyllenhaal, Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman

“Brothers,” directed by Jim Sheridan, stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Tobey Maguire, and Natalie Portman.

The promise of working with Sheridan on a character drama attracted A-list ensemble.

Gyllenhaal Jumps Onboard

Jake Gyllenhaal was the first to sign on, taking the role of black sheep brother Tommy. “I wanted to work with Jim very much, and I wanted to work with him on a character that was a little different from what I’d played before,” the actor explains.  “Tommy has grown up in Sam’s shadow, and he feels that he’s not loved.  He’s angry and closed-off.  And through horrible circumstances, his heart is awoken in the most innocent way.”

Tobey Maguire Intrigued by Sam

Tobey Maguire had been intrigued by the character of older brother Sam Cahill since reading an early version of the BROTHERS script.  Maguire sees Sam’s military career as the choice of a serious man accustomed to responsibility and desirous of stability.  “Probably because of family dynamics, Sam gets almost a sense of security from being in the military,” reflects Maguire.  “Sam lost his mom as a kid, and his dad came back from Vietnam with his own emotional wounds.  Sam definitely took care of his brother after their mom died, and perhaps felt like he was another parent to Tommy.”

Maguire researched his role by visiting California’s Camp Pendleton and New Mexico’s Army National Guard.  As he describes the training exercises, “It was never looking at the guy next to you trying to get a half-step ahead. It was always looking at the guy next to you going, `C’mon, let’s go. We got this, we can do it.’  Which of course makes sense — every man and woman is part of a team.  I was just really impressed.  It felt like a big net of all these people taking care of each other.”

Sam has flourished in the Marines and in his marriage, fulfilling his designated role as the Cahill golden boy.  But when Sam is taken prisoner with another soldier in Afghanistan, he loses virtually all control of his destiny.  As events unfold, the imperative of survival thrusts him into agonizing moral and psychic terrain.   “Basically,” observes Maguire, “his whole life is shattered—or at least the construct of his life: his ideas and ideals, and what’s important and what he’s built his life on.  Everything is just shaken.”

Sheridan agrees.  “On one level, the story is about a man who attacks.   Sam is pushed to the limit of male companionship and male bonding. And then an act occurs where Sam loses all self-care, self-mothering, self-regard.  The question is whether he can get back to his soul, which is represented by his wife and family, or has he shattered his soul irredeemably by his act?”

Natalie Portman as Grace Cahill

Natalie Portman portrays Sam’s wife, Grace Cahill.  Grace and Sam were high school sweethearts and she is an exemplar of the military spouse: supportive, uncomplaining and good-humored.  “I was interested in playing a mother and wife,” says Portman. “Grace is someone who went into her lifestyle very young, and was looking for a stable life.”  Portman visited military bases to better understand the responsibilities and demands of being a military wife.  “There are a lot of challenges to being away from their husbands for a year and only getting them home for three months at a time.  They have to run the household and take care of the kids, who are acting out and wondering why their daddy’s gone and what their daddy’s doing and why.  And then they have to take care of their husbands when they’re back, and deal with whatever they lived on tour.”

Sam Shepard as the Formidable Father

Sam Shepard portrays Hank Cahill, the brothers’ formidable father.  Hank is a man of few words, and appears to have made an uneasy transition to civilian life.  Shepard’s father was in the Air Force, and he has given much thought to the contradictions inherent in military life.  “The military is considered a brotherhood, and it obviously is. These guys are extraordinarily courageous, and they have a code of ethics,” Shepard comments.  “At the same time, there’s this other side of military service, in which the humanity is sucked out of you in order for you to become a weapon and number.  There’s an incredible dichotomy.”

Mare Winningham as the Loving Stepmother

Mare Winningham portrays Elsie Cahill, Hank’s second wife and the brothers’ stepmother.   Kind and deeply maternal, Elsie is the family peacemaker and also the one person whose authority Hank will accept.  Says Winningham, “Elsie probably came into Hank’s life when the boys were in their teens, so she probably got the bulk of it when Tommy started to become the bad kid, and Sam started to become the chip off the old block and the apple of his father’s eye.  I think she has great sympathy for Tommy, and I think she believes in him.”