TIFF Press Conference: The Goldfinch's cast and director talk tragedy, spray tan, cinematic bad-dads and Roger Deakins

By Danita Steinberg

In the TIFF feature The Goldfinch - based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Donna Tartt - Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort) carries a lifelong memento from a museum bombing that killed his mother when he was 13. 

It’s a Dutch masterwork by a student of Rembrandt, a painting assumed destroyed in the rubble, and a contraband curse that Theo carries with him through life.

On Sunday, co-stars Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Nicole Kidman, and Ashleigh Cummings were joined by director John Crowley (Brooklyn) at a press conference at the TIFF Bell Lighthouse.

Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in The Goldfinch

Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in The Goldfinch

Crowley said that, on reading the book, he was struck by the story and its cinematic elements. “It felt like an original study in grief. The whole way in which a young boy gets stuck and begins to fuse his grief with this object. The challenge was how to capture the scale of this story in a single film.

“My great fear was that this film would feel like a greatest hits version of the book, so it would be just about handling all the events we felt like we could fit in. It’s a vast story on one level but it’s about something tiny and internal on the other.”

Paulson was the first castmember to read the original novel. “I thought it was an extraordinary story and meditation on grief. I found the book to be incredibly moving and cinematic. Reading it evoked so many powerful images in my mind.” 

She was determined to play Xandra, Theo’s harridan of a stepmother, so she went to extreme lengths to convince Crowley to cast her. “I put a spray tan on, smoked cigarettes, and screamed for an hour in my car trying to get the raspy voice that Donna Tartt described in her book.”

Nicole Kidman plays the “other woman” in young Theo’s life, Mrs. Bourbour who takes him in as an orphan. “The challenge for me is the quietness and stillness [of Mrs. Barbour], while still having to portray so many complicated emotions with little or no dialogue. Every look has to mean so much, whereas something like (HBO’s) Big Little Lies (in which she plays the strong-willed Madeline Mackenzie) have huge amounts of time to express the character and find the character.”

In the film, Fegley and Elgort play Theo at different ages. “I know that John didn’t want us being too similar,” Fegley said. “But we did do some rehearsals at the beginning and we were able to see each other work. And that ultimately helped us to build the character. (The character) has gone through something that has changed him and there’s a big gap between time.” 

While better known for comedy, Wilson takes a dramatic turn with the role of Larry, Theo’s deadbeat father. “I feel like I’ve definitely met people like Larry. I didn’t feel like I needed to find something redeemable about him. I liked exploring the darker hues of his character. I thought of cinematic bad dads - Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Christopher Walken in At Close Range.”

The entire cast enthused about working with legendary English cinematographer, Roger Deakins. “Roger is only happy when he’s shooting,” Crowley said. “He looks at actors’ faces so intensely and he’s always trying to figure it out from the inside out. It’s not just his ability to frame, but it’s his instinct for story and character that makes him truly great. He was the greatest collaborator.”

The Goldfinch has its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, September 8 at 6:00 p.m and 8:00 p.m. with additional screenings on Monday, September 9 at 12:15 p.m. and Wednesday, September 11 at 2:45 p.m.

We Really Like Her, Danita Steinberg’s podcast with Emily Gagne about women filmmakers can be heard on Spotify.