Andrew Bloomenthal discusses the timely and compelling film, A Kid Like Jake, with screenwriter Daniel Pearle, and one of the film's stars, Claire Danes.
His fondness for wearing frilly dresses and emulating his favorite Disney princesses clearly signals four-year-old Jake Wheeler’s march towards gender nonconformity. But are his parents Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg (Jim Parsons) justified in flaunting their son’s unconventional behavior on an application to a progressive Brooklyn private school—just to snag a coveted scholarship? Or does prematurely slapping a label on such a young child potentially thwart his self-discovery process? In A Kid Like Jake, Alex and Greg rarely agree on the best way to advocate for their son, in an ongoing debate that threatens to tear their tenuous marriage apart. Is it any wonder Jake senses tension and starts acting out?
Helmed by trans director Silas Howard, Jake was written by Daniel Pearle, who adapted his own award-winning 2012 play. Together, Pearle and Howard made some key changes to the source material. For example, unlike the wealthy version of the Wheelers in the play, their film counterparts struggle financially. And while Jake was mentioned but never actually seen on the stage, the titular tot of the film is played by flesh-and-blood child actor Leo James Davis, who rounds out a cast that includes Octavia Spencer as Jake’s opinionated preschool director and Ann Dowd as Alex’s hypercritical mother.
Danes and Pearle sat down with Script for a freewheeling conversation about making this timely and compelling film.
SCRIPT: Daniel, what additions to the film do you cherish most?
Daniel Pearle: One thing that comes to mind is the scene where Alex and Greg are at the restaurant on date night, and they break out into this huge argument. In the play, it’s just those two characters, but in the film, we tried to open things up and fill out that world by introducing another couple and making it a double date, which meant rewriting the scene for a different context. It’s one thing to have an argument with just you and your partner, but having a small audience raises the stakes and heightens the awkwardness of the whole interaction. But it was nice to have voices at the table, other than Greg and Alex.
SCTIPT: Claire, do you have any vivid memories of filming that scene?
Claire Danes: It was one of the first scenes we shot, and it’s so wonderfully written and constructed and just so cringe-inducing to watch. When you’re actually at the wheel of creating that cringey effect, it’s a joy to do. And I’ve had that night out, many times over.
SCRIPT: It was a combustible daisy chain of each character treading on the boundaries of another.
CD: And everybody’s trying so hard to recover from these transgressions and rescue this bludgeoned evening. It’s fun to watch them try to counter the inevitable from happening.
SCRIPT: And Claire, when you’re eating and drinking during such a complex dinner scene with multiple characters, does it technically complicate your job as an actor, in matching your movements from shot to shot, to ensure continuity?
CD: Yeah, but that’s just part of the job. And the nice thing about having done this for a while, is that I’ve become pretty comfortable remembering when I lifted my fork, on what line. But that’s just conditioning.
DP: But that’s so funny, because those are the sorts of things that never occurred to me about filming a movie.
CD: Well, it’s choreography. Once you establish those choices in rehearsal, you just have to be really careful to stick to them.
SCRIPT: Claire, do you favor filming scenes where you’re internally processing thoughts, or do you prefer shooting highly-physical action scenes?
CD: I used to dance, and I like using my body, but there are a lot of opportunities to use your body in ways that aren’t so overt. But if I had to choose, I’d rather navigate a slalom of language than do a car chase, or something like that.
SCRIPT: The film does have subtle action moments, like when Alex is flossing while Greg brushes his teeth. Daniel, were these pedestrian behaviors articulated in the script? And how did you decide which action to pair with each line of dialogue?
DP: The activities were written in the script—things like brushing their teeth or eating a meal, but it wasn’t specifically scripted like, “On this line, Greg takes a bite of food.” But when you have good actors, you trust them to use those behaviors in ways that serve the scene. And whether it’s in a film or on a stage, I love giving characters activities to do, when there are two things going on at once—even pedestrian activities, as you said.
SCRIPT: The smaller gestures voyeuristically draw viewers in closer.
CD: With that scene you cited, where they’re in the bathroom and she’s flossing while he’s brushing his teeth—that was Silas’ choice to have each of us facing a different mirror, to indicate a schism developing between the two of them. So once you understand what each scene is about, hopefully every choice you make—across every [film production] department, is in service of calling attention to it and heightening those details. Like, the opening image is of Alex and Greg spooning in bed—as close as they can be, and then throughout the course of the film, you gradually see them moving farther and farther apart, until the climax of their discord, when they’re both in the house, but all you see is the empty bed, and it becomes clear that they’re having trouble.
