Based on author Lois Lowry’s Newbery Medal-winning novel, “The Giver” takes place in a dystopian society in which emotions, conflict, illness and individuality have been eliminated in favor of “sameness.”
Australian actor Brenton Thwaites, 25, plays Jonas, a young man who has been chosen to receive all the memories of the world’s past, including concepts and feelings that his society has never known, including colors, pain, war and love. Tasked with passing along those memories – both good and bad – is The Giver (Jeff Bridges), an Elder who has been burdened with the unimaginable weight of these visions, as well as the agony of his own personal loss.
The film co-stars Meryl Streep as the Chief Elder, Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgard as Jonas’ parents and Israel-born newcomer Odeya Rush, 17, as Jonas’ love interest.
For two decades, the book – often recalled as “that one with the old man on the cover” – has been a popular reading assignment in junior high schools across the country. And while the movie version strays from the pages in many ways, it maintains the spirit of hope foretold in Lowry’s 1993 novel.
I recently sat down with stars Thwaites and Rush to talk about “The Giver,” their Oscar-winning co-stars and the embarrassing memories they would gladly give away.
David Onda: The differences between the book and the movie will certainly be scrutinized by fans. For instance, your characters are only 12 years old in the book. How do you explain why those changes are necessary?
Brenton Thwaites: I’m 25, so we can’t change our age. We got hired by the producers and director. The main thing for us was – we’re hired, we have a job to do, how do I create this character? In Lois’ book, she has so many descriptive words that make it really easy to connect with Jonas. He’s very innocent, he’s very inquisitive, curious. It was just trying to feel that, no matter how old I am.
Onda: You two read together during the audition process. Was there instant chemistry between you?
Thwaites: The guys who hired us think there was.
Odeya Rush: [laughs]
Thwaites: She’s so easy to get along with, you know? That’s the most important thing. The relationship between the actors comes first in making these characters feel very real. They’re different than the book. We up the age for a number a reasons – to make it easier for people to connect with the love story and to believe this kid could fight for love, for freedom, for truth.
The movie changes the method in which The Giver transmits memories. Were you disappointed that Jeff Bridges would not be putting his hands on your bare back?
Thwaites: Oh, yeah. I have to be honest, you read the book and you kinda think, “This is weird.” Our minds wander. We think weird things. We’re humans. We don’t have gates on our mind. Socially, we do, but we can imagine anything. I thought maybe that’s one of the reasons they aged it up as well, so it didn’t feel weird.
Onda: How did you prepare to visualize the memories Jonas sees, and how did you try and see these images and concepts fresh as if it were for the first time?
Thwaites: It comes from a calmness. And to arrive there, it would come from a series of relaxation techniques for the first couple of weeks in rehearsals. But after a while, you learn to switch into that blankness or that canvas that hasn’t really been painted yet. When I jump out of the memory, we get a feeling that he’s literally just lived in a different time. It’s not a dream, it’s not a vision, it’s something else. I would talk with [director Phillip Noyce] about – “Is it cool if I look at my hand in the snow, the snowflakes falling on my hand?” And then later on we’d do a shot on my hand with the snow falling down. I really had to think about that. There’s only so much organic impulses that you can trust in those moments.
Onda: I know Lois Lowry was on-set during filming. How did you tap into her knowledge of the book and the characters to better your performance?
Rush: My character, in the book, is not as vivid. She’s mentioned a few times. She’s 12 and she takes care of older people, so you can see she has a very gentle side, a very caring side, but for my character specifically, I worked more with Phil. When Lois was there, I was like, “Is my dress OK? Do you like the way those people are walking? Do you like this room? What do you feel of everything?” You’re talking to the inventor of it all. For me, I felt more secure with her approval of the way I looked. As soon as I was cast, some people were saying, “She doesn’t have red hair. She doesn’t have brown eyes.” I’m like, first of all – there’s a thing called hair dye. Calm down.
Thwaites: An actor’s fear is approval of the writer, always. More so in this, because this book is loved by millions of people.
Onda: It would intimidate even experienced actors to be on a set with Meryl Streep, what was it like getting to work with her, Odeya?
Rush: She’s just really fearless with what she does. And she’s really daring and jumps into everything. It’s a different person, watching her. I would see her on set and she’d be really nice and just talk to me. The first time I met her, she was so nice and open and she can laugh between takes and dance and just have a great time. And then she comes into this character, and when they say “action,” all you see is this Elder. Meryl has disappeared.
Onda: No ego with her?
Rush: A little bit. [laughs] No! Not at all. It’s amazing. It’s so touching to see that, because when you admire someone so much, sometimes you don’t want to meet them because it could ruin the image. The fact that she was so nice, you’re like – wow, someone could be so great that it seems like they’re not even human, but they’re so human when you meet them and so genuine.
Onda: In Hollywood, they say to never work with children. In “The Giver,” you work with many, many infant babies. How was that?
Rush: The babies were really fun. Before, I volunteered at a children’s hospital in South Africa, just so it’s believable that Fiona’s destined to do this and she’s so natural with it. I have four younger brothers and I think it’s a girly, nurturing, motherly side that I have. But, still, the nurses have little tricks that they do to make the baby quiet down, and I think Fiona needed to have that. It’s just really fun. Those babies were so cute.
Onda: The Giver has certain memories he holds very dearly. What is the memory you would never want to give up?
Thwaites: It is the memory of me sitting on the beach with my family in Australia.
Rush: When I first came to America, I was here alone with my dad for a year before my whole family came – my four younger brothers and my mom. My two older brothers stayed in Israel. We were waiting for them in the airport. We were looking down at this escalator. You could only see feet, and then they went down and you could see the whole body. We were waiting and every time I was like, “Is it them? Is it them?” It just kept being other people and it felt like so long. Then, at the very end, I saw eight little feet and someone fighting over a bag with my mom. They all ran down and they all jumped on me and it was just so happy because I hadn’t seen them for so long.
Rush: Yeah! You change so much from 4 to 6. You have new interests. Teletubbies are not cool, it’s all about Ninja Turtles now. [In a mocking boy’s voice] “Odeya, that’s not cool anymore. We wear boxers now, Ok?” You have SpongeBob on your boxers. It’s not that cool! He threw his boxers at me when I got home. After three weeks of not being home, one of my brothers just threw his boxers on my face. And then he told me, “Odeya, you need to take a picture right now. You don’t even know how ugly you look! Odeya, you look so ugly right now. Please, just do me a favor, take a picture. Please, you’re gonna laugh so hard!” And I just woke up!
Onda: What is the memory you would gladly give away?
Rush: Peeing my pants during a short film. It was on-camera. And it was really cold. I was 12. I was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. My mom kept telling me, “Go to the bathroom.” And I’m like, “I’ll be fine.” It was a short film and you have no time. We had one trailer for everybody, it was really deep into the woods, I just didn’t wanna go and I thought I could hold it. I’m going up this trail and I’m walking and I feel fine and I hit my mark and as soon as I started saying my lines, the only thing that came out was – “Cut, I peed in my pants.” And they didn’t cut! They just kept going and everyone was laughing at me. Just terrible.
Thwaites: I’d say my bad memories that I don’t want to keep would be any time I’m sitting in traffic in America. Traffic here just makes you wanna break mirrors.
Onda: If you were watching “The Giver” with an audience and could point out something you love about it that they might not notice otherwise, what would it be?
Thwaites: There’s a scene where The Giver’s teaching me things. It’s a montage. And I’m reading a book, and it’s a one-second shot, and The Giver leans into me and he says, “Be curious.” I feel like that’s a metaphor for the film, a hidden message for us all to be a little bit more curious.
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