North Country - Production Notes

Last Update: 25 Oct 2005

Family, Friends, Co-workers and a Surprising Ally – Lives Touched
and Challenged by Josey’s Battle with the Mine


As much as they concurred on the themes of the story, Wechsler and Caro found themselves similarly in sync when it came to selecting actors for leading roles. “We cast the movie together,” says Wechsler, “and I don’t think either of us ever came to a decision that was more than a few degrees from the other person’s point of view.”

Acknowledging the stellar cast North Country attracted, Caro says, “We have three Oscar-winning women working together: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand and Sissy Spacek.”

Equally important, she says, is the subtle poignancy that Michelle Monaghan brings to the spirited character of Sherry and the range of male roles brought to life by Sean Bean, Richard Jenkins, Jeremy Renner and Woody Harrelson.

“Although some of the men in this story behave horribly, there are many good ones and we have these first-class actors who brilliantly bring out their flaws and their virtues.”

In casting Charlize Theron as Josey Aimes, Caro cites her body of work (The Cider House Rules, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, The Italian Job) as well as the power of Theron’s widely acclaimed performance in the 2003 crime biography Monster, which earned the actress both Academy and Golden Globe Awards as well as a BAFTA nomination. “A lot of attention was given to her physical transformation in that film, but it was what she was doing emotionally that most impressed and moved me,” Caro says. “It was truly no contest – I wanted Charlize in this role. She proved to be a real collaborator, completely invested in telling the story.”

At about the same time, Theron saw Whale Rider and loved it, prompting in her a keen interest in working with Caro. “I asked my agent to try setting up a meeting with her for whatever she was doing next and then, unbelievably, five days later I got the call for North Country,” Theron relates. “I was ecstatic. I’ve been completely overwhelmed and inspired by the whole experience; there isn’t a word in the dictionary to explain how it felt for me to be a part of this picture.

“I’m fascinated by people who don’t realize they have incredible internal fortitude and ability. They discover it only when they get themselves into situations that require it or realize some truth that others are not seeing. That’s Josey to me,” says Theron, describing one of the reasons she was attracted to the story and its heroine. “The road she takes is a very lonely one and not one she is obligated to choose, but she does and she paves the way for others who are going through the same difficult circumstances. That takes a special, strong person and I love the way Josey finds this inner reserve of courage that I don’t think she even realized she had.”

Another aspect of the film that appealed to Theron was the disarmingly straightforward way in which Caro approached it. “What I like about Niki’s direction is that she doesn’t complicate anything that doesn’t need to be complicated. There is something beautiful in the simplicity of her style; the way she sees the world and people in general, and these people and their struggles in particular and how she taps into that. She understands that it all comes down to wanting to keep your head above water. I came into this project with enormous respect for her and that respect has only grown.”

Frances McDormand, who takes on the role of Josey’s self-assured friend Glory, a worker and union rep at the mine, offers a similar perspective and was especially interested in Caro’s treatment of the script. “For me, this is a movie about human dignity,” she says, emphasizing human over female. “Niki Caro is a smart person and an incredibly insightful filmmaker. I can trust that her storytelling comes from an original place, as opposed to a sappy, sentimental one, and that she would make this a story about people, not just women.”

McDormand’s versatility has shone through a wide range of screen, stage and television performances and been recognized with a plethora of awards and honors including an Oscar for Fargo and Oscar nominations for Mississippi Burning and Almost Famous. As Caro attests, McDormand was the clear choice for Glory, a characterization that begins in one way and transforms into something different as the strong and self-sufficient woman is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and begins to fight, then slowly succumb to her progressive illness while trying to hold onto her job and position in the community. “Everything about Fran was right for the part,” says Caro. “I wanted an actress who was uncompromising and unsentimental, who could really make that journey without any fuss.”

The natural interplay between Glory and Josey is portrayed with similar restraint. “What’s great about the arc of our scenes together is that although they are emotional and deeply connected to emotional truths in the story, they are not overly sentimental,” says McDormand, who recently wrapped the sci-fi thriller Aeon Flux with co-star Theron. “There’s one scene that takes place in the women’s locker room at the mine after Josey has just gone through some harsh treatment and Glory finds her crying. Instead of comforting her with a big sweet hug, Glory says, look, you just have to get over it. If you give in, you’re doing exactly what they want you to do and at the end of the day we all have a job to do. It’s tough love – one friend to another.”

As close as the two are, she points out, the women have different reactions to their situation. “Glory’s been working in the mine longer than Josey. She has an established position in the community and she’s the female union rep so she’s earned a certain amount of respect from her fellow miners. Part of the reason she remains above the fray is also because she’s learned to overlook the pranks and the innuendo. That’s something Josey simply won’t do.”

As much as McDormand warmed to the character, the story and Caro’s interpretation, the truth, she admits with a laugh, may have been more basic: “It was the truck. At the end of my first meeting with Niki, with excellent dramatic timing, she said ‘oh, by the way, this is a picture of the truck Glory drives,’ and she produced a photo of this truck,” McDormand relates, remembering the image of that mammoth vehicle as big as an office building and weighing several tons. “I just couldn’t shake the idea of my getting to drive that truck.”

