Julie Hagerty’s breathy, childlike voice breaks through my phone.
“Are you in New York? Are you freezing?” she asks. I respond with a definitive yes, mentioning that the winter weather has arrived.
“I love it,” the Cincinnati native laughs, noting that she lived in the Big Apple for 24 years before moving to sunny California with her husband, the theatrical composer and producer Richard Kagan, in 1999. “It’s still embedded in my heart and soul, you know? There’s no place like New York.”
That opinion is in stark contrast to the one Hagerty’s character Sandra has in “Marriage Story,” the new film from writer-director-producer extraordinaire Noah Baumbach. As Sandra and many others insist in the movie, New York is fine and all, but think of the space California has to offer!
“Marriage Story” is an intimate portrait of the end of a relationship and the beginning of a new family dynamic, thought to be inspired by Baumbach’s own marriage to Jennifer Jason Leigh. Hagerty plays the Los Angeles-based mother of New York actor Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), who decides to leave her theater-director husband Charlie (Adam Driver) and move across the country with their young son (Azhy Robertson), further complicating circumstances by handling divorce proceedings on the West Coast. Sandra, or G-Ma as she’s referred to, is the slightly scuffed diamond of the story ― both joyful and unabashedly persistent. She’s that mom who will remain close with your ex, becoming their email pen pal behind your back. She’s your go-to wine buddy who will also, probably, maybe, most likely spill your intoxicated confessions.
For Hagerty, a “small, delicious” role like this fits perfectly in her wheelhouse and allows the big-eyed comedian ― who made her film debut as Elaine in the Zucker Brothers’ zany 1980 disaster spoof “Airplane!” ― to utilize that quirky schtick of hers we’ve come to recognize in projects like Lost in America (1985), “What About Bob?” (1991), “Just Friends” (2005) and the new Disney+ original “Noelle” (2019). Sandra is outlandish but relatable, a character who adds a bit of levity to the painful story of divorce. In that sense, Hagerty is perfectly cast.
“I don’t ever find things funny,” the 64-year-old actor told me when asked about being funny. “I mean, I like to laugh, but when you’re working it’s not funny. I just play the honesty of the character and if somebody chooses to see it funny, then they do.”
Unraveling the truth behind Baumbach’s parental creation just so happened to be one of the more luscious experiences of her career, she said.
“This is that kind of high where you are so proud of the work,” Hagerty gushed. “From my viewpoint, Noah loves making pictures. He loves the craft, he loves the art, he loves to participate. Obviously, he created all of these people, so he’s inside each of their heads. It’s beautiful to watch him direct,” she added, “he’s like a conductor conducting a great symphony.”
For Hagerty, the strict, no-phone set was thrilling, as was working with her on-screen daughters ― the “talented and beautiful” Johansson and the “little genius” Merritt Wever, who plays Cassie. Most of their scenes together take place in the family’s home, so the cast rehearsed, ate lunch and spent time there to build up an inherent bond. In one of the standout moments of the film, Nicole tells Cassie she has to serve Charlie divorce papers when he arrives at the house. The trio down glasses of wine, talk over each other and make their way around the kitchen as they argue about the breakup. In the middle of a movie about the dissolution of a marriage, it’s a masterclass in sketch comedy.
“Noah described it as we were passing around the hot potato,” Hagerty said, mentioning that the director maps out specific blocking for every scene. “But the reality for my and Merritt’s characters is we love Charlie and we don’t want to do that because we don’t want Charlie to leave the family!”
Predictably, the situation goes awry as Cassie ignores her task and Charlie arrives to a big hug from his No. 1 fan, G-Ma. “Charlie bird!” Hagerty screams as she tries to lift up a six-foot-two Adam Driver.
It’s hilarious and, yet, terribly sad.
The ladies once again unite toward the end of the film, when they perform a song and dance routine to Stephen Sondheim’s “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” a task that scared the wits out of Hagerty.
“I come from a family of musicians, and my Grandma Hagerty would look at me and go, ‘She’s just not musical.’ I was a great disappointment and I carried that in my heart,” she laughed. “So the fear of singing and dancing to the great Sondheim was just beyond. Of course, Scarlett walks in and she’s got it in five minutes. But Merritt and I worked and worked. She’d come over to my house and we’d dance in my TV room.”
All that rehearsing paid off, as the final product is a delight, making you clamor for more of Sandra and Cassie. Curious as to whether any of their scenes were cut from the movie, Hagerty clarified that Baumbach is a stickler when it comes to the screenplay. “We did every word, word for word,” she said. “It was exactly the script I got and exactly what was shot.”
I'm pretty lucky, at the ripe old age of 64, to be working. I feel really pleased. Very pleased. Julie Hagerty
Hagerty has already seen “Marriage Story” four times, and plans to watch it as often as possible. “Not to be boastful or go, ‘Oh, here comes my part!’ But, my God, look at this story,” she said. “The circumstances are so real. You love both those people. Each watch, I end up loving and rooting for different characters.”
The fact that the film will be streaming on Netflix starting Dec. 6 is perhaps a good thing for repeat watchers like Hagerty. But even though she thinks “it’s nifty” that an audience can check out the film in theaters or from the comfort of their own couches, the industry side of how movies are distributed these days is too complicated for Hagerty to dissect.
“I don’t understand how the business works to be point-blank honest ... but art should be accessible,” she said. “I love seeing movies on the big screen, and I love curling up in my jams and watching movies at home. What that means to the business, I don’t know.”
Her giggle, once again, broke any tension.
“Marriage Story” is now in select theaters.