Tuesday 24 October 2017

Wonder Woman Robin plays her Cards right

As the steely First Lady in 'House of Cards' and now a fearsome warrior in 'Wonder Woman', Robin Wright is having the time of her life playing powerful, ruthless women. She tells Alex Clark where it all went so right

Robin Wright poses pictured at the Cannes festival earlier this month
Robin Wright poses pictured at the Cannes festival earlier this month
Robin Wright with Kevin Spacey in House of Cards
Robin Wright and Sean Penn in 2009
Chilren Hopper and Dylan with their father Sean Penn

A sneak peek at the opening episode of the fifth season of House of Cards and Robin Wright, who plays First Lady to Kevin Spacey's POTUS, stares into the camera. "I've been meaning to talk with you. It's terrifying, isn't it? The President and I have a simple request. Tell us what you see. My husband and I…" Wright's character continues chillingly, "want to protect you".

Suddenly, we are back in the coercive, wheedling world of Frank and Claire Underwood, their menace cloaked in carefully orchestrated concern. Yet Robin Wright seems entirely, physically different from Underwood when I meet her in a casual Los Angeles restaurant. Her FLOTUS is elegant in trademark sculpted neutrals, but she is also bodily imposing - you wonder how Wright, fine-boned, petite, delicate, fills those power outfits.

I tell her that I once showed a picture of Underwood to my hairdresser to see if she could replicate the dramatic helmet of hair. She bursts out laughing. "Do you have any idea how much product we put in my hair?" she asks. "Three products while it's wet, volumising, texturising, root-lift, and a lot of curling brushes and a lot of blow-drying." Today, she says, it's growing out because she has temporarily set Claire Underwood, who has brought her one Golden Globe and a host of nominations, to one side.

We're here to talk about a very different interpretation of female power. In what is, essentially, her first action movie, Wright becomes the Amazon warrior General Antiope in the new Wonder Woman film; indeed she plays the aunt of Diana, Princess of Amazons, and chief martial trainer, complete with swords, swishing cape and breastplate. It is, as one critic noted, "like the cosplay of Claire Underwood's dreams".

Robin Wright with Kevin Spacey in House of Cards
Robin Wright with Kevin Spacey in House of Cards

In preparation for the shoot, at Warner Bros' Hertfordshire studios, she trained for several weeks, attending sessions of horse riding, martial arts, weightlifting, battle-scene choreography and a hard-core rotation of dips and push-ups with all the other Amazons.

Every day they scarfed down potatoes and pasta, and protein shakes with peanut butter and banana to bulk up quickly.

It was, she tells me between bites of a very Californian beet and quinoa salad, a stretch; some days, "I couldn't even show up because I was so injured, because my body was not used to the intensity. And I'm a little person." After she had children in her 20s, she says, she became "unhealthily" skinny, even though she was eating plenty. Now, she found Wonder Woman's physical challenges and the ensuing camaraderie "incredibly stimulating". "You wanted to show up, otherwise you're bailing out, and all the other ladies were there? Not cool."

On the first weekend of shooting, Wright turned 50. "That was so rewarding. Fifty and getting in the best shape of my life? And doing it with all these gals, who were all cheerleading for each other, and want us each to do the best we can. It was so much fun."

In the past few years, Wright's life has undergone a sea change far beyond the arena of squat-thrusts and weights. In 2010, her 20-odd year relationship with Sean Penn ended: divorce followed after a yoyo period of separation and reconciliation, which she has previously attributed to their attempts to keep their family intact.

Each had been married before, Wright to actor Dane Witherspoon, whom she acted with in her first big break, the soap Santa Barbara. He killed himself last year.

Robin Wright and Sean Penn in 2009
Robin Wright and Sean Penn in 2009

Penn, famously, was married to Madonna - she offered to remarry him last year if he paid $150,000 to her Malawi charity. Although Wright continued to act while she was with Penn, there were few standout parts, and a definite sense that his career was the dominant one, both artistically and financially. The couple moved from LA to the far more understated Marin County, near San Francisco.

She has called the divorce "devastating"; Penn has also claimed to have felt unloved in his first two marriages, and said that Wright is now like "a ghost" to him. Since her divorce, she has had another relationship, with actor Ben Foster, which featured two engagements before the couple parted definitively in 2015 ("I've never laughed or read more than with Ben," Wright said during their romance, and they each had the other's initial tattooed on their ring finger).

