Inside Judith Ivey’s Quiet, Powerful Performance in ‘Women Talking’

The ensemble cast of Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” is a hurricane of talent, from the palpable rage of Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley to the conflicted grief of Michelle McLeod and Kate Hallet. None, though, is perhaps as haunting in her simplicity and grace than Judith Ivey. The longtime stage and screen actor delivers a career-best performance.

As one of two matriarchs in a Mennonite colony ravaged by drugging and rape at the hands of their own men, Ivey navigates a violent and devastating betrayal with the perspective and empathy of a seasoned diplomat — without ever seeming cloying or, worse, in denial.

Variety recently sat with Ivey recently to discuss Polley’s landmark film, the challenges for women actors dealing with such intense source material, and how simply saying your line is the best acting tool.

How often does a part like this come around for you, as an actor? 

Judith Ivey: Unfortunately not often enough. It’s an extraordinary role. I’ve never seen a movie like this. This character is kind of the glue of her community. It’s a wonderfully powerful place to be in a story.

Did you have any trepidation taking on material this upsetting, especially as it related to sexual assault? 

No. It’s time. It’s time to get it out there and have people think about it. What’s unique is to see this community, the way they dress and do their hair and the way they live. You may think, ‘I have nothing in common with these people.’ But very quickly you discover how similar the experiences are. It’s sad, but the fact that these women live that way in 2008, you are constantly reminded that these problems and this abuse that these women live through didn’t take place in 1894. It’s now. We certainly have a parallel of that, which has come out into the open in the past 3-4 years. 

Agata has high emotional intelligence and patience. She prays often and empathizes. Where does her grace come from? 

It was one of the themes I was most taken with when I read the script, and that is forgiveness. These women are told if they forgive their abusers and let life go on, they will be accepted into the kingdom of heaven. It’s emotional blackmail. But there is something to be said about forgiveness. It’s important so we can move on, and not make it a death sentence. It’s the big debate around capitol punishment. What if you could forgive that? That is Agata’s center. How do we get beyond it? 

I invented a small back story for Agata that isn’t in the movie or the book. What was her past? I think she was probably friends with members of the community who were excommunicated, because they shared the same views and questioned. At one point, I asked Sarah if she thought Agat’s husband, who is dead and does not appear in the film, was someone who asked big questions. Perhaps he was more enlightened than some of these other guys. That scenario lends itself to someone who says, ‘No. We have to talk about this.’ And in that process, these women unwittingly create a democracy. Everybody gets a vote. 

I think you see Agata’s grace In her daughter Ona (Rooney Mara). As a woman giving this performance, did you ever run short on the patience and grace that Agata always maintains? 

If Judy was in the movie, I’d be breaking shit. I got to do acting, so that’s how I found a quiet place.

What did you do on set to get to that quiet place? 

It’s such a beautiful script, it was all there. And Sarah is an extraordinary director. She kept her eye on me, because I’m not Agata. Whenever there was more animated or motivated response coming from me, most of the notes she ever gave me were, ‘You can just simply say the lines.’ Agata is a direct woman in control of her emotions. She is gracious. It was always, ‘Judy — just say it.’ 

Sarah has mentioned she had professionals on hand for cast and crew, in case any of the subject matter got too intense and people needed to talk. How did that play out? 

Well, I thought it was very caring and respectful of what might happen. To say, let’s anticipate it and not wait until we have a drama that we don’t know what to do with. Because Sarah was an actor, specifically a child actor, she went through certain things and earned from them. That’s how she can be so protective of everybody, but certainly the younger actors for many of whom this was their first movie. Those young actors felt protected and safe, I heard them say it. This film has a wonderful way of looking at all kinds of issues, not only in giving women power and respect, It asks, what is faith? What is a democracy? If you take away a vote, is that a democracy? That’s happening in our country right now. If we don’t fix it, we all lose. 

You’ve had such a long and diverse career. I can’t leave you without mentioning one of my favorite movies, “Hello Again,” with you and Shelley Long. 

Oh, I love that movie. Don’t you wish they’d make some more these days? 

You also did two seasons of “Designing Women”?

t was one season. It was the last one! But it was such a joy.

It’s amazing to see actors like you and Jean Smart doing career-best work in the present. 

Here’s a little trivia — we did a Broadway show together called “Piaf.” She played Marlena Dietrich, and I played Piaf once a week. The other seven times, I was the secretary. After that, the rest is history, she went on to “Designing Women.” I wish she had been on when I was on. That would’ve been an amazing reunion. 

“Women Talking” opens in select theaters Dec. 23.

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