When Sandra Bullock won the best actress Oscar for The Blind Side three years ago, her position as the number-one female movie star on the planet was secure. But after all the box office and awards success, Bullock was very careful about what projects she chose to do next. Eschewing the easy route of another romantic comedy after her supporting role in 2011’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Bullock took on the role of Dr. Ryan Stone, a novice astronaut stranded in space and struggling to survive in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. At its core, the film is not your average sci-fi blockbuster, but rather an intimate look at summoning the will to go on.
AwardsLine: They created something called the light box for this, a really isolating contraption. What was it like in there?
Sandra Bullock: It was literally a 9- by 9-foot box that was elevated on a platform. On one side, there were black curtains where all the technical geniuses were sitting, and there was a long track in the center. You know the (robot) arms that make the cars in Detroit? They were these massive things with the camera on them. There was a metal harness that I had to get up through that clamped around my waist. It was timed mechanically with the camera, so it would turn my body, and the camera was then spinning, and I had to figure out, “Am I upside down? Or am I right side up?”
AwardsLine: Was this the most physically, mentally and emotionally challenging role you’ve done?
Bullock: I can go on about how it was painful, there were injuries, I was alone and I was isolated, but I look back and think, there couldn’t have been a greater setting for me. You just had to give into what the process was instead of fighting it, and I did try to fight it. Rather than it being a beautiful soundstage where everything was very comfortable and cushy, (it) was an awkward dark place. By the time you got locked into that contraption, there was the odd sensation of moving your body in a completely different energy than you’re used to. Everything was technical. Our technical genius Tim Webber would come up to me with his little iPad, and I’d be hanging from the ceiling, and he’d be like, “Sandy…” And I’d be like, “Fuck you.” But I knew he was right and that if I didn’t get my hand here and look at the dot that was supposed to be either George (Clooney) or space or something, that the performance wouldn’t make it in there.
AwardsLine: How do you handle the technical details and still focus on playing your character?
Bullock: You develop the character with the director, who she is and who she’s not. But in this case, I had to keep asking Alfonso, “What are you telling visually in this story that I don’t need to chew the scenery around? If I don’t have to speak and you’re doing something musically, visually or with sound that’s going to tell the story, let me know.” And we didn’t want to tell too much of a story, this was supposed to be an amusement ride for the viewer. It’s almost like a book: When you read a book, you’re able to feel things and experience them in your own personal way that you don’t get to do too much in movies. That’s what we wanted this to be.
AwardsLine: Your performance is the essence of screen-acting, where we’re seeing this character through your eyes.
Bullock: Whether it’s in comedy or drama, if I don’t figure out how to have (the character’s) life experience, then I can’t do it or I feel like I’m faking it. When (you’re) having an emotional experience, you pray that the director is catching it. You can have the best take and then find out, “Oh, my God. That was a wide shot?” But with this film, I knew exactly where the camera was going to be at all times. There was no wide shot, two shot, single shot—there was none of that.
AwardsLine: The movie is about that ultimate need for survival. How did you tap into that emotion?
Bullock: The foundation of the script was there, but (my character’s) journey was not fleshed out. (Alfonso) allowed me to step in and say what I wanted to say. To me, what’s more interesting is someone who has had so much loss that they are now completely disconnected from Earth, someone who has to dig deep to see if they even want to try (to live). What does that feel like, to have that enlightenment of, “I’m ready, let it go. I’ve made the journey. I’ve seen what I needed to see”? We loved that idea, but it was hard to pull off.
AwardsLine: What was it like to work with George Clooney on this?
Bullock: We’ve known each other for over 20 years, since we started working in this business when we had no money, no jobs. And we’ve never worked together, so to have this brand-new experience in this unknown capacity was really nice. What’s really nice about George is that when he’s on set, he can’t not work. Alfonso and I were struggling with a scene where the writing just didn’t feel right. George was there, and he sent Alfonso an email. It was the scene when I decide to try to get back (to Earth), and I’m looking at the manual and I start talking to (his character), and I say, “You’re going to see a little girl. Her hair is brown…” He wrote that. He could’ve gone off to have a cocktail, but that missing piece would not have been figured out.