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Directors: ‘What Maisie Knew’ child star masters what acting pros strive for

“What Maisie Knew” is a new film, based on a classic novel, about how a 6-year-old copes with a bitter custody fight between her two parents.

Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan star as a divorcing
couple who come to despise each other. And worse than how they treat each other is how they neglect their 6-year-old daughter. Too selfish to notice, the parents treat Maisie like a pawn in their own personal chess match with each other.

Directors Scott McGeehee and David Seigel say the movie is really about how little Maisie learns to cope with these pretty terrible parents.

“It’s certainly about finding a way to construct a family that works finding a way to connect with people in the way that you connect with them and to make a world work when maybe it’s not working,” explained film co-director Scott McGehee.

“I would also say, without sounding a little corny, it’s going to sound a little corny – it’s also about the indomitable nature of one child’s spirit,” said co-director David Siegel. “It’s her ability to be a still center in a bit of a storm and somehow find a way to both influence those around her and to step into a new place in her life.”

The success of this movie is almost entirely dependent on casting the right girl as Maisie. With the help of the same casting director who discovered Haley Joel Osment, McGeehee and Siegel hit the bulls-eye with little Onata Aprile.

“We were looking for a child who you would believe when you were looking at her face in close-up, that you were getting inside of her head and inside of her heart, in a way and that you were watching her think. It’s not a super dialogue heavy role, yet she has to communicate a lot over the course of the movie,” said Siegel.

And how did they know if that’s what she was really doing?

“It’s amazing with Onata, because she’s 6, she’s not 3, she’s a pretty cognizant being. She understood the shape of each scene we were doing and the overall shape of the story. But it’s a natural ability to be that subtle,” said Siegel. “We did another movie called “The Deep End” with Tilda Swinton, and Tilda also has that great ability to be that subtle in close-up and to give you a sense that you’re watching her think. But Tilda’s a grown up, a highly trained professional performer and actress for Onata it just was a natural ability to be that subtle. To let her eyes move subtly enough. To dart, to look down to look up – to do this business of acting in a way that actors spend years trying to get back to and was an amazing thing to watch.”

And then it’s one thing to be able to project like that but entirely another thing to have the endurance to pull it off.

“It’s a big deal. Little Onata had to show up every single day for 34 working days in a row, eight or nine hours a day and be present; be able to engage with us,” said McGeehee.

The directors admit there was one climactic night shoot when Onata fell sound asleep in her mother’s arms and couldn’t be roused. But other than that one time, Onata Aprile proved to be a real pro, despite her young age.

Watch the trailer for “What Maisie Knew”

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