Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
A Tour of North Country With Rusty Schwimmer
Knight at the Movies web exclusive 10-21-05
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Character actress Rusty Schwimmer clockwise from left: with North Country star Charlize Theron, with fellow North Country co-star
Michelle Monaghan in courtroom scene, at the film's Los Angeles premiere, an appearance on Minnesota Public Radio to promote
the film and with the author
Rusty Schwimmer and I have known each other for 20 years. We first met at Chicago's Limelight night club in 1985 and it was an
instant love in. My performance character, Dick O'Day, had a talk show at the club, "The Dick O'Day Celebrity Gabfest" and Rusty
was my sidekick, Judy Stein. But soon she was off to L.A. and within a few short years had established a terrific career as a character
actress. Although she's had comedy roles (she is sublime in 1995's A Little Princess and hilarious in her many TV episode guest
appearances -- including "Boston Legal" and "Six Feet Under") -- most movie audiences recognize her for those small but important
character roles -- the anxious, worried juror Millie Dupree in Runaway Jury or the tough but vulnerable Irene Carell in The Perfect Storm,
for example. Her role as Big Betty in North Country offers her a chance to balance the two, with both comedy and drama combining in
another memorable part for Rusty. In the movie, based on a true story, she plays a female miner in northern Minnesota who along
with her coworkers, especially Charlize Theron, are subjected to continual sexual harassment.
We spoke the day before she was to go on location to shoot a western miniseries with Robert Duvall, whom she co-starred with in
1996 in The Man Who Captured Eichmann. As always, the laughter between us was non-stop.
rkj: What the world does not know but what I know and what all the rest of your friends know and so many people in the business
know is that you’re like the funniest human on the planet. I love your dramatic parts but I'm dying on the vine for a Rusty comedy
RS: Oh sweetie you’re so cute, I’m gonna give you the $50 dollars later. Thank you.
rkj: Thank you. It’s actually $60. And that you have all these characters that live inside you. Because I’m not just talking to Rusty,
I’m now speaking to the people inside of Rusty.
(we’re both laughing big)
RS: You know what it really is is the fact that my – and I’m going to use this term loosely – my comedy is – I don’t think society is
ready for it yet. They’re still into that mean comedy mode, that cynical, bitter party of one type of comedy and I don’t do that
comedy. I’m so old school, I’m like Carol Burnett, Red Skelton and I don’t think society is quite ready for that kind of comedy yet.
So I’ll bust that out when the need be.
rkj: When they bring back “Mama’s Family.”
(RS bursts into laughter at this idea)
rkj: Now that’s a thought. That’s really an inspired idea.
RS: Actually my sisters and I always dreamed that I would have my own variety show with the big word, “Rusty!” and my sisters
always wanted to guest star. They were my early audience. But society’s not ready so I just trudge away with my drama.
rkj: Which leads us into North Country. How did that happen? Where did that come from for you?
RS: North Country is a very important film in the sense that besides what these women are fighting for the camera has now turned
and looked into the lives of the actual people that make this country function. In the sense that they’re the ones – it’s not
Washington, it’s not Wall Street, it’s not Hollywood, it’s the actual functioning of this country that these people are responsible for.
So you’re looking at a part of the country that is probably the majority of what our country is. We’re talking Northern Minnesota,
specifically the Iron Range.
rkj: Was the movie filmed there?
RS: Most of it was. Almost all the exteriors but some were filmed in New Mexico because they got a nice little tax thing going on
there. We also couldn’t film the time lapse because it was winter when we were there. We had to see the other seasons so that’s
where New Mexico played a part for us.
rkj: Is there a real life counterpart of your character, Big Betty?
RS: She was a composite of several women. In fact the director Niki Caro asked me to take a look at the woman whose name is
Patricia. Most of her life was portrayed by the Frances McDormand character. But my physicality and for lack of a better word, my
vibe was more Pat. I was a mother of several children, so was Pat (she had five children). They decided not to have Frances
McDormand's character have children because we were playing compilations of people. But in terms of the kind of person Pat was
Betty was a lot like her.
rkj: So did you meet some of these women?
RS: I not only met some of these women, we hung out and we’re getting together on Thanksgiving. I love these women who
actually went through it. I spent a lot of time with these women. Diane Hodge, Joan, Lois Jensen – the women Charlize’s character
is based on. Just great, great ladies. They tell it baby, they tell it like it is.
rkj: Okay, so Niki Caro says, “We’re going to spend some time with the real women so you can do research and get to know them.”