As Glory’s illness progresses, she relies more upon Kyle, played by British actor Sean Bean, well known to American audiences for his role as the warrior Boromir in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which earned him a SAG Award) and as Odysseus in Troy, as well as a series of memorable villains in GoldenEye, Patriot Games and Don’t Say a Word.

Kyle is introduced in the film as the stay-at-home partner in the relationship, sidelined some time earlier by a mining injury at the same company where Glory now “drives truck.” In a traditional role reversal that a less confident man might not have been able to accept, Kyle maintains their home and keeps a low profile – as well as taking the occasional potshots from his former crewmates with grace – while Glory gains momentum at the mine. Then, as Glory develops ALS and starts to lose control over elements of her life, their roles shift again and Kyle takes charge. As McDormand says, “he rises and becomes her voice.”

“Sean has such sensitivity as an actor,” says Caro. “I’m surprised that he’s played so many bad guys on screen. His Kyle is tireless and genuine, every woman’s dream; a confident man who is also incredibly gentle. His story is entirely subtextual but vital and very moving. The relationship between Kyle and Glory is one of love and romance. Sean brings a powerful humanity to the character and his situation.”

Another character experiencing significant change is Josey’s taciturn, hard-line traditionalist father, Hank, played by Richard Jenkins, a SAG Award nominee for his role as Nathaniel Fisher in the popular HBO drama Six Feet Under. A mining veteran and committed union man his entire adult life, Hank is loyal to a fault – but seemingly to his buddies and co-workers first.

“Hank doesn’t believe women should be miners, first of all. Secondly, he doesn’t approve of his daughter leaving her husband, taking the kids and getting a job. He thinks she should try to work things out with her husband, regardless of what the problem was,” says Jenkins. “So he’s starting from a place that is somewhat stuck in time, on top of which he seems to feel that Josey has taken a job in his mine just to provoke him.”

“For a man like Hank to see his daughter come to work in an environment that he has dominated for 30 years is very unsettling. You see how difficult it is for him to accept her there and then even more difficult to see her treated badly by his fellow miners,” offers Caro. In theory, he may share their point of view but, as Jenkins points out, “when it happens to one of his own it’s very hard. She’s still his daughter. Eventually he has to step up and start looking at things differently, but at first only because his wife pressures him. It’s a crisis that makes both parents examine their relationship to each other, their daughter and their community before taking a stand.

“What I like most about Niki’s approach,” says Jenkins, “is that she’s interested in finding the possibilities in everyone rather than just saying ‘this is who this guy is, period,’ because the truth is, even people in their 40s and 50s and beyond are still not quite sure exactly who they are and there is always an opportunity for exploration.”

In the role of Hank’s soft-spoken but surprisingly strong-willed wife Alice is Sissy Spacek, whom Caro calls “iconic,” a 1981 Oscar-winner for her leading role in Coal Miner’s Daughter and recipient of five additional Oscar nominations in a remarkable career spanning 30 years, as well as the prestigious AFI Actor of the Year Award for 2002’s In the Bedroom.

Alice is torn between love and loyalty to her husband and her daughter and has to make some very difficult decisions. “Hank and Alice are both very reserved people and Alice is accustomed to deferring to her husband on most things. But through the course of this story Alice discovers a quiet courage and strong sense of honor,” says Spacek, who sensed those same qualities in the personalities of many people she met in the Northern Minnesota community prior to filming.

Like many of her cast-mates, she found that time spent in the community helped her find her way into the character. “Meeting and spending time with some of the women whose husbands work in the mines was very inspiring and had a profound effect on me. They were very helpful and extremely open…and they taught me how to make a mean strudel.”

Another technique the actress employed as a touchstone for the character was wholly her own and deceptively simple: “my glasses,” she jokes, “that was the final piece of the puzzle. Sometimes I start with the shoes; this time it was the glasses.”

“Sissy had a deep dedication to getting the accent and the mannerisms right,” says Caro, citing the importance of detail in a role that, though essential, takes relatively little screen time. “Alice is not a woman accustomed to expressing herself or talking much, so there was much Sissy needed to convey with her tone and expression.”

Jeremy Renner, best known for his gripping performance in the title role of the 2002 independent feature biography Dahmer, takes on the complex character of Bobby Sharp, Josey’s former high school classmate and now a supervisor at the mine.

Like many of his crew, Bobby is opposed to women taking mining jobs but his animosity and aggression towards Josey in particular is not only a product of his environment and economic concerns – it’s very personal, rooted in a traumatic incident from their youthful past that neither will openly acknowledge. Although Josey appears to have moved on, it’s clear that Bobby has not and Josey’s sudden re-appearance in his daily life ignites in him long-dormant feelings of anger, confusion and shame.

“Jeremy’s role as Bobby Sharp is a good example of the range of issues this story brings out,” observes Caro. “On the surface he behaves despicably. In a lesser actor, someone unwilling to explore the psychological depth of such a man, it could be one-dimensional. But in Jeremy’s hands he’s not a mustache-twirling villain, he’s a very conflicted man. We worked very hard, together, at understanding Bobby now and the boy that he once was. His motives and his actions are complicated and Jeremy brings all of that to the fore. He was an absolute joy to work with.”

