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Margin Call – Susan Blackwell interview

Margin Call

Interview by Rob Carnevale

SUSAN Blackwell talks to us about firing Stanley Tucci in the opening scene of financial thriller Margin Call and what appealed to her about appearing in a film about the origins of the 2008 financial meltdown.

She also discusses how she felt prepared for the role given her ‘day job’ of working in HR, why she’s hoping to come to the West End sometime soon and why she feels grateful to have survived Hurricane Sandy relatively unscathed and will be helping those who were less fortunate around her.

Q. So, how was firing Stanley Tucci in that chilling opening scene of Margin Call?
Susan Blackwell: Firing Stanley Tucci was thrilling. It’s not every day you get a chance to fire ‘the Tucc’. I did not call him that, though [laughs]. It was really exciting.

Q. How was filming the scene? How did you prepare for the role?
Susan Blackwell: I have sort of a strange background in that I’m kind of uniquely prepared to fire Tucci. In addition to being a trained actor who has appeared in other films [Margot At The Wedding, PS I Love You], on and off-Broadway and on TV (Law & Order, etc), and who has a pretty healthy, active career, I also – during that time – have always maintained my corporate job. So I have managed people, I’ve hired people and I’ve fired people. I currently work here in the New York area at an executive search firm and we deal specifically with the HR field.

So, I know that world very well and I know what it means to terminate people. So, when I went to the audition, I said to Zachary Quinto, who is also one of [the film’s] producers, ‘do you want this to be a light version of a termination like Up In The Air, or do you want it to be real’? And he said: “Real.” And I said ‘OK’. And then I set about terminating the poor person who was reading opposite me in a very realistic way.

Q. So, what’s it like to do in real life?
Susan Blackwell: I find it to be, if I’m honest, very un-enjoyable. It’s not something that I would wish upon anyone, being on either side of the desk. You have to be as prepared as you would be doing a scene where you’re firing Stanley Tucci. You have to have your lines memorised and be ready to go into a highly charged situation. It’s not fun to prepare for and it’s not fun to execute.

Q. You mentioned Up In The Air. What did you think of that film and the way it dealt with the termination scenes?
Susan Blackwell: That movie is a separate entity. It was more light-hearted so for what they were trying to do, they absolutely nailed t. Obviously, that film was done for comic effect and I love that film. But I remember at the beginning of the movie there’s a montage of people talking about their experiences of being terminated and I could tell these were real people. And then it sort of flipped to actors talking about it and there was a different tone. What I liked about Margin Call and what the director, JC Chandor, did was that he kind of nailed a lot of the realism of it. It’s a much more stark, hard-hitting look at that world.

Q. Was that part of the appeal of appearing in the film… showing something that was and is still highly resonant – the origins of the financial crisis and its implications?
Susan Blackwell: I think so. When I got the script, I hadn’t seen anything like it coming out of that financial meltdown. I thought it was so unique – very distinct and very timely. So, that certainly was appealing. And the cast, frankly… I could tell that between the script, the director’s vision and the casting it was going to be something unique and very special.

Q. How much did you know about what really went on behind the scenes of the meltdown? Did you realise just how ruthless the whole thing was?
Susan Blackwell: A lot, having been in the corporate world, on various levels, for 15 years or so. It is absolutely ruthless at that level and when you’re at that level – 10,000 feet up – it’s less about actual people and more about head counts and numbers. And so it does become de-humanised. I was very familiar with that sort of cold decision making. I don’t think of myself in that way. But I have been exposed to people who do things that way. That’s how they operate. It is just about business.