Her children with Penn, daughter Dylan and son Hopper, 26 and 23 respectively, now appear to be embarked on their own acting and modelling careers. They've cleared the various hurdles of troubled youth (in an interview earlier this year, Hopper spoke of his abuse of crystal meth and subsequent spell in rehab, to which he was steered by his father; he also suffered a serious injury as a result of a skateboarding accident).

Wright confesses to complete surprise about her children's career choices. "You know, when they were kids, they'd been on set since they were born. I was breastfeeding both my kids in my trailer in between scenes during Forrest Gump [she played Jenny, the love of Forrest's life]. And they would say constantly as they grew up: 'Oh God, I would never be an actor, I hate it, I've been on sets my whole life'."

For Wright, the last few years have brought a variety of film roles - turns in Moneyball, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Everest - and one humdinger of a television part. Now, they are in their sixth year, during the course of which Wright has not only expanded her character but demanded - and won - equal remuneration to Spacey (a couple of years ago, reported to be $500,000 per episode), citing in her favour research that showed how popular her character was with viewers.

She seems, I remark, to have hit a clear patch of road; in fact, she replies, it's a whole new route: "I got on a different interstate with what this show has provided, for sure. Remember, when we started, everybody was like: 'It's not going to last for more than two or three seasons, shows don't do that'. Surprise, boys!"

She's also had the chance to fulfil a long-held ambition to direct, stepping behind the camera for a number of episodes in recent seasons of House of Cards. "I think you do just give yourself permission to go: 'You can do this'. And you know what? If I don't know the answer to something, or I don't know how to accomplish that, in that way, I'm going to say: 'Can I get your help? You, who've been behind the camera, a seasoned camera operator, for 40 years, tell me what lens to use with this scene'. And I've been basically gifted with cinema school, being on that show, with my crew. So grateful."

It has paid off. Wright evidently feels as though she has accessed a new part of her repertoire. "It is the most exhilarating thing, I love it. Frankly, it's an irritant that I have to go in front of the camera."

As House of Cards opens - now long beyond the bounds of the much- admired original 1990 British show, which Wright has never seen - we see Frank Underwood about to face the American electorate, cynically stoking the flames of popular fear. "We need to dial up the terror," Claire tells her husband at one point.

But there is an issue; whatever House of Cards does, reality goes one step further. On the evening that Donald Trump dismissed FBI director James Comey, the HoC account tweeted - who knows whether by accident or design - a message: "When you're fresh meat, kill and throw them something fresher." How strange is it, I ask Wright, to be starring in a political satire when politics - all over the world - has gone crazy?

"Trump - he took all of our good ideas!" she responds. "How do we beat that?" She points out that "the minutiae of the back story that we don't ever receive from CNN, that's where we can push the boundaries beyond anybody". She pauses.I suggest that The West Wing now seems like a romantic fantasy of political life, a quaint portrait of idealism and duty.

She nods: "We used to have more of an etiquette. And now: pissing in the wind. And every news station is just that - it's just gossip, finger-pointing, trying to annihilate whoever with bad press, with their negative opinion of somebody."

Of late, Wright's own political activities have become focused. Her particular interest is the Congo, in the depredations of electronics companies avid for minerals to power - she gestures to my phone, recording our conversation on the table between us - the devices on which we have become so reliant. A visit to the Congo, during which she met local women, spurred her on to set up Pour Les Femmes 18 months ago with old friend and designer Karen Fowler.

It's a sleepwear company selling high-end pajamas (in the UK, you can buy them in Selfridges; they are lovely, but not cheap). With its profits, they fund Congolese women's charities, providing the wherewithal for them to start small enterprises - baking, making clothes - and to provide their children with a home and an education. Wright and Fowler plan to build schools, to send girls to university, to right as many wrongs as they can.

Particularly since the American election, celebrities have been more and more visible; and they've also been open to charges of virtue-signalling, of attention seeking. How much does that irritate her?

She's at the age, she replies, where to be needled by it is "fruitless, it's wasteful, it's using up time and energy, and positive, aggressive ways to change". We keep returning to the Amazons during our conversation about how they fought alongside men, using the same weapons, running towards danger.

It's easy to see how that way of life appeals to Wright. She describes how Wonder Woman depicts "love and protection and equality and justice. And that's woman. That's mother. That's an instinct intrinsic in us, right?" Weapons aside, I'm not so sure Claire Underwood would agree.

Wonder Woman is in cinemas from June 1

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