David Schwimmer is the director of a new film called “Trust,” the heartbreaking story of a 14-year-old girl who is molested by an internet predator and the devastating effect it has not just on her but on her family. It is a sensitive, thoughtful, compassionate drama that avoids the overheatedness of television movies. Schwimmer is best known for appearing as Ross on “Friends,” but his accomplishments also include co-founding the distinguished Lookingglass Theatre and directing “Run Fat Boy, Run.” I spoke to him about how is work with a program for survivors of sexual abuse inspired this story and working with actors as experienced as Tony-award winner Viola Davis and as inexperienced as newcomer Liana Liberato.
Tell me how this movie came about.
I’ve been a part of this organization, The Rape Foundation, for fourteen years and a member of the board for the last ten. This movie is inspired by the child victims and their families that I met and it was developed in conjunction with the counselors there and one friend who is an agent with the FBI who worked on these cased for many years until he burned out. The people who work on the “Innocent Images” program have a psych test every six months and the burnout rate is very high. When he had his own daughter, he had to quit. These people are real heroes to me.
A few years ago, we had a fund-raising event for The Rape Foundation and for the first time, we invited a father to speak about what he went through when his 14-year-old was brutally raped. What he described was so devastating to me, so moving, it make me realize that this traumatizes the whole family. He was a big, lumbering guy, a professional, not at all a public speaker, shaking the whole time in front of this crowd of 1000. But he articulated so beautifully his combination of grief, and what a lot of these fathers describe as an incapacitating rage, and impotence because they can’t do anything and men want to fix the problem. He described all these feelings — guilt, shame, responsibility, and it almost destroyed his marriage, his work, his relationship with all of his kids. And I thought, “That’s a lens I haven’t seen before, the father/daughter relationship.” So I started the process of developing it and writing it.
The therapist is played by one of the finest actresses in the world, Viola Davis.
I love Viola. She was my first choice. She is such a presence in the film and she was only on the set for two days. Some of her scenes were among the toughest in the movie and they were the first two days of filming. The person she plays is inspired by Gail Abarbanel, director of The Rape Foundation, so we named the character Gail. She had that combination of strength and compassion, a grounded presence, never talking down to a kid, incredible generosity of spirit. This issue was important to her and she wanted to do it. Everyone came to the table because the story meant a lot to them for personal reasons. We didn’t want it to be a series of scenes in a therapist’s office. What she does in four scenes is just remarkable.
The most heartbreaking part of the movie is realizing that what the rapist did to the girl’s body is nothing compared to what he did to her spirit. It is very painful for her to let go of her insistence that she is special to him.
Her eventual realization that she wasn’t ever loved — that’s the most brutal part.
How did you talk to Liana Liberato about the role?
She is a remarkable, gifted actor for any age, and fearless. To be able to take direction as well as seamlessly, effortlessly is astonishing. And when you meet her in person you will be doubly amazed because in person she’s just a kid, so shy and gawky and inexperienced. She got it, she understood this person from the get-go. I met her and worked with her a few times and had her read with Clive and Catherine. They said, “That’s our daughter.” We were equally jealous of her talent. I made it clear to her she had to take this on as her own research project. She immersed herself in the world, met with girls from The Rape Foundation. We did a lot of table reads and listened to their input and their instincts. I intentionally put the hotel scene toward the end of the schedule so she would feel as comfortable as possible with me. It was her choice and instinct not to spend any time with the actor who played the predator. By the time we did the scene, she was really nervous and anxious about it and that worked for the scene. I let her know that every step of the way, she was in control. The lingerie she was wearing was built for her with special lining for modesty. A wardrobe assistant who befriended her was with her off camera. The actor who plays the predator was equally uncomfortable — I had to take care of him, too. I explained every thing he was going to do so every step of the way both of them knew what was happening. She could lose herself in her imagination and be unsafe in her interior but know that her physical world was safe. There as a line we had written where she said, “You don’t think I’m fat?” I know really thin girls say that, but she wanted to say, “You don’t think my body’s weird?” I wanted her to own this person and that is the line we used.
Tell me about casting and directing the actor who plays the rapist.
The first step was casting someone who is in my research and experience more like the guys that are commonly like this. They are our neighbors, our teachers, our coaches, our pastors, our doctors. You can’t see evil coming. Traditionally the guy is portrayed as a weird creepy guy living with his mom and I wanted to shatter that. The other thing that was important to me was the ending. I didn’t want the audience to leave the theater on an exhale. “Everything’s good, that story’s resolved, where do you want to eat?” I wanted people to leave more active and engaged.
What have you learned as an actor from the directors you’ve worked with?
I tried to study every director and take the best stuff and remember things I didn’t like, how I was treated, how a set was run. As an actor, I can sense it if the crew’s not happy, if they’re not supported or if they’re overworked. If you have a director who is screaming at some prop assistant because they’ve got the wrong prop or everyone is in fear of losing their job or being yelled at — that was something I resolved never to do. If there is a problem, I never raise my voice on set. My job is to create the right kind of atmosphere on set to tell the story I am telling. In “Run, Fat Boy Run,” there was a lot of humor on the set. On this set, sometime we needed a breather and some levity but for the most part I had to remind the crew that Catherine or whoever is raw right now, preparing for a scene, so if you have to adjust the light, try to do it sensitively.
The father in the film, played by Clive Owen, works in advertising on a campaign that shows teenagers in sexy poses.
He doesn’t understand that he is being complicit. I wanted it to add to his feeling of culpability. My hope is that in that scene where he finally imagines his daughter in the campaign at the launch party, it was his unconscious surfacing. I’m taking an obvious swipe at the sexualization of young people in advertising. I wish there was more public uproar about it. It’s the way I was raised, i guess, because my mom is such an activist.
How have people responded to this story?
After we shot the film I adapted it for the stage in Chicago. What was really interesting is that every night after the play we would have Q&A’s and talk backs and people would stay for an hour and then come back with their daughters. There are very few movies to help families talk about parenting. I want this to start some important conversations.