Based on a true story, “Perfect Sisters” stars Georgie Henley and Abigail Breslin as two siblings who maintain a strong bond as their alcoholic mother (played by Oscar winner Mira Sorvino) continues to spiral down into the abyss of addiction. After she gets involved with one abusive boyfriend too many, they decide that the only way to save their mother from infinite misery is to kill her. What resulted was a crime that deeply shocked an entire community, and the movie shows how the sins of the mother can be unintentionally passed on to their children.
“Perfect Sisters” marks the directorial debut of television and movie producer Stanley Brooks, and Henley is best known for her work in “The Chronicles of Narnia” trilogy of movies. The two of them dropped by the Sofitel Hotel in Beverly Hills, California to participate in a roundtable interview about their experience making this film. Henley discussed what drew her to the role of Beth, how mastering an American accent was easier than speaking another language, and how she and Breslin developed their chemistry onscreen. Brooks talked about how this was the story that finally made him want to direct, what it was like working with Sorvino, and the challenges of making a movie based on a true story.
Georgie, can you tell us something about your character? It was really strong.
Georgie Henley: Something that I really wanted to focus on was the actual kind of emotions that Beth was going through. Her struggles, her challenges were kind of rooted in emotion and being hurt by the people that she’s supposed to love and who were supposed to love her, so that was very interesting to play. Some days I had to get into a very dark place which is interesting and draining (laughs).
Stanley, how did you go about making this movie which was based on a true story?
Stanley Brooks: I had read the book and originally was going to make it for television. We kept doing drafts of the script, and there is just something that’s not very television about the story with the teen alcohol, teen drug use and the language. Kids don’t talk to themselves like in the Andy Hardy movies anymore so I needed the profanity. In one of the rare times in my career as a producer, I asked for the script back. And so when I decided I wanted to be a director, this was the one that kind of nagged at me and that I knew was dark enough that we could make a really interesting movie about. Nobody in it is heroic and everybody in it, probably other than her boyfriend, who is a total villain, is a victim in some way. So that made it interesting to me to find that gray area so that all of the characters have moments of being sympathetic, and all the characters have moments of being perpetrators of violence.
Georgie, this character is very different from your role as Lucy in “The Chronicles of Narnia” movies. What was your motivation behind taking on this project?
Georgie Henley: I guess my motivation is wanting to grow as an actor really. I think as an actor you constantly need to be challenging yourself and taking on new situations. It’s better to experiment because then you kind of find out what really suits you and what you excel in, and it also just makes you grow in terms of skill and experience and stuff like that. So yeah, I definitely wanted to do something different to “Narnia” and I think I did (laughs).
What kind of research did you do for this role?
Georgie Henley: It was more about the kind of emotions that Beth was going through rather than who she was as a murderer or the daughter of an alcoholic. We don’t really want to focus on that because then you stray into very risky method acting territory (laughs), so it was more about focusing on how she was really feeling and what she was going through.
Stanley Brooks: And this was the rare true story where we had no access to anybody that was in the story. Usually when you do a true story, when I did “Capture The Green River Killer” for instance, we had the real sheriff on board. But here, because of Canadian Shield laws, we didn’t even know the girls’ names. We didn’t know where they were. So I made all the teenagers in the acting troupe go home and write an essay about their character, about where was their character for the year that led up to this and where did they think they were now. What was their favorite music, their favorite food, and we end up using a lot of that in the movie.
Georgie Henley: Beth liked spicy chicken.
Stanley Brooks: Yes! (Laughs) I remember Zoe (Belkin) wrote that Ashley is anorexic and doesn’t eat and has body issues, and if you go to the cafeteria scene that goes all the way around, she chooses Jell-O and the entire meal cuts it out but never eats any. That was a great piece of business for that scene for me and for all of them, and it was informed by her doing that homework on the character that wasn’t in the script.
How did you get Mira Sorvino to be in this movie? She such a terrific actress.
