Interview: Robin Weigert and Jonathan Tchaikovsky of Concussion
With Concussion, first-time writer-director Stacie Passon gives us a glimpse into the doldrums of lesbian suburbia and how a bored housewife (Robin Weigert), awakened to her unfulfilling malaise by her son (who conks her in the head with a baseball), attempts to unleash her true inner-self by becoming a hooker. Unoriginal this movie is not, in a most beautiful, sensual, riveting way.
Stars Robin Weigert and Jonathan Tchaikovsky chatted with us in the Hilton San Francisco Union Square Hotel just days after the film played to a vivacious, raucous crowd at the Castro Theater for the Frameline Film Festival back in June. We discussed the amazing crowd at the Castro, Robin’s physical performance, Jonathan relishing the role of eye candy, what’s really at the core of the film, what gay males can connect with in the film, Rainer Maria Rilke, and more.
How was the screening the other night at the Castro?
Robin Weigert: It was so fun!
Jonathan Tchaikovsky: The warmth of that room was so unique and original. It was wonderful.
Robin Weigert: It was genuinely so different than other screenings. Not that there was anything wrong with those screenings, but this was a particularly embracing, generous, attentive, responsive crowd.
Jonathan Tchaikovsky: It was so fun. It was like we were all playing together.
Robin Weigert: The laughter was great. You could feel people resonating with it, and that was incredibly gratifying.
I saw two screenings; the one at the Castro and a much smaller press screening.
Jonathan Tchaikovsky: What was that like?
Well, it seemed like the drama hit harder at the press screening and the humor hit much, much harder at the Frameline screening.
Robin Weigert: What’s nice is that there’s genuinely both. You can take it in, at least in parts of it. You can ride on the humor for a long time, or you can just take in the pathos! (laughs) You’ve got both options!
There’s your scene, Robin, with the young student where you kneel down in front of her as a bit of foreplay.
Robin Weigert: In that scene, the discomfort is partly that she feel so young and virginal. I think you genuinely don’t want her to be violated, in a way. She’s got her little backpack on, and the thought is, “Where will this go?” What’s lovely is that it goes to a place that’s sexual in a way, but it’s also gentle and empathetic. It’s scenes like that that give the dynamic feel that she’s more of a sex surrogate than a hooker. She’s nurturing through the act of sex in some of these scenarios. There’s something almost therapeutic in that relationship.
This is a sexy, sexy film.
Robin Weigert: Can’t get away from that! (laughs)
Lesbians will find it titillating, straight men will find it titillating, and straight women can find a lot of feminist themes to latch on to. How does it play with gay men? Have you spoken with any gay men who’ve seen the film?
Robin Weigert: A friend of mine, who’s a gay woman, says she actually finds the aesthetic of the film to be very gay male, which is to say, it’s very aesthetic–period. It’s got a visual beauty, and it’s not a typical lesbian film in the sense that it doesn’t get into a gritty, messy, disassembled place. I almost think it has something of a gay male aesthetic. Some gay men–not all–are repulsed by certain feminine things, and I don’t think this movie’s going to gross them out. It doesn’t put their face in it, so to speak. I also think that there’s something wonderfully exculpating for your surrogate as someone who’s unfaithful in a relationship to be a woman. It lets you off the hook in a certain way–you identify, but you don’t have to feel indicted for behavior that you might wish to engage in yourself. You can identify with my character as someone who’s extremely libidinous and isn’t satisfied within a relationship–dilemmas gay men deal with all the time. The fact that your surrogate on screen is a female allows you to look at the situation psychologically without feeling indicted by it. I think that’s a place where gay men can connect with it.
What a fantastic answer!
Robin Weigert: I speak in paragraphs! (laughs)
Jonathan Tchaikovsky: Your answer was so beautiful! Mine’s much more shallow…
Robin Weigert: Somebody hit on you! (laughs)
Jonathan Tchaikovsky: Yeah, I got hit on! (laughs) I had a group of guys come up, and they were like, “We’re all gay, and thank god you’re in the movie.” That was the response I got, but I did ask a couple of my gay friends what they thought of the story and everything. One comment I got was from my manager. He loved it. He felt that it was a surrogate for him, in a way. I think part of it was that all of the sex scenes were shot in daylight. It wasn’t dark or ashamed in any way. There was a ferocity to it, even in the way it was presented visually. There are white sheets, a lot of sunlight coming through–it’s like, let’s really enjoy looking at the person we desire. Let’s be unashamed and really enjoy the fact that I want this individual. I think that boost of confidence, in a way, came through for him. For me, I was wearing a tool belts and tank tops the whole shoot. (laughs)
Robin Weigert: Incidentally, Jonathan was looking very hot for the entire film! It was a coincidence. (laughs)
Jonathan Tchaikovsky: It was nice to reverse it in a way and kind of let myself be…not objectified…but be a showpiece in that regard. So often in the history of cinema, the female role is such a showpiece, and to have that reversed and to be…
Robin Weigert: Being the eye candy.
Jonathan Tchaikovsky: Yeah, being the eye candy. I’m like a fun puppy to play with that gets to keep everything kind of relaxed and grounded. There’s not much at stake for me, really, until he realizes, “Oh shit, we’re affecting lives here.”
I was talking to Stacie the other day about the Bechdel Test–if a movie contains two female characters who talk about something other than a man, it passes. From this perspective, I think Concussion is quite valuable.
