Interview: The Real Philomena Lee

Posted on February 7, 2014 at 3:47 pm

Philomena Lee is a retired psychiatric nurse who lived quietly with her family in England until a search for the son taken away from her and adopted by Americans led to a  book by journalist Martin Sixsmith (Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search) and a movie starring Judi Dench and co-screenwriter Steve Coogan.  Since the movie came out, Lee has devoted herself to helping change the laws in the UK so adoptees and their birth mothers can find each other if they want to.  When she came to Washington, D.C. with her daughter, I spoke to them about this project and why it was important to her to forgive the nuns who abused her.

Have any of the other women whose babies were taken away found their children?

I wouldn’t know, we honestly wouldn’t know because when I was in the home, you had to lose your identity, you had to forget your own name. I wasn’t Philomena Lee anymore. We were all given what they called a house name and my name was Marsella. So I didn’t even knew then they name of many of them, they were just called by, it could be , Mary , Kate, Annie or something.  So I was just known as Marsella and they would have known me as Marsella. They wouldn’t have known me as my home name which is Philomena Lee.

Have you heard from many of the adoptees and mothers who gave up their children for adoption?

People’s enquiry is usually “Did you remember my mother? Did you know my mother?” And of course I didn’t know any of them at all really. And this is why we started the project last week in Ireland, The Adoption Alliance, so that the mums that are trying to find their babies will be given the right do so.  At the moment in Ireland, it’s not law , they don’t have to be told anything. So the women are trying to get the right to be able to find out who their mom was, who their dad was. 

Philomena’s daughter added: Yes, we’ve heard from hundreds of people, people have come up to us in the cinemas and things like those, have come us to us physically, we’ve had lots and lots of contact, people sending us messages, people have left message on the graves, all sorts of things which is the reason we started The Philomena Project really and the awareness that people who don’t have an automatic right to information and trying to get that changed if we can.  It’s to have a place for them to go or a website for them to go so they know how to go about starting that if they want to because many of them won’t know where to look in the first place. And for that reason we would like to change the legislation and that is ultimately what we would like as a result of this.

One of the most powerful moments in the film is when you say to the nun who not only abused you and took your son but thwarted your efforts to find him and his efforts to find you.  Why do you think forgiveness is so important?

I was very unforgiving in the very early stages after I eventually left after the adoption, I eventually worked in a boys school in Liverpool from Ireland to England and I was so sad and so hurt and so I was in an unforgiving frame of mind at the time.   But then after a couple of years I left Liverpool and went down south to a place in London. I worked in a psychiatric hospital for 30 years and over the years I’ve been working in the psychiatric hospital I can assure you, you can see life as life is more often than not. So I gradually and gradually saw so much sorrow and hurt that was caused through anger. So I was able to release my anger gradually and start forgiving again so that’s how it is.

And I do forgive because I’ve lived to sixty one last year and so it’s a long time to live.  My son grew up in a lovely home, had an education ended up happy so I’m happy about that and I’m able to put some closure on this because at last I found him. For my whole life all I ever wanted to do was to find him.

Of course he was looking for me, as well.  He went over three times to the home where he was born and they wouldn’t give him any information.   They said no one knew of me and I was looking for him  and so my brother lived at the same home we lived since I was eight years old.  He was only an hour away and they wouldn’t give him the address. When I moved to England several times I sent my new addresses but I never got any answer back so they never took it. They had told him that I abandoned him at two weeks old.  But I was in the home for three and a half years and I wrote him and developed a very close bond with him.

You know at three he was a lovely, friendly, intelligent boy and I certainly believe because he looked for me so much straight on he did remember me. I wondered all the time and prayed that I would find him and eventually Martin Sixsmith, who was the correspondent in Washington managed to get all the information.  Martin called all of his friends and his partner and his partner gave us so much information and they did have a good amount of time together; 15 years together and they were very happy together and he loved him very much and that put my heart at ease when I knew that he tried to find be because I know that he remembered me.

