Today the official communication for The Courageous Heart Of Irena Sendler set in. I'm very thrilled to give you exclusive info and more background to this extraordinary production. Please stay tuned and check back from time to time to get more impressions right here. Please respect that all given info and content regarding this TV production is copyright of Hallmark Hall Of Fame and may not be reproduced without their explicit consent.

2,500 Jewish babies and young children in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Academy Award winner Anna Paquin (The Piano, True Blood) plays the title role; another Academy Award winner, Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock, In From the Night), plays her mother, Janina. Goran Visnjic (ER) is Stefan, a friend from Irena’s university days who helps Irena and her underground network map out strategies and routes to smuggle the children out of the ghetto. The film premieres on CBS Sunday, April 19, 2009, 9-11 PT/ET.

Irena Sendler was a Catholic social worker, but used fake identification to pass herself off as a nurse, which allowed her to enter and exit the walled-off ghetto with relative ease. She used that advantage to mount the daring and dangerous operation to smuggle children to safety.

Finally, in 1943, the Gestapo arrested Sendler. She spent three months in captivity, undergoing interrogation and torture. She betrayed no one. After she was sentenced to death, a guard - bribed by the Polish resistance movement - freed her

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Irena Sendler was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, and died at age 98 in May, 2008. While alive, she was never comfortable being singled out for special recognition. She always reminded people that smuggling and then protecting all those children represented a collective effort on the part of many brave souls, including couriers, nuns, priests and Polish families, to say nothing of  the close-knit band of mostly women who were part of her underground smuggling network.

Anna Paquin researched the life and times of Irena Sendler before filming began in November, 2008, in Riga, Latvia. “She was extraordinarily strong,” Paquin says, “and extraordinarily modest. She had no sense of being in any way special or heroic. She was angry about what was happening to the Jews she knew personally, and the thousands more she didn’t know. She said the only way she could live through that terrible time was to do something. She felt she had no choice.”

Paquin continues, “When she was asked years later, ‘Weren’t you scared?’ she answered, ‘Yes – but my anger was stronger!’ “It speaks to her sense of mission and her sense of humility that for the rest of her life, looking back on those war years, she felt she hadn’t done enough.”

Marcia Gay Harden says Irena Sendler and her fellow smugglers weren’t the only individuals worthy of praise during that troubled time. “Equally amazing, I think,” Harden says, “is the courage of the mothers and fathers who kissed their babies one last time and then parted with them, so they’d have a chance to live. I think everybody who sees this film will ask themselves if they would have had the courage to do that.”

Asked to describe Anna Paquin’s performance in the lead role, Marcia Gay Harden says, “Anna is portraying more than the nobility of Irena Sendler. She’s portraying the humanity of Irena Sendler.”

The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler is written by John Kent Harrison and Lawrence John Spagnola, based on the book The Mother of the Holocaust Children by Anna Mieszkowska.

John Kent Harrison directs. This is his sixth Hallmark Hall of Fame film; previous projects include William Faulkner’s Old Man, What the Deaf Man Heard and The Water Is Wide. Jeff Rice (The Watcher), Jeff Most (The Specialist) and Brent Shields (Front of the Class) are the executive producers. It is from Jeff Most/Jeff Rice Productions and Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions, Inc.


ANNA PAQUIN (Irena Sendler)
QUESTION: When the script first came to you, what made you want to play this part, and help tell this story?

ANNA PAQUIN: I hadn't heard of Irena Sendler before I got the script, and as I read it I thought, ‘She sounds so incredible she can't actually be real.' But of course, she is real. The fact that she saved thousands of lives during the war, got nominated for a Nobel Prize, and lived to be 98 - it seems almost unreal that one person could've done so much in one lifetime. After the initial ‘Wow!' I thought, ‘Please, please let me get this part!' I also thought, ‘You don't hear a lot of women's stories from World War II. The story of this remarkable woman and the dozens of women in her underground network is one that needs to be told. They are role models
for us all - tough, brave, strong.' The more I read about Irena Sendler, the more research I did, the more fascinated I became.

Q: What did your research tell you about Irena's character?
She was extraordinarily strong. And she was extraordinarily modest. She had no sense of being in any way special or heroic. She was angry about what was happening to the Jews she knew personally, and the thousands more she didn't know. She said the only way she could live through that terrible time was to do something. She felt she had no choice.When she was asked years later, ‘Weren't you scared?' she answered, ‘Yes - but my anger was stronger.' It speaks to her sense of mission and her sense of humility that for the rest of her life, looking back on those war years, she felt she hadn't done enough.

Q: It's winter here in Riga [Latvia] - what's it been like filming, especially the exteriors?
It's been freezing cold, with snow blizzards, but I love being part of something that feels so real. I've seen photographs of Warsaw and the Warsaw Ghetto in the 1940s, and this looks very real. Sometimes it's a little depressing, recreating that sad history here - but the fact that we're doing something important counterbalances that. When we shot the scene where I'm smuggling my best friend's daughter out of the ghetto, Nazi soldiers with their dogs are chasing people and grabbing them and throwing them into trucks.Yes, you're ‘just' making a film, but it's still frightening.