Q. Various London newspapers have reported that morale and self-esteem among people working in the financial sector at that level is now at an all-time low. They’re seen as being worse than estate agents. Is that something you feel they deserve given their involvement in the meltdown?
Susan Blackwell: Well, I wouldn’t wish that [feeling of low self-esteem] on anyone. I don’t know honestly… I think I’m more prone to looking at individuals on a case by case basis. I’m not sure that all of those individuals that you just mentioned knew everything at the level they were working at… I would like to think they did not know they were contributing to a global economic crisis. But on those higher levels maybe people did and were grabbing everything they could. I don’t know that everyone that works in these jobs were responsible or have blood in their hands. But for the people that did know and do [have blood] they can have low self-esteem [laughs].

Q. Have you ever met or come across the type of high-level company man that Jeremy Irons portrays in Margin Call?
Susan Blackwell: Only in passing [laughs]… I’m laughing because I remember the ties and the suits – it is the way that Jeremy Irons characterises it in film. It’s almost like meeting a head of state… it’s all smiles, handshakes… I don’t know if they’re… they is certainly a charm and charisma to someone who works at that level. But I’m not sure if the higher up you go, the less you know. I don’t know if that is genuinely true of the people I’ve had contact with in those positions. But it’s certainly an interesting way of characterising it in the film.

Q. Did you have much interaction with Kevin Spacey given your shared passion for theatre?
Susan Blackwell: Not prior to the film and not really during it. We literally bump into each other as I’m heading back into the firm to fire more people 24 hours after I’ve gotten rid of Tucci. We literally smack into each other and that is the extent of my interaction with Spacey.

Q. Would you be interested in coming to the West End if he tried to get you to the Old Vic?
Susan Blackwell: Well, absolutely… strangely enough, we’re actually… I did a show on Broadway called Title of Show, which was tremendously successful, and I’m currently in talks to perform it in the West End – not the Old Vic. So, maybe I’ll be seeing you soon Rob!

Q. Is that a lifetime ambition, to come to the West End?
Susan Blackwell: Oh absolutely… I think every American actor has that ambition. I know we all aspire to be on Broadway and then to play in the West End. It’s such a big career prize. So, hopefully…

Q. Title of Show was the one that put you on the map, wasn’t it?
Susan Blackwell: Yeah. If people like the show, they really love it. It’s very different than Margin Call… although we’re playing characters that are based on ourselves, so I actually get to talk about my work in the office. So, I stood on a Broadway stage and talked about what it feels like to work in an office. I keep doing these projects that reflect what I do in real life [laughs]. When I go into play these lawyers for these Law & Order parts, or corporate roles, I just nail them [the auditions] because I’m so used to talking like that. I can easily adopt a very corporate tone because I’ve observed people for so long and probably been that person. I have to behave that way between the hours of 9 to 5 [laughs].

Q. Will you ever leave the corporate world behind to concentrate solely on acting?
Susan Blackwell: I tell you, there are things I like about both of those worlds. I’m very pragmatic, so I enjoy structure! I like getting up and having to get to the office. I love the structure of that and I love owning real estate [laughs]. But I also have a very strong creative drive and I’ve been really lucky in the firm where I work now, and in my prior firm, that all of my superiors have been very proud and agreeable to letting me have a little bit of flexibility so that I can turn off my computer and run uptown and be in a Broadway show or run over and shoot a TV show. So, there’s something I like about being able to do both. But we’ll see…

Q. I have to ask, what’s it like being in New York at this moment having just survived Hurricane Sandy and being on the cusp of another election?
Susan Blackwell: Oh my God, they’re big questions. Well, it’s very strange and very heightened and it feels very, very memorable. With regard to the hurricane, my power was knocked out for a week. And it was getting cold but it was more… where I was it was more just strange. There are people very nearby that have suffered significant loss… of property and of life, so I cannot complain. I’m just grateful that all of my people were very safe and we’re doing everything we can to help those whose lives have been devastated by it. So, it’s a very strange, heightened time. As for today’s election today, I think we’re all on tenta-hooks waiting to see how it goes. Given how close it is, it may be quite a while before we actually know. We’re a bit anxious and more than a little nervous to see how this one goes.

Read our review of Margin Call

Read our interview with writer-director JC Chandor