The Unforgivable 2021 – Sandra Bullock shed her rom-com persona

The Unforgivable 2021 – Sandra Bullock shed her rom-com persona

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Sandra Bullock doesn’t crack a smile, or utter more than a few words, through much of the first half of the new Netflix film “The Unforgivable.”

When we first see her at the start of the tense drama, her character Ruth Slater is being released from a Washington prison after serving a 20-year sentence for murder. It’s clear from Bullock’s set jaw and vacant stare that the pain of incarceration — and of missing the little sister, Katie (Aisling Franciosi), she had to leave behind — weighs heavily on Ruth.

When she’s dropped at a grimy Seattle halfway house with a small plastic bin of her possessions and a little cash, she has to decide whether to let her emotional guard down as she re-enters a society that refuses to forgive her past crime.

Bullock, a true-crime junkie, signed on to produce as well as star in “The Unforgivable” after she was captivated by the script, which is based on the original 2009 British miniseries of the same name. The movie is the first English language feature by German director Nora Fingscheidt. It’s also Bullock’s much-awaited follow-up to her mega-successful 2018 movie “Bird Box” (Netflix’s second most-watched movie ever).

In a recent video call with The Chronicle from Los Angeles, Bullock said she knew her first challenge would be making herself believable as the expressionless Ruth Slater. The role couldn’t be more different from the usually cheerful persona that audiences have adored in Bullock’s many rom-coms dating back to the 1990s — and in her 2010 Oscar-winning role in “The Blind Side.”

“I wanted from my first moments onscreen for you to forget it was me you’re watching,” Bullock said. “I know people aren’t exactly thinking, Sandra Bullock as a prisoner. And you can’t have people seeing me and questioning, did this person really do this heinous crime?

“So we did whatever it took,” Bullock, 57, said of her onscreen transformation. She had fake front teeth bonded on — assuming it would be for a few months, only to have the shoot interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and stretch on for a year and a half.

She welcomed the harsh, unflattering lighting “and allowing the makeup artist to crease all those lines you spend your days using all those creams to uncrease,” she added.

Bullock explained that even more important than embodying Ruth’s toughened physicality was the deeper understanding she gained by speaking with women who are currently or were recently incarcerated as she prepared for the role.

“The women all told me the unpredictability of the world on the outside could be debilitating,” she said. “Inside, they knew what was happening every moment of the day. They knew the rules. And they’d get outside and the sensory overload, the din of real life, would overwhelm them with anxiety and panic.

“So, how do you play a badass — a woman who needs to be looked at as a killer — while still representing the vulnerability of someone losing control and trying so hard to manage real life?”

Ruth’s parole officer, Vince, played by Rob Morgan (“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”), is her stalwart connection between these two worlds.

As Vince escorts her out of the prison, he admonishes Ruth, “You think you’ve got this freedom thing all figured out.”

Morgan, on the same video interview from North Carolina, emphasized that single line of dialogue as a fitting description of the dilemma facing real-life women like Ruth, who are suddenly thrust back into the world. They know their reputation as a felon will precede them into any situation, whether potential work, romance or friendship.

“When someone reintegrates into society, all the social stigma comes with them,” said Morgan. He thought deeply about the criminal justice system in preparation to play a death row inmate facing execution in “Just Mercy” (2019), based on civil rights lawyer Bryan Stephenson’s memoir.

For “The Unforgivable,” Morgan said he spoke with parole officers to understand their “sense of responsibility to keep their client from re-entering prison. What (his character Vince) is trying to tell Ruth (in the film) is, ‘Life will be your best teacher.’ ”

“I really love a quote that Nina Simone said: ‘You know what freedom is to me? No fear.’ ”

And freedom, he and Bullock agreed, means a great deal more than just not being locked up.

“I didn’t realize the freedoms I had until I got older, became a mother and realized just how free I am, (growing up) a white girl in a white household in suburbia,” she said.

The “Unforgivable” script “reminded me of things I learned when I was on the journey to find my daughter (Laila, 9),” who had been in foster care in Louisiana. (Bullock also has a son, Louis, 11.)

“When I went to look for her, I saw so much that you can’t unsee,” she said. “I learned so much about a system I was shocked (to learn) exists in our country. We don’t realize how many beautiful souls are in this system, yearning and broken.”

Bullock said she came to see a common thread connecting so many women in the foster care, prison or class systems, “and it’s a childhood without resources. If it’s poverty from the time you hit the ground in life, you become defensive and hard. You aren’t seen, you aren’t safe, you aren’t free.”

She said she feels an “extreme responsibility” to women like Ruth “and so many human beings who are extremely underrepresented” onscreen. She hopes “The Unforgivable” encourages people to realize “how much about people’s lives we can get wrong.”

“Every day, I thought, Am I being authentic? When you’re carrying people’s real journeys about pain in their lives, you want more than anything for your depiction to be truthful.”

“The Unforgivable” (R) is available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, Dec. 10.

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