I always thought it was good to have a close bond. He was really such a lovely little boy; such a loving little boy you know. As they say, at least I found him and he will always be within my own heart.  It was very good to know that he had a good life and he was a happy man and he had happy friends and I am happy about that because I knew he was happy, I found out he was happy.   He did request when he knew he was dying that one day if anything happens “please bring my ashes back and have me buried where I was born.”  And now I can visit his grave.

When I first saw the film, I didn’t know what to think but who would ask for more?


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Interview The Real Story

The Real Story: Philomena

Posted on January 27, 2014 at 8:00 am

“Philomena,” star Dame Judi Dench, screenwriters Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, and composer Alexandre Desplat are all nominated for Oscars this year.  It is the real-life story of Philomena Lee, who joined Coogan at the Golden Globes as a presenter earlier this month and spoke with great dignity about the women, like her, who were mistreated by the Magdalene sisters and forced to give up their babies for adoption.

In the movie, Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a journalist who helped Philomena find out what happened to her son, who was adopted by Americans.    The Daily Mail has an interview and some photos of Philomena and Michael.

Philomena’s story is complex and harrowing, and yet the first thing that strikes you about Philomena herself is that she bears no rancour. She’s seen the film twice, she tells me, ‘and the first time was stressful, but the second time I enjoyed it, and I was so glad that they didn’t harp on about the Catholic church because I wouldn’t have wanted that’.

In Politico, writer Todd Purdum provides some additional information about the boy Philomena called Anthony Lee, and who was renamed Michael Anthony Hess when he was adopted at age 3.  As shown in the movie, an American couple intended to adopt a little girl named Mary, to whom Anthony was devoted.  Impulsively, they decided to take him, too.

Half a century later, Sixsmith brought Philomena to Washington, D.C., to find out what happened to him.  He had become a lawyer, served as chief legal counsel to the Republican National Committee, and died of AIDS in 1995.  His close friends knew he was gay, but he was not out in his professional life.  Before he died, he made two trips to Ireland to try to find his mother, and his last request was to be buried at the convent where he was born.

Steve Dahllof, Hess’s partner for the last 15 years of his life, said in a telephone interview that the book was “about a three out of 10, in terms of accuracy,” while the movie, “in accuracy of spirit, is 10 out of 10.”

While the abuses of the Magdalene sisters in the 1950’s are documented, the movie has been criticized for its portrayal of the contemporary nuns and heightening some of the scenes for dramatic effect.


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Spoiler Alert The Real Story


Posted on November 24, 2013 at 8:40 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 on appeal for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references
Profanity: Very strong, frank, and explicit language for a PG-13
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Sad deaths and abuse
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, issue of anti-gay bigotry is discussed
Date Released to Theaters: November 22, 2013
Date Released to DVD: April 14, 2014 ASIN: B00GSBMNOQ

Philomena-dench-movieDame Judi Dench has played many strong-minded, determined characters, from Queens (Victoria and Elizabeth I) to the even more imperious head of the MI6 who can take on James Bond with an air of crisp authority.  As the title character in “Philomena,” she shows us the radiance and inner core of strength in a woman we might otherwise find easy to overlook.

Martin Sixsmith (co-screenwriter Steve Coogan) underestimates her at first, too.  Sixsmith is a journalist-turned politician smarting from a public humiliation after he was fired for something he did not do.  He gets little sympathy from those around him and it seems clear that being aggrieved has only fed his sense of superiority, isolation, and entitlement.  He mutters something about writing a book on Russian history, though he realizes no one is very interested in reading it.  When he meets a young Irish woman who offers him her mother’s story of a half-century search for the son she was forced to give up for adoption, his first reaction is a haughty, “I don’t do human interest stories.”  The truth is, he is not really interested in humans, in part because they have not done a very good job of being interested in him.

