STACK chats with the all-star cast of the moving new drama, Blackbird.

A year after her own mother passed away, Kate Winslet became instrumental in introducing award-winning Danish movie, Silent Heart, to a larger audience – and was the first to sign on for Roger Michell’s all-star English language adaptation, renamed Blackbird.

The intimate drama, about a family spanning three generations coming together over a weekend at their family home to be with their terminally ill mother before her death, resonated with Winslet, for whom making this film proved cathartic.

“After losing my own mother I had all those emotions building up to her passing away, which we knew was coming; she had cancer… I’d found it hard to go back to work since she died and I had a particularly keen experience of grief at that time in my life. I had been through this level of communication and knew what it means to be a family going through something as devastating as the loss of a mother,” reveals Winslet who plays Jennifer, a married woman struggling to come to terms with her mother’s decision to end her own life.

With Winslet on board, Mia Wasikowska was cast as Jennifer’s rebellious younger sister, while Susan Sarandon and Sam Neill quickly signed on as the parents – Sarandon portraying the family matriarch who chooses to end her life after being diagnosed with ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease).

With the family assembled, tensions brew between the sisters as secrets emerge threatening hopes of a peaceful farewell.

If this all sounds mightily depressing, then Rainn Wilson – in the role of Winslet’s husband – begs to differ when STACK caught up with the cast at a pre-COVID Toronto International Film Festival.

“It’s really a movie about life and love and families. It’s not a movie about death. There’s a death at the centre of it, but that takes up about five minutes. The movie is about eating, celebrating, connecting, and family dysfunction. We showed up in a good mood and there was a lot of love among the cast,” says The Office star, best known for his comedic roles.

Despite playing a woman on the brink of ending her life, Sarandon agrees. “I’ve been in comedies that have been less fun. When you come to work and conquer a scene that’s very painful and you feel that you’ve given it your all and the other people have been with you, it’s a very good thing. Even though it’s sad, it’s a good feeling, because you feel like you’ve served the entire story and that’s what you’re there to do,” she says.

“This was collaboration at its best, so it was actually fun.”

A peculiar phenomenon in filmmaking, comedies often make for the most miserable set experiences while tragedies bring about the most laughs.

Echoing the humour that the cast found on Blackbird’s set – a house near Winslet’s own home in Chichester, UK, doubling for Connecticut, US – Neill grins as he gives his co-star Wilson a backhanded compliment: “I’m very seldom nice about Rainn … and this is the last nice thing I’ll say about him, but he can be comedic and real at the same time. That’s a very rare gift. So, I really believed that character. And as a son-in-law, deeply irritating.”

Honoured to find himself cast against type in a serious drama, Wilson adds, “I have a very powerful scene with Kate Winslet. The extraordinary thing about Kate as an actor, is she’s not afraid to look ugly and real and wrong and gritty. She doesn’t need to be noble all the time. She plays a really annoying character, tightly wound, type-A suburban housewife. Kind of asexual. And it’s a role like no-one’s seen Kate do before.”

At 74, Sarandon was unafraid to tackle the role of a woman nearing the end of her life.

“Death is always a possibility. And I think that as you get older, your kids get older and they’re busy and you’re busy. You have to really find a way to continue to know them as they’re becoming who they are and allow them to know you in a way that was different than when you were just their mom. And that doesn’t happen naturally. I’m all for stories that people go to dinner and fight about later, and I think this opens up that can of worms,” she says.

“At the heart of the story is mothers and daughters and then the dynamics between sisters,” agrees Neill. “And, as a father of daughters, I recognise this very vividly.”

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