Stanley Brooks: Obviously we were blessed. For a movie this small to get an Academy Award winner is unusual. I’m friends with James Russo and he has done three pictures for me and we were very close. He is the antithesis of who he plays onscreen. He is the nicest guy, he’s a father of two boys and he talks sports. We’ve stayed really close friends, and so he was one of the first people that I cast. I was going to pull all the favors in first and he said, “Who’s playing Linda?” And I said, “We don’t know yet.” And he goes, “Well I’m really good friends with Mira Sorvino and she would be an interesting choice and she’s never played an alcoholic and that might be a challenge for her.” So he gave the script to her so that I didn’t have to go to an agent, and then she called and she was really on the fence. Little did I know that she was actually pregnant at the time, so we shot the entire movie and I never knew she was pregnant until she got home which I’ve believed informed her character in an enormous way.
Georgie Henley: We had one scene where we were shooting with smoke and she was like, “Less smoke! Less smoke!” And we were like, “Mira’s being a diva! This is very uncharacteristic for her!” Then we all found out she was pregnant and we all felt really bad (laughs).
Stanley Brooks: She would go to the prop guy and go, “Okay, these Tylenol that I’m eating, what’s in them?” And he would have to actually hold the thing out and show her exactly what it was. We were like, why is she obsessing over this? And then she went home and we were all, “Oh, okay…”
What was it like for you to use a Canadian accent for this role and speaking Dutch?
Georgie Henley: I was really awful at the Dutch. I’ve done French, I’ve done Russian, and I’ve studied Latin for a long time. I like languages. Dutch just doesn’t like me. Dutch hates me. Dutch doesn’t want me to know how to do it. We had this lovely Dutch woman come in and talk us through it and it was great and it was like I had it, and then we got to shooting and I didn’t have it. Abigail was like firing it off and I was like (mumbling gibberish). It was ridiculous. I had two moments in the movie where I speak Dutch. One of them I speak it really well and it was awesome, and that is the second time I did it because I was like I’m not going to fail again. I’m going to get this right. So you can see when I’m doing it that I’m literally like, “I can do this!” And I’m looking happy and I’m like speaking Dutch slowly. It was actually much easier doing an American accent.
The thing about doing an American accent is that I’ve watched “Friends” since I was tiny. I’ve watched a lot of American TV and I used to be obsessed with “The OC,” so you do pick up on it. So when you have the training that goes in easily because you know how stuff should sound. But there were a few things that would floor me every now and again, and thank God there were a lot of Americans on set. No one’s come up to me yet and said your accent is terrible, so that’s good.
Stanley Brooks: From the first audition, her accent has been perfect.
Georgie Hanley: There is one bit, and it was the first clip that got released from the film. It was from when we’re in the cafeteria and I say, “Will Bobby be sent to live with his dad? But that’s what Bobby wants.” It was awful and you can’t really notice it, but that was pretty bad. But I do spend most of the film mumbling, so the fact that I’m doing another accent is good because every now and again if I’m being rubbish I could just like (speaking rubbish) or put a cigarette in my mouth (laughs).
Stanley Brooks: We had a dialect coach on set, but rarely did she ever correct her. She was spot on, perfect.
Mira Sorvino had a little bit of an accent to.
Stanley Brooks: She did a lot of homework on her character. She went and actually, because she had never played an alcoholic before and there weren’t alcoholics in her family, she and Russo went and found a bar in I think Calabasas or Thousand Oaks which had housewives that drank. She went at happy hour and drank with them. They didn’t know who she was. They came over to her table, they drank together and talked about what it was like, and there was one woman that came every single night after she put her kids to bed and drank herself to where she said, “I can never leave my husband. I’m miserable, but this is how I get through it.” So she had a lot of preparation for that, and when she came and she said, “Look, the story sort of takes place in any town USA or Canada, so I would kind of like her to have a Midwest accent. How do you feel about that?” I go, “That’s fine. I’m not going to ask anyone else to do it, but if that’s where you see this character being from, then that’s what you got to do.”