Sixsmith did eventually write some books about Russia.  But first he decided to give human interest a try.  The result was Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search.

When she was a teenager, Philomena (Dench) became pregnant and her parents sent her to the now-notorious Magdalene Sisters workhouse.  The girls were forced to work for years to pay (financially and spiritually) for their sins.  The abused and underage girls also signed away all of their rights to their babies, including access to information about where they were placed.  Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark as a young woman) was working in the laundry when her son was taken from her and adopted by an American family.  For half a century, as she became a nurse, married, and had more children, she missed him and worried about him.  Sixsmith found an editor to pay him to write the story, covering expenses for a trip to America to see if they could track him down.  She hopes the story will have some lurid details.  “Evil is good — story-wise, I mean….It’s got to be really happy or really sad.”

Coogan knows he is at his best playing slightly high-strung, slightly self-involved guys who are too smart for the room and usually end up outsmarting themselves (see “The Trip”).   It is especially satisfying to watch his character go from irritation to respect and then affection.  There’s a reason the movie is named for her.  Philomena is a surprise.  If she has awful taste in books and movies, it is because she has the gift of being able to be pleased.  When it comes to the big things, she is refreshingly clear-eyed and open-minded.  And  she understands what it takes to not let anyone make you a victim.

More improbable than any fictional story would dare to be, the journey taken by Philomena and Sixsmith is bittersweet and ultimately transcendent.  Performances by Dench and Coogan of great sensitivity illuminate this story of a quiet heroine and the man who was lucky enough to learn from her.

Parents should know that this movie was initially rated R and then given a PG-13 on appeal.  It concerns young teenagers put in a home for out-of-wedlock pregnancies and forced to give up their babies for adoption and there is frank discussion of sex and a childbirth scene, the abuse of the young women by the nuns who ran the home, and the life of a character as a closeted gay man.  Characters use very strong and explicit language and there is some drinking.

Family discussion: Why did Martin and Philomena feel differently about forgiveness?  Did she find what she was looking for?

If you like this, try: “The Magdalene Sisters” and “The Trip”

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Interview: Steve Coogan of “Philomena”

Posted on November 22, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Steve Coogan co-wrote and stars in “Philomena,” based on the true story of an Irish woman searching for the son she gave up for adoption fifty years earlier.  As an unwed pregnant teenager she was sent to a convent-run home.  Her son was taken from her and adopted by an American family.  A journalist whose background was in political reporting and had never done a “human interest” story helped her find out what happened to her son.  Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, the journalist, and Philomena is radiantly played by Dame Judi Dench.  Coogan and I chatted about his real-life experiences with Philomena and Dame Judi.

I saw in the New York Times that you are a fan of the classic British comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets.

I like it because it’s very, very British. Knowing that in cinema today, the Americans are all pervasive, and even if you make good films, if your film won’t work in America, then it’s not going to work, period. And it’s nice to do films that work in America not because you’ve made it like that but because it just happens that it’s going to work there. It’s one of the films that I watch on a rainy afternoon. It has a kind of soft twinkle in its eyes. It’s about a man murdering all the people in line between him and the Duke. And the idea that you actually like that man. It’s just a real achievement to make an audience like this pompous man. Somehow it’s like counter-intuitive. And there’s this dark humor and it’s funny, it has this sort of mischievousness.

Tell me about taking on the challenge of both a true story and a book, and adapting it into a movie.philomena

I was involved in a lot of comedy, and frequently comedy is is smart, but is also cynical. It seems to me that so many movies these days have a streak of cynicism in them. But it’s like that’s for the masses and you can’t have an intelligent movie that says something constructive and sincere. And sincerity seems to me, is in very short supply in films. The cynicism and irony, if you like, is a refuge, actually, ultimately, it’s quite a cowardly thing. I wanted to see if I could do something that’s the most avant-garde thing you can think of. The only 4 letter word left, that is, a profanity is the word “love.” And I really want to do something, a film, that there was about something sad and tragic, but I want to do something that added without something pretentious, added just a little, a tiny amount to the sum total of human happiness, rather than something that is bleak.

