Carla Gugino has played her fair share of comic book characters, in films such as “Watchmen,” “Sin City” and “Man of Steel.” She’s broached the disaster and sci-fi genres, respectively, with “San Andreas” and “The Space Between Us.” So, when Gugino received the script for “Wolves,” from director Bart Freundlich, she was eager to tackle the role of Jenny Keller, a woman with both feet planted firmly on the ground.
While much has been made of Gugino’s appearance — all smoldering beauty and curves — “Wolves,” an IFC film opening Friday in theaters and on-demand, shows a different side of the actress as an earthy and vulnerable mother, who’ll do anything to protect her son.
Newbie Taylor John Smith delivers a breakout performance as New York City parochial school senior Anthony, who will be recruited by Cornell University, if his basketball team can just clinch the championship.
Dad Lee (Michael Shannon) spirals deeper into a dangerous gambling addiction, placing increasingly larger wagers, even on his son’s games.
“The people felt very real and resonated with me,” Gugino said. “I was taken with the script’s authenticity of how these human beings were drawn. I was intrigued by a smart, accomplished woman who’s complicit, and who sometimes is weak and other times is strong.”
On the surface, the Keller family seems fine. Lee is a professor at a city college, Jenny sells expensive clothing at Jeffrey New York, and Anthony has a girlfriend and other friends. One of the most highly anticipated films at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, the low-budget independent film’s vérité quality is heightened by scenes shot at the famous Sixth Avenue pick-up courts in Greenwich Village and a gymnasium where you can almost feel the sticky bleachers and smell the sweat wafting through the air.
Jenny sacrifices for the family — one night, it’s sushi, and then, it’s revealed that she may have given up a career to keep the family financially sound. “If there’s danger, a mother’s first instinct is to protect the home,” Gugino said. “The mother-son relationship is so powerful. She has an interesting dynamic with her son. They’re a team in a way.”
An awkward moment Gugino decided to heighten is a bathroom scene, where Anthony wraps a towel around his torso after showering. Jenny practically bursts into the bathroom, she dabs Anthony’s forehead, where an object hurled by Lee has left a cut. For a second, you wonder if the unthinkable will happen.
“I asked Bart [who also wrote ‘Wolves,’] if the scene in the bathroom should have a slight sexual connotation,” Gugino said. “A boy becomes a man and becomes sexualized. The complication of where the line is drawn is muddy.”
Jenny’s instinct to shield Anthony becomes fiercer as Lee’s problems mount. “When you have an alcoholic or addict, everyone is servicing the sick person so all of the family dynamics are built around that dysfunction,” Gugino said, adding that the line that crystalized Jenny is when she quotes her grandmother to a drunken Lee: “I might not know when I’ve had enough, but I always know when I’ve had too much.”
“I love doing big movies and telling a story on a larger scale, but there’s something very special about a process like this and working with someone who’s an auteur,” Gugino said. “Bart creates a very safe place for you to emotionally jump off a cliff. In a movie like this, you want to jump off a cliff and embarrass yourself.”
By her own account, Gugino was controlling as a child and young adult. A straight-A student, “I was always looking for order,” she said. “My mom would say, ‘Go play.’”
Born in Sarasota, Fla., Gugino had kidney surgery when she was four years old. The following year, she moved with her mother to Paradise, Calif., where they lived in a teepee. That peripatetic gypsy lifestyle was in contrast to her father’s Florida home, which had a pool and tennis court. “I lived in Sarasota, then California, then moved back to Florida and then back to California,” she said.
Gugino enrolled in the John Robert Powers modeling school in La Jolla and was recruited by Elle Petite in Manhattan. “I was such a California crunchy granola kid and New York terrified me.” Some instrumental advice from her aunt, former “Let’s Make a Deal” model Carol Merrill, put her on the right course: acting classes and emancipation at age 16 “just so my parents wouldn’t have to come to the set all the time.”
More than 30 years later, Gugino is as passionate about acting as she ever was. Her 20-year relationship with Sebastian Gutierrez has never been prone to drama. While they’re not married, the actress considers herself the stepmother of his 21- and 23-year-old children.
Gugino, who starred in theater productions of “The Road to Mecca” in 2011, and “Desire Under the Elms” in 2009, would like to do more theater. “I love the ritual of walking to the theater,” said the actress, who lives in Manhattan.
“There’s always room for more interesting female characters in movies,” she said. “When I was in my early to mid-Twenties, there were no good roles. I couldn’t wait to turn 30 and then 40. Cute-eyed candy-girl roles never interested me.”
Gugino this year will be seen in “Gerald’s Game,” based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. “It’s a psychological thriller in the vein of “Misery,” said the actress, whose character is handcuffed to a bed.
“I’ve never been interested in branding myself,” she said. “I just want to disappear into roles.”