What’s a nice group of soap stars like Susan Lucci (ex-Erica, ALL MY CHILDREN), Donna Mills (ex-Abby, KNOTS LANDING), Maurice Benard (Sonny, GENERAL HOSPITAL) and Laura Wright (Carly, GH) doing in a movie like David O. Russell’s Joy? Soap Opera Digest got the inside scoop from the Oscar-nominated writer/director himself.
By Mara Levinsky
For his latest collaboration with Jennifer Lawrence, Writer/Director David O. Russell was inspired by the real-life rise to mogul-dom of Home Shopping Network star Joy Mangano, whose mother was an avid soap opera viewer. In the flick, the mother, Terry, is played by Virginia Madsen, who is herself a devotee of daytime drama. “It was really weird kismet,” Russell reports. “She was the expert. She knew every single plotline!”
In the movie, Terry is a faithful watcher of a fictional soap, THE JOYFUL STORM. Snippets of its storylines, as well as dream sequences in which Joy and her parents interact with its characters, are used to demarcate the passage of time and shed light on Joy’s psyche. “We’re made up of where we come from — and that includes the disappointing parts of where we come from and the unexpectedly magical parts of where we come from,” says Russell. “And her mother’s soap was part of that. One of the things that makes up a household is, whether you like it or not, you’re going to kind of know what’s going on in the story your mother is watching! I chose to open the film with the black and white soap opera” — a scene between Wright and Lucci — “because that, to me, is a doorway into that girl’s psyche.”
During pre-production, Russell got together with Lawrence for GENERAL HOSPITAL viewing sessions, and also studied the aesthetics of classic soaps, chiefly THE SECRET STORM, the CBS serial that ran from 1954-74. (His “mind was blown” to discover that two of Joy’s cast members, Donna Mills and Diane Ladd, are SECRET STORM alumnae.) Immersing himself in old clips of AS THE WORLD TURNS resulted in a nifty new party trick: the ability to act out a dramatic encounter between Julianne Moore (a Daytime Emmy winner for her ATWT work as lookalike cousins Frannie and Sabrina) and Steven Weber, who played Frannie’s doomed beau, Kevin. “I can it act out right now!” he declares. “We watched it about 10 times. I know Julianne Moore, and she couldn’t believe it, when she came to visit us in our editing room, that I knew that scene. She remembered it!”
As for why he enlisted actual daytime celebs to play Joy’s soap stars, he shrugs, “Going back to movies like The Fighter, I like to use real people in movies. And I just like taking people who are iconic in some way; I think there’s something magical about that.” Lucci was invited to join the cast after a hush-hush meeting with Russell in New York last November; Mills auditioned for Madsen’s role before Russell added her to THE JOYFUL STORM’s roster; and Jennifer Lawrence, captivated by a scene of Sonny and Carly in jail together, brought Benard and Wright to Lawrence’s attention. “These two people talking in prison, to us, was sort of like Joy and her husband feeling unable to live their dreams and feeling trapped,” he explains. The film’s soap component, Russell adds, “had a realism to it because those people had done it for so many years.”
The soap-experienced talent did not disappoint. “As actors, I couldn’t be more impressed by all of them,” Russell says. “They are not precious, they are not egotistical. You say, ‘Go for this’ and they go for it, because they do 100 pages a day. Those guys were like Olympic athletes. They impressed all of our actors with their bravery. They’re such good storytellers.”
His respect for the medium itself has also skyrocketed. “People say to me, ‘Well, what are you saying with this film?’ I’m saying, No. 1, that narrative inspires people. Populist art is extremely powerful,” he notes. “I am not saying [soaps] are all nonstop genius, but I am saying there is genius in them and there is art in them and there is mastery in them, and that is something I am happy to wear proudly.”
For more with Russell — and to hear from Lucci, Mills and Wright about their experiences on set with Russell, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro — check out the issue of Soap Opera Digest on sale now. Joy opens in theaters nationwide on Christmas Day.