SCRIPT: From a language perspective, the characters speak in very specific terms when they’re evaluating Jake’s cognitive abilities, like when his teacher discusses his talent at deciphering a code of symbols. Daniel, was this jargon rooted in actual educational-speak?
DP: The language they used when they’re referencing Jake’s test score came from the deep dive research I did when I was writing the play, and I was horrified to learn that educators are testing five-year-old kids in categories, with these arcane names like “matrix of reasoning” and other absurd jargon for what’s essentially just playing with blocks.
CD: I love that scene, because I think of it as Alex and Greg being escorted out of Eden, because before then, they’re fine as their own little three-person unit, but then they’re suddenly forced to contend with social norms as they’re evaluated—almost as a group, which is when things start to become problematic. But on the other hand, Alex can’t help but be seduced by the flattery that can sometimes come with that. It’s almost like she got a good grade as a parent. But that very suddenly and sharply turns into this nightmare scenario, where her child starts to misbehave and he’s suddenly deemed a delinquent.
DP: My friend once told me that the kindergarten parent-teacher conference was the first time an adult expressed an opinion about his child, that he didn’t have first. It’s like: “Your child is really good at puzzles,” but you’re thinking, “Wait a minute. I’m the one who says he’s really good at puzzles!” Even though it’s a complement, my friend felt like his turf had been encroached upon.
SCRIPT: Sticking to the language theme, Claire, I saw your interview where you said that the Wheelers were not “terribly-monied,” and I—
CD: (laughs) Oh my god, that’s like the WASPiest thing I’ve ever said. What does that reveal?
SCRIPT: I think it reveals that you’re linguistically nimble, which provokes the question: if you’re tasked with playing a dim or emotionally illogical character, is it hard to achieve authenticity?
CD: The first thing that comes to mind when you ask that, is that many moons ago, I had a tiny role in this movie called U Turn, where I played a dimwit. Like, a really dumb person. And it was so much fun to play this desert rat! So no matter what the role is, if it’s well written, it’s fun to do. But, yes, I do like playing with language, and the dialogue in A Kid Like Jake was kind of musical. Daniel has a very specific style that’s really naturalistic, which I immediately recognize as real, so it’s great to play with—especially if you’re working with actors who are in such command of language, like Jim Parsons, who’s just a virtuoso.
SCRIPT: Were you consciously aware of the copious parallels between Alex Wheeler and Carrie Mathison? For example, both Carrie and Alex were coerced into taking medication. Both were strapped onto a gurney—
CD: Uh-huh, keep going.
SCRIPT: Both suffered a panic attack.
CD: There is a panic attack. Check!
SCRIPT: And both once worked for Legal Aid in Brooklyn.
CD: (laughs) You’re right! Oh my god, this is so enjoyable! I would never, ever have seen those connections between those two characters! But I take all of your points, which are very well argued. But I have to say, the parallels between Alex Wheeler and myself were more abundant, which is ironically a challenge, because playing a character so similar to yourself tends to stunt the imagination, which sounds counterintuitive. But my wires got crossed playing Alex. On the other hand, it was wonderful to have Alex be so accessible and to be so entitled to arrive at choices so easily. I remember the costume designer asking, “What do you think this Alex person would wear?” And I was like, “I’m just going to roll out of bed!” So in some ways, being that close to Alex is a privilege, but in other ways, it’s a hindrance. In some ways, it’s easier to play Carrie Mathison, because she’s so other, you know? But even though A Kid Like Jake is an intimate story, told on a modest scale, the feelings are big and unruly, like in Homeland. Alex is going through a lot, in her own stay-at-home-mom kind of way.
SCRIPT: Daniel, did you worry about Claire bringing baggage, as the portrayer of Homeland's Carrie Mathison—arguably one of the most iconic characters in television history?
DP: I’d be lying if I said I was very concerned. Claire was so incredibly right for this role, that I was just glad she wanted to do it. I’ve been a fan of Claire’s for as long as I can remember, so I don’t strictly think of her as Carrie. I mean, it’s exciting, because that’s who she’s known for, but I was mostly elated because she’s just so damn good.