For Sandra Bullock, making the hypnotic space thriller Gravity was an incredible but demanding journey.
Imagine being stuck for hours each day in a 9ft-by- 9ft cube, elevated 25 feet above the ground, wearing what is essentially a white leotard covering everything but your face and surrounded on all sides by bright LED lights. Your only connection to the outside world? An earpiece emitting strange, atmospheric sounds, or the occasional voice telling you to move your head three centimetres to the left. That was Sandra Bullock’s life for much of Gravity, writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s mesmerising space odyssey in which two astronauts find themselves in desperate peril after an exploding satellite sets off a devastating chain reaction.
Because getting in and out of the light cube was no easy feat, staying put became the best solution. “It was a weird relationship that I had with that cube,” says the 49-year-old actress. “I had to find a way to make solitary confinement something that helped the role and also helped me at the end of the day.”
Bullock’s isolation chamber, constructed at Shepperton Studios, was one of several gruelling and complicated methodologies that went into realising Cuarón’s eye-popping vision for Gravity, which creates the black silence and weightlessness of space in a way that’s never been seen before. What’s astonishing to realise is that any time Bullock and co-star George Clooney, as mission commander Matt Kowalsky, are seen outside the shuttle or other orbiting craft, the only ‘real’ thing the audience will be viewing is their faces. Bullock labels Gravity’s game-changing advancements “crazy technology” – and she’s right.
She stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, a newbie astronaut who, unlike Clooney’s veteran, isn’t enjoying space travel all that much. When the debris hits the fan, Stone has to summon all of her instincts to survive. If she faced her share of challenges on Earth (the death of a four-year-old daughter), those she encounters in space are truly overwhelming.
“I’ve played characters who are heavy, mood-wise, but never as the lead,” observes Bullock, who brings a pixie-ish haircut and fiercely toned body to the role of a woman who doesn’t want to be reminded of her femininity. “I had to put myself in the head-space of what it feels like to have lost a child and cut yourself off, become just a brain dedicated to work, and then have to relive the whole tragedy, And then at the end of the day, you go home and do your laundry? Yeah, basically. It’s a funky profession that we have.” Besides the cube, the actress also endured hours of painful wirework, often wearing a super-thin carbon-fibre mould modelled on her torso, to convey the impression of zero gravity in spacecraft interiors. And, of course, oxygen ends up in short supply in Gravity, requiring Bullock to gasp her way frequently to the point of hyperventilation. “I was like, God, I’m killing so many brain cells!,” she says. “You’d have to get to that point of passing out because the breath was almost like the soundtrack.”
Bullock was willing to put herself through one of the toughest shoots she’s ever endured for the opportunity to work with Cuarón years. “Alfonso’s the only reason,” says Bullock of the decision to choose Gravity as her first major role after winning the Best Actress Oscar for The Blind Side. She praises the “mind-blowing surprise” in the Mexican director’s features, which include Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002), Children Of Men (2006) and Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban (2004). His latest, which he co-wrote with son Jonas, features several mind-blowing set-pieces of its own. In one, Bullock and Clooney are tethered together in a desperate, oxygen-depleting race to a disused Russian space station, colliding against each other as the terrifying sea of satellite debris re-enters their orbit.
“George and I were never bouncing off each other,” smiles Bullock. “We would physically perform the motions, the swinging and the grabbing, in tiny little pieces. ‘Your legs are banging against this!’ So you do that for half a day, and you go to the next set: ‘This is where you fly up and grab the latch’. Then they sew it all together and animate your bodies.”
Fortunately for Bullock, all that effort didn’t go to waste. Gravity opened the Venice Film Festival to gushing reviews and has marched to the front of the awards-season queue, as well as confirming what we already knew: that given a role like Stone, Bullock is one of Hollywood’s most convincing and empathetic actresses. She wholly embraced Gravity’s message of finding self-belief where none seemingly exists.
“That’s a theme that resonates with every person on this planet, I think,” she states. “The debris in the film is everyone’s debris and adversity. We’re all going to get hit with it at different times in our lives. It’s how you navigate through it without getting lost.”