When Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey signed on to star in “Serenity,” it was a dream come true for screenwriter Steven Knight – one he knew he had to protect. “Every now and again an idea comes along that I think, ‘If I hand this over, there will be a temptation to change it,’” he told Variety at the Cinema Society screening of the film on Wednesday at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
So, he took matters into his own hands and directed it, too: “I just wanted to put it out there as something that’s genuinely experimental.”
“Serenity” marks Knight’s third time directing – a role that took some adjustment. “Writing is great. You’re warm, and you’re dry, and you’re at your keyboard, and it’s all fine. Directing is hard work!” he said, laughing. “Every time I do it, I say, ‘I’ll never do that again,’ and then I find myself doing it.”
The twisty thriller follows McConaughey’s character, a fisherman named Baker Dill, on his obsessive hunt for a bluefin tuna he calls “Justice.” McConaughey, for his part, embraced the challenge wholeheartedly – Knight taught him how to fish, and the two even caught a massive mackerel together on the boat that would later become the set.
Beyond his fishing lessons with Knight, the Oscar winner also credits Hathaway for pushing him to be a better actor. “I love working with Anne,” he told Variety. “She’s as good as it gets between action and cut, for my money. She asks great questions, she does her homework, she shows up prepared. We don’t always agree – we enjoy disagreeing!” he said, grinning. “Sometimes, as actors, we perform better when we have good resistance from one another – more to overcome – and she and I have that, and yet we really respect each other as peers.” (They know how to have fun as friends, too: when Hathaway first arrived on Mauritius, McConaughey and his wife, Camila Alves, “made [their] own crawl,” taking her for a tour of the island’s rum bars.)
Hathaway herself was similarly happy to be reunited with her “Interstellar” co-star. “We knew we liked each other during ‘Interstellar,’ and we established a trust, and then we just kind of started hanging out outside of work – our families really got along,” she said, noting that they had kept in touch regularly since 2014. “And then we went so much deeper on this one: we were all on an island together. We were on set together all the time, and then when we weren’t on set, we were in each other’s living rooms, getting our kids together, making sure everyone was having a nice time.”
For Hathaway, that off-camera camaraderie came as a sharp contrast to an emotionally demanding role. Her character, Karen, is trapped in an abusive marriage, and preparing for the part was an intense process. She learned as much as she could, both from reading about those dynamics and from conversations with women who had been in abusive relationships themselves. “I found a lot of passages in books that really resonated, so I actually made notecards for each scene, and in between takes I would just read them over and over and over,” she explained.
The film was shot before the first #MeToo stories made headlines, and Hathaway is grateful for the movement that has taken shape since. “I think people are thinking about the conversation in a deeper and more meaningful way, which brings me great relief, having played this character and having learned more about what it is to be in an abusive relationship, and how difficult it is to leave an abusive relationship.”
She wants real change to come from that dialogue. “I’m hoping that some of the conversations might help get these women – and sometimes men, but mainly women – the help that they need,” she said. “And maybe we can start talking about the culture that creates these situations. Maybe that can do some good, too.”