To any passerby in Toronto during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, Reese Witherspoon is the clear draw in The Good Lie. Despite the deeper story—a fictionalized retelling of the Lost Boys of Sudan, as seen through the eyes of four Sudanese immigrants coming to America—the actress graces the film’s poster and is garnering early Oscar buzz for her supporting role as Carrie, the employment worker who winds up being their lifeline. It doesn’t hurt that the film is one of two such headline-grabbing projects starring the actress currently screening at TIFF (Wild is the other), prompting some outlets to declare this upcoming awards circuit the Reesaissance or a Reese-surgence.
According to the Oscar winner, it’s all just strategy to have this story brought to the largest audience possible. Witherspoon herself doesn’t appear in the film until just past the 30-minute mark, which helps bond audiences to the incredible story of these four siblings who overcome war in Sudan, the 800-odd mile trek for asylum in Ethiopia, years at a refugee camp, and the eventual journey to America. The same hardships that feel upon some 20,000 Nuer and Dinka boys who were lost or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War between 1983 and 2005.
“(Director Philippe Falardeau) wasn’t making a movie about an American who comes in to save the day for a bunch of Sudanese refugees,” Witherspoon tells reporters at a TIFF press conference. “It was really their story. From the very first meeting he said to me—I’ve never had a director say this to me!—he goes, ‘I really like you and I respect you Reese, but this movie has nothing to do with you. It’s all about the Sudanese people.’ And I loved that.”
“We knew if we wanted to bring this to a wider audience, they would expect that American angle, that American perspective on this story, which the character of Carrie (Witherspoon) brings,” Falardeau adds. “Bringing her character in after 35 minutes was something new. I remember telling her, ‘Hitchcock kills his star after 30 minutes into Psycho; I’m going to introduce you after 30 minutes.’”
For the Sudanese actors in the film who experienced the refugee camps firsthand, Falardeau’s vision and the sheer amount of research that screenplay Margaret Nagle put into the script made them want to be a part of it—on screen or off.
“When I read this script I couldn’t finish it, because my journey was very long before I came to the United States,” Ger Duany, who portrays religious brother Jeremiah in the film, says. “I was among the kids that really walked to Ethiopia by foot. It was a long walk. We never thought that we were going to have something to offer to the world, we were just looking for help. It made so much sense for me to work with people who kept this story close to their heart. I couldn’t wait to be a part of it. But if I had to help with another aspect, I was ready, too.”
Musician Emmanuel Jal, whose songs are featured in the film, was able to finish the script, although after that first reading he could only stick to his parts because it was too painful to recreate those memories. Originally he wasn’t going to act onscreen at all, preferring to leave the tortured character of Paul to seasoned actors, but the production team eventually convinced him otherwise.
“It’s like I was reading my own story,” he remembers. It’s like I’m reading the story of south Sudanese, it’s like I’m reading the story of the people who got involved in that struggle. I’m used to telling my story through music. This is a different form of art; I have to relive it. You’re talking about homes burned down, you’re talking about helicopters and all those things I’ve experienced during that time. I only stuck to the parts that I was supposed to act in because I kind of knew the story was a bad one.”
To be clear, Falardeau maintains that this is not a war story, it is one of relationships and the need for a family—blood or otherwise—to stick together in order to survive. “If you want to go fast, go alone,” reads an African proverb during the film. “If you want to go far, go together.”
“I’m just grateful that Hollywood tried to turn around and tell our story,” Duany wraps. “This is our responsibility to really share something with everybody. We’re grateful.”