Back in September 2010, Chris Eggertsen took a trip to Moscow to visit the set of Fox’s upcoming sci-fi film The Darkest Hour. Releasing on Christmas Day, it tells the story of four young foreigners who become trapped in the sprawling Russian metropolis following an attack by extraterrestrial invaders.
This second of three parts features interviews with stars Max Minghella, Olivia Thirlby and Joel Kinnaman at the Russian Academy of Sciences. See inside for the full report! Be sure to check out part 1 of our set report here.
I floated through Moscow as if in a dream, the haze of a nasty cold & flu keeping me at a woeful remove from the sights and sounds of the city around me. We took a bus tour through the gray afternoon one day, stopping off at several of the mandatory attractions – historic Red Square (home to Lenin’s Mausoleum and the striking Disney colors of St. Basil’s Cathedral and a thousand other places I lacked the fortitude to process), vast and breathtaking and impossible to conquer in the short time we were given to explore it; a bustling street market in neighboring Kitay-gorod (also home to the imposing Revival-era GUM shopping mall, once serving as the temporary resting place of Stalin’s second wife Nadezhda, found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, now containing upper-tier designer stores like Burberry and Dior and Hermes and Louis Vuitton), where I bought a matroyshka doll for my niece; the former Lenin State Library, now the Russian State Library, a stone Dostoyevsky looking on, impassive, surrounded by birds; the Moscow Metro, ornate as any subway you’re ever likely to see, with glossy marble walls and frescoes and exquisite chandeliers designed as Stalinist deification; and other places that I can recall only distantly, onion domes and more cathedrals, one or two of the Seven Sisters or maybe more, a patchwork of history reflected in the dizzying array of architecture that changes not from block to block but building to building, so stark one could be struck with a feeling nausea just by looking at it.
Through it all, our tour guide Olga, blonde and hardened and high-pitched, communicated real-life tales of epic loss and bloodshed and horror limned with shallow gaudy triumph, many of which she’d lived through herself and which could be perceived in the wearied lines criss-crossing her flesh and in the pale numbness of her eyes.
Later that day, or maybe the next (I would say that all of it has blurred together over the course of the past year, though it was blurred together even then) our group was ushered to the Russian Academy of Sciences, a stunning 22-story structure located on the banks of the Moscow River and topped with a bizarre bright-orange-hued geometric maze of glass and aluminum and copper nicknamed the “golden brains” that looked like something out of a science-fiction movie. Speaking of which.
The “Darkest Hour” production was currently setting up shop in the Academy of Sciences Plaza located on the grounds of the building, the top story of which contained an upscale restaurtant/bar called the Sky Lounge and which we would occupy over the next couple of hours to a lavish feast of Japanese-French cuisine and breathtaking views of the city through the dining area’s floor-to-ceiling windows and wraparound balcony. Following dinner, we were told several of the cast members would be arriving to speak with us.
And they did; our first “guest” of the evening being willowy Swedish-American actor Joel Kinnaman, an impossibly handsome high-cheekboned creature who peered out at us from placid hazel eyes as he described his role in the film, that of a Swedish businessman named Skyler who lures Luke (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella) – a pair of naive, ambitious young American entrepeneurs – to the city, only for them to find out he’s swindled them once they arrive.
“[Skyler] is associated with Luke and Ben…[he] rips them off and steals their idea so they come here and end up empty handed, and then unfortunately for them I team up with them when everything goes down, so we’re all trying to survive together,” Kinnaman told us, speaking quietly with a light Swedish accent. “In the script I guess he’s written as a villain in the beginning at least, [but] I’ve tried to nuance that as much as I can.”
“The Darkest Hour” will serve as Kinnaman’s first major theatrical feature to be released in the U.S., though he’s become known by American television audiences over the last year with his role as homicide detective Stephen Holder in AMC’s “The Killing”. Both projects fall in line with the actor’s focus on becoming better known outside his home country; he won the role in the former in part thanks to his lead performance in a popular Swedish film called “Snabba Cash” (aka “Easy Money”), which is now being remade by Warner Bros. with Zac Efron starring.
“I got a call that they wanted to meet me, I read the script, and I thought it was really interesting,” he explained of his involvement in the Chris Gorak-directed sci-fi/action film that had brought us to the country. “After I saw ‘Avatar’ I had this little dream, I wanted to be in a 3-D movie. I’m very excited about that new technique so it was an opportunity to be in a very interesting story in a 3-D world.”
Someone asked him about the large number of alien-invasion movies that were currently in some stage of production (I suppose at the time they would’ve been referring to “Battle: Los Angeles” and “Cowboys & Aliens” and possibly others I’m not thinking of), and what he thought set “The Darkest Hour” apart.
