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Interview with Bob Balaban


How did this project come about?

Bob Balaban

Well, I didn't set out to make a movie about Doris Duke. The script was actually sent to me. And I immediately responded to it. The idea that the richest lady in the world, from this enormously upper class background, somehow bonded with her younger, Irish itinerant butler, Bernard Lafferty, who was barely a butler- almost illiterate, alcoholic and gay. This was not necessarily a sexual attraction, although in the movie we imagine that there might have been on her part some form of sexual attraction. And it really interested me, these two damaged people.

One can imagine if somebody had 1.3 billion dollars and they were a single woman, it would be damaging, somehow. Bernard was a pretty messed up guy. And yet somehow, six years after entering her service, she left him in control of her 1.3 billion dollar foundation. I thought that was quite fascinating. To really trace a personal story of what might've happened between these two people, that caused this intimacy. How much trust she places in him.


Where do you think that trust came from?

Our Doris Duke in the movie can be a tough old bat. But she has very humanistic interests.

Bob Balaban

Well Doris Duke was famous for not trusting people. She did have something of a reputation for being rather whimsical in terms of what she wanted, when she wanted it, and I think if you grow up and inherit a fortune when you're 12 years old and are left pretty much to your own devices you probably do get somewhat of an unrealistic expectation about how you're going to be treated and what you expect people to do for you.

Our Doris Duke in the movie can be a tough old bat. But she has very humanistic interests. She's very interested in the common person. She's also a very sexually interested person, and as we imagined it, it was completely immaterial to her that Bernard happened to be gay and did some cross- dressing. So you could imagine that the real Doris Duke was hardly homophobic. The causes that she focused on were very, very human causes, that you wouldn't think necessarily somebody who lived in an ivory tower all of their life would have been so interested. But she was deeply interested.


What other liberties did you take in creating this imagined relationship?

Bob Balaban

Well, we took a lot of liberties [LAUGHS]. Everything they say and do together was imagined by us. This is a dance between two people getting to know each other and care about each other. Had we wanted to be historically accurate I don't know how we would've done that. We simply imagined a way in which a very, very wealthy lady, who came from a very particular background- how she could've had the kind of trust and emotional attachment she came to have. How is it that this happened in six short years? And with a guy who you wouldn't have thought she would've spoken to?


How did you get Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes on board?

Bob Balaban

I was working with Susan on a project very close to both of our hearts called The Exonerated. It was something I had produced and directed in New York, as a play. Right around the time I was doing this with Susan, I had gotten the Bernard and Doris screenplay, read it, and went home one night after working with Susan and went, "Oh, she'd be a great Doris Duke." I then got her on the phone and said, "You want to look at this? I think you'd be great." She read it quickly and said, "I'd love to be this character. I've never done anything like it."

If you're the kind of actor Susan is, you're interested in doing things you haven't done before. I mean, they're all different kinds of movie stars, and to me, Susan Sarandon is a movie star really known for taking chances.

So, Susan said she'd love to be Doris, and we both thought of Ralph for Bernard. We got to Ralph quickly and he liked the script a lot, and adored the idea of working with Susan. So we had two actors working together who were so interested to work with each other. That's a great way to begin a project. So with these fascinating actors playing really interesting characters we decided to find a way to try to get inside of their heads as much as we could.

When did that first moment of trust happen? When did she realize that this cipher of a butler was a man who could really take care of her in some way? We had to find that moment. And the whole movie is structured as a series of small personal events leading two people to become close to each other.

The whole movie is structured as a series of small personal events leading two people to become close to each other.


What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

Bob Balaban

I hope that it will be interesting for them. I mean, there aren't many movies that spend a hundred minutes of screen time with two unique characters played by two unique actors, really getting to know each other. I find it fascinating to watch. And my hope is that people watching the movie will identify with these characters with whom you never thought you'd identify. Because they're either so far beneath you or so far above you what would you have in common with them? And yet, these two actors bring a tremendous amount of humanity to these two complex characters.

Bernard and Doris

HBO Films

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Photos Doris yellow sweater looking up