To me the most powerful moment in the movie is when she says “I forgive you” and your character says “I don’t.”

My background is I was raised a Catholic. A very large family. I’m not religious now, but the values that I was given for my background from people who are still religious in my life are important to me. I don’t think there’s a contradiction but to me this is a duality and I wanted to challenge my own cynicism this way through the movie. And also in my anger toward the church as an institution, I didn’t want to castigate people of simple faith. My parents are people like that. I respect them. They are good people. My parents’ foster children, they are very kind, good people basically, but all have their faults, they’re not perfect but they’re basically good people. I wanted to dignify those kind of people. All these scandals that have engulfed the Catholic Church in particular, sometimes, I’ve forgotten that it’s all those ordinary people, unremarkable people who lead quiet dignified lives, and they are not sexy. Through Philomena, I want to dignify that. I want to show both sides, show some balance. I spoke to Philomena, I spoke to Martin, to find out where they were coming from. I put a lot of myself into Martin. Philomena’s character, we exaggerated the comedy of her, she’s a little bit eccentric, but not as quite as dirty as the Philomena in the movie. That was cranked up a little. And there were a lot of old Irish women like that, so I don’t mind the audience being, sometimes you can leave the audience at the dark and invite them to judge her the way Martin judges her.

She keeps surprising you which is one of the lovely things in the film. She seems very parochial and with narrow experience but she is quite open and frank about the prospect that her son might be gay.

I saw some comments that were saying, she wouldn’t be so laid back about Martin being gay. I asked her to her face, “Did it bother you?” She said, “I was a nurse. I worked with a lots of guys who were gay. It didn’t really bother me. And in fact I kind of thought he might have been.” So it was like, “Okay, I’ll put that in the story.” And I also said to her, “Do you forgive them for what they did to you?” That’s where I got the idea of, and I said “Do you forgive them?” She said, “Yes I do. Her daughter sat next to her and said, “I don’t.” And I thought that was really interesting. If you’re very pious in the sights of others, you can’t demand that everyone forgives everyone. It’s not a thing you can prescribe, it’s up to individuals. But I always thought the audience would not be in the mood and so I had to give them a moment and that when Martin’s very angry. But also, it’s a conversation and it’s in the ebb and flows that I wanted Martin to show that the other conversation we’re having is not just about those who are religious and those who are non-religious but also the idea of intellect versus intuition and to show that how very important learning and enlightenment are. I want to show that even with all that intellect, he still learns something from the intuition of an old Irish lady.

And here you are in the road again, as in your wonderful movie The Trip.

That was just accidental, I didn’t realize that there’s a lot of scenes with me and Judi in a car. It was kind of accidental really. But what was good was it meant that they were forced to be together.

In my state as a writer, you sort of get bored with just writing comedy for its own sake. It’s very enjoyable but it’s a visceral pleasure, comedy. It’s really enjoyable and you get it right, it’s great, you laugh, and all these endorphins, it’s wonderful. But actually, I just thought, I want to talk about something that is about something. Why can’t I do something that’s about something of substance, and put comedy in it because I think reality is more like that anyway. People laugh at funerals, they do in the wake, or they talk about people, they want to laugh. They are talking about the person who has died, they tell funny stories about him, it’s totally human, it’s not an odd thing. You always see funerals in movies, everyone’s dressed in black, and always very somber, and they walk away with umbrellas. Actually people in wakes they don’t stand there in the rain, people laugh.

To me it was not completely real or truthful. But I also knew it was a way of making a film serious about, more palatable and not worthy to talk about things of substance, doesn’t mean you have to go “oh boy, do I have to do that now?” It’s like when you look at a menu of movies these days, you think I want to watch that film but…I want to make that films that I should go out to see. A film I want to go and see.

