Anderson Explores 'Midwest Zen'

Though the release of a debut feature film might be cause for self-congratulation among some directors, I was pleasantly surprised to find Jane Anderson humble and unassuming. Not only did Ms. Anderson—noting that the café her publicists had set aside for the interview was freezing—spontaneously invite two other college journalists and me up to her hotel room; she was remarkably open and honest in describing the hopes she had and the challenges she faced in making her movie.

The Harvard Crimson: I’m originally from Iowa, and watching both “The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio” and your HBO film “Normal,” I really felt that you had a great sense of the past and present of the kinds of places I grew up in. Can you explain a little more about your background and how it relates to that?

Jane Anderson: I’m not a Midwesterner, but I have enormous respect for the Midwest sensibility. The thing about the Midwest is that it’s a farm culture, and the farmers know that if their crops are destroyed by drought or locust or freezing, they can’t sit on their porch and cry about it. They have to get back on the tractor and plow the field. And it’s that kind of sensibility that I admire, and that’s Evelyn Ryan’s sensibility. Some people call it denial. I call it Midwest Zen.

THC: Why did you choose Julianne Moore to play Evelyn Ryan, and how did she feel about playing the character?

JA: She has such intelligence as an actress and it’s a very tough part. It’s tough to play an optimist convincingly. And as an actress I knew she could walk that very thin line between optimism and realism. We tend to think that optimists are not very bright…but all the great spiritual thinkers know that the ultimate intelligence is to go for the light, and that’s why Julianne’s so great.

THC: You’ve said a lot about how the movie is about being happy in your own life, whatever it is, and ultimately Evelyn Ryan didn’t change anything tangible about her life. So I wonder what you would say to those people who argue that a movie like this is encouraging other women who are in difficult situations to stay in those situations instead of trying to change them.

JA: That’s a great question. If Evelyn could have changed it, she would have. Now there are all kinds of alternatives, women’s centers, all kinds of resources. Evelyn didn’t have those kinds of resources. The message is change whatever you can, but if you can’t, be happy. I mean, it was tragic that women were stuck in the house. And growing up in the feminist era, I learned to feel terribly sorry for housewives. And here was this woman who lived in the middle of nowhere, yet she was happy. And that was the revelation.

—Staff writer Marianne F. Kaletzky can be reached at kaletzky@fas.harvard.edu