He found her in Sandra Bullock, whom producer David Heyman calls “a brilliant actor working at the height of her powers. She brought such truth and conviction to her performance.”
In the film, Ryan Stone (Bullock) is a brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) in command. But on a seemingly routine mission, disaster strikes. The shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalski completely alone—tethered to nothing but each other and spiraling out into the blackness. The deafening silence tells them they have lost any link to Earth…and any chance for rescue. As fear turns to panic, every gulp of air eats away at what little oxygen is left. But the only way home may be to go further out into the terrifying expanse of space.
When we meet Mission Specialist Ryan Stone, she is all business, concentrating on the task at hand and not engaging in the playful exchange between the other astronauts and Mission Control. Even Matt Kowalski’s unending tall stories—all-too-familiar to those back in Houston—fail to distract Ryan as she works to implement her new scanning system on the Hubble Telescope. However, her focus and detachment are not driven by the job but by a personal tragedy.
“Ryan suffered a devastating loss,” says Bullock. “When I started delving into the character, I had to ask myself what I would do, and I’d probably do exactly the same thing she did. She withdrew. When Alfonso and I started talking about the character, it was clear we shared an understanding of her and also had the same questions. Why do we retreat when tragedy strikes, when being with others is what can save you? How often are we hit by life and won’t ask for help? In a way, what Ryan goes through is a compelling allegory for ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ She wanted to be alone and she got it.”
“One of the major themes of the film is that element of isolation,” Cuarón relates. “But it can be very scary for an actor to spend huge chunks of screen time on her own, not interacting with another human being. Sandra and I had many discussions about finding the balance between what she would say or not say, or by what actions she would express what Ryan is feeling. We agreed there should be a level of ambiguity to her character, but we also needed to anchor her emotionally. I think Sandra dug into some really dark corners to deliver what she did in her performance. I was more than thrilled and extremely grateful to her.”
Bullock has equal praise for her director. “It was the most collaborative experience I’ve ever had. I’ve admired Alfonso for so long, but working with him exceeded all my expectations. He is a master filmmaker and collaborator, who makes everyone around him want to give their best. He’s also an extraordinary human being…I mean, someone who is not involved emotionally, philosophically and spiritually could not have made something so profound.”
While aspects of her character evolved through Bullock’s conversations with the director, there were several constants that remained, beginning with Ryan being female. Co-screenwriter Jonás Cuarón says, “It was always important to us that the central character be a woman, because we felt there was an understated but vital correlation of her being a maternal presence against the backdrop of Mother Earth.”
Apart from that, the screenwriters needed Ryan to be an untested astronaut, who was there for her scientific expertise. “She, of course, had some training,” Jonás notes, “but she is a mission specialist, not a pilot, so when the shuttle is destroyed, she is unprepared to deal with such an extreme situation.”
Opening across the Philippines in Oct. 3 in IMAX 3D, Digital 3D, 2D and regular theatres, “Gravity” is distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment company.