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Sandra Bullock on playing an ex-con trying to reenter society after 20 years


There is a scene in Sandra Bullock's new film, which, if you walked in midway, you could momentarily mistake for one of her earlier rom-coms, a guy takes her to lunch at a diner and tries to impress her.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Ruth, you have no idea what you're in store for. Ruth...

KELLY: But just for a moment because Bullock's character is weighing whether to reveal a difficult truth.


SANDRA BULLOCK: (As Ruth) I was in prison. I just got out.

KELLY: In the new movie "The Unforgivable," Sandra Bullock stars as Ruth, an ex-con trying to re-enter society and reconnect with the family she has left. And Sandra Bullock joins us now. Welcome.

BULLOCK: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So the movie opens with you leaving prison, having served 20 years. And while we, the audience, do not yet know what has happened to you, we don't know what exactly you were in prison for, we can see the toll it has taken and that it has been brutal. And I want to start by asking, how do you prepare for a role like that?

BULLOCK: Well, the luxury of what we do for a living is that you can go in and research. And it felt like an invasion of people's privacy, but we had so many women be so transparent and open about their journeys, both women who were still incarcerated and women who have subsequently been released.

KELLY: What did you learn from talking to them?

BULLOCK: Oh, you know, I think it's something that those of us who are not born into extreme poverty will never know. And the common thread I found was that these extraordinary women who have survived, the women that I met, did not have the resources to keep safe, did not have the resources to think beyond their circumstances, that life could offer them something more because they didn't see that in the world. So many of them had stories of just trying to survive, and the reason they were in prison was a result of that. And that made me incredibly, incredibly sad for them.

KELLY: Yeah. Your character, Ruth is - she's on the end of it, in one way. She's done her time. She served her sentence. But it also becomes clear really fast she's not done, that this crime is going to follow her. And everyone she meets, whether it's her new employer or a guy who thinks she's cute, she has to figure out whether to tell them, when to tell them there's something you need to know about me. That scene in the diner, when she comes clean to the guy who thinks she's cute, it really hits home this idea that you can't escape the past.

BULLOCK: You're not afforded the same joys everyone else is when you're a convict. You have to let your employer know that you are a convict. And then if you meet someone who gives you the feeling that there might be a hope, that someone might see you and care for you, you quickly realize that that dark cloud has to be revealed. And nine times out of 10, you know what the response is going to be

KELLY: I read you were filming this when the pandemic hit, and you had to break for six months and then start up again. Is that right?

BULLOCK: Yeah, yeah, we did. And for us, it was an odd blessing in that we had those months to edit our film.

KELLY: And what about for you as an actor, playing Ruth, to have to let this character just steep and stew and live with you for six months?

BULLOCK: Yeah, I mean, I had these teeth bonded to my front teeth. You know, I said, oh, it's just going to be a few months, but I don't want them flying out in the middle of a scene, so I'll just bond them on my teeth. And next thing I know, for a year and a half, I had...

KELLY: Oh, my goodness.

BULLOCK: Which was OK in a weird way. It was almost like the universe saying, we're not going to let you put your pencil down during this time. You have to keep being there. But I'm good at leaving something behind because I have two babies at home, and the last thing I want to do is bring that energy into their world. But I have to say, the thing that I learned about women in prison and the perception of a woman's anger and rage and pain and sadness is that women are just not supposed to be in that feeling. To be able to do that for a living and release anything that I had pent up, it was liberating. You know, I think any woman you talk to would just love to have a moment to just release and rage and show what they have to carry around as luggage their entire lives because it's deemed unacceptable because you're a female.

KELLY: Yeah. A lot of people know you for a certain kind of role. They think Sandra Bullock, America's sweetheart, she's so friendly. She's so fun.

BULLOCK: Lie - all lies.

KELLY: All lies (laughter).

BULLOCK: Yeah, all lies.

KELLY: I don't know. You seem pretty nice so far (laughter).

BULLOCK: Smoke and mirrors, baby, smoke and mirrors.

KELLY: (Laughter) I mean, I know you've played all kinds of roles by this point in your career, but I wondered if that was something that attracted you to this one, that it plays a little against type.

BULLOCK: Yeah, a little against type or maybe mirrors real life. You know, it's a - you know, I've learned a lot in the last close to 12 years that I didn't know before about the class system. I learned it because I see it through the eyes of my two children.

KELLY: This is - I'll just inject. These are two children. You adopted them and they are a different race. Is that correct?

BULLOCK: Yes. My children are African American, and I just - I don't - I've stopped using the word adoption because I don't - you know, when someone says, you know, oh, you're adopted children, I said, so did you have your children by having sex or did you use IVF? They go, oh, we did IVF. I go, so can I call your children IVF children? So it's my quest in changing a narrative because I see - they exist in my home of safety because I am there. The minute they will leave from under our roof and go into their lives, they don't have that anymore. They are judged the second they walk out our door because of the color of their skin.

And this film came to me and I saw my daughter's journey through foster care. She was 2 1/2. So she had been in three different places by the time she was 2 1/2. And so it started off with my daughter, but it ended up looking at the the people who choose to parent and love, whether society can feel comfortable saying your child or your adopted child. But the girl who I'm looking for in my film is the child of another family.

KELLY: Let me just bring people listening in a little bit more. You're referring to your character, Ruth, who spends the movie trying to find her sister, Katie. And you all have had zero contact for the 20 years that Ruth has been incarcerated. She has been - I was going to say adopted, but I will use your word. She was - she has been taken in and raised and loved by what seems to be a lovely family who are really protective of her. And that's a central tension of the movie between these three adults who all see themselves as Katie's protector. It sounds like your own experience with your children has really informed how you played that role.

BULLOCK: Sure. I mean, you don't - you can't know everyone else's journey in life, you know. You just can't. You have so many journeys that are happening in our world of families that just are about love and protection. They are same-sex families. They are single-parent families. They are interracial families. They are - it's just - the common denominator with all those things that are listed is that they're just a family.

KELLY: Sandra Bullock, thank you.

BULLOCK: Thank you.

KELLY: Her new film is "The Unforgivable." It's in theaters now and on Netflix in December.


Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Sarah Handel
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