Jessica Alba wants the world to know she can do more than play eye candy in lightweight fare like Dark Angel and The Fantastic Four. In Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Jim Thompson’s famous 1952 pulp novel, The Killer Inside Me, she gets her chance. Alba plays prostitute Joyce Lakeland, who suffers a brutal beating at the hands of her psychopath lover Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), a deputy sheriff who has concealed his dark side from everyone. In the book, told from Ford’s point of view, Thompson describes the beating: “I backed her against the wall, slugging, and it was like pounding a pumpkin. Hard, then everything giving away at once.” Winterbottom doesn’t shy away from this passage, shooting the beating scene with horrific fidelity to Thompson’s words.
Alba, who spent five hours in make-up creating her disfigured face from the attack, plays Lakeland not as a victim but a damaged person who loves Ford so much that she believes this is what she has to do to demonstrate her love. Though Alba is not onscreen for very long, her performance resonates throughout the film and will stay with audiences long after it’s over.
Reaction to the film has been mixed—to say the least—since it premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival. There have been walkouts (including a rumor that Alba left the premiere screening in disgust), and some critics have objected to the film’s excessive violence toward women. But to Alba, what’s shown on screen is necessary. “I feel like violence in film and television is usually glorified and glamorized; in this, and the way Michael shot it, you really see how brutal and horrifying and terrible it is to take somebody’s life.”
Alba recently chatted with Time Out Chicago about her latest role and shedding her good-girl persona.
What interested you in the role of Joyce?
Well, firstly I took some time off to have my daughter, and when I came back into the business I wanted to focus on working with good directors. Michael Winterbottom is amazing, so I was intrigued with the idea of working with him. I read the script, and I thought it was really interesting and dark. But I didn’t understand how complex it was until I read the novel, and then I really liked it. It’s pulp fiction at its darkest, and it really went into the mind of a true sociopath and I found that very interesting. Then when I heard that Casey was interested in doing it, I signed on because he’s an amazing actor and I thought he would definitely thread the innocence and boyish character to this sociopathic killer.
How did playing Joyce change in your eyes after reading the book?
In the script originally, Joyce felt more like a victim of circumstance, and it really didn’t go into the depth of why she’s the way she is. When I read the book, it just informed me that she’s madly in love with this guy, and it was almost like she found a soul mate in this darkness. They shared some sort of connection through violence, and I felt like she actually instigated it and brought that violence back out of him. She saw that was in him, and she liked it and pushed it out of him. I thought as sad and as tragic as it is, it was almost a choice of hers because she never resists the violence. That was an interesting take on the character to me and empowering in a way. I’ve played so many shiny, happy people and it was a challenge for me to play someone who did operate in a dark place.
What were your thoughts after seeing the final version?
I thought it was great. Michael shoots so quickly, and you never really knew when the camera was on or off. Everyone was just always present and in character so it was really seamless. I mean, I could never tell when Casey was acting or being himself, and that’s amazing. So I really felt like I had to bring my A game [Laughs] and make sure my performance matched his. It was a challenge, but it was great.
How was it to watch the finished scene of Lou beating Joyce?
It’s horrifying to watch. It’s not just a gun shot or the audience rooting for the hero to kill the bad guy; it’s awful, and I thought it was appropriate because I think people are so numb to violence because it is so accepted, but it’s not something that should be taken lightly.
Since the premiere screening of the film at Sundance, there have been countless reports that you were upset by the film and walked out of the screening…
No, that was a lie.
Why would people think that?
I saw the movie before Sundance but they asked me to come last minute and I wanted to go and support Michael, but my daughter was sick and my husband was sick so I had to come home and take care of them.
What are the reactions you’ve gotten from people who’ve seen the film?
One of the things I’ve heard from people is they thought it was brave of me because I have done a lot of very broad commercial films, and I think they thought it was cool that I took that step and did something out of the box.
Because this was such a departure for you, what did you personally take from this experience?
As terrifying as it is to work with material like this, there’s a vulnerability. You can’t put up walls when you’re working in this kind of environment, it’s just a raw performance and I really enjoy it.
Do you think the film has got a bad rap from the critics who’ve only focused on the violence?
Well, it’s not for everyone, first of all. And it’s a very specific genre; it’s one of Jim Thompson’s darkest novels and explores the mind of a sociopath, so I think you need balance. If everything is happy-go-lucky and the violence is portrayed in a glamorous way, I think you can’t get the full grasp of how bad it is. I think this movie, though it’s fiction, grounds killing and shows that it’s awful and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
The Killer Inside Me is playing at the Music Box.