These days, romantic comedies are literally a dime a dozen, but very few have any actual depth or meaning, which is why Sandra Nettelbeck’s 2001 German film Mostly Martha was such a breath of fresh air, as it explored the life of a single female chef forced to care for her dead sister’s young daughter while contending with a feisty Italian chef. It was the type of romantic story that Hollywood loves, which is why it wasn’t surprising when Warner Bros. bought the American rights, turning it into a romantic vehicle for Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart helmed by Scott Hicks (Shine, Hearts in Atlantis) and retitled No Reservations.
Zeta-Jones and Eckhart spent a lot of time preparing for their roles as competing chefs who set the kitchen ablaze with their romantic sparks, and ComingSoon.net attended the New York press conference as the duo returned to the city where they shot the film a year earlier.
ComingSoon.net: What struck each of you about this script when you first read it?
Aaron Eckhart: There are so many things about this movie, so many different layers between the food and the love and loss, the healing. How food can help you heal. How music can, too. My character’s philosophy of life is so breezy and fluid and just has a really more relaxed way of life as opposed to Catherine’s character Kate, and how we can help each other and how all of it is all intertwined. Then, Scott directing it, he was just a perfect fit, and then Catherine of course, it was like the whole package. For me, I really was very happy to be in this film for all of those reasons.
Catherine Zeta-Jones: I think that what the film also says quite clearly is that it’s not just bereavement, but it’s that you have to heal. It’s the way that you conduct your life, the way that you look at the world outside, how blinkered and how self-centered in a way that we can be and how through different relationships and sometimes through grief you’re able to heal and come out on the other side stronger and happier and with a different life than you ever imagined you could possibly have.
CS: Did either of you watch the original German film “Mostly Martha” and did you let that affect how you played your character?
Zeta-Jones: I think that on a character basis, I certainly didn’t go into this movie wanting to be a caricature of that wonderful performance. You have to just put that aside and just know that that was a beautifully-created performance culturally in that world and as a completely different situation to where I was going to portray this character. I think that the director did a fantastic job of creating that environment in that movie and I did see the movie after I read the script. I loved the script so much that I said, “You know what? I can’t resist it. I have to see the movie.” I bought the DVD and put it on the kitchen table and a guy who works with (Michael) who’s not a film buff at all said, “Have you seen that movie? It’s great.” I thought how on earth did a guy from Bermuda, half Portuguese see this German movie “Mostly Martha”? He said, “It came to this small little film festival and we just happened to be there, queued up and went in and saw it.” I said, “Okay, well, if you loved it ” and he’s a big old burly gardener”As much as I loved the script, I can’t resist. I have to see it once.” I saw it once and then I put it away and I never saw it again.
Eckhart: It’s the same for me. My character is so different. When you’re making a film you’re really focused on what you’re doing that day. There were other issues to deal with such as chopping, sautéeing, opera, love. Those things consumed my now, but it was a touchstone and we all loved the movie and referred to it. It’s not something that you have to put away and can’t mention. I think that she even came to the set one day.
Zeta-Jones: Sandra [Nettelbeck] did, yeah.
Eckhart: So I think that they both stand on their own.
CS: How did the two of you create the chemistry between the two characters? Did you spend a lot of time together before shooting began?
Zeta-Jones: Well, we met for lunch actually because I had heard through Scott [Hicks] that Aaron was really interested in being in the movie and I thought that would be terrific. We met for lunch and we’d never met before. We got on really well and chit-chatted about the project. We talked about Mr. Hicks, and then before we knew it, we were all signed on and here in New York ready to go. So it was an easy process for us to get together. Then the idea of being a chef, for me, was pretty terrifying, to be quite honest with you. I’m serious. If I could pull this one off, let me tell you. But after we had this intense training together which was a laugh because we arrived in this kitchen with my little apron on, looking ever so professional and looking at Aaron going, “Oh, God, my finger is coming off before you know it.” We had a few weeks of that and we were off and running and then I felt very comfortable in the kitchen, and I still do actually.