Was it very important to you when you were making the movie to stick to the facts? It sounds like, because of the shield laws, you guys had a lot of information that you had to fill in yourselves.
Stanley Brooks: The only information we had to fill in was character stuff. Everything else was factual. In fact, as I’m sure you know, the insurance company is the one that dictates whether you get “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events.” They looked at the book and they looked at the script and said “based on a true story.” Almost nothing in the movie is made up. We took everything from the trial transcripts, we took everything from the interviews that they did, and Bob Mitchell had really researched his book but we didn’t know their names. Bob Mitchell actually, in his book “Class Project,” named them Sandra and Beth so we just stuck with that. With something this dark, it was easier to fall back on the truth than to try and create something. The kid wore a wire and took her for a drive and got her to confess, and all of those things were really what happened. So it made it easier for us in figuring out. We just didn’t know what they look like. We knew one was blonde and one was Goth, and that was the extent of it. Georgie and the costume designer picked Beth’s outfits. They created Beth from the wardrobe standpoint, and I had very little to do with that.
Georgie Henley: We had an amazing costume designer and I just absolutely loved all my outfits. The outfit I wear for the actual murder, I’m wearing skintight black everything. I did look like a cat burglar and felt like a cat burglar, and we were on a bus riding to the restaurant and I felt really cool. I was like, “I haven’t killed my mom. I’ve robbed a house! I’ve committed every misdemeanor and I felt great.” It was very cool.
Stanley Brooks: The first time I told the hair person, she literally gasped. I said I wanted to tell a story through hair and makeup through Beth, and it’s really important to me that she go from having her natural hair color at the beginning to dyeing her hair, revealing it to her sister, and then after the murder to stop dyeing her hair so that the roots grow out. So by the time she gets to the courtroom, she’s back to looking like who she really is…
Georgie Henley: Which meant that when we were shooting six scenes a day, it would be like, “Georgie get back to hair and makeup.” I would put my head in a sink, get the dye out and then, “Georgie get back to set.” And then it was, “Georgie get back to hair and makeup and paint the dye back in.” It was intense but it was cool.
Stanley Brooks: Her makeup became really Goth. The only time she ever really looks sort of loosey is when she’s standing in the courtroom at the end which was very specific.
Georgie Henley: Yeah, and no makeup. I look like I’m trying to look classy and smart and good, and I just looked terrified (laughs).
Stanley Brooks: But you also said that mostly you just look like a little girl.
Did you get to keep any of the costumes?
Georgie Henley: I kept a lot of costumes. On the last day we got to go into the trailer. A lot of the stuff had to be archived and had to be kept, but I kept two pairs of shorts, two T-shirts I really liked, my boyfriend’s shirts that he wears and then I wear and my party outfit from the first party. I also wore all of my own jewelry, a lot of it, but I got to keep the stuff that I liked that wasn’t mine.
Stanley Brooks: Did you keep the sleeve?
Georgie Henley: No, nobody kept the sleeve. I had this amazing leather sleeve that you can see in the first party scene which is supposed to look like your skin, but it’s been sewn together. So it’s like the skin is sewn together and it’s got a skull on it, and it looks like my boyfriend has been doodling on it. It was just the coolest thing ever, but our costume designer kept it and I’ll let her have it. It’s very cool.
How difficult of a transition has it been for you from being a child actress to an adult actress?
Georgie Henley: I never think there really is a transition. I guess you do exactly the same thing as an adult that you did as a child. You do the same processes, everyone has a certain style of acting…
Stanley Brooks: Does it stay with you longer though because you are now processing it as an adult?
Georgie Henley: Yeah and I think that’s the difference, that everything means more to you. There’s a few dark moments in “Narnia.” There are some tough bits to act. A lot of it was tough but it doesn’t really register. You go home and you feel fine and its fine. But when you get to this point where you’re doing something really dark, you are going home and thinking about what you’ve done that day and you go to sleep thinking about it. It kind of plays on your mind a little bit more. But in terms of the actual tools of being an actor, I’m still adding to my toolkit and still using all the same screwdrivers and stuff but just in a different way.
