With a gritty new film that her husband, Paul Bettany, wrote and directed, Jennifer Connelly opens up about what happened when her personal and professional worlds collided. It’s here, at the intersection of life and art, where the Oscar-winning actress truly shines.
Wafer-thin and dressed in a long, diaphanous gown, Jennifer Connelly’s character Hannah drinks wine across a dining table from her handsome and smartly dressed love, Tahir (Anthony Mackie). The townhouse is decorated with exotic artifacts and cultural books. The couple appears wealthy and well traveled. The candlelight flickers; it all looks so perfect, even for a movie scene, which it is.
But it’s an illusion. Hannah and Tahir are, in fact, a homeless couple who have snuck into a plush apartment and taken refuge from the streets to live a warmer, safer life, even for a few days. They wear their respite well, better than their life on the streets of New York, where she shoots up heroin and he drums plastic tubs in Union Square Park to make a few bucks. Hannah says she used to live in a house like that. Who’s to say where she’s most at home?
Shelter, out now in select theaters and video on demand, is all about juxtaposition and judgment, something Connelly feels strongly about shining a light on through the darkness of the film. “New York has more billionaires than any other city in the world,” Connelly says. “And the number of homeless people sleeping each night in New York municipal shelters exceeds 60,000 people. To me, the scenes in the townhouse afford us an opportunity to consider the central characters in a different context. Do we perceive them differently in a different setting? In different clothes? Can those of us who live comfortably imagine losing all we have?”
Pretty serious concerns, but that’s the way Connelly rolls: intelligent, introspective, questioning. After all, she did go to Yale and Stanford.
Shelter was written and directed by Connelly’s husband of 12 years, Paul Bettany, who was inspired by a homeless couple who lived on the street outside of their building in Manhattan. (Connelly and Bettany live in New York City with their kids. Their son Stellan plays her son in the movie; they also have a daughter, Agnes. Connelly’s oldest son, Kai, from her previous relationship with photographer David Dugan, just went off to college.) After Hurricane Sandy, the homeless couple disappeared. Wondering what happened to them and what their lives must be like was the catalyst for Bettany writing the script.
As with many of her roles, Connelly becomes the character—mind, soul and body. In fact, she lost 25 pounds to play Hannah. “It was a choice that I felt made sense for this character, who doesn’t really know how to be in this world anymore,” says Connelly. “She can’t nourish herself. She won’t.” (It was not the first time she played a drug addict; Connelly made her junkie debut in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream in 2000, for which she received an Independent Spirit Award nomination.)
We’ve come to expect this intensity from Connelly, with her onyx-black hair and unfathomable green eyes, ever since she started acting in films as diverse as Labyrinth, The Rocketeer, Hulk, Dark City, House of Sand and Fog, Noah and Aloft. Next year, she will star in American Pastoral, Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut based on Philip Roth’s novel.
Connelly was born in the Catskill Mountains of New York and grew up mostly in Brooklyn Heights. Though she has said she hated having her picture taken when she was young, she became a model at age 10 and an actress at 11. Despite living in the city, Connelly craves nature, especially hiking, which is what she loves about Los Angeles. (“We have nothing like the canyons that exist in L.A.,” she says.)
She isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty—in Shelter, Hannah meets her match, and future love, in the subway bowels to argue over a grimy jacket—yet Connelly, a prominent fashion figure, happens to also be the face of Louis Vuitton. “I am a brand ambassador,” she says, “which is a natural extension of my longstanding relationship with Nicolas [Ghesquière], his designs and the work he is now doing at Vuitton.” Connelly also credits him with influencing her style, on the red carpet and off. “His designs are bold yet restrained, creative but precise, boyish and feminine. I feel very much at home in them,” Connelly says.
In fact, in an ingenious blending of life and art, you can witness their strong friendship in that townhouse scene of Shelter. Look closely at Hannah’s long, gossamer dress: It is, in fact, the very gown Connelly wore to accept her Oscar for best supporting actress for A Beautiful Mind in 2002, designed for her by Ghesquière. That’s loyalty.
Written by MARTHA McCULLY.
Photography by PAOLO ROVERSI for LOUIS VUITTON.