November 12, 2012
Imogen Poots on Beethoven: Live From the Red Carpet
The Beethoven Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, sounds great in the new film A Late Quartet. Credit for that goes to the Brentano String Quartet, which performs the piece, heard in extracts, on the soundtrack.
Yet seeing is believing for a film audience. The actors in this story, about a fictitious string quartet rehearsing and performing the Beethoven work, rise to the challenge. Whenever they pick up and play their instruments onscreen, the performers make it all seem natural and convincing.
Imogen Poots, the gifted young British actress who plays the daughter of the fictional Fugue Quartet’s second violinist (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and violist (Catherine Keener), spoke recently about the rigorous musical preparations she and the other cast members undertook and the pride they took in the results.
“Everyone is really playing. The bow is on the strings, full on,” said Poots in an interview at the Lincoln Theatre in Yountville, where she received “rising star” honors at the Napa Valley Film Festival. “We all wanted to learn the piece as if we were actually going to perform it.”
Cast music rehearsals took place at Keener’s apartment. “I suppose we sort of secretly competed,” Poots said. “But we also felt generous with each other and laughed a lot. Everyone became a child again, in a sense. Everyone was starting out and starting over.”
Authenticity was a priority for director Yaron Zilberman, who insisted that the actors spend as much time as possible with their instruments. “You’d go have a drink at a bar and you’ve got this extraordinary violin and you can’t just leave when you go to the restroom,” Poots recalled. “So it becomes very much a part of you and an extension of the character.”
“Everyone is really playing. The bow is on the strings, full on,” said Poots.
The principal cast members were each assigned a musical coach. Poots’ was a recent Juilliard graduate, who drilled the actress on scales and other exercises. Helpful as that was, Poots had to find other ways to make her own violin-playing in the film feel right. “I’m someone who learns a lot by ear, including vocal accents, so in some respects I found it easier to listen to the music as much as I could. I listened to a lot of Beethoven while I was falling asleep.”
Poots attended performances by her coach’s own string quartet, an experience she described as humbling. “You feel bad, as if you can hang around a little bit and somehow learn what this person has been doing her whole life in two minutes.”
Poots played the cello when she was 6 or 7. Whatever muscle memory she retained had to be channeled into a different instrument for the film. The vibrato she learned on the cello was now reversed, with her palm facing up instead of down. “Also, your legs aren’t spread,” she said with a laugh. “You’ve got a lot more dignity with the violin.”
Alexandra, the character Poots plays, has a complex relationship to the violin. “She’s really struggling to achieve greatness and live up to her parents’ expectations,” as the actress put it. But part of her also wants to be free of the pressure. One of the ways that comes out is in the young woman’s tentative, conflicted music-making in the scenes with her teacher and lover, the Fugue Quartet’s first violinist (Mark Ivanir).
Poots smiled when asked about playing imperfectly. “I’m sure I had an advantage there,” she said. “That’s one thing I didn’t have to learn.”
Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.
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