Sandra Bullock is trapped in a bulky spacesuit for most of Alfonso Cuaron's space odyssey Gravity, which has her adrift in space tethered to a wisecracking George Clooney. But the role nonetheless required a dancer's poise.
Bullock's Dr Ryan Stone is stranded hundreds of kilometres above Earth with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky, played by Clooney, when debris destroys their space shuttle on her first mission.
Bullock said she called on her dancer's training for the role, in which she both spiralled through deep space heavily suited and floated gracefully through a space station in stretch shorts and a tank top.
"Dancing did help. We are operating at very slow speeds, and I'm a fast mover," Bullock told a news conference ahead of the film's world premiere opening at the Venice Film Festival recently.
Clooney said moving abnormally slowly to simulate movement in space while speaking quickly "is the trickiest thing you have ever done", but that Bullock, who started shooting before him and spends considerably more screen time moving freely, had it nailed by the time he arrived on set. "It was absolutely stunning what she was doing," he said.
Much of the film was shot inside a nine-foot-by-nine-foot (roughly three-metre-by-three-metre) box, inside of which the actors were suspended by cables, with their lower halves inside a contraption, while objects were hurled towards them, the actors said. For Bullock, the conditions created a sense of extreme isolation not unlike that felt by her character. "George and I were rarely together, but if I could hear his voice I would feel better. I was grateful for any human contact, even if it was just a breath," she said.
Director Cuaron consulted with astronauts and physicists to portray how objects would behave in space as realistically as possible. He said the technical challenges combined "the worse-case scenarios for live action and the worse-case scenarios for animation. In both cases, our brain is used to operating from the standpoint of gravity and weight."
Gravity is shot in 3D, which gives depth to the character's experience of having debris hurtle towards them or seeing pens, ping-pong paddles or statuettes float by.
While the film is a space adventure full of action sequences, Cuaron also said the journey into space was rife with metaphors. Bullock's Dr Stone, a brilliant scientist who’s in space to install technology for NASA that she created, has suffered a tragedy that has made her give up on life, and retreat to the precision of her work.
"From the get-go, when we decided to go into space, it was very obvious the metaphorical value of space. You have a character who is drifting from her own inertia. On the one hand, she has life, she has planet Earth, human connection, on the other hand she is drifting," the director said.
Bullock said she wanted to portray the character's loss through physical perfection, and worked hard to get into top shape.
"I wanted her to lose everything feminine or maternal about her. I wanted to get the body to be a machine that was effective for her brain," Bullock said. She trained daily on the set and said carrying around her son also helps her to keep in shape.
"I have a 40-pound [18-kg] three-year-old who still is a baby and insists on being carried," Bullock said.
Clooney's regime was a bit lighter.
"Sandy and I did a lot of Bikram yoga together," Clooney cracked, adding, "I just mostly drank my way into the job."