In addition to Danes and Wilson, Evening stars two real-life mother and daughter teams -- Vanessa Redgrave and Natasha Richardson and Meryl Streep and Mamie Gummer -- plus such heavy hitters as Glenn Close, Toni Collette, Hugh Dancy, and Dame Eileen Atkins. It's the sort of pedigreed cast one expects to see at Oscar time, not during the height of summer.
In the film, which has been adapted by Michael Cunningham from Susan Minot's best-selling novel, Ann Lord (Redgrave) lies dying, lapsing between consciousness and reverie while her daughters Constance and Nina (Richardson and Collette) sit at her bedside. Ann dreams of herself as a girl (Danes); of Harris (Wilson), the lost love of her life; of her best friend Lila (Gummer), Lila's mother (Close), and Lila's hapless brother Buddy (Dancy). Streep plays the grown-up Lila in a touching scene with Redgrave. And Atkins, an old friend of Redgrave, plays Ann's no-nonsense night nurse.
"My loyalty is always to the novelist, but even The Great Gatsby has never been made into a successful film," Cunningham remarks. "Susan told me, 'That's why they called you; they know they can't film this book. It's got too many characters, too many dramatic changes.' You have to pick and choose plot elements differently for a film, so a screenplay has to tone any novel way down. This may be the only time a director fought with a writer to keep things in."
Koltai first met Danes when she was just 15 and he was the cinematographer for Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays. "She was our only choice for the younger Ann," he says. "I really believe Claire could be biologically related to Vanessa, and I can't imagine anyone else but the two of them playing the two Anns. That sense of a real family was so important in this film. Obviously, having Mamie and Meryl play the same role is a gift. And as for having Natasha, well…," he ends with one of his trademark cherubic grins.
In a more reflective mode, Richardson speaks of being the daughter of such a famous mother. "Oh, it's such a tough row to hoe for anyone. As I get older, I realize that, as parents, we always wonder if we're getting it right. My sister Joely and I had a crazy childhood, and we came out all right. We've all forgiven each other our shortcomings."
Meanwhile, Danes and Gummer have gone from best friends on screen to BFFs off screen. In Evening, they play two women from very different social strata; Danes is a bohemian friend who sings at Gummer's very upscale wedding. "But I'm not the singer, Mamie is," Danes says with a giggle. "I so enjoyed having a best friend on screen. Most of the time, you don't get to see strong female relationships in films."
Unlike Danes, Gummer is more accustomed to the stage than the screen. (She'll appear later this summer in the star-studded production of Lillian Hellman's The Autumn Garden in Williamstown.) "I find the camera still seems a bit alien," she says. "I'd be projecting away, and Lajos would gently tell me to do a little less. But I felt a real kinship to Lila, even though she's a naïve young woman in the 1950s."
Dancy, who became a couple with Danes after they worked together on the film, recently finished an acclaimed turn in the Tony Award-winning revival of Journey's End, where he also played an alcoholic. "The roles call for very different excesses," he says. "Buddy is a loose cannon, while Stanhope uses alcohol as a vehicle to get him from moment to moment in the heat of battle. There are so many different kinds of drunk: angry, hurt, disappointed, romantic."
As for his totally believable American accent, Dancy reveals, "We decided not to use a coach, as I'd done other American accents, so I just tuned it up a bit. The elitism and privilege of Lila and Buddy's set certainly aren't uniquely American. Their lives are filled with strange, unspoken rules, and this emotional dishonesty hurts everyone -- especially Buddy."
And as for working with his illustrious co-stars, Dancy graciously says, "With that much talent comes great generosity, and you are made better by their skill."