Jessica Biel has played some far-out characters in her day, from a teen nympho in The Rules of Attraction to a turn-of-the-century duchess caught between a prince and a magician in The Illusionist. But this is by far her most peculiar role yet.
In The Truth About Emanuel, in theaters Jan. 10, Biel plays Linda, a mysterious woman who moves in next door to a tortured teen, Emanuel (Kaya Scoledario), who still blames herself for her mother’s death during childbirth. Emanuel finds herself drawn to Linda, who resembles her dead mother, and agrees to babysit her newborn child. However, she soon discovers that Linda is a mentally unstable woman who believes a baby doll is a flesh-and-blood child. As the troubled Linda, Biel delivers one of the more fascinating performances of her career, and the film as a whole resembles a more surreal and horrifying version of Lars and the Real Girl.
Biel spoke to The Daily Beast about her new film, the secrets to making her relationship with husband Justin Timberlake work, and much more.
The first time I saw The Truth About Emanuel was at Sundance last year, and it was called Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes back then. But what drew you to this strange character—a mentally ill woman caring for a baby doll?
The mental state of this person, the trauma that this person has gone through, and what the brain does to the body when you experience a traumatic thing in your life was interesting to explore. I’ve never experienced anything remotely like this woman has experienced. It’s a snap in the brain, and the protective quality of the human brain is very fascinating.
Was it tough to be mothering a baby doll? Did you have trouble keeping a straight face?
It was pretty easy to become quite accustomed to it, and the weight of the doll was so human-like that when you actually picked it up, it felt like a real baby. So it was very easy to just dive into that headspace of, “This is a real thing, and this is what this person believes.” The first moment it did feel a little funny, like, people are going to laugh at me, and watching the film for the first time, people did laugh when it premiered at Sundance. I started to sink down into my seat a little bit thinking, “Oh no, this is going to go terribly wrong,” and then it became nervous laughter, and then it stopped because it started to affect people in a way they didn’t think they’d be affected. But at first, it does seem kind of ridiculous.
Did you have any dolls or toys when you were growing up that you treated as if they were alive? I remember my sister had a Tamagotchi and our family had to feed it while she was at summer camp.
I definitely had dolls when I was a kid. I don’t remember being very thorough with them and making sure they got fed in my make-believe world. A lot of Barbie haircuts were given, though. I had a Tamagotchi as well but I think that thing died really quick. They were hard to do!
There’s two parallel stories going on in The Truth About Emanuel—yours and Kaya’s coming of age thread where she experiences love for the first time. Do you remember the first person you thought you were in love with?
I was about 16 when I really thought I was in love and thought, “I can’t live without this person otherwise I’m going to die!” I’m sure I had other infatuations when I was younger, the “oh, I’m in love with that older boy, he’s so cute.” When I couldn’t be with this one particular boy that I knew when I was 16, I would sit on my floor, cry, and listen to Elvis Presley.
What was it about this boy—was he a “bad-boy?”
He was totally different from me and came from a totally different family, and yeah, he had that bad-boy thing going on which is very attractive when you’re young.
You play a young mother in The Truth About Emanuel. Is motherhood going to be in the cards for you soon? I’m sure you get asked this all the time.
It’s funny. I feel like whenever you’re dating someone, you get asked, “When are you going to get married?” and when you’re married, you get, “When are you having kids?” It’s the craziest thing—you’ll see. But yes, I do think it will be in the cards for me at some point in the future. I don’t know when. But yes, I’d like to experience that.
It really is the most interesting experiment you can do, I think.
Right. It also seems like the greatest sacrifice—and I don’t mean that in a negative way. You sacrifice pretty much everything for this person, this little thing, and it does seem crazy, but when I see my friends who have kids they tell me, “It’s worth it. We’d do anything for them.” It’s wild.
I dated someone who lived in Boston while I was in New York, and even that was a struggle for me to deal with. How do you manage seeing someone who’s this music icon that’s traveling the world constantly? I imagine that’s not the easiest thing.
