Turturro, like Depp, has played writers in the past, notably as the eponymous hero in the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink (who also suffered from writer’s block). And he also has great respect for the process. “A writer is the initial creator,” he says. “He starts with a blank scrap of paper and invents an entire world. There is something magical about that and it’s the hardest thing to do. It requires an intense amount of mental work.”
Whether or not Shooter is actually a writer, a delusional wannabe or perhaps something even more malevolent, is up to the audience to decide, Turturro contends. But it was the psychological twists and turns of the character’s journey that intrigued him as an actor. “It’s a different kind of film for me. I haven’t really ever been in a psychological thriller. This one was different from anything I’d ever been in before. I thought it would be challenging and tricky. I didn’t know how my performance would work itself out until I actually did it.”
Another attraction was the opportunity to work with Depp. The characters share a unique bond in the film, tied to Shooter’s fanatical insistence that Mort has plagiarized his story and Mort’s equally zealous attempts to prove him wrong. This close, even symbiotic relationship led to several intense, mind-twisting scenes between the two actors which, says Turturro, required a special connection between them. “Johnny is very easy to work with and very generous. There is a real ease to his performance style. David gave us a lot of room to do our thing, and anything you throw at Johnny, he quickly catches and tosses back at you. He’s very intuitive and inventive. As a performer, it’s a big advantage to enjoy a common comfort zone with a fellow actor. And we definitely had that. Johnny also has a great sense of humor. We enjoy some common interests and we’ve worked with directors with similar sensibilities. I’ve always enjoyed his performances and was happy to have the chance to finally work with him.”
One of the story’s pivotal characters is Amy, Mort’s estranged wife, played by Maria Bello. “I’ve wanted to work with Maria for a while now,” Koepp says. “She is a wonderful actress who is able to convey a number of complex feelings at the same time. The audience should not be entirely sure how it feels about her character.
“Like all good actors, she’s complex and our empathy runs deeper than just liking her or not liking her. Maria’s character veers back and forth between sympathetic and unsympathetic, so I wanted an actress who could handle that kind of depth.”
Like Depp, Bello (known to TV audiences for her role as Dr. Anna Del Amico on E.R., and more recently as the sexy waitress who fortuitously falls in love with a gambler (William H. Macy) in The Cooler (for which she received Golden Globe and SAG award nominations as Best Supporting Actress), was intrigued by the intricacies of Koepp’s screenplay. “First of all, I am a huge fan of thrillers and, in particular, of Stephen King. When I read the script, I was riveted by it. It’s a real page-turner, and I truly didn’t know how it would end. When I met with David, I walked into his office and just blurted out, ‘I love your script!’
“We talked and found we had similar ideas about the character and how she served the story.”
The character of Amy, Bello observes, is the polar opposite of Mort—in style, attitude and temperament. “Amy is a woman whose world with Mort was falling apart and she tried to keep it together. I thought it would be an interesting dichotomy to play her as someone who is really in control of her life, just trying to get things done as best she can, trying to persevere even though her marriage has unraveled and her divorce has become increasingly difficult. I also made a physical choice to reflect that—I decided to wear hair extensions, à la Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. Her long hair, how she stood and the elegant, simple way she dressed, always reminded me of a thoroughbred. It’s a strong contrast to Mort’s ‘shlumpy’ attitude.”
As Amy is drawn into the increasingly unpredictable and violent vortex of Mort’s life, Bello was required to perform several stunts.
She relished the opportunity. “I was really taken by how much she loved the physical demands of the role,” Koepp comments. “She wanted to do a lot of it herself and was really great at rolling around in the dirt and slugging it out.”
As it happens, Bello began her career as a self-described “action heroine” and was happy to return to the more physical aspects of her craft. “I did a television show a long time ago called Mr. and Mrs. Smith, in which I performed many of my own stunts like kickboxing and fighting, and I really enjoyed it. So, it was a treat to have stunts to do in Secret Window.”
Her physical activities, Bello notes, bolstered the increasing psychological intensity of her scenes. “There was a four-day sequence that was particularly demanding.
“I remember just before one particular take, I jumped off a stair a few times to get my energy up and was wondering how I would maintain my energy. But then my adrenalin took over. In life, there is no preparing for threatening or surprising situations and, after a certain point, my heart and my body just took over. I stopped thinking so much, which was perfect for the scene and helped keep me real and spontaneous.”
In addition to working opposite Depp, Bello shared several scenes with actor Timothy Hutton, who portrayed her new lover Ted. “I’ve always loved Johnny’s choices as an actor. And this film was no exception. The layers he brought to Mort, the levels he achieved, were fascinating and inspiring. I’ve also been a huge fan of Timothy Hutton. So, it was a real treat to be working with both of them,” Bello continues. “A strong degree of trust developed between us.
“It was a truly wonderful collaborative atmosphere, and we all learned something new every day.”
Such a productive environment enabled Hutton to capture the edge of his character, a morally ambiguous figure who, at various points, can be construed as a nice guy caught in a bad situation, or as someone who is much more sinister.
He credits the nuance of Koepp’s script for giving him the tools to flesh out the character. “The characters he wrote are full, rich and multi-dimensional,” says Hutton. “I love that they start out one way and they take these unexpected turns that surprised the hell out of me.
“From the first time I read the screenplay, I saw an opportunity to play the character of Ted in a way that the audience would never really know where he was coming from. It was great to take him right to the edge and yet leave his motives ambiguous. It’s never quite clear whether Ted is a good guy or a stinker.”