In the Library with Jennifer Westfeldt

Published March 26, 2014

ABOVE: JENNIFER WESTFELDT IN REHEARSALS FOR THE LIBRARY. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE PUBLIC.

Writer Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh like to play with narratives and misinformation. This is particularly evident in their last collaboration, the 2013 film Side Effects, and it is at the center of their newest work, The Library.

Starring Chloë Grace Moretz as Caitlin Gabriel, a survivor of a school shooting, the play is loosely inspired by two former Columbine students, Valeen Schnurr and Cassie Bernall. On April 20th of 1999, both girls were in the library when the student shooters attacked them. Schnurr survived; Bernall did not. When asked by one of the killers, “Do you believe in God?” both girls allegedly affirmed their faith. Or perhaps they didn’t. In the immediate aftermath of the story, the “yes” was attributed to Bernall—rumors of her courage spread far beyond the high school population; her mother wrote a book about her daughter’s faith. When witnesses came forward saying it was actually Schnurr who said “yes,” the community was suspicious—their story was already established and immortalized.

The Library, however, is a work of fiction. It is not about Columbine, or any particular school shooting, and the characters never existed. “I think the play is trying to get at how, in the face of calamity, people grasp onto narratives that help them cope, whether or not they happen to be true,” explains actress and filmmaker Jennifer Westfeldt, who plays Caitlin’s mother in the play. “We often glom onto a narrative to protect us, and we don’t even necessarily change our perspective when we find out the truth,” she continues. “Everybody in this play, including Elizabeth, is trapped in the story they’ve chosen to create and/or believe. How those narratives relate to the truth varies from person to person and character to character in the story. It’s an every-shifting relation.”

After four weeks of rehearsal, The Library began its previews yesterday at The Public. We spoke with Westfeldt on Friday evening from a landline at the theater.

EMMA BROWN: Can you tell me a little about your character in the play?

JENNIFER WESTFELDT: I’m in an incredibly tragic situation at the top of the play, like everyone; my daughter, played by Chloë Grace Moretz, has survived this horrific school shooting, but just barely. She’s critically injured and wounded. As the play unfolds, there are certain narratives that come forward that implicate her in, and other narratives competing with that. Finding and feeling and understanding the truth is sort of everyone’s journey in the piece. Elizabeth, my character, is struggling with that, and struggling with how to cope and how to be a good parent and what the right thing to say is and not to say. She’s struggling with what to believe and what not to believe, and how to support her daughter and grieve properly and deal with this trauma that they’ve all experienced. She’s kind of a mess. [laughs]

BROWN: Would you prefer to be blissfully ignorant than to know the truth?

WESTFELDT: No, I’m the dead opposite. I probably identify with Caitlin’s character the most, in terms of myself. It’s been interesting to try and get into the skin of Elizabeth, who I think is quite different from me.

BROWN: Do you have a point of entry for her?

WESTFELDT: Scott has such specific ideas about who Elizabeth is. I think for him, she’s inspired by several people in his life or several people he’s met. I’ve been trying to understand his vision and where she comes from for him, and then apply that to my own life and people I’ve met.

BROWN: Has it affected how you view more mundane lies, a white lie?

WESTFELDT: I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Dave Cullen’s book on Columbine, called Columbine, but I read it before starting rehearsals and it’s incredible. [Cullen] spent over a decade with every family involved—everyone related to the tragedy. Reading Dave Cullen’s book and realizing how much I didn’t know about that one tragedy—how much was misreported and how many threads were never really properly put out there or believed because the early falsehoods were so strong. I consider myself as someone who is pretty diligent about finding out all the facts about something, and a lot of that book was news to me. It made me think we must do this all the time; we must be accepting these half-truths and even erroneous narratives more than we know.

BROWN: It seems to be happening now with the missing airplane.

WESTFELDT: Absolutely. Discussing that story every day in rehearsal was so interesting as a mirror to these themes. It really has been the thing on everybody’s lips: details changing by the moment, reporting changing by the moment.

BROWN: Is Scott generally present in rehearsals?

WESTFELDT: Yes, he’s been doing rewrites everyday. He and Steven have been working together for many years and they have such a great collaborative working relationship and trust—a wonderful rapport and teamsmanship.

BROWN: Has working with Steven lived up to your expectations?

WESTFELDT: Yes. I think Steven is born to be a director because he is a great leader; he’s just wonderfully decisive and clear and has a vision, but he’s also a tremendous collaborator. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and he’s also an incredibly calming presence.

BROWN: Do you remember your first ever role?

WESTFELDT: I do. I was Alice in Alice and Wonderland in the fourth grade. [laughs] That’s when it all began!

BROWN: That’s a prime part.

WESTFELDT: Well, because it was the fourth grade, we had two casts and two performances. I was Alice in one, and my friend Amy Wilson was Alice in the other, so everyone got a shot. It was sort of egalitarian and proper, looking back.

BROWN: Is that actually what sparked your interest in acting? Or did it come later?

WESTFELDT: No, it was right then, honestly. As soon as I did a play, I really knew it was for me.

BROWN: Do you feel like a play gets better at the end of a run?

WESTFELDT: I often think it gets better and better as you hit a stride because you really find new things. One of the great privileges of doing theater is you get so many at-bats—you get to try it eight times a week and every audience is different, everyday is different. I think that a piece really does grow and lift as you discover new moments and you feel new audiences and you sink into the story.

BROWN: Do you think about your characters after a film or a play is over?

WESTFELDT: I do, yes. All of them. I’m always amazed that if you pick up a script of something you played years ago, it all comes back so quickly. Even in your body, you remember your blocking and how it felt.

BROWN: Is it difficult to get out of character? Do you find yourself narrating your life in the voice of the character?

WESTFELDT: I feel that way more about the world of the piece. Since I started thinking about this play—preparing for it and now being in rehearsal and doing research—my dreams are pretty disturbing when I sleep at all. It’s a very difficult piece to sit with and to live with. It’s a dark, sad subject matter and it’s also very affecting because it just makes you think about the world a little bit differently and ask questions about the way we receive information—how do we collectively respond to disaster? How do we collectively respond to grief? How do we get to the other side of unthinkably painful things? Can we move on? Do we ever move on? Certainly as New Yorkers, we can all relate to that in so many ways, but obviously 9/11.

BROWN: Were you in the city at that time?

WESTFELDT: No, I was actually in Toronto. My first film Kissing Jessica Stein (2001) debuted on September 10th, and we woke up to that. It was so surreal and so tragic and I just wanted to get back to New York immediately, which I did on Thursday morning when we finally could get a van—there were 15 of us in the minivan that finally got to come back into this city. [Everyone] couldn’t have been kinder or more sympathetic, but it was happening to us and it was very strange not to be in the city and it was very strange not to be in the country.

THE LIBRARY IS CURRENTLY IN PREVIEWS AT THE PUBLIC THEATER IN NEW YORK, AND WILL RUN THROUGH APRIL 27. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT THE PUBLIC’S WEBSITE.