In the film Hysteria, Hugh Dancy plays Mortimer Granville, a dedicated young scientist in 1880s London who practices a new way to intimately treat women for "hysteria." Under the guidance of Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a man who takes his practice of massaging women's private areas very seriously, Dancy's scientist falls for the doctor's daughters Emily (played by Felicity Jones) and the fiery Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). When his hand gets tired of treating hysteria, Granville helps discover the world's first vibrator. I sat down with director Tanya Wexler to discuss her film, the truth behind Maggie Gyllenhaal's character Charlotte, and why we're all so hysterical for period entertainment like "Downton Abbey."
Hysteria opens May 25 in limited Chicago theaters.
It's fitting that your mom is here, as this is kind of a movie you could see with your mom.
That's what I say - "The vibrator comedy you could bring your mom to." My mom has seen it several times.
How do you feel 'Hysteria' would be different if a man directed it? Would men possibly show embarrassment for the naivety of men in this earlier period?
I don't really know how to answer that, because I think there is a lot to say about gender, and how this movie would have been different if someone not from Chicago directed it ... I think that gender is not the organizing thing of my life and worldview. But there are two differences that I would notice and they're really about perception. One is that when we shot the various treatment scenes they were very free. The actresses were able to be comfortable. I was laughing with them, and not at. It wasn't exploitative. I was going through the movie with me in the movie. The joke is not "Ha ha ha, look at the dumb men," [the movie is about] mass cultural denial all the way around. It's "Oh my god, we were all so ridiculous." On the whole, they did not frame these treatments as sexual, neither the women nor the men. The vibrator was invented for a guy, because his hand was tired.
What kind of feedback have you personally heard from men about the vibrator?
We gave each cast and crew member a little vibrator for the movie. One guy said, "Oh, I don't want the competition." But his friend was like, "It's not the competition, it's a member of your team." That's the way it started certainly. Guys like power tools, it gets the job done!
How do you explain our interest in watching Victorian set movies, or even shows like "Downton Abbey"?
I think we are all the same, but it gives us some nice distance. It's safe. It's the same way we like science fiction, because it imagines how our culture could be different in a non-threatening way. For me, Hysteria is a romantic comedy, but happens to take place in a certain period. But it was important to me that it felt very fresh. We wanted the language to be like a screwball comedy, but also like a Richard Curtis film. I don't think people in the 1800's are thinking, "Aren't we quaint?" They were on the cutting edge of science, women's rights, etc. [The movie] had to feel present. Everyone feels like "now" is the most exciting and important time.
What do you think men are still naive about, concerning science or the opposite sex?
I don't know. For this movie, because it has a lot to say about men and women, it isn't about the opposition. I really resist characterizing men as a group, because there are so many different kinds of guys.
It is revealed in the end credits of the movie that Maggie Gyllenhaal's character is fictional. How did you go about creating this character to be an "idea pot" for this movie?
I don't think we thought of it that way. We looked at this invention, and saw that this was a part of a larger concept to treating hysteria, and that the whole idea of it is wacky. We said, "Who are the doctors, the patients?" We organically drew the characters out of that. Once we had the doctor, who is a true believer and a yuppie, we had to get a truth teller. Once you find that, and she works with women, we kept asking very simple logical questions about her and knew by vibe that we wanted Katherine Hepburn-y kind of character. There was never a moment in which we said, "We want you to be a mouthpiece," but instead we said, "This is a story ... who says these truths?" For me, Charlotte is the kind of character I watch and think, "I want to be that person." It's not so outside in, you just start finding her, although that sounds pretentious. When Maggie did it, the writers nailed it, and she played that character. You don't have direct someone to think for you, you just say, "Here's your role," and make sure all the other characters are in the same tone for the movie. When you direct, that's your job. The most tortured metaphor is jazz, but it works. You've got the common melody, but as long as you have the right key, then actors can do their solos around it, and to make it so much more rich. But you need that through line. The end.
What do you think Jonathan Pryce's character says about the understanding of such a "medical condition"?
I think Jonathan's character shows that he might be the bad guy, but I don't think he is - he's trapped within his perspective. From his point of view, he wanted his daughters to be happy, and to be kind of successful as women defined by the vows of the time. It's much more interesting to take someone who might appear to have narrow interests, and try to understand why they might be like that. He is the kind of person who believes in, "If you can not fit in this box that society prescribes for you, then there has to be something wrong with you." [Laughs] That's a new one.
How many times do you come across double entendres while doing these interviews?
It's unending. It's awesome.
What did you have for breakfast this morning? Tomato, and feta frittata.
Private concert, who's playing? I can't say. It just makes me not cool enough. It's like, "How lesbian am I?" Indigo Girls. My wife and I sang Indigo Girls ... so my wife would be the other [act]. She has an amazing voice.
What is your favorite blockbuster movie? Aliens. Sigourney Weaver kicks ass, and I love that.
Age of first kiss? My mom is in the next room! [Laughs] Twelve.