Maps to the Stars (2014): Cronenberg’s Tale of Dysfunctional (Perverse) Family, Starring Julianne Moore

On one level, Cronenberg’s satire “Maps to the Stars” is a melodrama, in which the family is dysfunctional–to say the least.

At first glance, the family Weiss would seem to have conquered modern life. They certainly have attained fame, material wealth and brand-name recognition, but they also are beset by doubts, bitterness and deep, dark secrets that threaten to uproot their whole lifestyle. Those come to the fore in the person of long-lost, locked-away Agatha.

Mia Wasikowska

On the heels of a tragic accident that left her terribly scarred, she has been safely kept at bay in a psychiatric asylum.  until now. Recently released, she returns to Los Angeles, where she lies low, taking a job with Havana Segrand while scoping out her family from a distance, waiting for the chance to make her move.

Mia Wasikowska –the rising star who has come to the fore in a series of bold roles ranging from the disturbed gymnast of HBO’s In Treatment to a daughter of artificial insemination in The Kids Are All Right to the title role of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre – takes the role.

Cronenberg notes that it was not an easy part to cast. “With Agatha, there are many gradually revealed twists and turns, so you need an actress who is extremely subtle. You need someone who feels extremely open and not sinister, who seems innocent, until she reveals the depths of her dangerousness,” he says. “Agatha keeps saying, ‘I just want to make amends’ — and you have to believe it when she says it, which requires a really wonderful actress like Mia. She is someone I’ve been watching for years, even though she’s very young, and has already done so many beautiful things. When that sinister side comes out of her as Agatha, it’s pretty staggering.

Wasikowska herself first arrived in Hollywood as a teenager, recalling it as a “completely alien world like nowhere else, with a very specific light and a strong sort of feeling.”

Reading Wagner’s script, she felt he had captured that conflation of the strange and the alluring. “The story is an exaggerated version of life here, but I found it really unsettling,” she says. “The people who seem to have it the most together in the story are also the people who are the most messed up and vice versa. It’s very much a City of Lost Angels.”

Wasikowska was especially attracted to the pendulum dualities of her character. “I love Agatha because she’s dark inside but at the same time in a lot of ways she has this very positive outlook. There’s something very sweet and sad about this girl who, in the midst of these celebrity-obsessed parents, and this troubled past, really just wants to connect with them,” she observes. “They’ve totally rejected her, but in a way, she’s desperately trying to mimic their lives. She’s desperately trying to find her identity.”

Diving deeper into Agatha meant exploring her first from her physicality, notes Wasikowska, who spent several hours for make-up each day to build up Agatha’s charred skin.

“She has the gloves she wears over her burns, the facial scar, and all these rituals with the poem and the pills she takes,” the actress explains. “It’s all very distinct to who she is.”

This film marks Wasikowska’s first time working with Cronenberg. It was trial by fire on her opening day on the set as they shot the scene in which Agatha is beaten by her father, played by John Cusack, after trying to make amends with her mother. “It was a typical sort of initiation for a Cronenberg film,” Wasikowska laughs. “But working with David was wonderful. He’s really kind of soft-spoken and he really trusts you in the character. It’s always interesting that the people who make the most psychologically disturbing films are often the sweetest, kindest people.”

Patriarch: John Cusack

The last person who ever hoped to see Agatha again is the head of the family Weiss: Stafford, a TV psychologist whose “Hour of Personal Power” offers New Age platitudes and watered-down analysis for the masses, while he performs intimate, psychodynamic bodywork on his celebrity clients, including Havana Segrand.

John Cusack himself grew from a child actor to a young heartthrob to an acclaimed actor on the public stage, so he has perhaps a unique insight into the dynamics of celebrity life that starts in childhood. On top of that, Cronenberg says Cusack “was not afraid to go right to the darkest depths of this character and yet, somehow, also be very charming and seductive.”

Cusack had met Bruce Wagner decades before when they were both in the film One Crazy Summer, but his script for Maps to the Stars took Cusack by surprise. “It was the most savage deconstruction of Hollywood fame and secrets and that whole toxic brew that I’d ever seen,” he says.

Though Cusack says that Hollywood has always brought the mix of “dreams and fantasy” into the realm of moneymaking, he has noticed that things have shifted even more in the last few years.

“Back when I was starting out, things were different. It never seemed to be about who was the highest-paid or what films grossed over the weekend. People weren’t that interested in stalking celebrities to the level of what they had for breakfast or what mean things they said to someone else. That kind of celebrity-obsessed culture was only born ten, fifteen years ago. If you wanted to know things about an actor, you would look into his work, the films he had made – the admiration was a reflection of an actor’s work, not his status.”

