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Brittany Murphy Lives On in Her Work

The tragic, far-too-young death of the talented Brittany Murphy, who proved as capable in drama as in comedy, cut short the arc of a performer whose humor and humanity came out whether playing the spunky tag-along girl in Clueless (1995); the sexually abused Daisy, who pathologically cuts herself, in Girl, Interrupted (1999); or the wide-eyed, well-meaning hottie, Luann Platter, that she voiced for years on TV's King of the Hill, earning an Annie nomination in the process.

The 32-year-old actress and sometime singer let her good nature and all-around adorableness shine through — nowhere more apparent than in USO shows in which she performed for American troops overseas.

At 8 a.m. local time on Sunday, December 20, 2009, the Los Angeles Fire Department responded to a 911 call from the home of Murphy and her husband, British screenwriter Simon Monjack. She had apparently collapsed in a bathroom, and despite the efforts of emergency crews, was pronounced dead on arrival at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center at 10:04 a.m., following cardiac arrest. As of the evening of Monday, December 21, 2009, the cause of death remains unknown. 

She is scheduled to appear in a film completed before her death: the psychological thriller Abandoned , opposite Dean Cain, Mimi Rogers, Peter Bogdanovich and Tim Thomerson.

In the meantime, in what might be a macabre coincidence, she spoke with Brad Balfour for a 2006 drama directed by Karen Moncreif in which, with a cast that included such luminaries as Toni Collette, Piper Laurie, Giovanni Ribisi, Rose Byrne, James Franco, Mary Steenburgen and Bruce Davison, she played the title role: The Dead Girl.

With respect and sympathy to her family, friends and fans, FFTrav offer a rare, little-seen Q & A (from a roundtable transcript) with the much-beloved actress — who, as her upbeat and carefree words then show, was a woman, not interrupted, who lived her life with energy and joy.  --Frank Lovece

Q: Were you attached to this role from the beginning?

BM: I was the second person attached to the film, second or third, after Giovanni [Ribisi].

Q: What attracted you to it?

BM: Karen asked me to be a part of it and I was a huge fan of hers from Blue Car. I loved the honesty and truth and rawness of that film. Then I was really intrigued that she was doing another picture. I read it, [and] thought I was reading a psychological thriller. It’s called The Dead Girl, and it started reading like a psychological thriller from the first act. After getting past The Stranger and then moving on to The Sister… you know, they say the journey is the destination.

As clichéd as that is, it really was true with this because all I did was, while I was trying to figure out who did this – which character was it? – I started to just not care [who actually did it]. I started to get completely engrossed in the lives [of the characters], and in being a voyeur of the lives of these really richly written characters with so many layers and so much depth, and how highly unusual that is to see so many of them in one script.

I adored the script. So I met with Karen, then heard her vision and what she was going to do with it, and then signed on to be a part of it.

Q: How did she pitch the part to you? It all builds up to Krista, so what did she say to you about what she wanted the character to be like and what ideas didi you bring to it?

BM: I wish I could be more specific about it because neither one of us can really remember because it all happened so quickly. I have said this before, and I’m sorry to be redundant.

I am very visceral when it comes to choosing material, or characters choosing me, or me choosing them. My job is strange. My job is to believe I’m someone else more hours of the day than I am myself. That’s a really weird job, OK?

So one wants to make sure that while one is doing is doing that, first of all, I like to make sure I’m a part of a story that I think is imperative that it’s told or (is) extraordinarily entertaining. The older I get the more particular I’ve become about that. Then, who’s telling the story? Through what eyes? a/k/a/ Karen’s.

Then, okay, who is this person that I am going to be? And does that make sense for me? Immediately, when it comes to characters, once the story is something that I’d love to be a part of, it’s a very visceral feeling and I always just kind of connect and know. When Karen also told me that she thought of me because of the information she received in some work that I’d done prior in different other films, and her being a juror and how she came about this project, I also then sort of felt it was a responsibility to Krista’s life, because she was a real person.

Q: The character here, Krista, shares a lot in common with your Girl, Interrupted character and even your 8 Mile character -- they express a gritty, outward appearance but want to do better for themselves. Did you find yourself drawing on your previous roles in portraying Krista and what kind of research did you do?

BM: what I explained to you is the research that I did. And anything else… I spoke with some recovered addicts. I spoke with a counselor or two, but I like to keep my resources private, to respect their privacy. And people really helped explain things to me.

I also saw some footage, and that helped. But really the breakdown of the chemical composition was the biggest help. As far as everything in life – sorry to be so broad – but it really does cover everything. For me, everything in life is a learning experience. Everything. This is. Whether we choose to make it one or not, anything can be, I believe.