Says Renner, “What I find fascinating about the human condition is how people respond to certain things; that interests me more than the outcome of what Bobby actually says or does to Josey. What fuels that kind of behavior? I believe it stems from his inability to communicate his strong attraction to this woman as well as his guilt over the past. Luckily for Bobby, he has a perfect cover for his actions – to hear him talk, ‘it’s all about the union and keeping solidarity,’ and he bolsters himself with that rhetoric but inside he’s miserable. Everyone can be silenced by something bigger than they are. It takes a lot of courage to go up against that.”

Among Josey’s female co-workers, courage takes many forms. Michelle Monaghan, a series regular on Boston Public and co-star in the recent hit features The Bourne Supremacy and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, stars as Sherry, a high-spirited young woman who literally wears her individuality on her sleeve.

“It’s a hard job. There’s nothing pretty or easy about it,” says Monaghan.

As far as Sherry is concerned, donning coveralls and doing her part to haul and break rock in the quarry is enough concession to the spartan surroundings, “so she always goes to work in full makeup and with her hair and nails done. Sherry tries to maintain her femininity in a masculine environment, not only in the way she looks and the clothes she wears to and from the locker room but in the way she interacts with people both on and off the job. Those things may seem silly to others but they are important to her. Her style is her way of declaring her determination to be herself.”

In another setting, Sherry could be her pretty, fun-loving, vivacious self without censure, but at the mine her outgoing nature is too easily misconstrued as flirtatiousness by her male co-workers and frowned upon by the other women. Unwilling to suppress her personality, Sherry finds the cost is high. In time, she becomes the prime target of some of the nastiest pranks and innuendo the miners can deliver, a situation which only escalates when Josey starts to call out for change.

“Sherry is like a lot of people in this world who are different and are criticized and penalized for it,” says Monaghan. “Anyone can be bullied. Ultimately this is a story about some people who stood up and demanded respect for themselves and I think everyone can identify with that, male or female.”

Stepping up as Josey’s first real ally, albeit reluctantly, is hometown attorney Bill White, played by Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated Woody Harrelson (The People Vs. Larry Flynt). Recognized worldwide for his memorable comedic performances on both big and small screen, Harrelson also shone in Terrence Malick’s World War II saga The Thin Red Line, following an impressive dramatic debut in Oliver Stone’s provocative Natural Born Killers. “Woody worked at a great depth in this part and he was simply amazing; he cannot do a single thing wrong on screen,” says Caro. “He has the strength in his own character to truly explore Bill White’s vulnerabilities and that helps to avoid the whole black-and-white polarization, which is of paramount importance to a story like this.”

Bill’s vulnerability is based in part on his own profound self-doubts, both as a lawyer and a person. Initially, the prospect of trying Josey’s case is as daunting for him as it is for her.

“Bill has returned to the Iron Range after having left for New York where he joined a big law firm, got married and then divorced,” Harrelson explains. The one-time high school hockey star who left town to pursue his dreams now finds that, “his career and personal life haven’t turned out the way he expected and he’s in a bitter funk when we meet him. He’s hesitant to take Josey’s case against the mine for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that his expertise at the law firm was in negotiating settlements, not going to trial. But Josey won’t let him do that.”

At the same time, Harrelson notes, White is intrigued by the idea of breaking legal ground with the nation’s first-ever class action sexual harassment suit. Forced to rise above his own misgivings, he takes the case all the way to trial and, “gets the chance to rediscover his self-respect and his sense of justice.”

“It’s a powerful script and I feel privileged to be a part of this movie” says Harrelson, for whom the story’s themes truly resonate. “It’s truly the Little Guys against The Machine.”

One tough but often entertaining assignment the cast shared was learning to deliver their dialogue in a credible Northern Minnesota cadence. “It’s a very subtle and specific accent, and it was my number one challenge,” says Harrelson, who was heard to joke during production, “I think it’s finally come together now and we have, what, a week and a half left to shoot?” All agree that the extra time spent in the region and mingling with the community before and during production helped immensely, as did sessions with an on-set dialect coach and conversations with the numerous local residents hired as extras on the film.

Spacek’s schedule originally called for a week of filming, but her dedication to mastering the timbre of her character’s speech led to an additional two weeks’ stay on the Iron Range location. “This accent was so foreign to me,” says the Texas-born actress. “I finally got it down and then the morning of my first day of work I woke up with laryngitis!” she says with a laugh.

“So, most of the time I was just struggling to find a note that would come out. It was really kind of funny, like the movie gods were playing a dirty trick on me.”
Rounding out the main cast are Rusty Schwimmer (The Perfect Storm) and Jillian Armenante (Judging Amy) as Big Betty and Peg, two strong-willed miners; and fourteen-year-old Thomas Curtis (Sweet Home Alabama, Red Dragon), taking on the role of Josey’s son Sammy, whose troubled relationship with his mother reaches a crisis during her legal battle with the mining company.

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