You’re right. It’s not easy. You know what it’s like when you’re even dating someone from a few states away, and it’s a really big challenge. Your relationship just has to be a priority, you have to make sacrifices for it, and you have to make time to see each other no matter what. You have to pick whatever number of days as your cut-off point, and no matter what, one person has to make the journey to see the other person if one of you is far away. It has to be important enough to you to make the effort, because it is a lot of effort.
Do you have a favorite Timberlake song? We used to rock out to “My Love” in college.
Not really, because my favorites change all the time!
What about off the new album—or albums, rather.
I really love so many songs from that double-album. I love “Only When I Walk Away” and “Drink You Away.” I love the whole thing, but those two songs I really, really love.
As far as your acting career goes, you’re very good in this, Easy Virtue, and The Illusionist—more character-driven pieces. Do you feel like you were talked into doing some of the blockbusters for the wrong reasons?
It’s really tough. It’s so easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and say, “Oh, that was a bad idea.” The thing is—you give up so much control. You do your job while you’re shooting, and then that’s it. I’m not in the editing room, I’m not sitting there with the director, and I’m not sitting with the producers. I don’t have any of that capacity, but I’m hoping to produce my own things so I will have that capacity. It’s such a gamble that everybody takes when you agree to do something. And sometimes you make a decision because you need to pay your rent, sometimes you make decisions because people are talking to you about “international value,” and to do a movie that would do well internationally, even though it’s not the right creative choice for you because if you can do that, then maybe you can do that small character piece that you really want to do. And usually, the ones that look right on paper are the ones where you go, “What was I thinking?!” and the ones that look crazy, you end up going, “Wow, what a great outcome that was.”
The first time I saw Justin act was at Sundance in 2006 in Alpha Dog, and everyone thought, “Wow, this guy can act,” and now he’s a pretty prolific actor. Do you two vet each other as far as movie roles are concerned? Are you giving each other input on what roles to take and avoid?
Yeah, we do sometimes. He’s not only my partner but he’s my best friend, so he’s someone whose opinion I respect and if I can’t get a clear view of the project and just need an outside perspective I’ll ask him to read something. But most of the time, I’m confident about what I love and don’t need anyone else’s advice. That’s how I felt about The Truth About Emanuel. I thought, “I need to do this. I don’t care who it’s with, I don’t know the director very well, but I have to do this movie.” That’s what I told my representation and they said, “OK!” And then I had to audition for it and got it.
One film I was very excited about—and I’m sad hasn’t come out yet—is Nailed. Is this project ever going to come out? I heard it’s almost done shooting and it’s a screwball comedy with you in the lead, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Catherine Keener, directed by David O. Russell. It’s crazy.
You know, I wish I had an answer for you—I wish I had an answer for me. This particular film is such a heartbreak for me because I had such a great time working with David, and it was such a wild and wonderful experience. For me, it was like, “Wow, I really am a part of something special,” and I’m such a big David fan, so when all the stuff came down with the financing and everything, it’s just like the knife gets shoved deeper into my gut every time I hear something else about it. Is it going to come out? I don’t know. I heard it might come out on DirecTV or Video-on-Demand, but we haven’t finished it. There’s a big scene that we’re missing and it was never fully finished. I’m sure it can be doctored in some way where it appears like it was finished, but I’m not sure. It’s a bummer.
You have this upcoming project that you’re acting in and producing, The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, an indie drama with you and Chloe Grace Moretz starring, which sounds intriguing, and rumor has it Justin is also doing the music for it.
This is something that my producing partner, Michelle Purple, and me have been working on for about six years now. It’s so funny how things get written up. It hasn’t even been shot yet. But it’s a huge passion project for me, and yes, Justin said that he wants to do the music—but we haven’t even shot it yet. If the movie becomes the piece that we all think and hope it will be, and I think it’s worthy of it, I’ll ask Justin if he will do that, but we have to shoot this thing first. It’s very challenging to get this tiny films made. We’re gonna make it this year! That’s my New Year’s resolution.