Eckhart: We had a great time getting to know each other in the kitchen. At first, Scott got us set up at Fiama with Chef Michael White. We went in there, in the kitchen, and we were trying to stay out of the way and be very courteous with each other and move around the kitchen. By the second or third day, you’re bumping into each other and you’re reaching over each other and becoming very familiar. That was a lot of fun to do that. I’ve never had a fantasy about being a chef, nor will I.
Zeta-Jones: He was ever so professional when I first him. I had to take a few gulps, because he came with all his little private knives, and he was like, “Where’s the spoon, Scott?”
CS: Could you tell in the rehearsals that the chemistry between the two of you would work?
Zeta-Jones: You can’t really rehearse chemistry. It’s just something that happens. Sometimes you can put the best of actors together and watch them and go, “Why is this not working?” It’s just something that just happens, and as an actor it’s great because it’s like, “Whew. One less thing to worry about. Lets get on with it.”
CS: Can you talk a bit more about working in the restaurant kitchen with the chef?
Zeta-Jones: The second time we met we were basically in the kitchen together. It is intimidating because we started off initially with just us, Michael the chef and just gradually he would take us through the kitchen, like in a way, it’s organized chaos. You think that everyone would be slamming into each other, burning each other, yelling get out of my way, but it actually moves really gracefully, like a ballet. Me and Aaron wanted to learn to fit into that environment so that we could look like this was our job, that it was for real. What was terrifying for me was when all of the other chefs would come in and you were trying to get out of their way. You’re there to learn and so you want to be helpful and not do anything really ridiculous, and then I went out onto the floor, which was really pretty terrifying because I’ve never been a waitress before. I know that other actresses have, but I’d never been out there before, and I started screwing up my lines and forgetting what sauce it was and then there was one dessert that was this big concoction of drambuie and this ball of chocolate and so I would say, “Just have it. It’s delicious. Just have it, it’s great.”
CS: Do you cook at home now?
Zeta-Jones: Oh, all the time! No. I have a new appreciation for being in the kitchen. I have a new appreciation for when a beautiful gift gets put on my table, how much goes into it as opposed to going, “Is this cooked right?”
CS: Were there any aspects of Kate’s personality that you could relate to? For instance, can you rip a tablecloth off a table like that?
Zeta-Jones: Yes, I can. (Laughs) I wouldn’t say that I’m a perfectionist in the way that Kate is because it’s borderline anal retentive and I would hate to give myself that title, but I think there is a quality there. There is a much shyer quality to me that people don’t usually see and I could relate to Kate, not that in stoic way, but just in being a little reserved. I get perceived sometimes as “Here comes the show girl” and in fact I have my insecurities, and I’m a lot more reserved and quiet than I let on to be. I do that for a reason sometimes, but I found a quietness in her that I related to.
CS: Are you as driven and ambitious as this character was about her career?
Zeta-Jones: I wouldn’t say that I was like Kate in the way that she was so blinkered in her career and her work and how she goes about it, but I’ve always said that I’ve had a healthy ambition, I call it, where I did want to come from Wales and try different things. I wanted to go to London and do some theater and do some TV. I had that inherently in me, but I wouldn’t say that I was such a control freak the way that Kate is or that there was nothing else in my life. I had my friends and I had my other life in addition to my career.
CS: Aaron, was it nice to play a thoroughly nice guy again after playing edgier jerks?
Eckhart: It’s really incredible. Yeah, that’s why I loved the script and wanted to do the movie. It’s not even about how I’m perceived as an actor as much as what I want to go to work on and do. I would like to just go to work and try to make people happy as opposed to backstabbing someone or whatever it is. I found that very refreshing. I felt like going to work on this film a lot of times I don’t even like working. You sometimes just go there and you do your thing and you make some people laugh and you cook some food and it was a good day’s work. Whether or not it will help to take off the edge I don’t know because it just seems like I can’t get away from Chad and things like that, but I do like playing romantic kind of comedy roles and I have a lot of fun doing it.