It’s your first day on set working with these established big names. What does that feel like?
George Henley: It’s so nerve-wracking. I mean I’m a very nervous person and I get anxious very easily. The last movie I did, my first day I was pretty much inconsolable. Film is forever and you just want to get it right so much. I’m a real perfectionist I just wanted to be perfect. Also, I always want to impress my director and I always want to not impress other actors but make them feel like we are all on an equal level and we’re all contributing to the same thing. I don’t want them to feel like this girl can’t act. I would hate that. It was seriously nerve-racking, but even worse is the flight over there. The flight out to filming is the worst thing because you’re like I’m getting on this plane which means I’m here for this amount of time, and I can’t really turn back now. That’s pretty scary, but very exciting.
The chemistry that you and Abigail Breslin have is really great, and you really sell the super close sister relationship. Did you two get to spend a lot of time together before shooting started?
Georgie Henley: Not really. I came into the process very late so we only really had a couple of days before the first day, but even then it was a very young set. There were a lot of young people constantly. Almost every night we would be eating dinner together and going to see shows. Every weekend we would go to see movies. Me and Abby went to go see “The Help” which is so funny because that seems like such a long time ago, and so we would basically quote “The Help” for the rest of the shoot. Little things like that mean that you’re just getting to know a person all the time because you’re just spending so much time together, and it meant that we definitely had the freedom to experiment and improvise on set which is something you can’t do unless you’re with somebody you feel really comfortable with. And it’s important because there’s a lot in the film that wasn’t written in the script and which came out of just playing around and having fun and feeling really free with the person you’re acting against. That’s really important and we were in a lot of scenes together. One of us is in every scene pretty much and then most of them are us together, so it was really important that we got that right.
What was your most enjoyable moment in this production?
Georgie Henley: I’m not sure. I mean it was a really fun shoot.
Stanley Brooks: Kissing Jeff on the first day of shooting?
Georgie Henley: No, that was awful! It was so awful! That was the worst. I thought it was going to be fine. I had rehearsed it loads with Jeff and we sorted out how we wanted to do it. It was going to be a very polite peck, and then we rehearsed it and Jeff’s 24, he’s done this a lot of times, and I’m 16 and not done it at all. He’s like, “Yeah let’s just do it in rehearsal so that it breaks all of the awkwardness,” I was like okay that’s cool. I’m sweating like a pig and saying, “I’m great, I’m fine.” We do it and then Stan comes over to me and goes, “I don’t want it like that. I want it to be inappropriate, and I don’t want you to tell Jeff that. I’m telling you this. You have to surprise him.” I was like, “Oh God, I have to literally molest this boy and he doesn’t even know it’s coming. This is awful!” And we did it and my mum was watching on the monitors and so were 150 other people. I can’t watch it. I’m always him like (looking around), “What’s that bit of dust over there?” But yeah, it works I guess.
Going back to the improvising part, this is not one of the bigger budgeted movies that you’ve done. How is that feeling of improvising and how much freedom that that allow you? Was it something you liked or did you referred to work from the script instead?
Georgie Henley: I really love improvising, but that love of it was instilled in me in this film. When we were doing “Narnia,” I was really young for a lot of it and you just want to remember your lines and to stand in the right place and do a good job. Once you get an idea of your character then you can be really free. I really love it. I’ve been in situations where I’ve not been allowed to improvise, and that’s completely fine. Everyone works differently, but I really enjoyed it.
Stanley Brooks: All of the girly sister moments came at the end of a scene. I wouldn’t yell cut and they were forced to continue the scene unscripted. A lot of my favorite moments in the movie came between Georgie and Abby.
