Growing Up with Atticus Finch: An Interview with Cecilia Peck

 

Today, To Kill a Mockingbird, easily one of the most important American films, will be released in a special 50th anniversary Blu-Ray and DVD edition. In it, Gregory Peck plays Atticus Finch, a courageous Southern attorney who defends a black man against allegations of rape, in a time when black men rarely had their say in court. Finch is also the heroic father of two feisty children, and, as in Harper Lee’s famous novel, doles out saintly patience and wholly practical advice for his children.

To celebrate the film, and to tie in with the video release, CraveOnline‘s Witney Seibold sat down with Cecilia Peck, Gregory’s daughter, to ruminate on the film, discuss her father as a professional actor and the best Gregory Peck movies, and to talk about her own career as a film director (she directed the documentary Shut Up & Sing), and as an actress (she played the hot vampire Nora in My Best Friend is a Vampire).

 

CraveOnline: To break the iceIs Robert Sean Leonard a good kisser?

Cecilia Peck: [laughs, a brief pause, laughs again]

 

My Best Friend is a Vampire was a staple of my video store visits when I was a teenager.

That was my very first film. I just remember asking, “What do I do?” I got to look down at a sandbag. ‘Cause, y’know when you do a horror film, there are dozens of bags you have to look at to hit your mark so you look in the right place; so you don’t move around or move your head too much. That was a very early film experience for me, but I have to give thanks to Bobby [Robert Sean Leonard] who was so supportive. I do want to say that I had a really great time on that film.

 

I didn’t mean to gossip, but I had to bring up the movie.

[Laughs] Well, I definitely haven’t seen that one in a long time, so that’s very sweet of you.

When we were kids we would often ask who would win in a fight between you and Lauren Hutton from Once Bitten. Quite frequently you were the one who would win.

[Laughs] Oh really? I have children now, and they love that film. They watch it. I only have a VHS copy. But maybe that’s a little off-topic.

 

More to the point, then: There’s a new version of To Kill a Mockingbird on video this week. You’ve probably been interviewed by dozens of people on the film. Is there anything you’d like me to ask about? Is there anything you’d still like to say about this film and about your father and about your experiences with this?

You know, I love talking about the experience of making the documentary with him, which no one’s asked about. Have you seen it yet? It’s called A Conversation with Gregory Peck. It came out in 1999. It’s on the Blu-Ray and the collector’s edition that’s coming out. But before we talk about that I should just say that: of all the children in the world who wish they had Atticus as their father, I got to grow up with him. He really was that kind of dad.

 

That was one of my questions, actually. Atticus Finch is one of the best fathers in all literature. How did Mr. Peck compare?

He was so kind and so loving. So… strict and firm with us as children, but he was very much like the dad in the book as a person as well as a father. How rich he is. How great he is. How he raised us as children was so grand. He was so in love with my mother. He had found his true love. His soul mate. I got to grow up, really in a house full of love. How does he compare? I got to grow up with the best and most loving dad in the world.

Is there anything you’d like to say about him that you haven’t been asked yet?

Well… I have learned so much from him. When I was a teenager I was visiting him on the production of a film he was making called The Boys from Brazil. I remember this one time when they were shooting on location in Portugal. Outdoors, it was a night shoot, late at night, very cold, and everyone was freezing, and there were injuries from the dark, from people tripping. Everyone was over-tired. And I saw my dad there in the beach waiting for the setup, and he was telling everyone the most delightful stories! He was such good spirits! He lifted the spirits of everyone around him. I liked to work, he told everyone how lucky he was to be able to work. He was always showing gratitude to everyone around him. Such a glee emerged.

Then one time I got to play his daughter for a film called The Portrait. And then I did the documentary. He didn’t really like talking about himself. At all, y’know? He was never one to seek out recognition, or anything. He was so humble. He called up his tortures. Y’know? I made this film [Shut Up & Sing] with Barbara Kopple, and every time we’d come around with a camera nearby, he would, y’know, wince. He wanted to be focused on his performance and his one-man shows. He didn’t like it when we’d be back backstage or when he came home, what he called “The Sidebar.” But those were the moments that, the when you watch the finished film, it turns out to be that he did love them, and he even called it his second favorite film after To Kill a Mockingbird.

 

He seemed more like an actor than a movie star.

I’m glad to hear you say that. Because he actually was constantly stretching himself as an actor, and playing different kinds of roles. And he was such a great comedic actor. He didn’t get a chance to do it too often, I think. Audiences wanted to see him in that role of, y’know, the hero or the noble guy. But he was so charming in Roman Holiday, that was a comedy he did. He also had a dark side that he got to play a couple times. So I think he really was a great actor as opposed to a “movie star.” There weren’t a lot like him in that regard either. He was known all over the world. He played so many famous roles, so many iconic roles. But also an actor with courage and range and depth.

He was a very professional actor. You’ve done some acting, too. Is there any advice you’d want to give your children, should they want to act?

I guess the advice I’d give them is the same advice my father gave me which is: Go to acting school, listen to my professors best I could, really learn my craft.

 

You directed the film about The Dixie Chicks, Shut Up & Sing. You were involved in making a film about your father [she has a producing credit on A Conversation with Gregory Peck. Are you particularly drawn to performers and the performing world?

I did do those two films. The one on my dad I did after his one-man show. … The other one I did because I knew one of the members of the band, I loved their music, and I wanted to make a film that explored why they were the number-one selling female band of all time. Not knowing that, in the first concert of their tour, they would make that comment about the war. The film then, of course, went in an entirely different direction. But I am interested in people who stand up for what they believe in. I think my dad was one. He did all these groundbreaking films that were considered controversial, and wouldn’t have been  made without his support, like To Kill a Mockingbird, and like Gentleman’s Agreement. And I feel that Natalie [Maines] and The Dixie Chicks were a courageous band who stood up for their rights in their attempts to exercise their freedom of speech. So those kinds of subjects are what I’m interested in.

I’m finishing another film now that has another very strong set of characters who are very courageous.

 

That was going to be my next question, if you were going to direct another film.

I am. I am directing a film that I’ve been shooting for the last few years, and we’re in post-production now. It’s the story of a woman, Linor Abargil, and she was in Israel when she was the victim of a violent attack and rape in Italy. And she had to represent her country in the Miss World competition six weeks later. And, after the trauma and shock, was crowned the winner. And when that happened she asked, won’t they do something about rape. She was aged 28, and asked that a woman make a film about her. She wants to go out in the world and ask that other survivors not to blame themselves and to come forward and not remain silent.

 

That sounds fascinating.

Yeah. Her outreach work has really brought up her own trauma, which she kept buried for so long. So the film will be about that.

 

I have time for one more. What was the first record you bought with your own money?

Ooh. Probably an album by Joni Mitchell called “Blue” from 1971. That’s the first record I remember buying. I definitely bought some others first, old show tunes, but I didn’t really like those ones. They weren’t my favorites, but they were my first.