Q: There was an inevitability of her death. Did that help inform your performance?

M: You know, interestingly enough, no. There was no foreboding feeling because she didn’t have a foreboding feeling, I don’t think, of her death. [That’s] not how I saw it or felt it. I didn’t feel that she had a foreboding feeling of her death.

But I will say, if you saw Girl, Interrupted, that was one experience where a character killed herself. Daisy killed herself, but how we shot that film was Daisy’s death completely backwards to the first scenes in the film. So I actually did shoot, in Girl, Interrupted, just Daisy, and they blocked me in a certain period of time and shot me out in three weeks. They shot her completely from her death to the beginning of the story, and that helped me a lot in understanding who she was.

So I have had that experience before, and I didn’t feel that here, because Krista loved life so much. She was very much about, they say, "Live in the moment," she was about the second or maybe the millisecond.

Q: Do you worry about doing too good a job that results in glamorizing this lifestyle?

No, I would hope the very, very opposite. If I’m ever a part of something like this it would be to… I mean, this film particularly… to help be a very small part of [imparting] a very large, large message, much larger than any of us involved, which is that violence is wrong and atrocious. So many people’s lives in this film, every character’s life, was changed by this violent act that occurred, and why can’t we just notice things instead?

Why do we have to have something that tragic happen to kick us in the rear to be able to actually life-altering decisions for the best, to better ourselves? I don’t understand that. And I wish more people would. I think we all could start trying. And I think this is a great message as far as stopping violence or at least helping to garner awareness towards stopping violence.

Q: Was there a line or something else that helped you figure out who Krista was?

BM: It was very evident to me. I don’t know how else to… I did ask Karen a lot of questions. "How would you like her to sound?" "Exactly what kind of drugs is she on and how much of them?"

"OK, she’s bi-polar," Karen told me. "She’s self-medicating."

Well, I figured she’s self-medicating, so I spoke with some counselors and had them break down exactly the types of drugs Karen told me Krista was on and break down what the chemical reaction with any human being’s body would be. And these reactions are absolutely atrocious, and that’s why she behaves so mercurially; just what it depletes one’s body of is so sad and tragic.

Also she was a chain smoker, and I asked [Karen] how she envisioned her always sounding and she said, "Kind of gravelly."  I said, "Kind of like this?" I did her voice and she said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly like that." So I said, "Okay, I’ll keep that." Karen and I had a really easy shorthand.

Q: What was Krista on?

BM: Crack.

Q: How was Karen different from other directors you’ve worked with?

BM: Quite obviously, seeing the film, she is a chameleon when it comes to actors. There’s such a broad cast, and how she changed her… It wasn’t the Karen way. Karen molded to each person she worked with as opposed to the people molding to Karen’s way, which was really fantastic.

Yet, she still stood very strong in herself, very grounded and still had so much respect, the utmost respect from everyone and the entire crew, and ran the show, yet still, again, adapted to all of these different styles of acting, people, egos, you name it. I think that that’s miraculous. She never lost her cool.

This was one of the happiest sets I have ever stepped foot on in my life, and it definitely was not light fare. People were there because they wanted to be, from our costume designer to hair and makeup to the actors to our whole entire crew, [and] I mean grip, cinematographer; everyone there had an opportunity to be the artist that they are.

Karen allowed everyone to be creatively rewarded and allowed us – us meaning myself and the crew and the other actors – to be able to express our own art. She did not ever try to stifle that, and that’s a great feeling. People need that… artists need that to replenish the soul. So everyone felt very free there, and that allotted for a very happy place because no one felt stifled.

Q: Your fellow actress Kerry Washington said you taught her how to smoke.

BM: That is true

Q: So, is she a good smoker?

BM: I don’t know. You saw the film. What’d you think? I hope I did okay. She was practicing and showing me. We met for dinner. Because of the short preparation time, how Karen wanted Kerry and I to rehearse was to just familiarize ourselves with each other.

We went for dinner. And I had to be chain smoking for the role. As you could see, I had to learn to do that. And she taught me how to curse, so… I’m kidding [giggles loudly]!!!!

Q: Going forward, are you looking to keep mixing it up, doing indies like this and bigger films that may have a worthwhile message?

BM: For me it’s extraordinarily important to be a part of films that have messages that, as an artist, I can help communicate, and messages that I find important because that is what I do. So if I’m going to try to be a part of getting any sort of point across I think I should stick to my job and do it that way.

The next film I’m working on is The White Hotel, and I’m excited. That is a film that has a very large message behind it and hopefully it will make people extraordinarily aware of how wrong genocide is.

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