I also saw a similarity to your other film this year, What Maisie Knew. Once again, you’re playing someone who knows he can be an insensitive cad.

I like to do work which has the potential to fail. That almost, by definition, that makes it interesting. Rather than I have to do this easily. I always don’t know how to do that thing, of doing a character who has total integrity. Which is, I mean people like Harrison Ford, he’s not going to do something despicable just because of the baggage he carries. And George Clooney certainly has that, doesn’t he? But I don’t know, I actually think that’s harder because it’s more interesting when you’re trying to struggle, trying to conceal something or trying to project something. It’s to get teeth more into it.

Who else did you talk to in researching this script?

I also had to talk to some nuns when I retraced Martin’s steps. I went to the Abbey and spoke to the nuns who were there and I used that as a basis for some of the dialogue. And also, I watched some footage of Anthony with Philomena which she hadn’t seen before. I sat down in Martin’s house and she reached over to my hand and started crying because she hadn’t seen this footage. She grabbed my hand and said “I did love him you know.” And I put in the movie.  She does to Martin when they’re in a salad bar, she grabs his hand, and says “I did love him” when in fact she did that to me. I kind of lived a little bit of the movie myself.

What is it like to work with Dame Judi Dench?

I was scared through whole thing. I went to her house and read her the story. When I told her the story, in fact early on, when she just answered the door, and I was on my way up to my place in the country. She made me a cup of tea and after she sounded very excited and she offered to make me a sandwich, and she made me a sandwich for my long journey. And then I drove off, then I came back a few months later with the script. When I went back to writing process after to that, I said, “Jeff, look, we might have to use less writing for her.” So we put scenes in and I remember saying to Jeffery, “We don’t dialogue here. We just need her face, with the cameras close in on her face looking at the last time she saw her child, Judi Dench’s face will do everything.  Let’s use her, you know, we got Judi Dench, you need to use her, let’s not waste her.”  So that’s wonderful, knowing I’d be acting it with her.

I thought could probably pull this off. But there were certainly question marks from other people. No one else is going to give me; I wouldn’t be in this part without producing it so I’m going to give it to myself. That’s for start there. I thought, “Yes, well there’s a chance I could fail, there’s a chance I could be blown off screen by this hugely charismatic woman.”

I was nervous on one level but spending time with her on set, she had very good sense of humor. I have a Porsche sports car and she was more interested in looking at my sports car and going oh isn’t it cool and sexy. She has a sporty BMW soft top. She drove me for a pub lunch in her convertible sports car. Which I thought was as close as I was going to being James Bond.  She’s not precious and she’s very self-effacing and able to laugh at herself and mischievous but dignified at the same time. On the set, I was making her laugh all the time.

And also, I saw her struggling. At one point she told me, “Give me a note, give me a note, give me a note. What do you think about what I’m doing?”  She was totally open to it. She challenged me on some of the words sometimes. She made a really good observation, a very subtle one where I wrote a line when  she’s talking about her son.  In the dialogue, I wrote, “I always knew he was sensitive little soul.” She said, “You’d say that about someone else’s child.  You wouldn’t say ‘he’s a sensitive little soul’ about their own child. They’d just say ‘he was a sensitive little boy’. Soul is slightly distancing.”

And I said “Oh yeah you’re right, you’d say that about someone else’s child. ‘Oh he’s a sensitive little soul, isn’t he?’ You’d say that about someone else, you say that about your own child.” I thought “that’s really, really subtle, but actually true” She was totally game for stuff. Even now, it’s just a thing I can’t quite believe I did it and was able to counterbalance her in some small ways, that I provided a foil for her.

Although of course, it’s slightly daunting, far worse than to act with someone who couldn’t act. Because then you have got nothing.  What she’s doing is raising your game all the time because she happen to bring your A game. So it’s an atmosphere. All I’m doing to her is just reacting. All I do is react to what she’s giving me. So she’s giving you gifts all the time.

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