Connelly recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria about what drew her to “Snowpiercer,” how the series blends fun adventure with relevant themes and her memories of winning her Oscar. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Jennifer, what’s the best way to describe your character for someone who has lived under a rock and never heard of the show?
Jennifer Connelly: Well, what we know from when we first meet her is she’s head of Hospitality, which means she’s responsible, as she says in her words, for smooth relations on the train, kind of like a concierge problem solver. But we suspect that she is maybe up to more than just that and then discover quite soon that she is, in fact. I think she’s a surprising character. I thought she was quite a challenging character at times and she has an interesting journey, I think, where she’s not the person that we think she is when we first meet her.
GD: Yeah, I think that’s a very good way to put it. As the voice of the train and an A-list passenger as well and so much more, do you think she’s ultimately a force of good or a force of evil, or would you rather not say?
JC: (Laughs.) That’s difficult. I think that she is capable of both. I think she certainly is fighting for something that she really believes in and I think that she believes that it’s the right thing, that the ultimate goal that she’s fighting for is a really important and worthy goal. I think along the way, the means are very questionable. And for sure, she does some morally reprehensible things.
GD: You know what’s funny, on a show like yours, back in the day we could never imagine what a post-apocalyptic world might look like. And we’re all currently self-isolating or socially distancing in a global pandemic and I just wonder if that ever occurs to you that you’re on a dystopian TV show about a world in which things have shut down, and here we are. Those parallels are kind of slightly bizarre, don’t you think?
JC: Yeah, I think that certainly the confinement and loss are things that we’re all experiencing. Everyone on Snowpiercer, they’ve had to leave their communities, say goodbye to their communities, the people that they loved, their work, their lives that they always knew, the planet itself. And here we all are separated from people that we love and not able to go live the lives we’ve always loved. It is strange. I didn’t quite anticipate… I don’t think anyone anticipated being in this position now.
GD: So going back to the beginning, how did you become involved in the series? Because it’s got a very interesting cast and I’ve been speaking to quite a few of you and I’m always curious to know how you landed a show like “Snowpiercer.”
JC: Well, originally there was another iteration of it. The first iteration was brought to me by Scott Derrickson, who I had worked with before. So there was a previous version of the show and of the script. That’s how I first got involved. We shot a pilot and then they made changes after we shot the pilot. So by the time we came back to series, it had kind of been reimagined. So I first came to it in that iteration.
GD: So, I mean, it’s no mystery that “Snowpiercer” did face challenges in development for a little while until it finally landed in the iteration that we see now on TNT. Is that difficult to navigate when you’ve got lots of other projects and other things going on your life, to wait for the show to finally see the light of day?
JC: No, because the process didn’t feel… I wasn’t just waiting. I mean, I think I was doing other things and working so it didn’t really feel like that. It does feel like it has been a long road but I didn’t feel like I was sort of in stasis, if that makes sense.
GD: Yeah, and I’m sure it’s something that you’re accustomed to. It happens from time to time on various projects.
JC: Yeah, I mean, things get delayed and changed and reimagined.
GD: Yeah. So while the series is an adaptation, obviously, it’s really important for it to stand on its own as well as its own work. So did you purposely stay away from the source material so you could develop the character yourself independently or were you really interested to see the other versions of this piece, how they were done?
JC: I was really interested. I mean, I had seen the movie but I went back and watched it again and I’m a fan of the film and the performances in the film and I went back and looked at the graphic novel, which I hadn’t done before. So I was very interested in that material. But my character isn’t in either the film or the graphic novel. She only exists in this version. So while I referenced those, I didn’t base my character on anything in them.
GD: So then what do you do as an actor to kind of fill in those blanks internally? Have you given her your own backstory? Was it given to you? Did you do it together? How did that work for Melanie?
JC: I did give her a lot of my own backstory. I love that part of our job. I find it really fun. But in this instance, of course, I did it in tandem with Graeme [Manson] because we didn’t have all the scripts when we first started shooting, so there are things that were down the line. So it was a collaboration with him. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t blindsided by anything. “What do I do later? What am I going to learn about my character?” So armed with that information, yeah, then I went ahead and filled in the blanks for myself and tried to sort of flesh out her history.
GD: So if you didn’t really necessarily know where she was going to end up towards the end of the season, were there any scripts where you eventually kind of picked it up and thought, “Oh, shit, this is really something”? Did it meet your expectations or were you quite surprised?
JC: I mean, they would sometimes give me hints about what was coming but sometimes I was surprised by things. There was one later episode in particular where I kind of went, “Wow, that’s intense!” (Laughs.) Which was fun. I mean, I have to say, it was a really different experience for me. I’ve never done anything like this and it was fun for me. I looked forward to getting the scripts and I would get to the end and be like, “Oh my god, what’s going to happen? What’s going to happen next?” I was into it. I was into the whole process. I thought it was fun.
GD: That’s a huge plus because, I mean, I’m sure you’ve had plenty of work where you didn’t necessarily feel that way and so it’s always nice to be having fun while you’re working. So did you guys finish shooting Season 2 before things started to lock down or were you still in the middle of it?
