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02.04.10

HBO's Autistic Hero

Claire Danes plays Temple Grandin in an HBO movie that showcases the autistic inventor, advocate, and author’s amazing mind. Jace Lacob talks to Danes, and to Grandin.

HBO's biopic Temple Grandin, which airs Saturday night at 8 p.m., explores the life of the extraordinary Temple Grandin. The author, professor, scientific pioneer, and autism advocate brought about revolutionary change in the way livestock are handled in the United States, transforming her autism into a powerful tool, aided by the unique way she sees the world: in pictures.

Claire Danes, 30, plays Grandin over a period of nearly 20 years. The film unfolds nonlinearly, jumping between a 1966 moment of profound connection with the cows on a farm run by her aunt (Catherine O'Hara), a childhood in the 1950s spent with her determined mother Eustacia Cutler (Julia Ormond), and her graduate studies at the feedlots and ranches of sweltering 1970s Arizona, before ending in 1981. As Grandin used her keen scientific mind to create opportunity for herself, she also fundamentally changed the way in which we treat the animals we raise for food.

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The film is a labor of love for executive producer Emily Gerson Saines, herself the mother of an autistic child. Gerson Saines was given a copy of Grandin's 1996 book Thinking in Pictures, and found hope and inspiration in Grandin's journey, seeing someone with autism who had emerged, not with a normal life, but as someone quite exceptional.

Bringing Grandin's singular way of seeing the world to life is director Mick Jackson ( L.A. Story, Live From Baghdad). Jackson is no stranger to the world of science himself, having worked as a scientific journalist for the BBC before embarking on a career in film and television. The movie is filled with optical illusions, visual patterns, and literal sight gags, all based on the way that Grandin herself processes information.

"I attempted to show the quicksilver nature of her thinking, where she makes visual associations," Jackson said. "She can memorize the page of a French textbook even though she doesn't speak French very well. She can memorize things she saw long ago and make connections between those and things she has just seen."

"The bull testicle thing actually happened," Temple Grandin said, referring to an incident in the film in which ranch hands vandalized her truck with bull testicles. "That's not fictionalized."

Jackson was quick to point out that Temple Grandin isn't a typical made-for-television movie. "The form of the movie is usually the same," said Jackson. "The person has an affliction, it's a triumph for the human spirit, they overcome it, and they lead a normal life. This was not that. This was an exceptional woman who was trapped… inside this cage of autism. [She was] was not just a normal person trying to get out, but an abnormal person trying to get out. A person with exceptional abilities, exceptional intellect, [and an] exceptionally forceful personality, who saw a way in the world we could learn from."

Jackson only wanted Claire Danes to play Grandin, after he saw her in an Off-Broadway play based on Andrew Wyeth's painting, Christina's World. He was impressed with Danes' dedication to the role, which involved a short film in which she dragged herself on her stomach through the streets of Manhattan and up the theater steps. "I thought, that is sheer dedication and cajones," said Jackson.

For Danes, it was akin to leaping out of a window.

"I had a sense of Temple and was curious about her and impressed by her, but, of course, didn't fully appreciate how remarkable she was until I started learning about her a bit more," said Danes. "It was intimidating and daunting, but my fascination with her just became so strong that I had to say yes. I had to commit."

"Claire is a wonderful observer of life," said Gerson Saines. "She really sees detail. She's not as tall as Temple, she's drop-dead gorgeous, so on the surface to many people she wouldn't seem like the ideal choice… What Claire didn't want to do was an impersonation of Temple. She wanted to make it very honest."

"Playing somebody who is wired in a fundamentally different way is very hard, and there are obvious limitations that will always be in place," said Danes. "I can't change the way my brain works... I had to be so hyper-vigilant while playing her because she wouldn't take anything for granted. She felt, especially in the earlier years, great social anxiety and panic. Temple explained to me that every time she walked in to a new room it's like there would be snakes on the floor. The possibility of danger was incredibly acute. I found [it] very exhausting to be just so guarded and so prepared for catastrophe all the time."

