Emily Deschanel and out director Anne Renton talk “The Perfect Family”

Religion, homosexuality and living up to the lofty expectations of a parent are at the core of the new independent film, The Perfect Family. In the film, which hit the gay film festival circuit last summer but is now being released in theaters, Catholic Woman of the Year candidate Eileen Cleary (Kathleen Turner) is determined to win but has to figure out how to create that “perfect family” with her recovering alcoholic husband (Michael McGrady), irresponsible son (Jason Ritter) as well as the surprise that her daughter (Bones star Emily Deschanel) is gay and about to marry her girlfriend (Angelique Cabral).

Out director Anne Renton, whose short Love Is Love featured Jane Lynch and looked at a world where gay was normal and straight was the exception, has not only assembled a group of top-notch actors but also has much to say about the variety of the issues that make up the film in an intelligent and complex way, much as they are in life.

AfterEllen.com sat down with Renton and Deschanel in Los Angeles last week during the film’s press junket to chat about the film and to ask Deschanel if it’s a family quest to play gay since sister Zooey Deschanel played gay in the film, My Idiot Brother.

AfterEllen.com: Anne, tell me the basis for Eileen and how you approached directing the character in the film.
Anne Renton: I didn’t write the original screenplay (which was written by Paula Goldberg and Claire V. Riley) but I brought on another writer and we did a lot of work kind of developing the character. And we really wanted to track Eileen’s journey in the film so the audience would kind of go on that journey with her. I felt like she needed to be a character that we could understand and relate to her flaws, but also see her humanity because we’re all flawed. So I wanted to create a character that had that was fully rounded so that it wasn’t all this or all that [and] that she could just come in and be fully dimensional.

All photos courtesy of Variance Films

AE: Shannon is such a complex character, Emily, and very different from Brennan on Bones. Was that a nice relief to do something different?
Emily Deschanel: Absolutely. It’s always nice to play a different character and as much as I get from playing the same character through many years [but] Brennan has changed over the seasons. It’s refreshing to play a new character and a welcome challenge. And, yeah, the way I approached Shannon, she was somebody who wanted to be right. Here’s somebody who has excelled at school, got scholarships, is a lawyer and just kind of overachieving everything to make up for the fact that who she is is not accepted by how she was raised. And growing up Catholic, you know, she didn’t think that was an option. And then, finally, as she starts to realize “Whoa, I’m gay and this is who I am,” it doesn’t vibe with how she was raised and what’s OK and acceptable and “right.” I think she wanted to do everything else as right as possible and as good as possible and overachieve in that way.

AE: Was there a different approach to playing a gay character?
ED: I see it in a way that she is a character that just happened to be gay but it’s part of the biggest conflict in the film, certainly for my character. And so it was something that was a big part of this particular story of this character. So, no, I had to really use my imagination and create this character. Like specifically what’s she’s gone through from when she was younger and what it was to feel like she’s gay from when she’s younger and not understanding what that is. And to feel like so much that you wouldn’t be accepted, to not come out until after she’s 30 and all of the things that go on in your mind and your heart with that. So it’s definitely a big part of the character, but it’s not everything that the character’s about at all.

AE: Some big things happen in the movie that serves as the impetus to push Shannon to finally come out to her family. Can you talk about that?
ED: I think there are circumstances in her life that force her to kind of come out to her family that she has been avoiding for so long, and she has no choice at this point. Because she’s waited the longest she possibly could to be honest with her family.

AE: Anne, in your short film, Love Is Love,you look at straight and gay and how society looks at both of those. Obviously that’s a subject that means something to you because it’s a big part of this one as well.
AR: Yeah, definitely. I really think fitting into or trying to figure out how you fit into what the supposed norms of society are is certainly something that people do as they grow up — learning to individuate and may not be so attached to what those societal, appropriate or whatever word you want to use for the norms are.  I think it’s a big thing and I think it’s something that a lot of people relate to. You know, whether it’s the issue of sexuality or whatever. There’s a lot of ways that people may fit into society’s role or their family’s norm.

AE: One of the things I liked in the film is that the church is not the villain in the movie. Was that something that attracted both of you to the project?
ED: Yes.

AR: It’s something that we really worked on in all the rewrites we did on the original. I have to say, it was really, really important that that wasn’t how it came across — it’s about the humanity of all the characters and the situations that were going on. So, yeah, it was very intentional and certainly something that felt important to me. [looking to Emily] is it for you in terms of reading it?

ED: Yes and also personally growing up Catholic and the church that I went to growing up, they say you’re welcome if you’re gay in this church. It’s not what the main Catholic Church says. But I just know [there are] so many individuals who are wonderful and accepting of all people in the church and I’ve had wonderful experiences. So it was important to me to not bash the church, too. It was more interesting to me that it wasn’t so black and white and that it wasn’t bashing. That’s not the enemy in this movie. You kind of see [and] accept that everyone has to accept each other. Shannon has to accept her mother and her mother’s belief in the church, as much as her mother has to accept her. And I like that a lot.

AE: Now your sister, Zooey, just played a gay character in My Idiot Brother.
ED: Right.

AE: Now you’re playing a gay character. Is this a family thing that you’re each trying to knock that off of the actors’ bucket list?
ED: [laughs] Yeah, I guess so. I’ve played gay characters before in plays and in a student film and things like that. So it wasn’t like I’d never played a lesbian before, but I’m not sure if my younger sister had so I did it before my sister. I think it probably comes around at some point in your life and your career as an actor.

AE: You’re also playing a lot of pregnant characters lately with this movie and in Bones and you just had a baby in real life.
In this movie, I’d never been pregnant before and so that was another thing that was a challenge for the film. [In Bones,] I was pregnant in real life and just happened to be pregnant because there’s no way you could hide that belly that I had. But it was confusing for me because my character in my show was having a girl baby and I was carrying a boy.

AE: Some movies tend to get labeled a “gay movie” but do you take issue with that label? Do you think that’s a plus or a minus if somebody does call it a gay film?

[Emily shakes her head, no]

AR: I don’t know. I don’t necessarily have an issue with it but I feel it’s a film about a family and that’s what’s the most important piece for me. So I do think sometimes when films get labeled as gay films it means that maybe a more mainstream audience isn’t going to relate to it or even want to see it. So I certainly want this film to be a film that a mainstream audience will go to and enjoy, whether gay, straight, whatever — an inclusive audience.

ED: I think anyone could relate to this film because people have people in their family who are like Kathleen’s character. They have people in their family or they themselves may be like Shannon’s character — gay, straight, whatever — just people who love each other who conflict for different reasons, whether it’s religion, or belief system that’s not religious or anything. I mean these kinds of conflicts happen all over the world. I don’t think it’s limited in any way.

AE: Emily, are you planning anything to do with your friend Liz Feldman, because now she’s doing 2 Broke Girls [Feldman is writer/producer] but Zooey’s sitcom, New Girl, may have to come before that, right?
ED: I just met Kat [Dennings] who’s on 2 Broke Girls and I love her. She’s awesome. We had a little love fest [and] that’s a good show but I think New Girl is before that.

The Perfect Family opens in NY and LA theaters and is also available on VOD starting May 4. For more VOD information, visit the website.