 

Stafford Weiss senses this deep, unmet emotional need all around him and takes it as opportunity. “He sees himself as a healer,” Cusack observes. “He’s part Tony Robbins, part Reiki Master, part shrink. But his son is the real star – he’s a massive teen star of Beiberesque proportions.”

 

In creating Stafford’s fraught relationship with his son – not to mention with the daughter he has tried to keep far from their lives – Cusack especially enjoyed working with Cronenberg for the first time. “There is a fierceness to how David explores things, and it’s exhilarating to be part of that,” Cusack comments. “He tries to reduce everything to its purest essence. Like some others I’ve worked with, Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood, he doesn’t use rehearsal, so you have to really trust your first instincts and try to black everything else out to just let it happen for the camera.”

Producer Martin Katz was thrilled to see what happened when Cusack did that. “As the patriarch of the Weiss family, John is this larger-than-life character, a celebrity guru and author of best-selling self-help books. I find him evil in a very profound way, and yet, there’s a charm and fascination behind that makes Stafford Weiss very human and compelling.”

Teenage Son: Evan Bird

A large part of Stafford’s ego is wrapped up in the lucrative success of his son, teen sensation, star of Bad Babysitter and tabloid bad-boy, Benjie Weiss. Not only is 13 year-old Benjie trying to right the ship of his career after a stint at rehab, he is being chased by his own guilt-induced teen ghost.

Cronenberg was unsure if he could find an actor Benjie’s age who would be capable of tapping into the sharp wit of Bruce Wagner’s dialogue, but he found that quality in Canadian Evan Bird, whom he had seen in the American version of the TV series The Killing.

“There needed in Benjie to be a kind of strange gravitas,” Cronenberg explains. “Amazingly, Evan, when we cast him, was only 12 and he just turned 13 the month before we started shooting -and yet he had that gravity, that irony and sarcasm, while at same time, you still sense his boyishness and vulnerability.”

Bird was instantly attracted to the challenges of the role. “I love complex stories with deep characters, or it’s just not that fun to do,” he explains. “What interested me about Benjie is that he doesn’t really have love and yet he doesn’t really have limitations, either. So he’s searching for both of those things. He’s making way too much money, he’s being taken advantage of by his parents, and he’s really screwed up.”

Working with John Cusack as Benjie’s exploitative father was also a thrill for Bird. “I was really nervous to meet him because he’s such a big star, but he was so down to earth, not like some people you hear about, but that’s what this movie is about, isn’t it?” Bird muses.

He also was intrigued by playing someone who is quite literally haunted – in Benjie’s case by a sick girl he visits in the hospital purely for the publicity boost. “Benjie has this ghost who will not leave him alone,” Bird explains. “It pisses him off because he wants to be normal. He doesn’t want to be crazy like his sister. And yet he keeps seeing this girl.”

Olivia Williams

No matter what Benjie does the one person who will always defend him as a hot Hollywood commodity is his manager mother, Cristina. To play her, Cronenberg long had in mind Olivia Williams, known for a wide range of roles from the now-classic ghost story The Sixth Sense to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and Roman Polanski’s Ghost Writer. He knew he needed a very versatile actress who could not only embody a relentless stage-mom but a woman with a particularly secretive relationship with her husband.

“I’ve had my eye on Olivia for years,” says the director. “She’s fantastic and completely different in each movie. I jumped at the chance to cast her in this role because I felt that she could really evoke the kind of character who’s come to L.A. from somewhere else, but is ready to ferociously play the Hollywood game, the celebrity mother game. And she and John make for a very charismatic couple. They needed to have a sort of a heat that has gone wrong, a destructive magnetism between them.”

Williams found the script both hilarious and terrifying. “It’s dangerously funny as satire,” she describes. “But it’s also about some serious things — the subconscious, madness, paranoia, suppressing the truth – and I found that it was incredibly moving and heartfelt at the same time as being absurd.”

Williams was also drawn to Cristina’s plummeting trajectory. “She is a very ambitious woman and we get to see her downfall from the very heights of her power,” she says. “She operates in a world where someone could be the nastiest person on earth and makes your life hell, but you might still want them in your movie because they’ll make you make money.”

Benjie Weiss is no dream to work with – hurling invectives at agents and executives when he’s not all-out partying, despite his tender years — but Cristina is more concerned with his future than his psyche. Yet there are even deeper family issues roiling beneath Cristina’s aggressive focus on her son. Williams coyly notes, “Let’s just say that John Cusack and I have a very complicated on-screen relationship that is – what’s the word? – incendiary.”