The ‘Alice’ Interview: A Very Different Brand of Wonderland

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This is not your typical Alice, but then again this is not your run of the mill Wonderland.

When Alice premieres Sunday night on Syfy, it will offer a radically different take of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, particularly the vision of Carroll’s universe advanced by the 1951 Disney animation.

Familiar to fans will be the fears and traumas of the subconscious, externalized here as a whimsical but decidedly creepy landscape. But the differences here outnumber the similarities. In this live-action adaptation, Alice is an adult who fears commitment, the Wonderland is best encapsulated by a casino that provides prisoners with constant amusement so their emotions can be stripped away, and an all-star cast (Kathy Bates, as the Queen of the Hearts; Harry Dean Stanton as Caterpillar; Tim Curry as Dodo) offers a fresh spin on a familiar dynamic.

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But where to begin, when it comes to Alice? She’s not blonde any more. She wears tights and boots, and oozes quite a bit of sex appeal. She loves chasing men but fears commitment. She goes toe to toe with the Queen of Hearts. I’m currently in the middle of watching the full Alice program – we’ll have a complete breakdown of the two-night event tomorrow – but during the intermission I spoke with Caterina Scorsone (TV’s Crash) herself, about what it was like to take a plunge down the most famous rabbit hole in cinematic/literary history.

This is a pretty creative spin on a familiar story.

Well people tend to be most shocked that Alice has become a brunette.

Was there ever talk about you dying it all blonde?

There was a brief discussion with the hair designer but [writer-director] Nick Willing thought it worked, in terms of the visual symbolism, that I look like a very different Alice. After all, this is a totally different story, and while we’re tipping our hats to Lewis Carroll, we are playing with the themes to make a very different story.

At a full four hours, there’s so much to take in here, though. You’re not just playing with themes, you’ve really spun the whole story on its axis. What jumped out at you most when you read the script? I was blown away by some of the commentary in the casino scenes.

That’s definitely part of it – bread and circuses. So many people think of America as this new Roman empire, and they see the downfall of the hegemon in all these bailouts and the economy and being overextended overseas. I think people are exploring that notion of this empirical past.

Now most of Alice isn’t really a political social commentary, but I think a big message is here is that the culture we’re involved in is fascinated with very quick fixes and instant gratification. And you see it on both sides here, in terms of people being trapped in a casino where they are made to feel good, and also the population down there, where they want more and more from these prisoners.

The main threads, though, have to do with this conflict: The quick fix versus sitting in the discomfort of reality. A lot in the movie is about emotional and psychological repression and the wounds that we bury instead of healing. And one of the great things he did with this reinterpretation was to allow it to work on several levels. On one hand you have this wonderfully sexy and fun adventure, but if you want to go deeper this is a sprawling metaphor, using the wonderland as the unconscious. Alice, insensibly a functioning young woman, really has some serious unresolved issues and when she runs through the looking-glass into Wonderland she really has to look at herself and all the memories and scars that have created this emotional situation.

Given all the creative visuals here, how do you even prepare for a part like this. Did you have to audition? How would they have handled that?

I created an audition tape and put a couple scenes together, but  Nick was very open to the idea of how Alice would compose herself in this story. And then 3 or so days before shooting began in Vancouver, I was cast, and suddenly there I am,  getting all this action-adventure training, practicing my horseback riding and my judo training. And then the next thing you know, you’re standing next to Harry Dean Stanton and Kathy Bates, and the whole thing becomes this dreamlike experience.

Did you have a favorite scene, working with such talented people – was there one moment that seemed most like Wonderland to you?

In part 2 [airing Monday night], we shot this fantastic scene between Alice and the Queen of Hearts as this seven-minute-long one-shot. It was blocked fantastically, and here you have Kathy delivering this monologue that’s so intimidating – including the great line ‘I am the most powerful woman in English literature,’ which I thought was a really interesting way to break the fourth wall – and Alice is going through all the emotional highs or lows. I don’t even think I speak, but it’s just the way that Alice is going through all these extreme emotional adjustments…any time you get to go on this long journey from point A to B is so gratifying. A seven-minute take is almost like theater.

Given all of this – the green-screen, the legends all around you – did you ever feel like you were Alice, walking through this different universe? It had to be odd to be working so much in front of green screens, after you’ve focused so much on these tight personal dramas with Crash.

Well, when you’re even on a regular movie set, you still have to suspend your disbelief. You’re working there with only 3 walls of a room, and you’re in costume and you have a camera 6 inches from you and have a crew of 75 watching you. So even there, you have to crank up your imagination. But working on a green screen set yeah, it’s almost like reading from a novel, taking those black words and creating a world around you. You have to the same thing. And then you focus on what do you have – these incredible actors standing next to you, and the remarkable costumes by Angus Strike, who did Moulin Rouge, and the fantastic production design. All of that is real, and you can use that to form this new reality.

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Time.com’s Holiday Gift Guide 2009

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