Whether it’s been in blockbusters like Men In Black and Forrest Gump, or indie films such as Dancer in the Dark and Dogville, Siobhan Fallon is a character actress whose face is memorable even if her name might not be.
In the romantic comedy, New in Town, starring Renée Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr., Fallon, a Saturday Night Live alum plays Blanche Gunderson, a Minnesota woman who befriends her new boss, Zellweger, when she arrives to take over the local factory.
Fallon, a devout Catholic, discusses the new film and why her faith and a desire to set a good example for her young daughters has meant turning down a number of lucrative acting opportunities.
BustedHalo: You’ve told me in the past that you actually turn a lot of work down because you feel the material might conflict with your own faith values. Can you talk a little bit about that and why you chose to do New in Town?
Siobhan Fallon: When this movie came along I was so thrilled because the writer, Kenneth Rance, is an African-American from Minnesota — and he is a Christian. I didn’t know that, of course, but when I got it, they called me and said we want you to read this script and you have to be in the New York tomorrow. And I thought ‘oh my gosh’ — it was Thursday night and they were calling from California. And I said, “Tomorrow? I can’t do it tomorrow.” Then I sat down and read the script and I thought, ‘I will be in the city tomorrow’.
My character in this, Blanche Gunderson, is this Christian woman and she’s not afraid to say so and she walks the walk and talks the talk. She lives a great life — she’s very hospitable to everyone, she works in a factory and she runs a beautiful home. When I say ‘beautiful’ I mean that they’re not wealthy but she has people in when they’re new and she treats people great. So when I read the script I noticed she talks about Jesus at three separate times during the movie. And I thought ‘surely they’re gonna make fun of this, they’re gonna make her like a Tammy Faye Baker — make her like a freak.’ But they didn’t. It’s beautifully written and beautifully done.
You feel funny comparing him to the great Frank Capra, but it reminds me of that type of movie because it’s about a small American town that’s having troubles with the factory — this cheese factory — and Renée Zellweger comes up and she reconfigures the factory. But there’s a beautiful scene in there where we sing ‘O Holy Night’ — the whole town does a walk toward the Christmas tree. And I thought ‘where do you find a movie that sings ‘O Holy Night’?’ But anyway, so for that reason I was thrilled to do the movie and make the character really believable and not make fun of her.
And to answer the second part of the question, I only like to work a couple of months out of the year so I can be with my kids — who are 14, 10 and 7 — and it works out perfectly because [laughs] so many scripts are against what I believe or, I feel, disrespectful to women or to family or to what I believe in my faith, and I feel that they make Christianity such a huge target a lot of times. It’s mocked in a way that’s completely unacceptable to me, so I just say ‘close up the script and move on to the next one’ — which, believe me, hasn’t made me very popular sometimes.
BH: Especially with your agent, I’m sure.
SF: [laughter] Yeah, with my poor agent — who’s very understanding and great about it. He’s says, ‘Siobhan, alright, I understand you, but this is gonna be a great project.’ And I’m like, ‘I understand you think it’s a great project; but not for me.’
BH: In one scene you and Renée Zellweger are in the office and you made a scrapbook for her and you said that you’re “there for her and Jesus is there for her.” It felt like a comedic moment. But in general you don’t think it’s being played for laughs?
SF: No, as a matter of fact, when I saw it in L.A. with an audience, people cried. Because it’s like, you know she’s kind of on the fast track and you would kind of assume Renee’s character doesn’t have a big faith. At the beginning of the movie I ask her, “Have you found Jesus?”, which she’s shocked about, but because I’m sincere about it, maybe it’s a little funny but it’s not made fun of. And then in the middle of the movie when we have actually become friends and it’s Christmas time and she gives me money, and I say [imitates Minnesota accent], “Oh well, normally we exchange gifts around here.” So I make this beautiful little scrapbook for her and I give it to her and she’s very touched, and she flips through it and says, “Oh, what’s this a picture of?”, because there’s a picture of her staring out the window. And I said, “Oh that’s when you had the weight of the world on your shoulders. And she stares, sort of nostalgic, because it was a few months before, and I said, “But you know you’re never really alone; Jesus is always with you and so am I.”