Georgie Henley: There was a scene that was cut for storytelling reasons that was also one of my audition scenes where I find a bottle of vodka stored in the lid of the toilet, and that’s how we found out that our mum was drinking again rather than their reveal of seeing her drunk. The line was “every time you don’t believe in something, a fairy falls down dead” and I leave the room and Abby just starts screaming after me, “You’re killing fairies! All the fairies are dying! You’re killing fairies!” Its stuff like that where in other films people would be like, “What are you doing? Stop! Cut! No! Stop it Abby!” But it was amazing and it’s a shame that it’s been cut.
Was it the first kissing scene you ever had to do in a movie?
Georgie Henley: Yes. And the other kissing scene I had to do I was like, “This is fine. It’s not hard at all. It’s a very nice kiss, very sweet, I don’t have to be an appropriate,” but I had to ride a bike. Now I am terrible at riding a bike. I had stabilizers till I was about 10. I’m awful at riding a bike and I never ride a bike, and Stan’s just there with this massive bike and is like, “We want you to ride this.” I had to practice up and down the road for 15 minutes, and then you can see when I’m riding off that I’m just wobbling all over the place. My dad always cries with laughter when he sees that.
Stanley Brooks: So the teamsters come to me the day before that scene and say, “You know the scene we’re shooting this afternoon where Zoe actually drives up in the Mustang convertible and they all jump in?” I go, “Yeah?” They go, “Small problem, Zoe doesn’t know how to drive a car.” I said, “What? She’s 18.” They say, “Yes, she lives in Toronto and has never had a car and never driven a car.” I go, “Okay then, well let’s get her out to a car and teach her.” So that’s why she doesn’t drive very far after they all get in the car, and actually if you pay close attention she’s actually holding that wheel really hard. I thought okay, if I get through this I will have gotten through the biggest challenge of the show. And then the next morning the teamsters come to me and say, “Remember how we told you Zoe couldn’t drive a car? Small problem, Georgie doesn’t know how to ride a bike.” I go, “Okay that’s really funny.” And they replied, “No we’re serious, Georgie doesn’t know how to ride a bike.”
Georgie Henley: And there’s this saying of it’s like horse riding, you just get back on. No, you don’t just get back on. I live in Cambridge and I am the laughing stock of Cambridge because everyone is riding around on bikes and I’m just trudging around. Still can’t ride a bike.
Stanley Brooks: She rides off and, like an idiot, I say to her, “Look back once more at him.” And then she starts to veer off into the telephone pole, and I’m saying to myself, “Oh my God! What was I thinking?”
This movie is based on a true story, and there have been a number of other movies like this such as Larry Clark’s “Bully” and “River’s Edge” that deal with kids who commit a murder and then don’t report it right away. Were you aware of those movies, and do you think they sort of speak to society’s alienation in a sense?
Stanley Brooks: Well I think bad kids doing bad things goes back to Cain and Abel, and I think that’s a story we tell over and over and over and over. I watched “River’s Edge” which I liked a lot, but I watched “Heavenly Creatures” multiple times. In fact, there’s a little homage to Peter Jackson. When we were shooting the scene where she’s calling 911 and fakes hysteria, we realized after she had done the first take that there was no address. We sort of both looked at each other and went, “Wait a minute, you couldn’t call 911 and not tell them where you are.” Somehow we had missed it in the script all the times that we had done the rewrites. I said, “We’ve got to give you an address.” So I said, “Okay you live at 109 Jackson.” So that was my little moment of tipping my head to Peter Jackson whose movie inspired me for this one in which I think is one of the best teen murder movies ever made.
As a college student, what are you into now? Social media? Music? Books?
Georgie Henley: I’m not on social media. I think if I could, I would communicate by carrier pigeon. I’m completely awful with technology, but I like music and stuff. I actually really like the Nationals’ new album and Sky Ferreira’s new album is pretty cool, Beach Houses’ new album is pretty cool. In terms of school, I’m busying myself with 17th century philosophy at the moment. I’m doing a lot of reading at school, so that’s basically what’s dominating a lot of what I’m reading. I have my exams coming up in a couple of weeks so I’m going to be reading a lot of Modernism and Victorianism.