“I’m not that familiar with the other ones,” he said. “I think there’s always an appetite for that, the aliens coming, the great unknown coming to us, but then also with everything that’s happening, the climate changing. I mean, we’ve seen so many tragedies this year. There’s a lot of stuff going on around us which shows us how fragile our civilization is. It becomes a metaphor for that. We think that we are so safe on and the right track, [or] at least some people with decision making [powers] seem to still believe that we are. This is another way of showing how fragile our civilization is with something as easy as electricity. If electricity disappears we, all of these [things] we’re so proud of, they just don’t work.”
His own personal sci-fi signposts?
“‘Star Wars’ was my first big movie experience. When I was a kid I got to watch ‘Star Wars’ on my parents’ 14-inch TV and I’ll never forget that,” he told us.
In his young adult years, “The Matrix” was the sci-fi film that made a big impression, as he would tell us later: “I saw it when I was 20 years [old]. I was living with a group of friends in Norway, living in Oslo, working in factories trying to get money to go traveling. We were five guys that went to see this movie and we just went berserk for like two weeks. We broke into outdoor swimming pools just so we could climb the walls, and we had this ongoing three week competition of being The One. Who will be The One?” (Hint: it wasn’t him.)
And this, from a young female reporter based in Japan:
“Some journalist in Japan said you’re more beautiful, more attractive, and younger than Brad Pitt. Do you like this phrase?”
“Wow, I had no idea journalists in Japan knew who I was,” Kinnaman answered with a mixture of confusion and embarrassment. “I’m blushing…Even being compared to Brad Pitt, of course I’m very happy [someone] thinks that.”
The Japanese reporter giggled when someone asked if she was the one who’d said it, which she denied. I seem to remember a crimson flush spreading across her cheeks, but I could be wrong.
Next up we had the pleasure of interviewing two actors at once (always a treat!), in this particular case Max Minghella (son of the late Academy Award-winning director Anthony Minghella) and Olivia Thirlby (daughter of an advertising executive and a contractor from New York City). The two star as Ben and Natalie, American kids who become trapped in Moscow after the aliens attack and effectively destroy all lines of communication with the rest of the world.
“Is this your first night shoot?” someone asked them of the scene currently being prepped in the Plaza downstairs.
“No, we did them all last week,” said Thirlby, a dark-haired Manhattan beauty best known for starring as Ellen Page’s friend in “Juno”, as she nursed a cup of tea. “So just as we finally got on the night schedule, then yesterday they gave us one regular day, just to completely screw everything up. And now we’re back on nights for pretty much the rest of the deal, right?“ At this she grinned over at Minghella, communicating something to him with her eyes.
“Yeah,” he responded, the neatly-tied bow of his mouth temporarily transformed.
“I’m curious, how is that? To adjust to the [time change]?” came the follow-up.
“It’s just like jetlag,” Minghella answered.
“Yeah, it’s like jetlag,” agreed Thirlby. “And then once you adjust, then it’s like you’re on a different time schedule. At least it’s regular, but it’s very difficult when it’s inconsistent between nights and days, because then it’s like being constantly jetlagged.”
There was more than a hint of annoyance in her voice. I pictured a trickle of sweat making its way down a publicist’s face.
“Can you talk about your characters?”
“Yeah,” said Minghella. “Olivia, would you like to start?”
She laughed for a bit then, somewhat deliriously. The tinny sound of it bounced off the clear windows and the hardwood floors and the half-drained glasses on the table. It was the kind of laugh that bristles pubescent neck hairs; the kind you might hear cutting through the stale molecules of a high school hallway, daring anyone within earshot to top it.
“Olivia plays like a beautiful action heroine,” he said after a few seconds. “We all meet in this club scene, and that’s where the majority of the character development happens. We’re also stranded in Moscow for very different reasons, and Olivia’s character has come with Rachael [Taylor’s character]…”
He turned to Thirlby then. “I’m speaking for you. I’ll let you carry on.”
“Yeah, I’ll speak for you now,” she said, seemingly recovered. “Max plays a handsome action hero, who becomes sort of the de facto leader of the group after things start to get a little scary and dangerous and crazy. And actually, sort of towards the beginning of the film when our characters first meet, I’d say my character quite has the hots for him, and says many times that she thinks he’s cute, cuter than his friend.”
“It’s a mutual feeling,” he said. “Even though I don’t [say] it vocally, I’m thinking it.”
“And yeah, do you wanna talk about some of your made-up character back-story?” she asked him, her eyes glinting.
“Well I mean, I think in both cases with both our characters, we have very long-standing friendships with our co-stars[‘ characters],” he continued. “So in my case it’s with Emile’s character Sean, in Olivia’s case it’s with Rachael’s character Ann. And I think a lot of it is about how these friendships sort of shift and change in this incredibly dramatic circumstance, and how the dynamics of the group survive.”
