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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Groton’s Kate MacCluggage acts in the new film ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’

    Kate MacCluggage at the premiere of the film "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" April 15 at the Westwood Regency Village Theatre in Los Angeles. (Chris Pizzello/AP Photo)
    Kate MacCluggage (Photo by Michael Levy)
    Rachel McAdams as Barbara Dimon and Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret Simon in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Photo Credit: Dana Hawley
    A poster for “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” (Lionsgate)

    The cast for the movie adaptation of the iconic Judy Blume coming-of-age novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” features Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates … and Kate MacCluggage, who grew up in Groton.

    MacCluggage has performed on Broadway and beyond, guest starred on TV shows, and acted in several films, but this is her first major motion picture. It opens later this week.

    She plays Jan Wheeler, the mother of 11-year-old Margaret Simon’s next-door neighbor, Nancy Wheeler. (Abby Ryder Fortson portrays Margaret, and Elle Graham is Nancy.)

    MacCluggage says of her character, “I’m the mom next door. She’s head of the PTA. She’s the perfectionist mom. The movie is set in 1970, but Jan is still holding onto the ‘60s. … She’s really into the traditional gender roles in marriage. It’s very interesting – there is an actor who plays Mr. Wheeler, but you barely see him, because it focuses on the kids. So moms are sort of the only ones around.”

    The story focuses on Margaret, who has just relocated from New York City to New Jersey. She and her friends are dealing with issues of puberty, including periods and bras. Margaret has grown up with a Christian mother and a Jewish father who didn’t raise her with a particular religious affiliation, so she is exploring questions of faith on her own.

    When Margaret arrives in New Jersey, MacCluggage says, “She thinks her life is over because now she has to live in the suburbs. My character is really a perfect example of what Margaret is afraid the suburbs are about, which is fundraising for the school, and craft projects that get WAY out of hand, and being on a million committees, and doing everything for your kids, and running around.”

    She adds, “It’s in the script, for her to be that type of character, but I got to play the comedy of it a little bit, which was fun. She’s still a real person, still grounded in reality, but definitely a bit more of a character type.”

    Mrs. Wheeler does, though, have a “lovely moment,” as MacCluggage describes it, at one point when Margaret’s mother, played by McAdams, essentially says that she doesn’t want to do things the way Mrs. Wheeler has.

    “It was such a great acting opportunity for me, because I was like, ‘How would this woman respond?’ I think it ended up being not so much ‘How dare you not want to be part of this whole thing we’ve been doing here for forever, of working at the school and being home all the time and looking perfect every day.’ But I got the opportunity to have a moment of ‘I didn’t know that was an option.’”

    Winning the role

    MacCluggage, who is 40 and lives in Brooklyn, won the part through a typical audition process. The actor self-tapes an audition at home and submits it. MacCluggage then got a callback on Zoom with director Kelly Fremon Craig, producer James L. Brooks (the renowned writer/director whose work ranges from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “Terms of Endearment”) and his producer daughter Amy Brooks.

    Before she started shooting the movie, MacCluggage reread Blume’s book and was amazed at how much she hadn’t recalled.

    “When I read it when I was like 10 and 11, what I remember is all of the really frank discussion of girls’ bodies and puberty because that was gold, that was such valuable information at the time. But I hadn’t paid attention to Margaret’s mother’s journey in the book, and that was really clear when I reread it. That was beautifully laid in, as well as the spirituality part of it, the search for being connected to something bigger: Is somebody at the helm of this whole thing? Who’s in charge here? Is there a God? I hadn’t really picked up on that when I first read it, but it’s really an extraordinary part of the book as well,” she says.

    The film was shot in the spring and early summer of 2021 in North Carolina. Most of MacCluggage’s scenes are with McAdams, and she says that McAdams is “so wonderful to watch, she’s so natural, she’s so free, so all of her choices are really coming out of her preparation but also just her freedom on set. And then she’s also one of the nicest people ever. She’s so warm, she was very inviting, great sense of humor.”

    Developing a look

    MacCluggage got to collaborate with the experts in the hair, makeup and costume departments on her character’s look.

    Ann Roth is a legendary costume designer who won an Oscar for her work on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” during the filming of “Are You There God?”

    “All of the clothes were vintage, and she (Roth) had this terrific idea — because we were looking at what the hair could be — she got me color matching headbands for every outfit that I had. You start to really think about who this woman is and the amount of accessories she needs to greet the day,” MacCluggage says.

    As for Jan Wheeler’s big hair, that’s all MacCluggage — no wig. When key hair stylist Matthew Wilson told MacCluggage about his idea for her character’s coiffure, the actress was immediately onboard. But Wilson said he wanted to be clear: It would require a lot of teasing and it would be tough on her hair.

    “I said, ‘I’ll cut it, it’s fine.’ I was so glad I had it because it was such an identifiable look,” she says.

    Pivotal times in growing up

    As for director Fremon Craig, MacCluggage says that she is brilliant. Referencing Fremon Craig’s “Edge of Seventeen,” another coming-of-age movie, MacCluggage says, “She is so good at understanding these sort of pivotal times in growing up, and she doesn’t look down on them, she doesn’t belittle them.”

    In addition, she was wonderful at coaching the actors. MacCluggage says that often when actors are performing on camera, they don’t get a lot of acting notes from the directors because the directors are thinking about so many other things. But Fremon Craig “really wanted to hone the performances. She knew that would be key to get people to emotionally connect with the characters.”

    A timeless movie

    MacCluggage (whose parents are Linda and Reid MacCluggage; Reid is retired editor and publisher of The Day) says of the film, “It’s kind of amazing something like this is even being released. There are so few movies of this size happening anymore. The movie industry — (it’s) the huge blockbusters and then that’s kind of it,” with everything else streaming.

    MacCluggage saw the film for the first time with an audience at the April 15 premiere in L.A.

    “It’s really a very good movie. … I think it’s going to be timeless in the way the book is timeless,” she says.

    Her other work

    Here is just a sampling of Kate MacCluggage’s credits:

    She was on Broadway in 2007-8 in Aaron Sorkin’s “The Farnsworth Invention.” She was in “The Merchant of Venice” off-Broadway in 2011.

    She has acted in stage productions around the country and played a wide range of characters. She portrayed the title character in “Anna Karenina” in 2019 at the Denver Center Theatre Company, where she had, a decade earlier, performed in the farce “Noises Off.” She has starred in shows at Hartford Stage and Long Wharf Theatre.

    MacCluggage has done guest shots on TV shows including “FBI” and “Madam Secretary.”

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