RS: And also some women that were just recently in the mines, too, that had not gone through the same things that these other
ladies did because they worked for another firm. But they themselves had been miners and I hung out with these women, too. So
you knew their lives because a lot of these women were going on 30 years in the mines. Some of them started out in ’75 when it
was allowed. One woman I know has rheumatoid arthritis that you have to wonder if she got it from the mines but that itself is
another story. There's a lot with these women.
rkj: Let’s talk a little about the actual filming. Is it daunting to go into a project with several Academy Award winners?
RS: An Academy Award doesn’t necessarily mean as much to me as does a history of some of their films that they have done. So,
I'm looking at Frances McDormand and seeing her film history and her career and how she’s handled it and it is really inspiring
rather than intimidating because I’m no fool, I’m going to learn from the best. And Sissy Spacek, my God, that woman has an
incredible history. And for Charlize Theron for the age that she’s at – she’s only 30 years old – very impressive, very impressive. So
I came in there very impressed but at the same time I was ready to roll. That was gonna be fun. I don’t think I was intimidated so
much as really chomping at the bit wanting to go.
rkj: Well yeah, you’re probably locked and loaded by the time you get to that set, right?
RS: Yeah, I’m definitely prepared. When I’m not prepared that’s when I get intimidated.
rkj: So tell me about shooting with those ladies. Are you pulling pranks on the set, sharing stories, having fun, knitting booties,
picking up guys…
RS: (laughing) Oh my God, of course – always. The scene where we’re in Josey’s house looking at the beauty products Sherry has
to sell. That day was filled with let the women sexually harass the male crew.
rkj: (laughing) You hellcat hussies!
RS: (laughing) We were such hussies. I would say things like, ‘Baby when we’re done with the scene I’m gonna lay out the kitty
buffet. Let’s work it.’ Keith, our sweet, sweet prop man who had to go shopping for dildos was this total country guy with the cowboy
mustache. He had to go into a store and ask for the best dildos they had that fit in lunchboxes. So this guy bends over to refill
beer bottles that day and there’s Charlize going, “Yeah baby, c’mon let’s see that ass.” It was turnabout day and I think the men
really enjoyed it – that’s the sick part. They were intimidated but it was part of the sexual titillation. They dug it. We had a blast
and the guys that played our nemesis, our nemesai – if you would say it that way – were our pals, our brothers. Whatever town we
were in I would find THE bowling alley and we’d have bowling night and everybody would come and bowl. We had a great time
filming – you’d have never known we were filming a drama except for when we were in the union hall. That was horrifying.
rkj: Why was that?
RS: Well you had 300 to 400 men from Minnesota, from that town, most of them from the mine finally venting the frustrations that
they had had for years. But in a safe manner. In the very beginning when we came on the set and it was all smoky and gray and it
definitely smelled like man but it was nothing compared to when we finally encountered the real thing in that union hall. We walked
in and the guys definitely gave us respect as actresses and I got a few things like, “Oh yeah, you were great in Perfect Storm” but
when those cameras started rolling and Niki asked them to listen to what Charlize was saying and react accordingly, they forgot that
any of us in the room were women let alone actresses.
rkj: That sounds frightening.
RS: It was frightening and I never want to do that again.
rkj: You really got a taste of how horrible that must have been for those women.
RS: And still is because it’s obvious that these men – not all of them – I’d say the majority understood what these women were
asking for – but there’s still some men there that think that Lois Jensen was nuts and the women were nuts or sluts. The only way
for this to end is for them to die but a lot of these guys have so much frustration and so much false information that was gossip,
that was fodder, that was fed to them but they took it and ran with it. Those are two days I’d rather not see again. But Niki Caro –
and this is how smart she is – she has us do this in the beginning of filming. This was one of the first scenes.
rkj: To get it out of the way and because then it stays with you and informs everything you do throughout the movie.
rkj: You mentioned to me the other day when we were first talking about North Country something that I’d like you to talk about.
The women purposely made themselves unattractive, gained weight. Can you talk about that?
RS: Yes. There were a lot of women – especially the real pretty ones, the younger ones, the ones that were getting the brunt of the
abuse – they knew that they had to dress down and couldn’t be women – forget the make-up. They actually got perms and the
reason for that is that when they took off their hard hats all they had to do was wet down their hair and it would be fine when they
left for the day. When they left the mines, however, a lot of these women would dress up because they didn’t want to be known as
the whores of the mines—
rkj: Or lesbians?
