Founder of the international aid organization Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa was recognized as an icon of hope around the world during her lifetime. After her death in 1997, she became a candidate for one of the most rapid canonizations in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Written and directed by William Riead, The Letters follows Mother Teresa (Juliet Stevenson) from her childhood home in Eastern Europe to the home she created for herself in the slums of Calcutta. The film paints a human portrait of the sheltered school teacher who found the courage to enter the poverty-stricken slums of Calcutta with just five rupees in her pocket and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. But unbeknownst to the world that adored her, Mother Teresa struggled to conceal a secret she confided only in her letters to her longtime friend and spiritual advisor, Father van Exem (Max von Sydow). I sat down with the incredibly talented Juliet Stevenson to talk about the unlikely casting of her as the iconic Mother Teresa.
Danny Miller: It’s only because I think you’re so extraordinary in this film that I will admit that when I first heard about The Letters, I thought “Juliet Stevenson? She’s the last person I can imagine as Mother Teresa!” Did you have to be convinced to take on this role?
Juliet Stevenson: Oh, I totally had to be convinced. It’s literally true that when Bill Riead first rang me, I said, “Listen, I’ve just got to say that I think you have the wrong person. It can happen! I think you’re trying to reach someone else. I’m English, I’m 5’8”, I’m strongly built, and I’m not a Roman Catholic, and that’s just the beginning! But he said, “No, I know exactly who I’m speaking to!” The truth is, I LOVE being asked to play someone who is a million miles away from me, that’s absolutely my favorite thing. My job is all about transformation, I can’t bear being asked to play different versions of myself over and over again.
Or being asked to play another version of a part you’ve had great success in.
Exactly. I always say that success can be a really big problem — the first thing that happens is you get offered a hundred versions of the same thing. After Truly Madly Deeply, I got nothing but wacky girls who needed help. So after I talked to Bill, I thought, well, this would be an amazing challenge! I started looking at footage of Mother Teresa and became fascinated by her body language. I am obviously the wrong height, but her body language was so strong and particular to her that I thought, well, maybe if I can find those shapes and rhythms — that concaved chest and the shoulders always hunched up around her ears and those remarkable big floppy hands that were always touching, patting, and stroking people, completely at odds with this very tense body. She was such a wonderful contradiction in her body language that I thought, well, if I really get that right along with her accent which is another amazing cocktail of things, I can do this!
She did have the most unusual way of speaking — how did you nail that?
I went to the most wonderful accent coach, Jill McCullough and said, “What is this?” We sat and listened to her talking because there are mad mountains of tapes, and she said, “Well, there’s Albanian, there’s Indian English, there’s Hindi.” I worked very hard on that accent! I had an MP3 player with me in India and I would listen to her all the time during the breaks. So, in the end, if you get those things and find the physical shape that somebody is, something clicks in and it’s kind of miraculous — suddenly you are that person! That’s how I gave myself permission to play her.
Not to obsess about her height, but did they make any amends for that like putting other people on boxes?
Well, the first thing I asked Bill was how is this going to work since everybody knows how small she is. Mother Teresa was always looking up at people. Bill said they were going to get very tall extras! (Laughs.) I had just seen that movie with Meryl Streep where she’s bloody brilliant as Julia Child and Julia Child was well over six feet tall but you really believe it because she was playing with Stanley Tucci who’s tiny and they got all these tiny extras so it really worked. So Bill said don’t worry, everywhere you go there will be very very tall extras, but of course, this was India…good luck! That didn’t really work so I just had to do it with my body shape.
I just had this crazy thought about the big search for Scarlett O’Hara back in the 30s and how they ultimately decided it was better to have an English person playing the most quintessential American role. Apart from your physical differences to Mother Teresa, I know you’ve been vocal about your lack of religious beliefs. Was there any worry that this would be a cause of concern for people watching this movie?
I suppose there were concerns. I decided early on that I was never going to apologize for it. I’m just not going to and if some people don’t like it, so be it. That’s who I am: I’m from England and I don’t believe in God but I have a very strong value system in my life. I’m totally tolerant of religion but I’d also like to be tolerated. If I don’t stick up for that, then what am I doing?
I think what I was trying to get at in my tortured Scarlett O’Hara analogy was that it’s more about accessing the essence of what Mother Teresa was about and the real essence of what religion should be about in term of how you treat people and what your values are.
Exactly! Your Vivien Leigh analogy is really good because I do think sometimes it takes distance to really get to the truth about somebody you’re playing. For example, I think that foreign companies often do much better productions of Shakespeare than the English do. I’d rather see those plays performed in New York, Moscow, Budapest. I think in England we can be too reverent about Shakespeare — we were brought up reading, eating, and sleeping him and sometimes you need someone coming from the outside. Like I think we do very good Chekhov in England, maybe better than the Russians! I just think it can be very positive to come at something from the outside. Acting is about transforming, it’s not about playing people who are like yourself. If you had to agree with all your characters, you’d never play Lady Macbeth, somebody who thinks it’s a good idea for her husband’s career to commit homicide. I certainly don’t believe that, but nobody questions my playing Lady Macbeth!
Especially, in this case, when you’re making a film where you’re trying to show the human being behind the saint.
Yes, absolutely! You can’t play saints, you can’t play legends, they don’t exist — it’s just somebody living their life and it’s the rest of the world who decides they’re a legend. So I was interested in going behind the scenes and saying, “Who are you in all of this?”
But using your Lady Macbeth analogy, to play Mother Teresa effectively, do you at least have to wrap your head around her viewpoints that you don’t agree with?
To be truthful, in the UK she is something of a a controversial character because of what she’s said about contraception and abortion and other issues —I think there’s more of a complicated response to her. And I do not share her views, of course, on those issues. But I would say two things about that. One is that, again, I must play people with whom I don’t agree but I do try to understand them — that’s where the humanizing part of acting comes in. Second, I would say when I went to India I felt very differently about her. Have you been?
No, but I would love to go there some day.
Oh, you should. I had never been either. When you go to India, you are instantly hit by this poverty on an unimaginable scale everywhere you go. There is such destitution, you’re walking among bodies, I saw a man begging when I first arrived who had no arms and no legs, he was literally propped up in the boiling sun, it can be very shocking. And there are a lot of people in India and elsewhere who think, “Well, there’s nothing you can do, you’ve got to let them sort that out on their own.” And I thought of this tiny woman with nothing in her pocket who just rolled up her sleeves and went out there. She personally picked up over 40,000 people in her own arms, took them in, bathed them — and not just Christians, they were Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, she did not discriminate. It’s truly incredible what she did.
I was trying to think of other real-life people you’ve played and Diana Vreeland in Infamous came to mind. If you were forced to, could you think of any parallels between the two women?
(Laughs.) Well, I also played Rosalind Franklin who discovered DNA. I’m a little annoyed at the moment because Nicole Kidman is playing her on stage in London and saying, “Look, I discovered this person’s huge contribution to humanity,” and I thought, “Well, actually I played her 25 years ago in a very good film with Jeff Goldblum! But let’s see, Diana Vreeland and Mother Teresa, oh, that’s a challenge! Well, Diana Vreeland was also a kind of nun, actually, who devoted her life to one thing. It’s just that her religion was fashion! How’s that?