LENS VIEW: The face of many an unconventional on-screen romance, Mary Stuart… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
She was the scrappy but sensitive tomboy with feelings for her best friend in John Hughes' "Some Kind of Wonderful" and, well, a tomboy in love again in "Fried Green Tomatoes." A few years later, she shared the screen with Johnny Depp in the off-kilter love story "Benny & Joon."
No one did quirky romance in the late-'80s and early '90s quite like Mary Stuart Masterson. So it makes sense that for her feature film directorial debut, she would embrace another untraditional romance.
"The Cake Eaters," opening in limited release today, centers on the loves and losses of two families in a small town in upstate New York. The families' two youngest members in particular, Georgia ("Twilight's" Kristen Stewart) and Beagle (Aaron Stanford), find themselves in an unlikely pairing. Georgia is battling a degenerative disease and wants to lose her virginity at the first opportunity. Beagle, who has just lost his mother, becomes the unwitting recipient of Georgia's interest. Likewise, the families' oldest members are involved in an unusual affair of the heart. And a prodigal son returns to find the love he left behind.
Events unfold without sentiment and without any explanation of the film's title. Masterson, visiting Los Angeles from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., admits they considered changing the obscure title. "It's a regional kind of term," she begins. "In these small towns, the cake eaters are known as 'the haves' versus 'the have-nots.' The irony is that these characters believe their dreams are out of reach, but by the end, in some small way, they get a taste of the cake."
Over a cup of camomile tea on the noisy patio of a West Hollywood hotel, Masterson settles into her chair and talks about this new phase of her career. Looking softer and more radiant than she did during her "tomboy" period, she comes across as open and thoughtful as she explains her move behind the camera.
She had long wanted to direct, even as she recognizes the cliche that, in Hollywood, everybody wants to direct. "[Directing] seems to suit me, because I love stories and I love to be completely enveloped by a collaborative experience." Over the years she developed projects that never got past the starting blocks, sometimes because she had taken an acting job. She was given a story to adapt and direct for a Showtime science fiction trilogy in 2001. "After years of projects that fell apart so many times, the woman who produced the shorts was like, 'Dude, just do this,' " Masterson recalls of her first directing gig.
During the run-up to "The Cake Eaters," she was offered a role in a Broadway musical. The actress, who developed her singing chops later in her career and was nominated for a Tony for her featured role in "Nine: The Musical" in 2003, decided to turn down the show, because she knew the film would never get made otherwise. "I'm happy that I did, because it would be so frustrating to spend all this time on these projects" without any of them coming to fruition.
She was sent the script by her agent, who also represents the screenwriter, Jayce Bartok, and she was taken by its unique approach to a coming-of-age love story, as well as its novelistic style. "In this day and age maybe it's a bit of a risk to do a movie that's sort of sweet, or 'soft,' being a woman director, but so what," she says. "I want to see movies like this."
That said, Masterson went to great lengths to avoid veering into sentimental territory. She refrained from too many close-ups, instead framing shots that let scenes play out at a slight distance. The score, by Duncan Sheik, "did about 30% of the job of making sure the tone didn't go into the sappy," she notes.
With all of her acting experience, working with the cast of "Cake Eaters" felt natural to Masterson, who believes that the director's job is to pick the right actors and then give them space to work. "Some of the directors [whom] I've had the hardest time with are the ones who just talk way too much and say, 'Here's the result I want,' " she points out. "That's not something organic to acting."
Acting and filmmaking run in her family. Her mother, Carlin Glynn, is an actress, and father Peter Masterson is a director, actor and screenwriter. Mary Stuart's first film role was in "The Stepford Wives" at age 7. She jokes that she can't lie about her age -- 42 -- after starting out so young.
Other memorable films include "At Close Range" and "Radioland Murders." Most recently, she took a recurring role on "Law & Order: SVU" and is surprised by how often she is recognized for a few episodes. "It's basically the annuity of every actor that chooses to live in New York," she says of the "Law & Order" programs.