‘I love that kind of brutal honesty’: Jennifer Connelly embraces her bad side

By Karl Quinn

Jennifer Connelly says she was intimidated by the character Lucy she plays in Bad Behaviour.Credit: Getty

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In a moment of reluctant self-reflection, former child actor Lucy (Jennifer Connelly) describes herself with brutal honesty. She is, she tells a roomful of guests at a wellness retreat, “still just a greedy, needy, lazy, paranoid human living off the money I made from a character that gave me an eating disorder”.

But Connelly wants to make it clear that despite the fact she started modelling as a child and acting in her teens, the words Lucy speaks sprung from Alice Englert – the writer-director and co-star of Bad Behaviour – and not from her.

Ben Whishaw, Dash Nekrasova and Connelly star in Alice Englert’s debut feature Bad Behaviour.

“I don’t think we are similar people,” she says of Lucy. “But I was interested in her. I thought it was an interesting character, really well written, so I was intrigued by her and kind of intimidated by her as a character to play.”

Her own experience as a young actor was, she says, “a mixed bag”.

“Like most experiences we have, or ways that we grew up, there are things about it that are amazing, and things about it that are trickier. But I can’t complain. I love the work I do, and I feel privileged to do the job I do. Every time I’m working I’m aware of what an amazing opportunity it is, and how grateful I am to still be doing what I do, having done it for so long, you know?”

Englert (left) and Connolly play a mother and daughter struggling to connect.Credit: Ahi Films

Forty years after she made her big-screen debut in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America – and 22 years after she won the best supporting actress Oscar for A Beautiful Mind – Connelly appears to be enjoying a career revival.

She starred opposite Tom Cruise in the biggest movie of 2022, Top Gun: Maverick, and she’s filmed four seasons of Snowpiercer, the sci-fi thriller set aboard a high-speed train that endlessly travels through a post-apocalyptic landscape.

Jennifer Connelly in Once Up a Time in America, her first role on-screen role.

Bad Behaviour – the debut feature from the daughter of Oscar-winning director Jane Campion – is on a far smaller scale, but is evidence of the unwavering eye for quirky material that has led to Connelly doing films such as Requiem For a Dream, Dark City and Mulholland Falls alongside more comfortable box office fare.

But if there’s something to be read into the breadth of work she still enjoys at 53 about the way the business has changed, Connelly isn’t biting.

Connelly with Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. She won the best supporting actress Oscar in 2002 for her role in the film.

“I’m loath to make big generalised statements because I guess I’m always looking for the things that are exceptions anyway, the things that stand out and feel special and different, and I guess those are kind of one-offs at any age, or have been,” she says.

“I feel like I’ve always tried to find characters or projects where there’s something that intrigues me in them, that feels surprising or challenging or just exciting to be part of and work on.”

Connelly (centre) with co-stars Ben Whishaw and Alice Englert, who also wrote and directed the film, at Sundance in January.Credit: AP

In the character of Lucy, there’s plenty of meat to sink her teeth into. She’s aimless, angry, struggling to connect with her daughter (Englert), and with her innermost self. Whatever it is she hopes to find at the “semi-silent wilderness retreat” she heads to in the wilds of northern California (it was actually shot in New Zealand), under the guidance of spiritual self-help guru Elon Bello (Ben Whishaw), it evades her.

Her fellow seekers seem to find enlightenment far more easily, especially the young model and influencer Beverly (Dasha Nekrasova, who played Comfrey, the PR maven and Greg’s almost love interest in season three of Succession).

Filming the regression exercise, in which Lucy imagines herself as a baby, was one of the highlights of making the film for Connelly.Credit: Ahi Films

To Lucy, the whole thing looks and feels like a sham. It’s hard not to share her disdain for the smug self-satisfaction of those who claim to have broken through and seem to have at their disposal a preformed vocabulary to match.

The way Lucy responds to it all, though, is shocking. Something in her is unmoored by a regression exercise in which she plays baby to Beverly’s mother – and she violently attacks the younger woman with a chair.

Doing that scene was, Connelly says, the scariest element in a film in which she is frequently laid bare emotionally.

With Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick – the second highest grossing film of 2022.Credit: Paramount

“Anything that’s a little bit stunty, where you feel like potentially someone could get hurt, I find a little frightening, a little anxiety inducing,” she says. “So it gave me a little shot of adrenaline doing that scene, worrying something could go wrong. But of course, nothing did.”

Though it is Connelly who leads the story, Englert runs a close second. As well as writing and directing, she plays Lucy’s stunt-performer daughter Dylan. She also co-wrote the score, and sings on the song that closes the film.

With Jared Leto in Darren Aronofksy’s Requiem For a Dream (2000).Credit: Dendy Films

All of which might prompt us to wonder how much the film is autobiographical. The official line is that it “is not specifically about Alice Englert’s relationship with her mother”, who crops up in a cameo as a doctor. It was, however, “inspired by numerous spiritual retreats she’s attended over the years alongside her mother”.

Englert has said most of the characters in it are “retreat archetypes” that she herself has played “at one point or another in her own quest for spiritual understanding”.

Do you have any experience of that kind of spiritual quest, I ask Connelly.

“I’ve never been on a retreat like that, no.”

Does it make you want to go?

“Lord, no,” she says, laughing. “That was enough. When I read the script, I thought the baby exercise was particularly deliciously funny and was very much looking forward to filming it. And it was pretty funny, but also not. It was funny and also horrible and painful.

“Because Lucy actually hadn’t been held and looked after in that way, and it’s hilarious and awful at the same time that this woman who she’s so triggered by having this sort of half-assed embrace, she can’t contain this well of emotion, you know. It’s hilarious, and also really sad.”

In a sense, Lucy is a grown-up who has never quite grown up. Denied the love she needed from her self-absorbed parents, she struggles to provide the same to her daughter. She’s trapped in a cycle of stunted emotions, of neediness, and failure to ask for, or receive, what it is she most craves.

It could all be rather maudlin. However, in Englert’s inexperienced but clearly adept hands it’s sardonic and genuinely touching.

“I love that kind of brutal honesty, but also the humour it brought to looking at these themes,” says Connelly. “Intergenerational trauma is at work, people who have good intentions and want to do right [but can’t].

Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly in Snowpiercer.Credit: Netflix

“I think Lucy is a mother who hasn’t come to terms with the way she was parented and therefore much gets lost in translation with her own parenting. I think she really feels love for her daughter, but doesn’t quite know how to behave in a loving way, or from love.

“I think it’s an investigation of that kind of trap, where that breakdown happens, and kind of follows a mother and daughter trying to break that cycle. But it does it in a way that’s funny, which I really like, and empathetic.

“She’s not lampooning these issues,” she adds, of Englert. “I think she’s taking them, and searching for peace and happiness and a way to live a good life and be a good person. I think that’s what all these characters are trying to do.”

Though Lucy isn’t alone in acting badly, she is the most enthusiastic practitioner of it. And for Connelly, that was incredibly appealing as a challenge.

“Her behaviour is quite extreme and awful at times, so how do you play that woman with love and understanding and not make her a parody? Off the bat, I didn’t quite understand her, but I really wanted to figure out how I could understand her.”

For Connelly, it’s not the points of similarity between her and Lucy that matter, but the differences.

“I wasn’t looking for parallels to my own life,” she says. “When I’m working I’m not trying to find myself in the characters or trying to draw on my own life. It’s a work of fiction, a fictional character, and finding the way to make those fictional characters feel real is for me the fun of making movies.”

Bad Behaviour is released in cinemas on

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