Elisabeth Shue talks about “Gracie” with Jenny Halper

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“Gracie,” starring and produced by Elisabeth Shue, is inspired both by the death of her older brother and by her tireless dedication to sports, soccer in particular. Shue could have been the first girl to play varsity soccer in northern New Jersey (she switched to gymnastics and is now playing tennis),but her on-screen doppelganger Gracie, played by Carly Schroeder, is. Set in 1978, the film was shot in Shue’s hometown of South Orange, New Jersey and directed by her husband, Davis Guggenheim, who helmed last year’s hot-button documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Shue, who holds a degree in Government from Harvard, has gone from playing the bubblegum girlfriend (“Back to the Future II” “Cocktail”) to taking on roles up for Academy consideration – her turn as a prostitute won her a nomination in 1995 and established her as an A-lister with genuine acting chops, while undervalued independents (“The Trigger Effect” “Mysterious Skin”) showed off serious risk-taking. counts “Gracie” as her first producing credit.

Q: This film is loosely based on your experiences as a teenager. How much of it is fiction?

ELISABETH: I would say 85 percent of the movie is really true and inspired by a lot of truth, but rearranged in a lot of ways, like a puzzle, and fictionalized on purpose. Most true is really what it feels like to be the only girl in a family of three brothers, to have played on boys soccer teams myself for about four years, to have tried to get my father to pay attention to me, to be treated as an equal in my family. To have soccer be the sport that everyone was obsessed with, the playing field where you could prove yourself, what it’s like to lose your oldest brother, how that changes your life forever in both positive and difficult ways. All of that is the truth of the story.

Q: The death of your brother…

ELISABETH: …happened later. And I do feel like the story itself – if my brother had died – he was the star of the soccer team – but if he had died when I was thirteen, which was the point when I stopped playing soccer, I really do believe that I would have been the first girl to play varsity soccer. Coach Clark (played by brother and co-producer Andrew Shue), who is based on a wonderful coach in our town, he had told everyone that I probably would be the first girl on the varsity team if I kept at it, and I just didn’t have the guts at the time. What I find beautiful about the story – the death of her brother, as painful as it is, is probably the gift that gives her the guts to go after something she probably couldn’t have gone after.

Q: The production notes describe Grace as fierce. Were you a fierce kid?

ELISABETH: I was fierce on the playing field. I was a very shy kid in a lot of ways, which is one of the reasons I think sports attracted me. When you’re out on a playing field you almost forget yourself, you become just a player. And because I was playing sports constantly in my family, I didn’t feel like I was a girl when I played sports. I think it protected that vulnerability as best I could, it gave me a playing ground to prove myself to be equal, sports is a wonderful way for me, in a really simple way to prove that if you work really hard at something you get better. This career is very confusing and complicated; I was attracted to sports to balance the confusion of life. My parents got divorced when I was nine, there were a lot of tough moments, not having enough money for this and that and there was no way to just play.

Q: How much time did you spend with the screenwriters?

ELISABETH: I spent time with the last writer. Davis and Andrew were developing the story without my help for the past few years, so I really got involved in with the last writer. (We) had so many conversations about my childhood and what it was like, and they definitely took on that Jersey feel once they understood our life.

Q: And you filmed in your hometown.

ELISABETH: That was really fun – you never get an excuse to have to go back and live in your hometown, I really enjoyed it, and Davis, my husband, who directed it, he wanted us to go closer to home in terms of the story and he wanted it to be so authentic.

The truth of the story too is when she finds out her father doesn’t quite believe in her and she doesn’t believe in herself at that point, she gives up on it and she starts acting out, steals the car, which I did many times, I was such a good driver at my age. Without a license I drove incredibly well. So there was – I think for girls – that’s why I feel the story’s an important one for girls, I think there’s lots of ways to find your self worth when you’re young. Sports, I think, is a very positive way to find your self worth when you’re young, acting out trying to find your self worth through your other gifts, as a woman, can get confusing, trying to get boys to like you as a way to feel good about yourself, trying to get your parents’ attention to alert them to the fact that you might be in trouble, all of those things distract from a sense of your own power. I hope girls will see it and be able to see that.

Q: Had you brought Davis the neighborhood before?

ELISABETH: One of the scenes in the movie really has a lot to do with Davis’ perspective of my family, when he came to meet my father. He met him in our house, this really old, incredibly broken down Victorian home. Now you see it and it’s just stunningly beautiful, perfectly restored, incredibly taken care of in a way we never could, which is sort of sad. But when he came to the door, I forgot to introduce him to my father, I just left him on the doorstep. When we had dinner the plate of spaghetti was passed around and nobody in the family even cared to get him, the guest, more spaghetti. So there was this feeling in our family, more extreme in my case, that if you don’t step up, be counted as part of the family, you’ll be left behind. It was always cereal in the family. I’d always come down and the boys had eaten all the cereal and didn’t care that there was none left for me.

Q: Was it weird to relive this by playing a version of your mother?

ELISABETH: Oh, yeah. There were many surreal moments during the filming that really took me by surprise. Very emotional moments, obviously filming the scene where the older brother dies took all of us by surprise. It actually took a few hours for us to have some distance from it and detach enough for us to just do our job. So that was really tough. But also wonderful moments of seeing her, Carly, out on the field with all the boys, and her own spirit and her own fierceness and acknowledging for the first time the loneliness of what it must have been like to be out there with all those boys, because that was all I knew, but when I could step back, and see it, and watch her, that was intense. There’s a great moment when she gets into her miniskirt and she goes out and get into Kyle’s car and I see it. I did feel that surreal moment as if I was back in time, starting my own time as an acter-outer, and connecting to my mother, how she must have felt, how worried she must have been.

Q: Like a version of “Back to the Future”? Therapeutic, sort of.

ELISABETH: It is! It’s really weird. Yeah, very good therapy. Maybe that’s what they should do in therapy; people should have to make movies of when they were younger and play their parents.

Q: In the past few years you’ve finished school and started playing tennis while continuing to act and raising a family. Would you say that thinking about your brother and bringing this story to the screen inspired you to be proactive?

ELISABETH: The movie has definitely re-inspired my need accomplish – to strive to be the best that I can be in a sport. Because I did quit when I was thirteen, because I never continued to pursue a sport in with the goal being to be the best you can be, I have been playing tennis for about five years, I’ve been working with an amazing coach, we decided to come up with a personal goal, which was personal, it did not mean for it to go over the airwaves, but no that it’s out there must be a reason. But there’s a very low level of professional tennis that I don’t think most people are aware of, when you hear professional tennis you assume you’re going to Wimbledon. I could get my first ranking that would be a huge accomplishment. I think it’s important for girls of any age to have a goal, but to beat my brother Andrew on the way to that goal will be probably more satisfying than getting an Academy Award.

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Jenny Halper

Jenny Halper is the film editor of Spare Change News, a Cambridge bi-monthly dedicated to empowering the homeless. She's written for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Now, NewEnglandFilm.com, amNewYork, Beliefnet, Cinema Confidential, Park Slope Reader, and Knit Simple Magazine, among others, and has served as a film critic/entertainment reporter for Track Entertainment and ClickFlicks.net. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Smokelong Quarterly and New England Fiction Meeting House, and has been a finalist for prizes from Glimmer Train and the Sonora Review. A graduate of Northwestern University, she is currently earning an MFA at Emerson College.