In Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel American Pastoral, young provocateur Rita Cohen puts her vagina in Seymour “The Swede” Levov’s face and forces him to look at it. He’s horrified. But she continues to taunt him. She provokes him. She makes him uncomfortable with her unapologetic sexuality — so uncomfortable, in fact, that he begins to doubt her very existence. Surely a young woman so aggressively in control of her femininity could not be real. But she is real — and Ewan McGregor’s film adaptation of Roth’s bleak, postmodernist tale puts Rita’s eroticism front and center. It’s her superpower.
For actress Valorie Curry, whose performance as the polarizing teen radical earned her rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, Rita Cohen isn’t just some crazy, deranged misfit; she’s symbolic of the larger movement. She questions The Swede’s (McGregor) patriarchal ideology. She forces him to stare her feminine power in the face. She terrorizes him because she can. Even her hair — modeled after African-American activist Angela Davis’s — is part of Rita’s performance art.
MTV News talked with Curry about her breakout role, that “disturbing” seduction scene between her and McGregor, and why, even now, men are still terrified of vaginas.
None of the female characters in this film really catch a break. In fact, I feel like the film portrays women as violently erratic. What’s your take on that?
Valorie Curry: Roth depicts his female characters in a way that is not too kind. I’m still trying to understand these characters and what his perspective was, even now — and how much of it was a commentary on The Swede and his patriarchal, postwar ideas as to who women were supposed to be. That’s why Rita, like she says, is trying to wake him up to reality, that these are people and not objects. I loved that mission with her. I’m a fierce feminist who’s finding our current climate a hard place to live, and I understand that frustration and that feeling of living in a bizarro world where certain things are socially accepted and dictated that I don’t understand.
What I liked so much about Rita was that despite her limited screen time, she was the one female character that felt fully realized in this world.
Curry: It’s funny you say that because Rita exists the least. She’s very much an enigma, and everything you see of her is a performance. It’s a mask. It’s a persona, and she assumes a different one in every scene in the hopes of tearing this guy down. You never really see who she is, so that got to be my secret and my invention.
Rita is so unapologetically female. During that seduction scene, she’s trying to use her feminine power to get under The Swede’s skin, and it’s truly the most affecting scene in the film for me.
Curry: That’s why I get so disturbed when people talk about how horrible she is! That hurts my feelings. She is representative of femininity in a way that is so unbridled. It flies in the face of those 1950s ideals of femininity. That’s what’s scary to him — how she undermines his ideas of what women are supposed to be. In the book, Roth writes for pages about how Rita puts her vagina in his face, as if it’s this scary black hole, and it says more about Swede than it says more about her, that it’s so terrifying for him. What is so terrifying about a woman owning and thrusting her sexuality in the face of this man, with no apologies?
Some might say that men are still terrified by vaginas, more than 50 years later.
Curry: It’s very revealing how society as a whole can move forward, but there are these streams of sexism and misogyny that are still alive and well. All it needs is somebody with a platform to give it a voice, and it crawls out from under the rocks.
Was that scene difficult for you to film?
Curry: Before we even shot that scene, there was a certain vibe. I remember Jennifer Connelly squeezing my arm and saying, “Good luck,” the day before we had to shoot it. I really enjoyed that scene because there’s something wonderful and free about playing a character who’s unapologetically fearless and will pursue her goals with everything she had. My job in every scene was to fuck with The Swede, to break him down. When I initially read that seduction scene, it read really disturbing, but that was incorrect. It had to be a seduction — it had to be sexy. Once I realized that, it didn’t seem so disturbing. It was powerful.
There’s also that moment when she’s trying on the pair of gloves The Swede has made for her. It was extremely sensual.
Curry: It’s very sensual, even in the shop when she’s looking at the pieces of leather. It’s all about touch. It’s skin on skin — that’s what leather gloves are — and that’s inherently sexy. I did get a really nice pair of Newark-made leather gloves as a gift from the set. They’re these really beautiful white gloves, which I haven’t taken out of the box yet because where am I going to get to wear them?
How do you choose your roles? Obviously American Pastoral is a lot different than Blair Witch, which you starred in earlier this year.
Curry: As somebody who loves films, I would rather filmmakers attempt something great and something new and interesting and maybe it’s imperfect — and everything’s imperfect because art is imperfect — but at least it leaves you with questions. I love art that engages me and asks something of me. [American Pastoral] asks something of the audience. I’d rather that than the most perfectly executed film and then it’s forgotten the next day.
Well, films should frustrate you to an extent.
Curry: Yes! All the good ones are frustrating, right?
All of my favorites are.
Curry: I always say Mulholland Drive is mine, and people are like, “Why? How?”
I can’t judge because one of my favorites is Shakespeare in Love, and whenever I tell someone that, they tell me it’s overrated.
Curry: That film is amazing! I heard a lecture from an author I love, Lauren Groff, recently, and she made this passing comment that stayed with me about how sentimentality is this taboo thing in art now. It’s to be avoided at all costs. And that’s kind of sad. That’s maybe what people don’t like about Shakespeare in Love. It’s unapologetically sentimental and emotional.
Joseph Fiennes is also perfect.
Curry: In every way.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.