Three years after starring in the Netflix hit Bird Box, Sandra Bullock is back on the world’s leading streaming service in a very different kind of survival story.
In the new film The Unforgivable debuting December 10, Bullock plays a woman who is released from prison after serving a sentence for a violent crime and must re-enter a society that refuses to forgive her past. Facing severe judgment from the place she once called home, her only hope for redemption is finding the estranged younger sister she was forced to leave behind.
In addition to starring in the film, which is based on the 2009 British miniseries Unforgiven, Bullock also produced the drama.
Netflix released an interview with Bullock about her true crime obsession, the research she did to prepare for the role and showing a different side to audiences.
What drew you to The Unforgivable?
I’m obsessed with every true crime show on TV. I will watch to the depths of the evening, the darkest of dark stories — a man that has killed his spouse, a woman who has snapped and killed her husband — and how they got away with it. I don’t like the shows that don’t have a resolution and they didn’t catch them. But I will watch all of these things. I’m obsessed with the psyche of that: What makes someone snap? And so is the rest of the country. That element of The Unforgivable was really intriguing to me and
I’m always in search of a project where you have a viewability, an accessibility, where it draws an audience to an experience. I like that aspect of it and the puzzle pieces that have to come together to explain it. But why does that have to exclude something where you get extraordinary actors all in one room to tell a story where it’s a story of substance?
I read the script and I said to [producer] Graham King “I will do it, only if you allow me to be your partner in this.” And he doesn’t take on partners but he agreed. He had no idea what he was getting into. [Laughs]
What kind of research did you do on incarcerated women?
When we started making this film, I thought of it as a love letter to my daughter who came to me through the foster care system. It gave me an insight and an understanding of all of the
layers of a system that affects not just women but particularly women of color. And then I started looking at all the women within that system who have come from various early struggles and poverty. Every woman that I interviewed in prison all had the same beginning story and I thought, why are we not making stories about that? About this system that doesn’t want people to succeed.
How you perceive that system is based on your life experience or your privilege or your upbringing. To some people, the system is prevalent and always looming. To other people, the system will never touch them and that spectrum is represented in the film. When we started researching this I knew I needed to go speak to the women in prison and women who had been just released from prison or who were out of the system for a year and into the new system of this world that doesn’t want them to succeed. They knew what the system was about and how it treats women who come from poverty.
There were three women that I met in prison: one was being released immediately, one had a year left inside, and the third was just not getting out but she had hopes of getting out. You could see on their faces, the fear and the trauma, and the armor they had built to protect themselves. They were guarded but I said, “This is not about me. Whatever it is you want me to share and show truthfully in this film, I want you to tell me.” So everything you see in my performance was a reflection of what they asked me to show truthfully. Every woman that I interviewed in prison all had the same beginning story…
This role shows you a different side than audiences may be used to. Were you concerned?
There’s nothing attractive or sexy about my character. I know people are going to say, “But this is not the Sandra Bullock that we know and love.” But, it is. There’s nothing about me that is false in this. I’m just giving myself permission to show it and I’m showing it on behalf of people that I love and adore, that are not getting the movies made about them. I had to do it because I feel this story. I see it. I am in it to a certain degree and it’s real. And I am so lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky. It’s nothing else but luck that Netflix gave us the money to be able to do it.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
I want the viewer to have an understanding of how hard it is to just get through the day and do the right thing for millions of people who very few people are writing stories or making films about. Some people who know the story have said, “It feels like you’re showing sacrifice.” But I say, “This is just called surviving for some people.” So in the end, what do you have? You just have love. What does that love look like? Sometimes love is not a biopic of some extraordinary person who you can paint a beautiful picture of through the tragedy they have endured. Sometimes love is a real-life story of an ordinary person trying to survive. Sometimes it looks like this.