In Knight of Cups, the seventh motion picture from filmmaker/cinematic poet Terrence Malick, Christian Bale plays Rick, a disillusioned and dissolute screenwriter trying to find meaning in his glittering but empty Los Angeles life. Rick’s surreal, dreamlike quest takes him in and out of the lives of six women, each important to him in a different way, as well as into the dynamics of his fragmenting family as he examines what it means to be alive and fully awake in every moment.
Two of the women in the film are the wild and extroverted stripper Karen (Teresa Palmer) and the self-contained, tranquil and seemingly unattainable model Helen (Freida Pinto). As with other recent Malick films like The Tree of Life and To The Wonder, there is not so much a narrative as a series of collage-like encounters that indirectly give us insight into the character of Rick, the people who intersect with his life and quest, and Malick’s larger themes.
Screen Rant had a chance this week to sit down with Palmer and Pinto to discuss working with the enigmatic director (who never gives interviews), how things happen on the set, and what it’s like to interact with the magnificent Mr. Bale.
The women in this film are the frame of the movie and sort of the backbone of Rick’s life. What did Mr. Malick tell you as you came onto the film about the women you were playing?
Teresa Palmer: Not much. I had no idea. I knew I was a stripper.
Freida Pinto: But I think the one thing that he said to you was something that I think he said to all of us at one point, that we’re going to tell Rick things that will help him on this path of self-discovery, that will change the course of this self-discovery, so that when he moves on to the next woman or emotion or phase or whatever it is, he has taken everything else from the past women that have come into his life. So really, more than just categorizing us as the women in his life, I think these are the various phases represented by these women. He’s not just going through them like a womanizer, but he’s really learning from them and imparting some of himself as well.
Palmer: And they also represent facets of him, and so in his journey, he’s seeing his serene, beautiful, all-knowing self (gestures to Pinto), then he’s seeing his wild, crazy, erratic self in my character, and then his conflicted self in the Natalie Portman character and then the vulnerability that Cate Blanchett shows. All of those also exist within him too, so it’s beautiful.
Did you have to reach a certain comfort level with yourself to play a stripper, especially in that opening scene and the way you’re introduced?
Palmer: (laughs) Well, I found out the night before I shot that scene – I found out 10 p.m. the night before that I was going to be in the movie, and I didn’t know anything about my character. So I really was just thrown in the deep end and just had to swim. So I got there and was like, “Please, someone give me any information! Please, Christian, what am I doing?” You know, I was asking all the real-life strippers, “Show me how to dance, I don’t know how to move my body.” And you just have to be in the moment and try, and you’re constantly just discovering aspects of yourself and also you as a performer – it’s incredibly liberating actually, and I didn’t put too much pressure on myself because there was nothing I could prepare. I just had to be in the moment.
There’s a certain mythic status to Terrence Malick. What’s it like being on the set and working with him? Is it as free-form as it seems in the movie? Are there certain things you have to hit or is it all “go with the flow”?
Pinto: I don’t think there’s certain things that you have to hit. There was this one time that he did give me a teleprompter (gestures to ear), a listening device, and he’d tell me the things I’d have to say. But he’d also add, “Don’t say anything if you don’t feel like saying it.” So, you know, that again is freedom –it’s your choice, it’s free…you’re free to pick and choose what you want do, or really represent what you feel like at that point in time.
So I think that the only line that I was actually asked to say was, “Is this a friendship we have?” which she’s used in the film as well. But apart from that, no, I don’t think so, there’s no hitting the right points. Getting light – letting the light hit you the right way…
Palmer: Yeah, Chivo (cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki), he only uses natural light, so sometimes he’d be like, “All right, the light’s beautiful over here so swing into this frame,” you know. It’s beautiful.
Tell me about working with Christian.
Palmer: I was so excited about the fact that he’s really unaffected by this great level of success and fame he has. I mean, he was just laughing at the experience -- “This is amazing! I have no idea what I’m doing!” And this is an Academy Award-winning actor, and it made me so comfortable because I knew we were just in this together and we were equals, so that was nice.
Pinto: Pretty much the same thing. I feel that one of the things I enjoyed about working with him was that he was not putting any pressure on himself either, and then that just made feel – it’s one of those, you know, when you’re working with a great actor, you can tend to get starstruck before it even gets in there. But as soon as you go in there, he’s already laid the foundation and you don’t feel like you’re just sitting in front of a star and like, you know…it just felt a lot more comfortable.
Knight of Cups is now playing in theaters.