While Matthew McConaughey‘s central performance as Ron Woodroof, a Texan man stricken with HIV/AIDS, carries us through Dallas Buyers Club, Jennifer Garner‘s role as immunologist Dr. Eve Saks brings us into the medical world of the true story. As McConaughey’s character discovers loopholes to provide treatment to those in a similar situation, Dr. Saks begins to question the very institution she works for.
After its Toronto International Film Festival premiere, we sat down with Garner at a roundtable interview to discuss the film, directed Jean-Marc Vallée. She opened up about her initial hesitation to get involved (but the one factor that led her, and others, to join), her studious preparations for the film, playing alongside McConaughey and Jared Leto, and much more. Check out our conversation below.
How did you first get involved with this? What brought you in?
Well, I hadn’t worked for a couple years. I had a baby and had really just hunkered down at home and I was actually really comfortable with that notion. So I didn’t even want to open the script when I heard how good it was and I heard it was Matthew [McConaughey]. I just love Matthew and I don’t even want to know about it. But then, of course, I read it and I talked to Jean-Marc [Vallée] and I watched his movies and then I had to do it.
This is an ensemble piece, but Matthew is arguably front and center. Jared also told us one of the reasons he took his role was because of Matthew — what extent did Matthew set the tone for the rest of the production?
It was all about Matthew. We all took the role because of Matthew. I’ve worked with Matthew before, I was inspired by him and we worked on a fluffy romantic comedy. If you go back and look at interviews from then, I said that he had the best work ethic, he’s the most committed. He treated this like it was the most serious drama in the world, and he did. He is still that guy and there’s a reason why he is as successful as he has been for as long as he has been. His pages on Ghost of Girlfriends Past were covered with notes and ideas and thoughts and they look the same on this. There’s a through line there, it’s not like he’s settling. I was desperate to work with him and totally inspired by the work that he has been doing. I think the movie got made because of Matthew. I felt like I was there very much in a protective capacity and a supportive role to him in every possible way. I wanted to support him in this performance.
Was this a story you had been aware of before?
Nope. In no way.
How much did the topic influence your decision?
Well, I was fascinated by the topic and not that long ago I lost a very dear friend to AIDS, and so I am aware that it is still very much a disease that is in the world. I feel that this movie is part of putting it back in peoples’ conversations and putting education back in the forefront, which is where it needs to be. Because the numbers are on the rise, it’s not a disease that has gone away; people have a false sense of security about it. It is really important that we still talk about prevention, AIDS, and HIV. What I really loved was this arc that my character went through, from being very black and white and a very cognitive thinker and intellect to someone who reacts with her heart and is more of a healer than anything else.
Going into a project like this, how do you prepare?
I always kind of wish I had gone to med school, so I am a little bit of a frustrated geek in that way. I love medical journals. I read everything from ‘82 to ’88 that I could find on HIV and AIDS. I went and found the real copies of them — you can just Google stuff and buy it. I went back and read all the old magazines to see the puzzle pieces they had and how much we were ignorant about and what we know now. So I loved going back. I remember that Time magazine that was in the movie, on my parents’ coffee table. I remember reading every word of it.
Can you talk about the experience on set with Vallée and the rest of the crew?
I feel like, to me, when we were standing on the stage last night the D.P. and the camera operator and our focus puller should have been on the stage with us, and the script supervisor, because they were so part of the whole thing. It was just them and us. The camera was never on a stick or dolly — it was him just holding it the whole time filming this movie. You had to come in, not at a trot, but at a full on sprint. I loved it! I was jazzed by the challenge of it.
What was it like playing a lowkey character against Ron and Rayon?
Tough! It was hard. I talked to Jean-Marc a lot because it’s natural to want to play up to the fun stuff and that just wouldn’t have worked. It wasn’t my job to ask for eye-balls. It was my job to settle and be as simple as possible and let them do their thing or else it was too much. I just had to be quiet.
Did anything surprise you about working with Vallée?
There were a couple of things in the movie that everybody loved that were very movie-ish moments. You know, something is mentioned early on in the movie then comes back at the end and you have a tear. Well, Jean-Marc looked at those and went [*cuting noise*] “goodbye, we don’t need this, this isn’t our movie, this isn’t what we do.” Instead he would find something and say,” well that was real, that’s human.” He had a real nose for what he wanted, he had good taste. He had a nose for something small and funny, like Jared fixing his heel through the window of Matthew’s car as he was driving. The way he calibrated Matthew’s performance was so beautiful, he really gave Matthew the room to go where ever he wanted, but he always made sure got something really simple. He chose the moments to let him be emotional in the film and he did it so beautifully. He definitely could have gone for more is more in the film.
Dramas vs. comedy?
I mean, aren’t we so lucky that we get to do both? I mean, in every comedy there is a lot of drama. I’ve done comedies where I’ve cried more than in any drama and in every drama you’re looking for comedy. You are always trying to find a way to balance.
Is there a specific thing you look for in a film?
Well, schedule, I have to say, and location, but it’s not being able to say no. So I did Draft Day with Kevin Costner and I love it and I’m so excited for it to come out. I feel like I have gotten to watch a lot of these great performances lately, and Kevin delivers. I did Imagine with Al Pacino and I loved doing that movie, and you’ll be talking about Al Pacino again and again and again. Right now I’m doing Alexander and the Horrible Terrible No Good Very Bad Day with Steve Carell, and again I am just having the best, most fun time!
Dallas Buyers Club hits theaters on Friday, November 1st.