To prepare for his role as a street-smart, brutally honest caretaker in “The Intouchables,” Omar Sy spent time working at a caregiver training facility.
“I found you quickly get past the physical limitations,” says the French thesp. “You see that pity from (the disabled’s) perspective and you realize how false it can be and how it creates distance. My character doesn’t have the leisure to live life from a distance, and so he doesn’t judge. That’s his gift.”
Meeting Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, the quadriplegic aristocrat Sy’s character Driss looked after, was also illuminating.
“He is such a dynamic, amazing man that thirty seconds into meeting him, you realize all your preconceptions about quadriplegics are part of a huge fiction we’ve created as a society,” Sy says. “He can say more with his eyes than I can say screaming and waving my arms around, and I’m loud and very tall.”
Sy is one of several actors portraying caregivers this awards season. Retired music teacher Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) looks after his deteriorating wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) in “Amour” while Helen Hunt (“The Sessions”) and Matthias Schoenaerts (“Rust and Bone”) each help physically handicapped characters open up. Quvenzhane Wallis and Tom Holland, meanwhile, play kids thrust into the unexpected role of taking care of their ailing parents in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “The Impossible,” respectively.
“The Sessions” writer-helmer Ben Lewin considered it “necessary” to highlight not just Cheryl (Hunt), who helps iron lung-bound writer Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) lose his virginity, but also his multiple, non-carnal caretakers. So moviegoers see Joan, Amanda, plus Vera and Rod attending the man rendered mostly immobile from polio.
“I wanted Mark’s choice of caregivers to reflect who he was,” says Lewin, who also survived a bout with polio. “He needed people with whom he could talk very openly and who could reciprocate in kind and with a sense of humor.”
Lewin also tried to show how caregivers and the cared-for grow together through their shared experience. By the end of the Mark/Cheryl sessions, for example, Vera shares the pain of their parting.
“I have no doubt that a hazard of the job is that caregivers can become invested not only in their employers’ needs, but also in their hopes and desires,” Lewin says.
Holland, then 13, spent seven months on the set playing Lucas, a boy caring for his severely wounded mother (Naomi Watts) after they are both swept up in the 2004 tsunami.
“I remember one day when he came to me emotionally drained and confessed he spent three weeks imagining what it would feel like to lose his mother,” recalls helmer J. A. Bayona, who calls Holland extremely sensitive and perceptive.
“Over four months, he was shooting scenes every day that demanded an extreme emotional commitment and he managed to maintain his innocence as a child while dealing with the responsibility of carrying the story on his shoulders,” he says.
Casting Wallis to play Hushpuppy — the lead in “Beasts” — proved daunting for pic’s writer-director Benh Zeitlin. He knew that 6-year-old Wallis would not only have to battle the swampy Louisiana bayou, but also eventually care for her alcoholic, dying father.
“In the very first draft of the screenplay, Hushpuppy was 10 or 11 because I thought that someone younger wouldn’t be able to play the role,” says Zeitlin, who changed his mind after meeting Wallis.
While she had to be strong and serious in front of the camera, Zeitlin made sure to keep the mood on set upbeat for the little girl.
“If I was nervous she would sense it immediately and shut down,” helmer says. “So it was a real lesson for me to stop being stressed-out.”
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