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Hollywood Highlights: <i>The Human Stain</i> - 2003-10-30

An acclaimed novel by American author Philip Roth comes to the screen in a new drama starring Oscar-winners Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins. Alan Silverman has a look at The Human Stain

In the movie, The Human Stain the lead character, Colman Silk, is at the pinnacle of his academic career. He is a professor of classics at a prestigious university, sees his world crumble when he's accused of using a racial epithet.

"The only issue is the non-attendance of these students, their inexcusable neglect of work and their sheer 'chutzpah' [nerve]. So, Ms. Cummings is devastated? Give me a break, will you? To charge me with racism is not only false, it is spectacularly false and you know it," the Coleman character says in the movie.

He leaves his job and then his wife of 40 years suffers a fatal heart attack. Just when it seems things cannot get worse a good thing happens. Blueblood Coleman meets blue collar Faunia, a much younger woman whose free spirit and damaged psyche prove irresistible. "Don't fall in love with me, Coleman; we're just a man and a woman," she says.

Hovering over Coleman is a secret about his past: a denial of his roots that he felt was necessary to succeed, but proves to be a tragic and fatal character flaw. Very matter of fact about his acting process, Anthony Hopkins says it was important for him to make a distinction between his Coleman Silk and the character in the Philip Roth novel.

"Research is all right. It helps, but it can be a damned nuisance as well. especially when people want to go back to the book all the time and rewrite the script. I'd say 'leave the script as it's written. Just shoot the scene and let's go home.' I've got a nickname: 'get on with it Hopkins,'" he said.

Nicole Kidman co-stars as Faunia. "I love her line she delivers to him: 'I see you, Coleman and I can be anything you want me to be.' That is very much her because she can change herself and redefine herself," Ms. Kidman said.

She said meeting the author helped her refine the character for the film. "Philip Roth really gave my character. He was very specific even in terms of the way I walk and different mannerisms," she said. "When I went to dinner with him and spent time with him I was trying to understand this woman he created. Everyone says 'Oh, she's just playing a janitor,' but how I see the role, and how I know Philip constructed the role, is that she is a woman who comes from a very wealthy family who has, through the things that happened to her, rejected that [and] chosen to go and get lost in a different world: to deny her whole background and hide. The film is about secrets. It's about people not actually revealing their backgrounds and truths and, I suppose with Faunia, her acceptance of people having the right to their secrets and mysteries."

Before they understand how much they have in common, Coleman and Faunia share a passionate, physical relationship; and Kidman acknowledges that the three-decade age gap with Hopkins could raise eyebrows outside the film's context.

"Obviously, you look at this and go 'Oh, there's a huge age difference between these people. Who would ever believe it?' Are people going to pay money to see Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman kiss? It doesn't enter into the equation for me when I choose to do a role," she said. "What I think is really interesting is: age doesn't matter. The reason people are drawn together and choose each other... we never know. That's what I found fascinating about this story. It's in that beautiful line he has: 'This is not my first love or my great love, but it's my last love.' That resonated with me and what they give each other, when I read both the novel and the screenplay, I think was very profound."

The Human Stain is adapted for the screen by Nicholas Meyer. The director is multiple Oscar-winner Robert Benton. The cast also features Gary Sinise as Silk's confidante Nathan Zuckerman, an alter ego for novelist Philip Roth; Ed Harris plays Faunia's volatile ex-husband; and Wentworth Miller portrays Coleman Silk as a young man in flashback sequences that reveal the secret of his past.