RS: Or lesbians. Now that’s the other side of the women. Then there were the other women that said, “I’m borderline hot young
thing so I’ll tip that scale by uglying myself up, gaining weight, covering myself up more.” Wearing layers of square, tight shirts and
loose pants and those types didn’t want the hassle at all – and didn’t get nearly as much hassle.
rkj: So if the men thought the women were lesbians they’d leave them alone?
RS: Oh they would call them lesbians still.
rkj: So they would still come after them even if they thought they were lesbians?
RS: Oh yeah, you’re still gonna get it, you’re just not gonna get it as much because you’re not what they deem a classic beauty –
young, thin, whatever – at that point. And these are good looking women if you see them, the real women. They’re well put
together. I mean, you have to be physically strong to be able to take this job.
rkj: That’s obvious from the movie. I’m a man but I can’t drive a forklift. A fork, maybe. And a gay man to boot.
RS: (laughs) Right but you could probably design our coveralls a little bit better.
rkj: Or make some recommendations, at least. So, overall, obviously the experience was very moving and wonderful. What’s next?
RS: It’s this kick ass little movie called The Hawk Is Dying based on the novel by an author from Florida, Harry Crews and it stars
Paul Giamatti, me, Michelle Williams and Michael Pitt and it’s gonna kick some booty. It was shot in 16mm. The writer/director’s
name is Julian Goldberger and wow what a talent.
rkj: And you’re hoping for a Sundance premiere?
RS: That’s what we’re thinking, it’s looking good.
rkj: And this completes your work with the entire Sideways cast doesn’t it? Now you can officially become the answer to the trivia
question, “What actor has worked with all four of the stars of the movie Sideways?”
RS: (laughs) Yes it does!
rkj: Okay, let’s do the math: for those people who don’t know, you’re Virginia Madsen’s oldest, closest friend for what, 90 years?
RS: At least!
rkj: You go back and back and back.
RS: Along with Elaine Stritch.
rkj: Don’t you love that story she tells in her one-woman show where she parties all night with Judy Garland and finally Judy turns to
her and says, “Elaine, I never thought I’d say this but…good night.”
(we both laugh hysterically)
rkj: I mean that’s a heavy duty partier, right?
RS: I love that!
rkj: It would be like Keith Richards saying, “Rusty, no more, I can’t, go home.”
RS: That’s hilarious, makes me so happy. Okay, so the Sideways trivia question. Okay, right now I’m working with Thomas Haden
Church on a western two-parter for AMC with Robert Duvall called Daughters of Joy.
rkj: Are you one of the daughters of joy?
RS: No, I’m the owner of the daughters of joy.
rkj: Sounds fab.
RS: It is fab. But Virginia and I really, really, really haven’t worked together. You can say Candyman and Highlander II but it’s not
what we really want to do.
rkj: We'll leave the trivia hounds to figure out the Sandra Oh-Sideways connection for next time but can you quickly talk about that
scene in the bar in North Country where you sang because I don’t think the world knows that you have this amazing singing voice, too.
RS: Well, I don’t in that. Okay?
rkj: Let’s set the record straight because you’re not a Pat Benatar wanna-be, you’re this amazing blues belter and I should know
having shared the stage with you.
RS: Well, thank you dear but people would have gone, “Oh it’s great that she’s so good, what is she doing working in a mine?!?” I
don’t know you how you approach a character but my acting technique is, “If I were this person what would I do under the given
circumstances?” Singing well? Not a given circumstance.
rkj: So how did the singing come about in the first place?
RS: They were going to have a band and then after the union scene Charlize was evil and told me to drink tequila so we were in a
bar and I hate karaoke and for some reason – hmm, something to do with tequila perhaps – I was like, “Gimmmmmme the
microphone, I’m a-gonna sing” and I said, “This is for all the women iron rangers” and I sang Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out
Loud.” (She sings the first verse)
rkj: I’m sure you brought the house down – how could you not with a key change and everything?
RS: Yes, it was lovely and so they decided to put that in the movie but I had to sing it badly – ironically!
rkj: Okay, so now aside from the upcoming variety show, we can also wait for the CD.
RS: (laughing) Yes, Rusty! sings the soundtrack.