In the flowery frocks and tight corsets of a Jane Austen movie, Steven Spielberg found his heroine for our high-tech future. Mr. Spielberg ended the casting process for a pivotal role in his robotic fairy tale, “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” when he caught Frances O’Connor’s radiant star turn in a big-screen translation of “Mansfield Park.”
A brunet Australian sweetheart with a darling smile, Miss O’Connor until now has been contract-bound to silence about the sci-fi spectacular. At a Beverly Hills hotel on the first day of her publicity tour for “A.I.,” she is eager to discuss the most important project of her career and its paper-shredding level of secrecy.
“Heads of departments didn’t even have a script,”Miss O’Connor reveals. “They had to go to a certain place to read it. I had read the whole thing through once, but then I only had the script for my section of the film.”
The hush-hush production process principally was a tribute to the late filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who notoriously employed similar tactics when he worked. .Mr. Kubrick initiated the “A.I.” project in 1979 by buying a set of short stories by Brian Aldiss titled “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” published a decade earlier in Harper’s Bazaar. He realized that technology eventually will enable us to make the Pinocchio fable a reality. Lifelike androids will be created through a fusion of robotics and artificially intelligent computers. If you manufacture one of those automatons in the form of a boy, Mr. Kubrick reasoned, you essentially will have built Pinocchio.
In “A.I.,” Haley Joel Osment stars as the synthetic child who longs to become a “real, live boy.” Miss O’Connor embodies the heart of the film, playing the human mother who tries to love him.
Before his death in 1999, Mr. Kubrick and his good friend Mr. Spielberg finished hashing out the particulars of “A.I.” after trading lengthy faxes about it for years. It is said that Mr. Kubrick always intended for Mr. Spielberg to direct the film.
“I think as filmmakers, they were often both pushing their craft in interesting ways,” Miss O’Connor explains, “so they had a very strong connection that way. Steven did feel a great deal of responsibility in telling the story the way Kubrick would have told it, and not to lighten it. We talked a lot about the mother-child connection and notions of what it is to be human, what it is to love and what love is. In a lot of ways, it’s about those things. There are a lot of universal themes in it, like abandonment. It’s about our own mortality, too, because the robots live forever. The implication is that we as a race die out, but the computers go on.”
Miss O’Connor was intimidated at first by the prospect of working for Mr. Spielberg, but she says she warmed quickly to his rapid directorial pace and infectious enthusiasm. Equally amazing to her was the high-caliber cast and crew Mr. Spielberg had assembled. Young Haley was particularly impressive, Miss O’Connor notes, because he is such a remarkable actor for a 13-year-old.
Most exciting, though, was the chance to act opposite nothing at all. “A.I.” is Miss O’Connor’s first major special-effects film, and she says she had great fun trying to imagine the robotic characters that later would be added with computer graphics.
For her, the prospect that someday those machines might be real is a daunting one. “I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where we’ll re-create people to that level,” Miss O’Connor remarks. “I mean, we might, but it won’t be for a very long time. Yet, we might get computers to think like us or to approximate that, because we’re already getting there. So perhaps we’ll become more sophisticated, which is scary, because in some ways, it makes us lazier and more dependent on computers.”
On the cusp of stardom, Miss O’Connor is choosing to revisit the literary adaptations she enjoys most by filming Oscar Wilde’s witty play “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Due out next year, the sly romantic comedy co-stars Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Judi Dench.
Miss O’Connor says she delights in the variety of acting challenges she gets to tackle.
“That’s what I love about what I do,” Miss O’Connor concludes. “I get to try such different things all the time, just turning up to work every day is fantastic.”