Katherine LaNasa stars in “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” a new 1960’s Southern family drama co-written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton. LaNasa, Thornton, Kevin Bacon, and Robert Patrick play the children of a World War I veteran named Jim Caldwell (Robert Duvall). When their mother dies in England, her British second husband (John Hurt) and his children (Frances O’Connor and Ray Stevenson) bring her body home to Alabama for her funeral. The conflicts between and within the two families are sometimes comic, sometimes romantic, and sometimes painful. LaNasa’s character, Donna, is a former beauty queen, the sister of three World War II veterans with varying physical and emotional scars, affectionate with her family and children but not very satisfied in her marriage. The title of the film comes from Caldwell’s fondness for examining the scenes of car wrecks.
Tell me how you first found out about this project.
Well, actually I was in Cannes with my son who was starring in Gus Van Sant’s movie, “Restless.” And I thought, well, this is what this comes to, I’m the mom of a well known actor. [laughter] I got a call about it and I decided to leave early. Henry was having a big time partying with Mick Jagger while I was sitting in my hotel, so I thought perhaps – oh he was about 20 at the time – so he was old enough, but I thought, oh I’m going back and audition and I’m so glad I did. And that’s how I came to find out about it. I was actually up for a smaller role – but the role just had scattered lines here and there, so Billy had me read the role of Donna in order to audition for the smaller role. He was actually being pressured to cast a movie star in the Donna role. So I just got really lucky. [laughter]
How did you work on the Alabama accent to develop an authentic feel to it?
I am southern, from Louisiana, so that helped. And I just based a little bit off of Lucas Black, from “Slingblade” [also written by Billy Bob Thornton]. There was something in the character of Donna that reminded me oddly of the boy character in Slingblade.” There was a kind of unabashed sense of self – like his whole self was just very forward. I don’t feel that either of those characters had any shame. They just sort of were exactly who they were. And there was just that made me think about that kid in “Slingblade” when I started to work on the character of Donna. I kinda tried to morph that into Donna. Then of course when she’s flirting turns into this whole other thing – with the voice down low – which my grandmother has a bit of that, and I also kinda wanted there to be this “hickiness” to the accent at times, like when I speak to my husband. I’d say “Oh Jimbo” not that it was oh so grounded and soft and finished like people sometimes do when they do a Southern accent. I wanted it to have some of that twang that you hear in Lucas’ accent and a lot of the accents in the Deep South.
Your character had long and complicated histories with the other characters that were not always reflected in the dialogue. What did you do to develop the family relationships and the back story with the other actors?
Billy said something to me at the beginning about the shooting that I thought was so informative and great which was “I think Donna is probably more herself in this town, where she has got to be a big star, because, seriously, she was Miss Alabama – she’s from this tiny town –I mean everybody’s gotta know Donna. Plus, sides the fact they are probably the richest people in town. And everybody liked her.” And I thought – oh wow – how great it is to play a character that everyone loves. So, that was in my brain. It gave me permission to just have fun. And to just be well liked and just step into Donna the whole time that we were shooting. So the funny thing is that the relationships just started to become that while we were there. It’s like I was really the only female that was always around. All the men would look to me to do the social planning. It got to the point where Billy’s wife was calling me to ask, could I take Billy’s son under my wing – into the fold – it’s like [laughter] hilarious. I said, “You know, I’m not actually Donna.” Ducall would refer to me as Donna. I love to work that way because I thought, “My only job here is to just get to know my brothers. It’s to have a good time, be the well-liked center of attention and get to know these guys.” And I thought that that would read on film, the more that I got to know them. Billy is a very together-y guy. When he’s shooting, he likes for everyone to do stuff together and go listen to music together or have some beers and pizza together – he likes a lot of that.
When I first met Robert Patrick I died – he is so scary looking – he is a scary looking man. He has a cigar and he rides a motorcycle and in real life he mostly just wears black t-shirts. If I had just shown up on the set to do that role with him, I think I would have played that scene completely differently. I would have felt like I had to stand up to him, which in a way – would make him look like he has more power. When I realized that he was a sweetheart through hanging out with him so much I realized there’s this kinda soft inside to him – in his character as well – and that Donna wouldn’t be intimidated by him. Donna would just tell him to shut up.
I just let things come to me. I personally like to hang out with people if I’m playing their mom, I’d like to go have lunch with the kid and I want to try to spend as much time with people that I can while we are working together if we’re supposed to have a familiar relationship with them because I think it reads.
My favorite scene with your character was the one where you were in bed with Philip because Donna has a lot more willingness to be honest than you normally see in a scene like that. So tell me a little bit about how that scene came together.
That’s what I’m talking about, that same vibe that I got off that kid in “Slingblade.” It’s really all so raw. That complete, sort of unabashed lack of shame, there’s no dancing around it. I really wanted to hit it – to be pronounced.