ABOVE: DUSTIN LANCE BLACK ON THE SET OF VIRGINIA.
Incorporating fake pregnancies, magic Mormon underwear, and schizophrenia, the plot of the new film Virginia may be appear to be a far-fetched yarn—but the dark comedy has its roots in the childhood of writer and director Dustin Lance Black.
Black, who won an Oscar for his Milk screenplay, says the idea for the film initially started when he talked to friends in Los Angeles about growing up as a Mormon with a disabled single mother in Texas. “They would all give me this pitiful look, like, ‘You poor thing, you had to do that to survive,'” recalls Black. “I thought ‘Boy, that’s strange,’ that’s really not how Southerners look at their condition.”
The film follows the misadventures of its schizophrenic title character, played with exuberant innocence by Jennifer Connelly, and her teenage son Emmett, played by newcomer Harrison Gilbertson. Virginia’s life starts to unravel when her long time affair with a married Mormon sheriff (Ed Harris) is threatened by his run for office and her son simultaneously falls for his lovely if pious daughter (Emma Roberts).
While the film has moments of tragedy, Black manages to keep a sense of optimism throughout the movie. It’s that element of hope that Black wanted to explore in a film about both Southerners and Mormons. “As a Southerner and as a Mormon you approach life in this aspirational way: ‘I will rise above my station,'” says Black. “There’s almost like a delusion attached to it, when you get really Southern, [and] there’s the same thing in the Mormon culture. You have this idea that this life is kind of a test for the next life.”
That delusion is embodied by Virginia herself, who remains upbeat about her future even when she can’t quite embrace the reality of her present. While Virginia’s naiveté could be annoying, Connelly manages to keep her appealing by highlighting her intense devotion to those she loves. The actress was the first cast member to sign on to the film, nearly two years before production started. Connelly initially met with Black when he was still just a writer for HBO’s Big Love and before he had started on Milk.
“At the time no one gave a damn who I was,” Black says. “She liked the script and story and the character and had some faith in me. She has been an ally the whole way.”
Finding an actor to play Virginia’s devoted but overwhelmed son Emmett took a bit more effort. Black recalls looking for actors with producer Gus Van Sant, who was also casting his film Restless. “We were both struggling to find actors who hadn’t gone through the Los Angeles young actors machine [which] makes them sort of into quote ‘actors,'” says Black. “They pick up a lot of bad habits.”
Black finally found his Emmett when he saw Harrison Gilbertson’s taped audition. “I was like ‘Wow, he’s Southern already, he’s great.’ He seemed completely natural,” Black remembers. “I made a phone call and they were like, ‘Actually he’s Australian and a big deal over there.'”
For Black, it’s Emmett’s interactions with his mother that echo elements of his childhood. Black’s mother was paralyzed from polio and he was partially raised by another family member, who suffered from schizophrenia. But while that reads like the start of a bleak biography, Black says he loved spending time with her as a child.
“I didn’t know anything was wrong with her,” recalled Black. “I just thought she was the best adult I’d ever met in her life, until someone told me I can’t trust everything she says.”
VIRGINIA IS OUT IN THEATERS TODAY.