Ask Grandin what she thinks of Danes' performance and she gushes. "Oh, brilliant, brilliant," said Grandin. "Watching her was like going into a weird '60s and '70s time machine."

Grandin's moment of clarity came as a teenager on her aunt's farm as she connected with the cows, sensing a kinship with the prey animals that were easily spooked. Watching how calm and docile the cows were after being placed in a cattle press, Grandin climbed into the press herself, demanding that her aunt close it on her. The experience led Grandin to develop her own version of the equipment: a squeeze or "hug" machine that is now used to calm hypersensitive people and which gave her a sense of stillness and tranquility that she couldn't normally achieve.

Grandin demanded authenticity in the film when it came to demonstrating her many inventions, including the squeeze machine, a cattle dip, and an automated slaughterhouse that killed cattle more humanely. "[Those were] recreated absolutely accurately off of original drawings," said Grandin. "There are some events in the movie where they had to compress and somewhat fictionalize, but my projects are absolutely accurate."

Unfortunately, so too are some of the negative influences she encountered as a graduate student in rural Arizona. "The cattle stuff's absolutely accurate; where I got kicked out of the feed yard because the cowboys' wives didn't like it. That happened. The bull testicle thing actually happened," she said, referring to an incident in which ranch hands vandalized her truck with bull testicles. "That's not fictionalized."

Grandin did allow one untrue detail to slip through the cracks in order to honor a mentor who—along with her mother and aunt—inspired her during her turbulent teenage years and pushed her to reach her dreams. Professor Carlock (David Straithairn) was her teacher at the Hampshire County School, a boarding school for gifted teens, and he supported Grandin's scientific curiosity until his death.

In the film, Professor Carlock is identified as "Dr. Carlock." The real-life Carlock, who had worked at NASA and who kept a space helmet in his classroom, never received a Ph.D. While Grandin noticed the film's error, she didn't make any move to correct the production team, seeing it as an opportunity to honor her beloved mentor, who passed away many years ago.

"I thought he deserved an honorary doctorate," said Grandin as she blinked back tears, her voice shaky with emotion. "I can't even talk about that without getting choked-up. Because a good teacher like Carlock, they make all the difference for a student… He gave me a goal of becoming a scientist to get me to study."

Carlock wasn't the only one who prodded Grandin toward reaching her potential. As many doors as Grandin walked through on her own, some were held open by those who loved her and perhaps even those who would see her fail.

"If you just think about the energy the people around her [were] putting into Temple's life—her mother, her aunt, Dr. Carlock and even the negative energy that comes from the hostility and chauvinism of the cowboys—you'd see there is a tremendous amount of [energy] pushing her into the real world, and not shielding her," said Jackson. "[The film is] a gift to her, but also a gift to us, in that she has enriched our lives in basic terms, as in the way we treat animals and the understanding of that. And what we understand in the full, much fuller than we originally thought, range of human behavior, that defines us as human beings."

Gerson Saines agrees. "My greatest desire is that [the film] brings hope to the ever growing number of parents of autistic children and helps them just to get through those early years with something to aspire to," she said. "We're not all the same. To use who you are to your greatest effect is just fine. That, in and of itself, is an achievement."

Grandin also wants the film to challenge people's preconceptions about autism. "I hope it gives people an understanding. An autistic person can keep developing," she said. "But in order to keep developing, you've got to get out and do new things…. I had great support but I also had motivation. One thing that motivated me after I got out into college and doing more projects, was that I wanted to prove to people I wasn't stupid. That was a motivator. When I was doing all those projects I'd say, 'Well, I'm not mentally retarded if I could design a dip vat.'"

Grandin's autism shaped who she is today and, despite its innate limitations, enabled her to approach the world with perception of an outsider. Not surprisingly, she is against any possible "cure" for autism, believing that the breadth of the neurological spectrum is essential for societal progress.

"You certainly don't want to get rid of all autism traits because if you did, all you'd have is a bunch of social yakkity yaks," said Grandin. "Let's go back to the caveman: you had the social yakkity yaks around the campfire. Who was in the back of the cave figuring out how to make the first stone spear? It wasn't the social yakkity yaks, that's for sure."

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Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.