Aidan Quinn on Fear and Denial in “Sarah’s Key”

“It’s fascinating that you could construct a whole view of who you are, through no fault of your own, that’s absolutely wrong,” Aidan Quinn said of his character, William, in “Sarah’s Key,” opening July 22.

The fictional William is stunned to discover his true identity, in a film that tackles how the events of the Shoah continue to reverberate in the present.  Based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s bestselling novel, the story is so wrenching that it should haunt even viewers jaded by so-called Holocaust movie fatigue. (Here’s my story on the journey from book to film.)

The drama cuts back and forth in time to tell of Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist living in Paris circa 2002, and Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance), a 10-year-old arrested with her parents by French police in the roundup of 13,000 Jews in July 1942.

Before being herded off for internment in the Velodrome d’Hiver, Sarah manages to hides her 4-year-old brother, Michel, by locking him in their secret bedroom cupboard, promising she will return to release him.  That promise will not only haunt Sarah, but decades later will come to obsess Jarmond, who is about to move into the Starzynskis’ old apartment.  And it will ultimately envelop William (Quinn), who is horrified to learn of his own connection to the “Vel d’Hiv” roundup.

Quinn, a veteran of more than 70 films, was drawn to “Sarah’s Key” for the chance to play such a complex character – and for the way the film explores the previously taboo subject of French complicity in the Shoah.  “France didn’t really admit this until 1995, when [then-President] Jacques Chirac made his famous speech on the site of the velodrome,” Quinn, 52, said from his New York home.  “The Vel d’Hiv is a place the nation was in denial about for 50-something years.”

“It’s very important to deal with these kinds of national denials that go on in the culture,” Quinn (“An Early Frost,” “Legends of the Fall”) told The New York Times Syndicate.  “There was a big one in Ireland, which was about sexual abuse and general abuse of orphans in institutions run by priests.  We need to remind ourselves that we are capable of horrible behavior, and we need to be vigilant against it.”

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin (which has been controversial) represents the right kind of vigilance, Quinn told me:  “It’s a fantastic placement of a monument, in the central area where all the tourists go, with all the embassies around it,” he said.  “It’s a great example of placing something in such a way that it will become a constant reminder – with the embassies from all the other countries that were involved, having to look at it.”

Quinn, whose white-blue eyes convey an intensity mixed with vulnerability, began his career in 1984’s “Reckless,” opposite Daryl Hannah, and will next star as an NYPD detective in NBC’s upcoming “Prime Suspect.”  He first came to the attention of Gilles Paquet-Brenner, the director of “Sarah’s Key,” for his turn opposite Brad Pitt in “Legends of the Fall.”

[SPOILER ALERT] When Paquet-Brenner was casting “Sarah’s Key,” something about Quinn’s expression reminded him of Mayance, the actress who plays Sarah – William’s mother – as a girl. 

William is unprepared and mortified when Jarmond informs him that his late mother was, in fact, a Holocaust survivor; he had never known the story of Michel and his cupboard. “Getting over his denial is a huge effort for the character, who initially cannot take on the idea that his mother is Jewish and he is Jewish,” the actor said. The fury of his dissent perhaps stems from having somehow “genetically absorbed” his mother’s fear of persecution as “the other,” he added.

Quinn – who grew up with devout Catholic parents in Illinois and Ireland—has some understanding of the perception of Jews-as-other.  While living in Ireland in the 1970s, he noted “the leftover of an implied anti-Semitism that comes from the catechism. 

“With some of the older priests, brothers and nuns, it was kind of implied that there was something [about Jews as Christ-killers], and then there was the Shylock thing,” he said.  “It was definitely in the culture at the time, although 95 percent of it was a non-issue because there were so few Jews in Ireland.”

As it so happened, the Quinns had a close Jewish friend in Dublin, “so we grew up with an Irish Jew as part of our family,” the actor said.  “What distinguished him in my mind was his physical affection – which made him a very positive influence—because in my father’s generation of men there was not a lot of hugging or touching.”

Quinn, a veteran of more than 70 films, has often explored his heritage on screen, portraying an IRA leader in “Michael Collins,” for example.  His 2003 film, “Song for a Raggy Boy,” exposes brutality and abuse in a Catholic orphanage in 1939.

Turning the conversation back to “Sarah’s Key,” he said, “Part of why we’re here is to try and learn from how these things are allowed to happen, are manufactured to happen, and how they continue to happen throughout the world.  I think that’s a very important message.”

View Danielle Berrin’s videotaped Q & A of Gilles Paquet-Brenner here.