With three words in the closing credits of “Wonderstruck,” director Todd Haynes let the world know there is a major new talent in movies.
Those three words are “introducing Millicent Simmonds.”
Simmonds, a young actor from Bountiful, makes her movie debut in “Wonderstruck” and does so gloriously. She plays Rose, a deaf child in the 1920s who runs away to New York City to find a stage and silent-movie star (Julianne Moore). Rose’s adventure is intercut with the story of Ben (Oakes Fegley), a boy in the 1970s who, after an accident that leaves him deaf, runs away to New York to solve the mystery of who his father was.
Haynes — whose past films include “Far From Heaven” and “Carol” — chose to hire a deaf actor to play Rose and found his star in Simmonds, who has been deaf since she was about a year old.
“Wonderstruck,” which opens in Utah theaters on Friday, Nov. 10, had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in France this past May. The movie — and, in particular, Simmonds’ performance — wowed the Cannes crowd and critics.
The Hollywood Reporter‘s David Rooney wrote that “the quietly luminous Simmonds has the expressive powers of a silent screen star.” Stephanie Zacharek, in Time, wrote that “to watch her face — to see how, as Rose, she virtually breathes in the world around her, as if sounds and visuals were color values you could absorb into your very being — is to step over a border you perhaps didn’t know existed.”
The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed Simmonds over email about acting, her first time on a movie set and going to Cannes. Here, edited for length and clarity, is that interview:
Tell me about yourself.
I’m 14 years old. I’ve gone to JMS [Jean Massieu School for the Deaf] in Salt Lake City. History is my favorite subject and I love to read and kickboxing!
What got you interested in acting? Had you done any acting in Utah before making a movie?
I was in the drama club and just did Shakespeare plays before I got cast in “Wonderstruck.”
What’s fun about acting?
Pretending to be someone else. I like playing different characters.
How did you end up in “Wonderstruck”? What was the audition process like?
My drama teacher sent the casting [notice] to my mom. We recorded the scenes on her phone. They called and said they wanted to fly me out to New York, so I went with my mom and met Todd [Haynes, the director] and Ed [Lachman, the cinematographer] and filmed more scenes with a wig and 1920s clothes. When we were leaving for the airport, they called and told me I got the part!
Did Todd Haynes tell you why he chose you to play Rose?
I’m not sure he ever told me why. He just told me that he was so proud of how I portrayed Rose so that made me feel good.
What did you like about the character of Rose?
I like how confident she was and how she didn’t care what anyone thought. I wish I were more like her.
What was it like being on a movie set for the first time?
At first I was really overwhelmed but I got used to it really quickly. I loved it. It never felt like work.
Did you get to film in the real Museum of Natural History? What was that like?
It was amazing. We would have to shoot in the middle of the night, because they couldn’t close it during the day, so they brought really bright lights in to make it look like daytime.
What was it like to work with Julianne Moore?
She was amazing. She was very friendly and always made me feel very comfortable. I learned a lot from her.
Is it important to you, as someone who’s deaf, that Todd Haynes chose you to play a deaf character?
Of course it was important to me but I think that’s what acting is too. I’ve played Thisbe, who is a man acting as a woman. Part of the fun of acting to me is playing a person or character that I’m not.
So you got to go to the Cannes Film Festival when “Wonderstruck” premiered there, and the audiences there loved it, and loved you. What was that like?
Cannes was very busy and overwhelming, but very beautiful, too. I think the audience really seemed to like the movie, so I was so relieved. I really just wanted Todd to be proud, and I think he was.
You’ve been filming “A Quiet Place,” a horror movie with Emily Blunt and John Krasinski. How is that going? Is it as scary to be in a horror movie as it to watch one?
Yes I am; it’s going good. I think it’s scarier to watch a scary movie than be in one. But maybe I’ll be scared when I watch it. I don’t know!