JC: Season 2 is not 100 percent complete, but very well on its way.
GD: Oh, that’s good. That’ll obviously ramp up again once everybody goes back to work. This show, the film, the graphic novel, obviously has a lot to say about class and social injustice and even climate change, a lot of really weighty issues that a lot of films and series in this genre tend to do. What would you like to see audiences take from what the show is presenting in terms of how it might resonate culturally?
JC: Well, I think all of that said, it’s also an adventure and it’s also telling this very human story through a sci-fi lens, which, talking about all of the themes I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that it’s just a fun, entertaining show with interesting characters that are fun to watch. For me, when I was reading it, I was like, “This is a page-turner.” I finish and I want to know what’s going to happen to these people next. So there’s that. And thematically, I do like the fact that it is those things, it is just sort of at face value an entertaining, fun, kind of stylish adventure that has some deeper things to talk about, like, as you mentioned social structures and the distribution of resources in a closed system and how they are distributed and how equitable or inequitable it is. So I think that all of those themes and topics are very relevant.
GD: Yeah, it occurs to me when I’m watching the show that it is set on a train, a fast-moving train. So you’re all in close quarters and there’s a lot of moving around. I mean, that’s just my small, non-actor brain in terms of how I conceptualize how you’re performing this. But does that actually make much of an impact in how you’re all working on-set and performing your roles, knowing that you’re on a fast-moving train?
JC: Not really, because I think other than the fact that you have to be aware of movement, but most times that was done for us. There were some instances where we had to create the movement of the train when it was in more extreme circumstances. But for the most part, the cars themselves were moving as we were filming and I think in the way that after you’ve been on an airplane for a little while, you kind of forget about the fact that you’re moving around a little bit, I think after seven years on a train, you probably take it in stride. So they’d roll the cameras and the cars would start jiggling a little bit and we’d kind of go about our business.
GD: In my opinion, I think that these days TV often affords actors, particularly women, but all actors, a lot more interesting, nuanced roles. Do you agree that that’s the case?
JC: I think it’s the case. I think you certainly have a lot more time to spend with a character and developing the character. I think that there’s a lot of great work, a lot of great writing in television, a lot of great work being done in television. The way we watch content has changed. We’re watching a lot more dramas on TV more than in theaters. One can make a generalization. There are always exceptions, but more and more, I think there are amazing opportunities. There’s been incredible work done. But I was really excited about the possibility of having a character and staying with a character and seeing what could happen with 10 hours as opposed to under two. I thought that was kind of an exciting proposition and allows you to sort of explore things that you might not otherwise be able to explore, like a little bit more complexity, some more layers.
GD: Going back in time a bit, well before “Snowpiercer,” in 2002 when you won the Oscar for your role in “A Beautiful Mind,” you said, “By some twist of fate, I have landed in this vocation that demands that I feel and that helps me to learn.” I think that’s what you said. So taking that a step further, what did you learn from your experience on “A Beautiful Mind” that you have kind of taken with you throughout your career?
JC: Wow (laughs). It’s funny, right? Because I think sometimes, I feel like they’re not always like sort of big “A-ha” moments where you can say this is the life lesson that I can pinpoint but sometimes it’s just the experience of spending time, for me in my job and what I do, spending time with a character who makes choices and has a point of view that’s vastly different from my own and spending the time in that person’s shoes really having to really deeply consider that perspective and that point of view and that person’s motivations. I mean, that’s really interesting. I can’t say exactly how it impacts me and changes me, but I feel like the process of doing that and really considering other perspectives, I feel like it offers some kind of teaching.
GD: What about winning the Oscar itself on that night? It was a while ago now, but what’s the memory that you most hold dear when you think about getting up on that stage and accepting an Academy Award?
JC: I mean, my dad was there with me and my dad was just so proud and excited to be there and I was so happy to have him there with me and I don’t know, I connect that a lot with my dad in that experience of being there, being there with him and what it meant to him.
GD: Yeah, it was a pretty special moment. Final question, because I just couldn’t help myself as a fan. When we go back to late ‘90s, you worked on the classic sci-fi noir thriller “Dark City,” which has been credited with being so influential in that genre. And as an Aussie, I was very much into it at the time and still am. What was your highlight from playing a really archetypal femme fatale in that classic film?
JC: I remember I was terrified that I had to sing (laughs). Yeah, I thought it was really so innovative, that movie, and really interesting, had some really interesting ideas in it. I haven’t gone back and watched it really since it came out. But I thought it was really visually striking and really forward-thinking. I enjoyed working on it. It was kind of just as a spectator to see what they were creating, it was pretty extraordinary. And I got to spend time in Australia, which was kind of fabulous too.
GD: That can’t hurt. And it’s funny that all these years later, you’re in another dystopian, futuristic sci-fi noir thriller and we have lots to look forward to as that airs on TNT. Jennifer, thanks so much for your time today, we really appreciate it.
JC: Thank you. Thanks for being here.