CS: Some actors swear they’ll never work with animals and children, so how was it working with Abigail Breslin?
Zeta-Jones: Just adorable inside and out, such a talented actress and very real young lady. She’s not pretentious in any way and I’ve had a lucky run with working with children, not so much with animals though I almost got thrown off a horse, but with children I’ve been really lucky to be working with great talent and children that you’re going to be watching for the rest of their careers and wishing them the best because they have the talent. So she was an absolute dream.
CS: Aaron, you never seemed like an actor who really wanted to be a famous movie star, but it seems like between this and “Thank You for Smoking”, it’s going to be hard to avoid. Can you just be an actor without going to that next step?
Eckhart: You could. I don’t advise it. In this day and age it’s so difficult to get a movie made and to be in the movies that you want to make that you have to, I think, come along with everyone else. I also feel like as you get older your tastes change and I was just talking to Gary Oldman about this. I said, “Gary, would you do ‘Sid & Nancy’ again right now?” He said, “No. I wouldn’t do it because I don’t want to climb that mountain right now.” I just think that there are times in your life where you want to climb certain mountains. As I get older I feel like I would rather make people laugh and feel good coming out of the theater. “Thank You for Smoking,” when people came out of the theater feeling good and smiling made such an impact on me. This film, I’m so happy that this film is a family film that deals with issues of mourning, loss, love, food, happiness, laughter everyone can go see the movie. I can’t say enough about that and I’m so happy to be a part of that and I hope to be a part of it so much more. If it’s a romantic comedy, whatever it is it doesn’t matter as long as it inspires people and makes them laugh and makes them feel good about themselves then I’m in. I’m in. That’s how it’s changed my life.
CS: Did you listen to opera while you were making the movie to get into your character?
Eckhart: I did when I was making the movie. I listened to one song a lot. It doesn’t come totally natural to me. I’m not a great singer. It was interesting to do those days.
Zeta-Jones: They would play the first few bars and then turned the sound down so they could get [Aaron singing] it was brilliant.
Eckhart: Catherine, please. (Laughs)
Zeta-Jones: (Laughs) It was brilliant. You were brilliant. You really went for it.
Eckhart: Scott really helped me out.
CS: Did Catherine coach you at all?
Eckhart: Not at all.
Zeta-Jones: No, I stood there and I said, “Come on, Eckhart, give it your best.” He did a great job. I actually did an opera many, many years ago at the English National Opera, which was an amazing experience. It was terrifying for one. It was like you were doing one opera two days and then “The Magic Flute” two days and so every night felt like a first night. I would see these great people with these great talented voices chatting each other up on the side of the stage, where they’re going to go for dinner, where they’re going to go for a drink and then, “Oh, one second…” and they would go onto the stage and just boom these songs out. I was shaking in my shoes, going, “I’m on next.” We toured Germany with it for a while and it was really interesting to be a part of that opera world.
CS: That will be on the DVD, right?
Eckhart: Yeah, it’s all on the DVD. I did actually like doing it, experimenting with it, and there are such amazing voices and to see the difference just a laymen’s voice and their voices is amazing stuff. Saying the words and having the poetry in the words and the meaning in the images that go along with the music is really inspiring and it’s archetypical with all these symbols and imagery. I think that’s why theater and opera is important because they tell tales. This is the tale of a guy who lost his love and all of that sort of stuff. So it was very appropriate for the film, but to sing it, it was a stretch. Catherine has a beautiful voice and so to sing in front of her was tough.
CS: Do each of you have a food that you can’t resist?
Zeta-Jones: This might sound so ridiculous and so crazy, but with smoked salmon sandwiches on brown bread with potato chips in the middle crushed down. I had them during each of my pregnancies and I actually had it two nights ago for dinner as well. It’s one of those comfort foods.
