The last time that Serenity stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway worked together, it was under decidedly different circumstances: the film was Christopher Nolan’s 2014 epic Interstellar, with McConaughey playing a pilot and Hathaway a scientist who journey through a wormhole to save humanity. Although it’s been five or so years since that project’s production and promotion cycle ended, McConaughey says that they maintain a long-distance friendship.
“For me most this business and relations at work are transitory,” he explains as he and Hathaway sit down with Den of Geek in a Los Angeles hotel to discuss Serenity. “By design you’re closer with most people at the time when you’re working because it’s intense. You’re working together and then you go on a press tour and you’re around each other and you’re with each other’s families and then, poof, you go away. And I don’t have that many relationships that I maintain. Anne and I don’t call each other every week, (but) we do still keep in touch.”
The characters in Interstellar did not have a past together, which is not the case in Serenity. McConaughey plays a perpetually hungover charter fisherman named Baker Dill, who has escaped his past on a remote island named Plymouth where he is obsessed with catching a particularly elusive tuna. Hathaway portrays his sultry ex-wife Karen, who shows up with her sadistic brute of a husband, Frank (Jason Clarke), and makes Baker an offer: she’ll pay him $10 million to take Frank out and feed him to the sharks, lest he continue abusing her and her son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) — who is also Baker’s son.
There is a crackling emotional and physical undercurrent to Baker and Karen’s relationship that Hathaway admits might have been more difficult to achieve if she and McConaughey hadn’t previously spent all that time in Nolan’s spaceship. “It’s not a requirement but thank goodness Interstellar went well otherwise I think it probably would have hurt,” remarks Hathaway. “But for me it definitely helped knowing that we weren’t beginning on square one…that self-consciousness, maybe, that I feel when I’m getting to know someone, particularly someone I admire the way I do Matthew. It was nice to not have to go through that again. And to actually just go, okay, I know your process, you know my process.”
“For me there was a trust that we didn’t talk about,” chimes in McConaughey. “I think we both just saw it. We met each other, we worked together, we saw how each other worked, we questioned each other, we argued with each other, we agreed with other, we disagreed with other. And it was solved. She’s a pro. And a pro, I can go on and on defining what a pro is, but a pro is all about ‘What is this scene about?’”
Finding out what each scene was about in writer/director Steven Knight’s film was likely a tricky process for both actors: Serenity starts out as a conventional — almost too conventional, to the point of being banal — noir thriller, a kinda sorta mashup of Body Heat, Out of the Past and others, before taking a wild and unexpected turn into different territory altogether that we won’t go into here. McConaughey’s character starts out as almost a cliché — the taciturn, hard-drinking, cynical loner running from his past — but soon begins to question everything he thought he knew about himself and his life.
“I always was a fan of that Mickey Rourke character in Angel Heart who was a detective in his own life,” says the actor about what drew him to Knight’s script. “Going insane trying to figure out what’s real. Was he real? Was life real? I enjoyed that tightrope and I knew that was going to be exciting for me because every scene I’m having a monologue with my son. If I’m talking to you I’m also talking to my son, if I’m talking to her I’m also talking to my son. I’m also measuring everybody… I have so many different possibilities in every scene, especially as I’m starting to learn that maybe things are not as I think they are.”
Hathaway’s Karen also starts from a familiar launching pad — she strolls into the local watering hole like the archetype of every femme fatale who ever sashayed into every film noir ever made — but Hathaway saw her in a different light even before the movie takes that wrenching turn we mentioned earlier. “The thing about Karen that I found really satisfying and worth exploring was the rage that exists that behind the mask of femininity that the male gaze creates,” she explains. “That was before the conversation surrounding #MeToo and #TimesUp had even taken off. So Steven was really onto something there.”
She continues, “For me it was about how do I present as this typical object, not just of obscure desire but specifically of male desire, how do I explore the iconography, the language of that and then in the final scene rip the mask off and show that underneath it this was a woman whose life has been contorted by abuse and rage and a lack of freedom and a lack of oxygen and a lack of space. And I’m really proud that once #MeToo and #TimesUp happened, that all of those choices that Steven and Matthew and myself and Jason all made, they all held up.”
For a film in which the very nature of the story is called into question, both actors found that shooting the picture on the island nation of Mauritius — located in the Indian Ocean about 1,200 miles off the southeast coast of Africa — added to its surreal nature. “We were going to film in the Bahamas up until a couple months before,” recalls Hathaway. “All of a sudden we just got a call from Steven saying, ‘I found a place that is everything I dreamed up and more.’ It was Mauritius and you have the sea and you have the sugarcane and you have cliffs. And then you have these incredible people.”
“Now in Mauritius you’ll have a Hindu temple across from a mosque across from a church, on a very small island,” continues the Oscar-winning actress. “Conventional thinking would say that they would be at each other’s throats all the time but the attitude of Mauritius is ‘celebrate each other. Celebrate each other’s differences’…So to be on this place that is so gorgeous, where it rains every day so there’s a million rainbows every day, and to be dealing with an energy level of people whose national currency is tolerance, it was an incredible experience. We felt very lucky to be there.”
Serenity is out in theaters today (Friday, January 25).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye