For Phyllis Somerville, “Little Children” was a different experience right from the start. Instead of auditioning with a casting director or opposite another actor, the reading was with director Todd Field.
“I called a close friend and said, ‘If this doesn’t work out, it was a great audition,'” Somerville says. “Not that I was fabulous, but it was the experience. I felt listened to and liked what he said.”
In the New Line release, Somerville is the mother of a sex offender (Jackie Earle Haley) who has been released from prison into her custody. Their relationship is a secondary storyline to an adulterous affair between Sarah and Brad (Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson), but her son’s presence in the suburban town has everyone on edge.
Somerville’s protective mother is not about to give up on her son, and she even encourages him to start dating again by helping him write a personal ad. His best attribute? “You have a nice smile. Let’s start with that,” she says, knowing his limitations.
“Jackie was so wonderful to be with in that scene,” Somerville says. “And when he asks, ‘What else?,’ and then I tell him, just to watch him get bigger with that. I like what she says and I like the way he is listening to her.”
Her work portraying a doting mother was helped by Field’s direction and the script he co-wrote with novelist Tom Perrotta.
“They created a woman who’s just not going to give up. Something happens, she does something else, she sees what happens next and then she’ll try again, including the very last thing that she does,” Somerville says. “It’s easier for an actor when you actually have what you’re being asked to do right on the page.”
One of those tasks was defending her son from a harassing ex-cop (Noah Emmerich), who considered it his personal mission to make life miserable for the pedophile.
“I liked having a fight with a great big guy. That was fun to watch, 5-foot-2-inch, 110-pound me, taking on a guy who’s 6-foot-3,” says Somerville, who paid a personal price for the onscreen confrontation. “When I pulled the megaphone away from him, I hit myself right in the chest with it. I was pulling hard and hit myself. I hurt for two months after that.”
Favorite film of the past five years: “Capote.” “I’ll never forget the moment when I was watching Philip Seymour Hoffman and I said to myself, ‘I’m loving you and I’m hating you at the same time. How did you do that?’ ”
Actor who impressed you greatly after working together: Ned Beatty. “It was on my very first job at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. He was kind to me. I would sit and watch his method of work and then watch the results. The fact that he was so good to a kid made a profound impression.”
Next project: “Absolutely nothing. I just shot my last episode of ‘Kidnapped,’ and it’s been canceled.”