CS: Did you create this recipe?
Zeta-Jones: Yes, I did. A little bit of lemon, a little bit of salt and pepper.
CS: Do either of you have any favorite restaurants?
Zeta-Jones: I can’t remember the name, but maybe you can find out. There’s this restaurant outside of Barcelona, which is like going into a chemistry lab. I went there and it was completely jam-packed and you had to book like two years in advance. I got to eat at a table in the kitchen, so I could see all these cooks who looked like scientists, literally concocting these amazing dishes with textures that you’ve never even seen or felt. You put your spoon in something and it would all dissolve. It was genius. So, I think for me, that experience, going there, was one of the best I’ve ever had.
Eckhart: Well, God, I don’t want to sound ignorant. Josiah Citrin’s Melisse is great. They have truffled eggs and all that sort of stuff.
CS: If the two of you could cook something for the other one, what would it be?
Zeta-Jones: I think that I would make Aaron some Welsh lamb, some good roasted potatoes, good solid stock food that I was brought up on, I think.
Eckhart: Well, I’m just really a surfer. I like fish tacos and things like that.
CS: Fish fingers?
Eckhart: Well, I wouldn’t go that far. Fish fingers are so ’80s, man, but if she cooked me Welsh lamb and roasted potatoes and stuff like that, it’d be great. I like Shepherd’s pie and stuff like that.
Zeta-Jones: Until he tells me he’s a vegetarian and I would get really annoyed.
CS: Aaron, you’re a vegetarian?
Eckhart: No, I’m not. I love meat.
CS: What do you do in your life to keep it from being taken over by your career like these characters do?
Zeta-Jones: I always hate to say the world balance when it comes to my family and children because at the end of the day that is my life and everything else is a bonus. What’s changed for me considerably since I’ve had my family is that the logistics have completely gone crazy. As opposed to me being offered a role in Romania for four months, I’d say, “What time’s my flight?” I’d pack my case and I’d be gone now I can’t do that. I try to schedule my work in between times where they can either come with me or when I know that Michael [Douglas] is definitely not working and doing a movie here in New York, this movie “No Reservations,” was great because our home is predominantly Bermuda and even though we were working pretty much everyday, Scott would give us some time off, so I would go home to Bermuda for either a day or they would come and see me. Then my last movie that I completed was during summer break and so they were with me all the time. So that’s the only thing that I think is a balance and more of a struggle than it ever was before in my life.
CS: Aaron, how do you balance your life and career?
Eckhart: I’m always trying to get both of them. When I have one I don’t have the other. I don’t distinguish between the two. I mean they’re just both very pleasurable. I’m single with a girlfriend, and I can go to Romania if she’s not available.
Zeta-Jones: You wouldn’t go without me, Aaron. (laughs)
Eckhart: No, I would go as you.
CS: Catherine, do you have any interest in doing something on Broadway?
Zeta-Jones: In fact, there’s been an influx of offers for me to come back to New York and do some stuff. If I’m going to do it, it’s predominantly musicals and one straight play I got the other day, but if I’m going to do it it’s such a big investment with the rehearsal period and invariably they want you to be in a good portion of the run of the show. So it would have to be something that I’d really want to commit to. On the musical front there’s a revival of this, a revival of that, a revival of this, and it’s kind of like I already did my revival on film and it’s there forever. If there was a fresh new musical then perfect. On the play front I would love to. I just need to find the right piece of material and know that it’s a lot of commitment for me, which means I have to do that logistics thing which I’m really bad at. It’s that organization of where everyone goes and if they’d all move back. It’s always in the cards and I’m happy to have that. I’m very flattered that theater does come my way quite a bit.
No Reservations opens on Friday, July 27, but you can catch sneak previews on Saturday night, July 20 in select cities. Check back next week for our exclusive interview with director Scott Hicks.