Elisabeth Shue

The Leaving Las Vegas actress discusses her new independent film co-starring Thomas Hayden Church

Actress Elisabeth Shue first gained fame in the '80s for a string of roles in now classic films like The Karate Kid, Cocktail, Adventures In Babysitting, Back To The Future Part II and Back To The Future Part III. But it was her role in the gritty independent film Leaving Las Vegas, opposite Oscar winner Nicolas Cage that not only earned her an Oscar nomination, but also the respect of her fellow actors and the Hollywood community.

The actress now returns to the independent film world with her new drama Don McKay, opening on April 2nd and co-starring Sideways actor Thomas Haden Church. In the film Shue plays Sonny, a woman who may or not be who she claims she is and involves her high school sweetheart, Don McKay, in a world of deception, lies and double crossing. We recently had an opportunity to speak with the veteran actress about her new film, her character, working with Thomas Haden Church, the state of independent films today and her thoughts on the upcoming remake of The Karate Kid. Here is what she had to say:

When you first read the script, what was your initial reaction? Were you surprised by all the twists and turns or was that what appealed to you about the film?

Elisabeth Shue: It was the writing. The writing was really wonderful and the character was really well drawn although I did call Jake Goldberger, the director, immediately and said that I can't play a Femme Fetal but are you open to this? He was so open, which was great especially for a first time director. I think that's rare especially for someone who wrote the script and I thought, oh he's special that he can see other possibilities here.

Without giving too much away about the ending, there is a reveal and we learn that your character hasn't been exactly truthful about who she is, so how do you begin to approach playing such a complicated role?

Elisabeth Shue: Well I felt like I was lucky with Sonny because on the page ... actually Jake was really wonderful to being with and open to kind of custom making the part a bit more around what I do well versus what other people could do well. I've always known in my heart that I'm not a great femme-fatal, that I don't quite know how to pull that off. But I do understand somebody who has trouble with discerning between fantasy and reality and I thought that it was a great character and someone who I'd love to play. The game becomes just as fun and just as real as reality. I guess when I realized that I could understand her I realized that she had to fall in love with Thomas Haden Church's character immediately. In her child like way she really had to not just pretend to fall in love with him to get what she wants but I think it was that she had no idea that he would be so good looking and actually like her, I mean from the first moment when he walks in he really seems to adore her. I just think that the character, her loneliness and her sort of sense of reality hits home that she's never had that. So from then on I felt like she just sort of was just trying to survive through and at the end she has some kind of idealized romantic version of living happily ever after. Even though it all goes wrong she still thinks that she's going to make this happily ever after come true some how and that helped motivate me to feel like I was never calculating in anyway. Even at the very end, I never intended on getting the meat out of the freezer but I had to survive in the moment.

So you do think that even though your character is lying to Don throughout the movie that she does fall in love with him? Can you elaborate on that? What is it about him that she falls in love with and do you think she is delusional to think that their relationship could work?

Elisabeth Shue: I think its true at the end when she says, "How can you make up all these things?" I think the thing that she didn't make up was that as this was all going on she really was happy to have him do what he did. Then she really did want to have that money and she really was excited to share it with him. It was all her plan and it was all working. I think the plan shifted when she met him. So I think that was all true. One audience actually laughed when I say my line, "How was I supposed to know I was going to fall in love with you" and I thought, oh shit, I guess I didn't do my job. Maybe they don't believe that I fell in love with him but maybe they are just laughing at the fact that they can't believe anything I say? So I was like, that's okay maybe I'm the character that they couldn't trust at that point and that's fine. In that weird moment when I come out of the house and I'm like, I think I'm going to get away with this, and then she gets in the car and she's being taken away. I think she's balling because she knows that she's never going to see him again. I think that's what's weird about having kids because they go from such extreme mood swings because they don't hold on to things. They're really upset and then they are really happy, then really unhappy. They don't hold on to pain and misery and think about it over and over again. I just thought of her as a little kid-playing house.

You have some really great scenes in the film with actress Melissa Leo where the two of you really get to go toe-to-toe with each other, did you enjoy acting in those confrontational scenes and what was it like working with Leo on the film?

Elisabeth Shue: Yeah she's awesome. She just came in like a freight train. She got the script and then like two days later she was doing it and for the precision of the character she created it was unbelievable. She's a really, really good actress, I was blown away by her.

Do you feel like that upped your game, working with such talented actors as Melissa Leo and Thomas Hayden Church?

Elisabeth Shue: Always, I mean that's the joy of acting. You always want to be playing off of someone who's going to make you better and I was always surprised with everything they did. They gave me so much to react to. What was fun about the movie was that we all played everything for real but while you were in the scene, half way into the scene I'd be like, God I really want to laugh but I'm not going to. Because you just felt the absurdity, everyone was so committed and not committed like they were trying to be funny but they were committed for real. Their characters wanted what they wanted. That was just a joy to be with actors that are so out there on the edge and unafraid. Thomas is just such a great, great actor and I've always loved watching him and he's such an honest and authentic guy. I just knew that we'd have really good chemistry regardless and after all these years it really does come down to who you're actors are.

So if you had never worked with Thomas Hayden Church before tell me what that experience was like for you? Was it everything that you had hoped it would be?

Elisabeth Shue: Yeah it kind of was. He is a character in every sense of the word. He is authentically who he is. It's lovely to work with somebody who is so refreshingly real, still very generous and is not a prima donna on any level. He's just a present actor. He's very in the moment and right there with you not acting in a vacuum. His sense of humor is so wonderful, dry and unexpected. I think we're just so lucky to have him. Who else could really be Don McKay? It's impossible.

You've been acting in films now for over twenty-five years and while you've appeared in many successful studio movies a lot of your success has come from appearing in independent films, can you talk about how the independent film experience has changed for you since making "Leaving Las Vegas" and what it was like to return to it with this film?

Elisabeth Shue: Well it doesn't seem like its changed a lot in terms of the actual experience. I think this experience felt very similar but I would say that the only thing that has changed is that it is virtually impossible to get your movie out now. First it is impossible to get it distributed and then if you have no money, or no ability to win an award or a company that wants to win an award with your movie, I just feel like then it is a crazy uphill battle to even get your movie out there. That's what I've noticed and that's really been kind of sad because when I look back on all the movies that I got to really grow in, stretch and challenge my self as an actress, they were all independent movies. So what if those movies are gone? What if people can't get them out there? What would that mean for actors and our culture? I'm just worried for our culture to be honest. It's short attention spans and I get it, there is a lot going on out in our world and you really have to have enough money to put it in front of an audience, over and over and over again. But it's okay, when I get sad about those things I just try to be grateful for the parts that I've gotten to play and keep hopeful that there are great parts out there for me and I try to keep my life central. If you keep the life that you have central and what really fulfills you, then your art can be like the icing on top and then you don't get too frustrated or depressed.

Finally, you are so closely associated with the film "The Karate Kid" still to this day and fans love you in that performance. I know that you have young sons as well, so with the new Jackie Chan/Jaden Smith remake coming out soon, are you looking forward to seeing that film, reliving the memories and sharing that with your own kids

Elisabeth Shue: Yeah totally, that's definitely a movie that I'm so proud of and one of the rare movies of mine that my kids have actually scene. So yeah, I'm excited to go see it and I'm sure it's going to be really good. I just hope that it has its own unique story, that the essence might be similar but I'm sure the characters will be different and it will have it's own story to tell.

Don McKay opens in theaters on April 2nd.