There's a crucial scene in Tully that's difficult to watch, not because it's gruesome or gory, but rather, due to it's soul-killing mundanity. Marlo (Charlize Theron), having just given birth to her third child, starts in on the never-ending cycle of late night feedings, diaper changes, and sleep deprivation in a montage that characterizes every new mother's life. The scene lasts maybe a minute, but it feels like hours. With every shrill beep of the monitor, Marlo drags herself out of bed to face yet another night alone. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston), meanwhile, sleeps soundly next to her, never knowing the extent of his wife's distress.
It's after one such night that Marlo decides to call the night nurse her wealthy brother offered to pay for towards the end of her pregnancy. Tully (Mackenzie Davis) arrives the next evening, her seemingly boundless energy buoying Marlo through this most difficult time. The two form a unique and intimate bond, the kind only two women up drinking wine at 4 a.m. alone in an empty hot tub can share.
It would be easy to judge Drew for his obliviousness. But that's not the message Theron wants viewers to take away from the film, which serves up a rare, real look at the cost of motherhood and parenting, but also the pleasures derived from true female friendships.
Ahead of the film's release on May 4, Refinery29 asked Theron and co-star Mackenzie Davis about mom tropes in film, relating to their characters, and why we need more women storytellers.
Charlize Theron: “I don’t know the answer to that exactly, but I have a feeling that it has to do with the fact that it’s so real that you just can’t deny it, you can’t walk away from it, and finally, there’s been some material that has tapped into it, and have had the opposite [effect] of what people assumed would happen if you actually told the real story of how messy it can be to be a parent. The assumption has been that people don’t want to see that, and it turned out to not be true. I think people are feeling not alone all of a sudden, because they’re watching stories that are finally telling them that, ‘Guess what? It is like this for everybody.'"
Mackenzie Davis: "Definitely. I think the more projects that are produced, the more people put their money into telling stories from a variety of backgrounds, the more authentic we’re going to be ourselves represented onscreen. Because they’re not just sourcing from the pool of movies and recreating the same sort of ideas that we’ve had, and seen for the last however many years. There’s all of a sudden this new wealth of information, and this group of people and demographics that haven’t really been explored before."
CT: "It’s interesting, because you have to acknowledge that a film like Kramer vs. Kramer that came out in  was definitely a film that really showed a mother who was super conflicted, and did many wrong things, and left her child, and then came back, fighting for her child a few years later. It wasn’t necessarily the story of a woman doing everything right, and so we have seen those stories. It’s just that we don’t see enough of them. And that’s the thing that I think needs to change. And even though we’re having this moment right now, it’s really not about the moment. It’s about being able to continue it, and not have a sprinkle of this and then it disappears. We’ve seen it through decades. The biggest problem is keeping it alive, and consistent."
How do you think we do that?
CT: "The only thing that you can do is to try and make as much of those kinds of stories as possible, and do them with integrity. And hope that that is enough that you will keep getting an audience who supports, and goes to see those films. They’re not deterred by this idea of what they think the movie is. But it’s really out of your control as a filmmaker or as an actor. You can make those things, but ultimately you need people to go and see them."
I was googling Tully this morning, and it’s striking that the vast majority of articles that come up on the search focus on you gaining weight for the role, and how hard it was to lose it. How do you feel about that kind of media coverage?
Charlize: "I’m trying to talk about it in a way where people realize that we actually are very reckless. Me gaining 50 lbs to do this movie is considered ‘brave.’ And yet women get pregnant and have their bodies be at war with them every single day, and we don’t acknowledge that at all. We can’t even fathom the idea that they’re going through postpartum depression. So, I’m trying to use that conversation to maybe just make people a little more aware that this is something that happens to women. It’s not something that I did; it’s not bravery, it’s a thing that’s very much a part of the story, that’s very real for a lot of women."
I'm not a mom, and speaking to a colleague who just recently gave birth, I realized we experienced the film very differently. Was that the case for you?
MD: "As the non-mother, I didn’t have personal experience to know a lot of the details of Marlo’s struggle. But I think one of the really wonderful things about this movie is the depiction of a platonic and intimate female friendship, and how important it is to be seen and heard and loved by your friend. It sounds so boring in a pitch, but it’s actually kind of seismic and enormous when it’s in your own life. So, on that level I didn’t find it hard to relate to."
CT: "It’s really nice to hear you both talk about what I think this movie is really about. It’s not just a film about being a parent. This is a film about a person finding themselves in that crisis, which I think we all have in every decade that we live, of ‘Am I in the right place, doing what I’m supposed to be doing? Is this a milestone I’m supposed to be hitting at this moment in my life.’ And I think that is a universal thing that crosses over gender, and is a human conflict that we can all relate to. That idea of ‘Nobody gave me a guidebook, so am I late to this? Or too fast to it?’"
The father character in this movie is really interesting because he really is doing the best he can, but he still has no idea what his wife is going through. What do you hope fathers, or men, watching this movie will take away from it?
CT: "I have to say that I really empathize with Ron Livingston’s character, and that it’s really hard for me to judge him. This movie has made me more aware of how much we just need to listen. Ron’s character is tricky because he’s very real, and he’s not a villain. He’s what I think a lot of dads are projecting out there, which is: They come home, they travel, they try to be involved as much as they can, they’re not fully aware. And yes, I have definitely felt that feeling myself as a single parent. I wish I could just go to my room and watch The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and zone out. And every parent has had that feeling. If anything, most dads have kind of come to me after watching this movie and said: ‘I realized that I just had no idea.’ And I think a lot of that can be resolved by really just listening, and being truthful about what the experience is. I don’t want to do the same thing to dads that we already do to moms."
MD: "I think that’s what’s so lovely about it. Not to argue about this, but even in Kramer vs. Kramer, the movie kind of vilifies Meryl Streep’s character. My experience of watching it is that it’s not an understanding look at how hard it is to be a mom. You see her failing at it, and then coming around on the other side. Tully is such an inclusive, generous version of the struggle. There’s no judgement, and you get the sense that it’s okay if your version does look this, or doesn’t look like this. It’s all sort of messy and shitty, and feel free to join."
Charlize, do you think you could have played Marlo before you had kids?
CT: "I don’t think I would have brought as much to it. It’s tough to say. I know that I’m so glad that I made this movie after I became a parent. The film was a gift to me, and getting to have this cathartic experience, and go and explore things that I was experiencing in my real life."
You mentioned catharsis. Did you learn something about yourself through making this movie?
CT: "I felt a real sense of unity making this film, and for me, even though I have great support in my life as a single parent, I don’t want to feel alone in this journey. I don’t want to feel like I’m the only person going through these things. And there’s something about working on a film like this and watching a film like this, that’s an experience that we’re all longing for. You can feel like you’re sharing a secret, or a hardship with the rest of the world. And that makes it so much better. You just don’t feel alone. "
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