“Yeah, it’s um…Rachael plays an Australian character, so our characters met the very beginning of college,” said Thirlby. “And I decided that my girl Natalie is from a sort of affluent suburb outside of Washington, D.C. and raised by a single parent, and she’s sort of a very proper girl, traditional values. These are all things you don’t really find out in the movie, but they’re things that I like to think about as I’m running in fear.”
She laughed again.
“As opposed to shooting in your native city and being able to go home every night, does it help to be in this environment with everyone else, and how is that friendship been developing as actors?” offered one of my companions.
“I always prefer shooting in locations, because when I’m at home it’s harder to sort of get lost in the world of whatever you’re making,” Minghella answered. “It does force this bond and community amongst a group.”
“If we were shooting in L.A., Max and I definitely wouldn’t be friends,” chimed in Thirlby, a half-smile curling her lips. She was joking, I’m pretty sure.
“We would never…yeah,” Minghella stammered. “But here we’re sorta…[Laughs] But definitely, I think it forces concentration, yeah, and it’s much more like, feels more like summer camp.”
“And Moscow’s like…” she began.
“It’s an extraordinary place to be,” he finished.
“Yeah, and you definitely get the sense that you’re very far from home,” she continued. “And that has a lot to do with what the characters go through, is feeling like not only are they dealing with this kind of crazy, life-changing event, really world-changing, history-changing event, but they’re also so far from home that it adds a desperation of wanting and needing to know what things may be like back at home, and adds the impetus to move.”
“And in terms of the film itself, I think it’s gonna become such a big part of this movie, the location of it. It’s a character unto itself. But yeah, it’s an extraordinary-looking place, as you’ve probably seen.” We had.
“It really doesn’t look like anywhere else on Earth,” Thirlby continued a few seconds later. “There was, for a brief time, a question of whether we would be able to proceed filming here because there was a bit of a natural disaster that happened in the middle of our shoot, and I think it’s possible they were scouting some other European cities. And it was difficult, because even places that are relatively nearby didn’t look anything like Moscow. And it’s really true, there’s just no place quite like it.”
Thirlby here is referring to the 2010 Russian wildfires, which broke out in July of that year and ultimately killed an estimated 56,000 people and cost $15 billion in damages. The hazardous environment – toxic smog blanketing Moscow made the simple act of breathing a severe health risk – forced the production into a temporary shutdown.
If you look at some of the photos taken during the devastating fires, of which there were literally hundreds, you certainly get a sense of the horror an apocalypse might bring, blanketing the city of Moscow in ashes and choking the onion domes and the cathedrals and the monuments and hovering above the river and the stooped residents like a giant, gaseous sepulcher, and then sneaking in through cracks in buildings and in homes with babies and smothering the lungs of birds, as implacable and indifferent as the gray, silent eyes of Dostoyevsky, unmoved still at the twisted knot of bodies littering the ground at his feet.
In Hollywood, of course, silver linings almost never fail to creep back in at the most desperate of moments; those “Darkest Hours” as coined by Churchill which are known in Tinseltown as second-act plot points.
“I think the film is actually optimistic about humanity,” noted Minghella. “And I was thinking about how in the scene that we’re shooting today when we first meet the Russian soldiers, that there’s such immediate camaraderie, and it’s a very sort of positive outlook, I think, on how people would survive. And I’m very proud of that and happy about that. I mean there’s certainly…there’s a sequence where we go and hide in this bunker right after the attack, and I think that that’s probably a more complicated emotional time which we’re only privy to moments of. I imagine that if that was the entire film you’d probably see some uglier parts of these characters. But fortunately the film chooses to focus on more empowering parts of humanity.”
This in response to a question about where the movie falls on the spectrum of sci-fi analogism; in effect, how does the human race come out looking at the end of it all? Considering the reported $40 million investment in the film, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” this is not.
Speaking of that classic “Twilight Zone” episode, which highlights the capacity of Man to destroy himself when faced with seemingly desperate circumstances, a fellow journalist suggested it to Thirlby when she asked for recommendations on sci-fi viewing options – seeing as she was next due to star in another very different sci-fi film entitled “Dredd” (an-unrelated-to-the-disastrous-Sylvester-Stallone-version-from-1995 adaptation of the “Judge Dredd” comics) opposite Karl Urban and Lena Headey, which is now in post-production.
As for “The Darkest Hour”, Thirlby was the first of the four main actors to come on board.
“I remember hearing about [her being cast], that was the talk of the town,” smirked Minghella when the project came up. “Everyone was like, ‘Olivia Thirlby’s doing an alien movie.’”
She laughed again, perhaps less assertively than before. Through the polished windows behind her, the skies over Moscow continued to darken.