Like many of us, writer-director Miranda July grew up with heist movies and TV shows like Mission Impossible, but she didn’t relate to them much. “What Mission Impossible never had was anything that might be relevant for me as a little girl watching it,” she says. “It had nothing to offer women, period.”
So when given the change to write her own caper story Kajillionaire (in theaters only on September 25th), she made the movie she would have watched all those years ago. “It’s an emotional heist story — something that ultimately dealt with parenting and re-parenting and birth and rebirth and love and intimacy,” she says. “That is not the terrain of the heist movie, but I think at the same time, my dedication was real to that genre — up until the very last scene, you are still part of the con.”
July’s first film in nine years since 2011’s The Future, Kajillionaire centers on a family of petty grifters: Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger) and their daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood). Almost Amish in appearance — overly long hair, frumpy outfits — the family lives in a one-room apartment in a bubble factory, where pink foam spills down the walls each day like clockwork.
Their scams are small potatoes — stealing mail, entering contests multiple times — so when they’re forced to come up with the money for several months’ rent, they undertake their biggest long-game “job” yet. Robert and Theresa board a plane, pretending not to know their daughter; then they make off with her bag at the airport, leaving her to collect the cash for missing luggage. In the process, though, they meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a plucky woman who works in an eyeglass store and teams up with the family to rip off her elderly customers. Melanie enchants the family — including (and especially) Old Dolio, almost against her will. It’s a heist movie, of sorts. Yet July’s story, at its heart, is a offbeat look at love, blood bonds, and the family we choose.
Rolling Stone spoke with July about cons, the craft of helping actors find their characters and unexpected connections.
Do you consider this movie to be a love story?
Well, yeah, definitely. It is a love story. Sometimes I think that if Old Dolio had been played by a man, the second Gina’s character entered the movie, you’d know it was a romance. You’d be like, “Oh, pretty woman. They’re going to hate each other then they’re going hook up or whatever.” I tried to treat it like that. If you think this is obvious — which unfortunately it’s not because it’s still a love story that has not been seen a million times — if you treat it like that, it’s obvious from the get-go. It’s in Old Dolio’s repulsion. And yet everything that she does and says sort of betrays how she’s feeling. I wanted to give that to her. I love the idea of this seemingly conventional woman being a knight in shining armor for Old Dolio — just her getting to be loved.
How did you and Evan came to find Old Dolio’s physicality?
I felt like rather than give Evan just physical restraints to try to kind of confine to, it made sense if we figured out where that physicality was coming from intellectually and emotionally. So, we played a little game in my studio where I would ask questions like kind of a therapist. For the first round, she could try to answer them, although Dolio would be totally inarticulate. And that was good. She should be. Then the next round, I told her that she couldn’t use any words in her responses. She could just make sounds, so she became quite guttural — grunts, barely anything.
And then I said: “No sound.” So, this last round you can use your body to answer questions. And so she’d kind of range around the room like an animal and I’d ask her something and she might knock a book off a shelf or whatever. It’s not like she was going to do that [in the movie]. She had a script. But it seemed to get her to a place where anything she did could be informed by that, that interior space that we’ve created.
How about her parents, who were played by Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger? It seems as though they have this mysterious background. How did you work with the actors to conjure that?
I don’t love to add backstory beyond what I made in the movie; hopefully, you wonder that. There’s a scene where they are supposedly sort of revealing more of themselves and talking about their past and sort of describing that they came from at a different time — everyone was like them and maybe it’ll change back again. The very least we know is that there’s some kind of generational divide here. They feel like they made more sense previously and they’re sort of acknowledging that the original context is missing for who they are.
Actors all work differently. For example, Richard Jenkins does not want a backstory — like he doesn’t want to know anything that’s not in the script. Whereas, Debra doesn’t want to make up a story, but instead really sort of dig into the psyche of the person and discuss it. So we hung out for two weeks, just the two of us, before we were fully rehearsing. I’ll just do whatever they want to help them in their process. I did drop these little clues — like, at one point, Debra’s character says, “I have a BA.” I wanted that to be sort of an indication that these people, perhaps there were choices made along the way — they’re not self-righteous outsiders, they were not pushed out, necessarily.
Gina was such a great choice for this movie. Where did you see her first act?
Jane the Virgin. Probably like most people. She was actually the first cast member I had in mind; I don’t think I actually cast her for seven months, but I was more or less writing for her by the time I was finishing the script. I knew she could do it in her sleep, basically.
She was on another movie, so I didn’t have a rehearsal process with her. But that was OK. It wasn’t like a huge physical transformation. The first scene she did was at the baggage carousel. I actually remember, because it was the first time the cast was meeting her and, you know, you’re just nervous — like a party host or something. I remember after the first couple takes, Richard whispered to me, “She’s perfect.” That’s meant a lot coming from him.
Did your characters surprise you at all as you were writing or making the film?
Yeah. All the time. I think that’s the great joy of having characters that you feel like you’re following. I love to write dialogue and because I’m also an actor, I’m acting it out as I’m writing. I especially like the dialogue between Melanie and Robert. It was so funny to me to just imagine those two people even meeting. The reality of those two actors meeting was just comedy gold. I could have watched them all day. We don’t really do much improvisation in my movies, but there’s one little exchange between them that I didn’t write that I just love so much — and they’re not even on camera. [It’s when he says], “There are three bags and two people. You where I’m going with this?” and she says, “Not at all.”
Tell me about the scene where Old Dolio watches the old man they plan to scam die. She seems very capable there, considering how little she knows of life, but also very cold.
I think the things she says, they sound poetic, but they’re pretty brutal. They come from her father. From her point of view, life is nothing. You have to be ready for the big one at any moment. She assumes that when she dies — she didn’t grow too attached to life and that’s the way to do it. Just let go. It’s no big deal. Later, that’s not at all how she feels when she thinks she’s in a similar situation. But it’s an opportunity to see who she is. She’s sweet and has a sense of duty. It doesn’t feel right to her to not sit there. The man has made it clear he doesn’t want to be alone. He wants to have a family around. And while she’s a stranger to him, maybe, in the end, that’s better than nothing.
You mentioned your younger misdeeds. What’s the best scam you ever pulled off?
My friends and I did the luggage [scam]. That’s where I got it. I’m not proud of that. I don’t condone it. I think it always stuck in my mind because you pretend to be strangers with someone you know well known enough to do this game with — and that just always had narrative possibility to me. I’m definitely not going to incriminate myself, though.