And then later in the movie, I think that she’s betraying me and gonna lay me off, and I let her have it. And I say, “Who do you think you are? Just because we ice fish and we scrapbook and we talk a little funny and we bring Jesus into normal conversation doesn’t mean you can pretend to be our friend.” In other words, ‘we’re people too’. Which, to me, is so funny because so much of America believes that and yet for some reason it hasn’t been shown in Hollywood in that way. It’s really timely with the way the economic times are that people really are getting back to basics.
BH: You were brought up Catholic?
SF: I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic college — to Le Moyne, up in Syracuse — Catholic University for my MFA. My kids—I have a 14-year-old and a seven-year-old daughters, and I have a ten-year-old boy — go to Catholic school and you know, my faith means a lot to me. I want to set a good example for my kids and basically play roles that I feel are a good moral example.
BH: When you talk about a role not being right in terms of your own faith, or how it portrays women, can you talk a little bit about what you say to the people you’re working with?
SF: Well, recently, and I won’t say exactly who it is, but there’s a huge television show — and pretty much I stay away from TV just by chance, because when you get a TV role, you could get the role and you don’t know what it’s gonna turn into. In a movie, the role is what it is. But I was on a television show and I had a recurring role — meaning you’re not on every episode but you’re on several of the episodes — and they started to have my character have an affair, and of course, and I was supposed to be this woman from Rockaway, Queens, and you know, blue-collar, church-going Catholic, and she starts her affair at Mass. So I’m like, ‘Agh, this is the perfect job: it works in New York City, I love my character — and I can’t do this anymore, because I’m not having an affair and especially, why do they have to start it at Mass, let alone start it all.’ So I had to quit the show. Which is hideous, because I had not even finished the one episode I was in, so it was like being the girl in 8th grade that everybody hates, because I had just called the producers and said, “Look I’m outta here.” And I didn’t make it like ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ or like, making a stand on a pulpit. I just said, “This is just the way it is; I have a kid’ — at the time, she was twelve — ‘and these girls at school, what would I do if they ever turned the show on?”
And then recently, there was a television show that would have been a huge deal. And my part wasn’t dirty. But — and it would have been so much money, you know, financial answers, my kids’ college and all that — and my part was not dirty. But the surrounding parts, the women were all young women who were working their way up through, you know, physically — being with men, and that’s how they advance in their careers. So for two days I said, “Okay, I will go to L.A., I will meet the producers. I remember thinking you have to do it for the money — not my husband or people like that — but it’s a big, huge temptation and I had a stomach ache for two days. I thought, ‘I cannot live with myself for this.’ I said to my agent, “I’m not gonna even put you through this, because it’s so horrible for you.” I said “I have no problem making the call. I’ve lived with a stomach ache for two days” — and what’s stronger than your gut — So I had to call them up [laughs] — you feel like you’re, you know, from 1852 — and I said, “Hi, you’re not gonna understand this, but — “and I said, “I don’t expect you to understand this in any way, but I cannot do this.” I said, “Just basically, I have three kids and I’m Catholic and I don’t morally agree with the script you’ve written. I’m not judging you, but it’s not my cup of tea and I can’t fake it and I don’t want to get into a situation where I’m gonna accept a role and then have to quit on you.” So movies for that reason work much better and basically, it’s just you have to stick with your gut.
BH: Has this always been the way you’ve felt? Even back when you were on Saturday Night Live years ago? Or is this something that’s evolved for you?
SF: Well it’s definitely gotten a lot stronger. But I definitely [laughs], I mean on Saturday Night Live they were like, ‘Are you an alien?’ I mean, I definitely said “Oh no, I can’t do that.” to sketches. But the thing is, people start to get to know that and realize that. They’re kind of more disappointed, like, ‘Oh shoot, I really wanted you to do it.’ I feel so sorry for young actresses because of the material that’s out there, the majority of it, I don’t know how you’d get started if you felt the way I felt, now. I’m not saying I’m totally ‘Polly Purebred’ [laughter]. I think you can do things, and if it’s clear that it isn’t for kids…
The good thing is, because I’m so goofy looking, a lot of times I don’t run into that problem anyway. Because, like I said to the producers of that show I quit who ever would have thunk that someone would want to see me in a compromising position.” [laughter] So thank God I’m a character actress. It makes it a lot easier.
And check out Fr. Dave’s interview with Siobhan Fallon in this podcast from The Busted Halo® Show with Father Dave Dwyer.