The star of Nanny McPhee Returns explains why she loves sentences that are grammatically perfect but utterly wild.
By Norman Rush
The background: It's about an unnamed female anthropologist in Africa looking for love—a fantasy of love—in kind of a manic way. I had a dictionary in my lap when I read the book, because she's this hyperintellectual who uses all these big words. It's the author's way of lovingly making fun of her and her obsession with her own brain.
Why she chose it: For the first 50 pages, I thought it was written by a woman—it was done so convincingly in a woman's voice. It's about how we think about mating in terms of finding the best of our species, but what complicates that idea is the truth about human beings: They're not perfect at all, and sometimes their imperfections are the sexiest and most appealing things to us. At the very end of the book, I think the narrator realizes that.
What stuck with her: The scene where the man who will become her lover grabs her and puts his hand over her mouth and they start whispering. At the end, she says, "You should be an assassin." I loved that line.
The background: The story explores what happens to a South African family when one member is treated with a radioactive medication. He can't go home to his wife and child; he should be quarantined, but his mother insists that she and his father take care of him.
Why she chose it: I love the way Gordimer writes. You have to read her sentences a couple of times—they're grammatically perfect but in the wildest ways.
What stuck with her: The theme that there will be consequences for everything. You can do whatever you want to the planet, to the world, to the people around you, to your husband, to your lover, but there will be consequences.
The background: I was just talking the other day with someone about this collection of short stories—and how they are so true to the ways people behave.
Why she chose it: I think Carver was open about how flawed he was. You can see that in his writing. He's so compassionate about the characters he created. I find that comforting—thinking about what a mess I am, and we all are, sometimes.
What stuck with her: In the story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," a woman says she lived with a man who loved her so much that he tried to kill her. It was perverse! But she was juggling those complicated feelings all humans have to juggle when dealing with something painful that's also appealing, something impossible to put away that's also destroying you.
The background: You pick up this book and you're hooked in ten pages. It's an epic story set in India in the 1970s about a handful of characters who meet in a moment of kindness and live together for a period of time; then they separate again.
Why she chose it: You see the world from a different perspective through these people, their level of poverty, their sacrifices. The two untouchables—who have absolutely nothing and are just trying to survive—are living so joyfully. This book forces open some compassion in you. (It's one of Oprah's top pics, too!)
What stuck with her: I don't want to give away the ending, but the story goes to the darkest depths of pain and then pulls you back out. And because you've been down so deep, when you get pulled back out, you have a momentary feeling of bliss.
This taught me a lot about acting. You start out thinking Kitty is an idiot or Lévin is naive or Anna's husband is dead inside—and then you see them crack: Each is both a good guy and a bad guy, capable and not capable, makes mistakes and saves people and saves themselves. That's what I believe every character in a movie should be, and I hope that the people I play who are easy to judge—the ones that make you think, I'm nothing like that—by the end, you have some insight into them.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
By Joan Didion
I read a lot of Joan Didion when I first graduated from college. Like her, I'm from California and was transplanted to New York. Didion is unflinching, but even though she's observing us from an intellectual place and writing without embellishment, her observations are so clear and so right-on that they end up having an emotional effect on us.
By James Baldwin
This novel is what you fantasize New York was like decades ago and what the cool people—singers and writers—were doing then. Baldwin effortlessly mixes a little philosophy with descriptions of what's happening with his characters. These are people trying to break out of the constricting shell they've been put in, because that's what their hearts are telling them to do.