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Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon Go ‘Missing’

The actor and actress take on the challenge of playing real-life characters

Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Missing

Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek in a scene from the film 'Missing' in 1982.

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Dad, you can’t imagine what it’s like down here. It’s like scenes from ‘Z.’ — Charles Horman in a letter to his father, Ed, 1973

The nervy, delicate commingling of art, politics and personal concerns that makes Missing so powerful is not solely the creation of Costa-Gavras. The film’s stars —Sissy Spacek, Jack Lemmon and John Shea — each responded to the complicated challenge of portraying real-life characters in conflict with one another and the nation around them with different but equally effective strategies.

Both Joyce and Ed Horman, the wife and father of Charles Horman, whose disappearance during the Chilean coup of 1973 forms the basis of the film, were eager to cooperate with the actors portraying them. But Costa-Gavras instructed Spacek and Lemmon not to meet their real-life analogues until the movie was nearly completed. “Costa felt that it was eight years later for Joyce,” says Spacek, whose character is named Beth, “and that the experience in Chile had changed her. He was afraid I might be working on a character that didn’t exist anymore.”

Nevertheless, the decision troubled Spacek, at least initially. “It was just…it would have been interesting for me to pick up little personality traits, things that wouldn’t have been that important, really, to the film or my interpretation, but just as an actress.”

“It was actually less inhibiting to me,” says Lemmon, who says he approached his role as Ed Horman no differently than he’d approach a part in a Neil Simon movie. “The only difference is on the level of playing; in comedy there’s the concern of timing, et cetera. But as for the politics, I never thought about them. Not once.”

Not so for Spacek, who took Spanish lessons, pored through texts on the period from 1972 to 1973 and studied films of the overthrow of Allende. “I watched some documentary footage of the coup, and there were just horrible atrocities taking place. But I felt like American audiences do when they watch the news; there’s a distance, it’s something very impersonal.”

What broke the emotional ice for the thirty-two-year-old actress, who by her own admission was “totally oblivious” to the events in South America before beginning die film? Spacek says it was a short filmic study of the life of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara. Police arrested Jara in the early days of the coup and reportedly broke his hands so that he wouldn’t be able to play the guitar; when he began singing in jail to his fellow prisoners, he was executed.

“When I saw that film, I was really so moved by it. Because I saw a man and his family, and his wife was talking, and there were pictures of his children growing up, and you heard his music. And then you found out what happened to him. It made me really aware of the impact Missing could have.”

Shea, who had been on the debating team in high school and college, also immersed himself in the political literature of the period. But like Spacek, he found himself drawn to the intuitive, emotional aspects of his character.

“Sissy and I spent three or four days together before we started shooting,” recalls Shea. “We just sort of moved into our house there; Costa let us make that house our own. And I would sit at the desk there and write poetry or stuff like that, and Sissy would put on records and read a book in the living room. The refrigerator was stocked with food, and the stove really worked. And no one else was around — just the two of us. It was like we lived there.

“So when it came time to shoot, Costa knocked on the door and said, ‘Hi, remember me?'”

“Costa reminded me slightly of John Ford,” says Lemmon, “in the sense of throwing the actor, but in a healthy way. Every now and then, he would tell somebody, but not me, that something was going to happen. The very first scene that I shot was in a garden; I’m talking with a kid who was picked up. A maid is serving tea, they’re playing tennis in the background — but there’s a revolution going on.

“What he didn’t tell me is that he was going to shoot off some guns in the distance. So nobody paid any attention, but I, naturally, reacted to it. I realized what he was doing as it happened, but he got that sense of disbelief: that disconcerting aspect to things that people who live there would take for granted but that an American would be stunned by.”

It’s that combination of the politically powerful and the personally moving that Spacek feels gives the movie its sock. “It’s a powerful film because it comes from an emotional level, and I think that’s the best way to reach people in this country. You best affect Americans by tapping them on the shoulder, not by hitting them over the head. We’re quick to respond in a negative way to people who come on too aggressively.”

Though Spacek has no plan to adopt a higher political profile in the near future (“I don’t want to spread myself too thin, have people saying, ‘Oh, she’s gone political on us'”), she says that the making of Missing indeed changed her life. “It was kind of like opening Pandora’s box. I can’t really stick my head in the sand anymore.”

Since the film’s completion, both Spacek and Lemmon have grown close with the persons they portrayed. “I don’t think Ed Horman could be dishonest if his life depended on it,” says Lemmon with evident respect. “At the end of one interview, the moderator asked him, ‘Do you feel bitter toward these people?’ And Ed said, ‘No, I don’t feel bitter. And I don’t dislike them. What I dislike are some of the things that people can do’ And then he said, ‘My hope is that after this film, some of those things won’t be done again.’ And whoa, boy — Christ, I damn near cried.” 

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