Robin Weigert: There was a beautiful scene in Mad Men that struck me for that very reason. That show has been breaking new ground recently. [In the scene], two women were talking about ways to have power in the office. It was such a striking moment. They were figuring out whose way was the best way to run the office. It wasn’t a cat fight.
Jonathan Tchaikovsky: A lot of times female characters are trying to fight each other or scheme against each other. That’s a result of a patriarchal type of surrounding.
Robin Weigert: What’s interesting to me is that I get a little nervous hit when I see that. “Is that allowed in public?!” It’s so rare. It feels like a “eureka” every time you see women deal with something like that on screen. This film revolves around sex–which is not atypical–but in a very different way. I like the way the film invites conversation because there could be people who would want to argue that it’s once again the idea of empowerment through sex and others that could be making the argument you’re making. I like it as a conversation piece, and that’s what it’s been for a lot of my friends who have seen it. They talk about it, they talk about it the next day, the felt about it, they thought about it. [The film] doesn’t solve anything for you. It just keeps things open to conversation.
Jonathan Tchaikovsky: From its humanity, to the issues it addresses, to what it says about sexuality and removing gender roles in a way, this is a film that my friends who don’t work within the industry wanted to see again.
Stacie mentioned the scene you two have together where you’re working on fixing up a wall in the apartment. I think that scene is unique because Jonathan’s character–who is a complete “dude”, with hammers and power tools and boots–is giving his lesbian friend advice about her wife. It’s very rare to come across a scene like that.
Robin Weigert: I think one of the sources of comedy is this woman, who’s going through a midlife crisis, rather than going to some wise sage and saying, “Tell me, how shall I proceed?”, she goes to these kids! (laughs) Guide me! How do I become what I must become, old wise one! (laughs) It’s like she’s saying, “How does one be free?”
Jonathan Tchaikovsky: “Try making some bad decisions with us! It’s a lot of fun!”
Robin, you deliver the dialog beautifully, but a lot of your performance is very physical–your body language is so emotive.
Robin Weigert: It’s funny, somebody asked about my facial expressions. Those are inadvertent for me. I have a face that’s very transparent. It’s not a set of choices on my part. The amount of work I did on my body for the film was so that I could forget about my body. I didn’t want to think about my body or have self conscious thoughts. Everything in the script had to do with–in that suburban effort of perfection–how much time she spends on herself. There’s the aspect of a gerbil on a treadmill, endlessly cycling along toward nothing, but just trying to do it right. That’s such a huge aspect of how she’s trying to make it work for herself, by killing herself in that way. I think it did something chemically to me, to be in that mode where I was on a restricted calorie count and doing a lot of working out. You’re humming to a different frequency when you’re doing that. There’s a sexual hunger to it, but there’s also a miasma to it, like you’re lost inside yourself. It’s oddly very dulling.
There’s that great shot of you sitting next to that mountain of laundry.
Robin Weigert: Yeah, and it feels like that.
Robin, it must have been nerve-wracking to watch this movie with a room full of strangers for the first few times, since you put so much of yourself out there physically. Has it gotten less frightening as you’ve traveled with the film more?
Robin Weigert: Yes, and this screening was the least frightening, because it was like a celebration. It’s nice to have that. The most frightening was the first screening at Sundance. I had never seen [the film] all the way through. I looked to my left, and it was all men with badges. They all seemed very austere. I imagined them having incredibly critical thoughts. My belly turned to acid as I was sitting there. “I’ve come to my execution!” (laughs) This screening was great. I don’t think there’s any person, straight or gay, who doesn’t have some adolescent shame around sexuality. I think that there’s a way in which getting to be the opposite of punished for being expressive of yourself sexually in front of people is a healing thing. I think it’s a beautiful thing that everyone should experience. Everyone should make a movie about being a hooker! (laughs) Because, you’ve done the thing that’s very frightening, and people are saying, “Yes! That’s great!” (laughs) It’s surreal.
The film has feminist themes, gay themes, sexual themes. What is at the core of Concussion to you?
Jonathan Tchaikovsky: The nation is in a state of pubescence, almost. We’re not that old yet, we’re still new, we’re a little sexually confused, we’re kind of aggressive. This film touches on the humanity that we sometimes have to relinquish to the possibility of what might tear us down and see how strong our legs really are.
Robin Weigert: I just feel like I’m going to sound so pretentious!
Jonathan Tchaikovsky: I just called our entire country a teenager. (laughs) You’re okay!
Robin Weigert: I would go to Rilke for my answer, which is to say the highest form of love relationship is two people managing to be the guardians of each others’ solitude, which is his expression. We engage in our relationships without that in mind. We imagine our partner is supposed to solve everything for us, and feed us in every way we need to be fed. In whatever way people work it out with each other, in terms of monogamy or non-monogamy or whatever their particular solution to the dilemma is, I think the most loving thing you can be for someone else is someone who can stand at the door and allow you to be your full self. That’s the hardest thing to give one another. It requires letting go of everything to get to that point. I know I’m laying that on top of the film–I don’t think Stacie explicitly goes after that–but the more I see it, the more I get that from it. In the scene between the two women on the steps, which is this sort of reckoning that’s wonderfully underwritten, what I see is two people who are seeing each other for the first time. They’re looking with full recognition of who they are and their weaknesses, and full recognition of who the other is, and their weaknesses. I feel like they arrive at a starting place.