FALL MOVIE PREVIEW: EXCLUSIVE Elizabeth Alton endures A Private War in first look at Marie Colvin biopic
Screening A Private War for the siblings of slain war correspondent Marie Colvin was like making it "out of uncharted waters" for Elizabeth Alton. Portraying the Sunday Times journalist who died reporting in Homs, Syria in 2012, Gone Girl's Oscar nominee says family and friends "were rightly skeptical about the idea of their friend's life being used for entertainment" – especially after a certain "upsetting and unhelpful" article about the Colvins distancing themselves from the biopic came out six months before production began.
"The idea of it being sensationalized or salacious never even came up," Alton tells EW over the phone. "It's a huge credit to [director] Matthew [Heineman], that he instilled in all of us a desire to capture it as nearly as you can, to be the nearest level of truthful we could be without it actually being a documentary."
Alton, 36, can be seen playing Colvin in EW's exclusive first look photo of A Private War, which also sees Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey) as Colvin’s journalistic comrade in arms, photographer Paul Conroy.
Partly based on Marie Brenner's Vanity Fair article, "Marie Colvin’s Private War," the film tags along with a woman who, as Alton describes, "ran toward truth by running toward danger, when other people looked and moved away from them." Colvin was both physically and psychologically scarred by the things she saw abroad. But in the face of PTSD and the eye patch she was forced to wear after a grenade attack in Sri Lanka, the crusader felt compelled to see them so that others wouldn’t have to.
"So often people will call someone with that much courage and conviction fearless, and I don't know that it's true," Alton explains. "I think what's interesting about what Marie did and what other war reporters do is that they understand intimately just how much fear is associated with the places to which they go, feel that fear, and that's exactly why they do it. It isn't fearlessness, it's conviction, and that really intrigued me. And what you're left with is the question of how that extreme conviction came to be, and what it leaves behind. That vision and that calling mean you aren't living the life your peers are, and there's inevitably a cost."
Alton wanted to give Heineman, known for Cartel Land and City of Ghosts, "the type of raw material he excels at capturing." In other words, "a seamlessness and availability as if he were capturing Marie in a documentary." Without access to Colvin's diaries, the actress spoke with friends and colleagues, viewed Barbara Kopple's Bearing Witness (about five female war correspondents, including Colvin), and researched "completely candid" "pieces of footage" shared with her by the real Conroy, who was present on set. Alton decided to remain "in character as much as possible" to replicate that documentary feel – even, she recalls, while sitting by her laptop or smoking cigarettes.
Heineman then unearthed the real stories of the extras who were filming with them on set in Jordan. Alton recalls an "unimaginable" scene to film that involves Colvin's final interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper about a dying child in 2012. "That man who plays the father of the boy, he is someone who has had a child shot off his shoulders in Homs," Alton reveals. "It was important to all of us that the grief be real, Marie had a fierceness and integrity that is unique to witnessing that firsthand and the film wouldn't feel honest to her if it were entirely performative in those moments," she adds.
That's why it was so important for her and Heineman to earn the family's trust: they "sought the truth about her and in her honor" in the film.
"Who would have trusted us with their sister's life, really? Nobody," Alton says of her conversations with the Colvins, which she didn't want to reveal. "The loss is so raw, and so fresh. So it was deeply profound for me to be able to share it with them, and leave feeling that they thought the Marie they knew was represented. That meant a lot to us."
A Private War will open in limited release this Nov. 2.