Q: You're working with a lot of children in this film. What's that been like?
We are so lucky, we have so many naturally talented young people in this cast. Some have acting experience, like Rebecca Windheim, from Montreal. She's only 10, but she's incredible. When I'm doing scenes with her it feels completely real. The casting people have done an amazing job finding all these young people, many of whom have never acted before, and our director, John Kent Harrison, has done a great job coaching them and capturing heartbreaking images of them on film.


Q: What do you hope viewers will take away from this film?
From my research into Irena, I can tell you that she didn't take no for an answer. If someone said, ‘That's not possible,' she'd say, ‘Okay, but if it were possible, what would I need to do?' If you really believe in something, you'll figure out how to overcome the obstacles. I think that's a powerful attitude to have toward life.


Q: How does your character, Stefan, meet Irena Sendler?
GORAN VISNJIC: Stefan and Irena knew each other before the war. They went to school together. But our movie focuses on 1941, 1942, when she discovers him working in an orphanage. She finds out that this is somebody  who knows how to smuggle things out of the ghetto. If she’s going to save the lives of Jewish children, then  Stefan can help her. He introduces Irena to the secret smuggling routes, and the more time they spend together, the more they find they like each other.


Q: What kind of accent have you been using during filming?
This is a huge international cast, actors from Wales, England, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Canada, the U.S., New Zealand. We have a great dialect coach, Constantine Gregory, and he’s making sure we all sound about the same. We’re speaking English, but with a bit of an old-fashioned and formal pronunciation and cadence. The irony for me is that I’m from Croatia originally, and since I came to America I’ve been working hard to lose my accent. But while we’ve been shooting this film, Constantine’s been gently encouraging me to bring the accent back!

Q: What are your thoughts about the story, about the film?
I really want people to see this film. Irena Sendler made such sacrifices to save all those children. Today, so many people are having a difficult time financially. I don’t for a minute downplay the serious challenges they face, but Irena Sendler faced the possibility of arrest and torture and death every minute of every day and night. What she did involved her life, and the lives of thousands of children. It’s incredible - even though she was tortured terribly, she never betrayed any of her colleagues, who were helping her help all those children to escape. I’m deeply inspired by Irena’s life, by Irena’s example – and I think viewers will be, too.


QUESTION: What about this story made you want to be part of it?
MARCIA GAY HARDEN: The fact that this woman did something so remarkable, and was so modest about it through the rest of her long life. She later said she saved all those children because, ‘My heart told me to.’ No trumpets blaring, no best-selling autobiographies, just: ‘My heart told me to.’ Imagine being arrested by the Gestapo and spending three months in prison being interrogated and beaten every day. They broke both her legs. And yet she never gave in. Equally amazing, I think, is the courage of the mothers and fathers who kissed their babies one last time and then parted with them, so they’d have a chance to live. I think everybody who sees this film will ask themselves if they would have had the courage to do that.


Q: Anna Paquin. What do you see her bringing to the character of Irena Sendler?
Anna is honest to a fault, which I love. She’s direct. She invests her roles with great conviction and joy. A combination of those qualities suggests an actor to me who can certainly embrace the spirit of Irena Sendler. Anna is portraying more than the nobility of Irena Sendler. She’s portraying the humanity of Irena Sendler. Anna told me something I won’t forget about filming some of the really tough scenes, when the SS soldiers, for example, are herding the Jews into trains which will take them to the gas chambers in Treblinka. When the cameras were rolling, she said, it was a case of ‘no acting required.’ It was that real, that horrific, for her. ‘No acting required.’


QUESTION: How did you hear about Irena Sendler?
JOHN KENT HARRISON: I first heard about Irena Sendler three years ago when I was in Cracow filming the miniseries John Paul II. I was there for two months, and I heard this story about a Christian Polish woman who organized a smuggling operation in 1941 to save all these Jewish children. I thought, ‘What a courageous act, and what a fearless woman Irena Sendler must have been, to save 2,500 children when at any moment of any day she or one of her compatriots could have been arrested, tortured and killed.’

Q: Besides the Irena biography, what research were you able to do?
I was fortunate enough to spend time with one of the survivors. Her name is Elzbieta Ficowska. She was six months old when her mother handed her over to Irena. Her mother also gave Irena a silver teaspoon with the baby’s name on one side and her birth date on the other. Like many babies, Elzbieta was drugged so she wouldn’t yell out and alert the German guards. She was placed in a tiny wooden box, which was covered with bricks. She was raised by a Polish woman, and didn’t find out she was Jewish until she was 17. After the war, Elzbieta got to know Irena like a second mother, and she told me very specific things about Irena’s character. Elzbieta said Irena had to make so many life-and-death decisions she could be very decisive, sometimes could even appear to be cold-blooded. Apparently, she was very politically aware. Up until a week or so before she died in the hospital she was discussing contemporary Polish politics. I learned a lot from Elzbieta, and her story is in the film.



Q: Did you have a ‘Eureka!’ moment while you were casting?
I did. I remember very clearly sitting in Warsaw watching the audition tape for a 10-year-old actress from Montreal named Rebecca Windheim, who was trying out for the key part of Karolina. When I saw her audition tape I said to myself, ‘That’s it. I have it. I’ve got the movie. Now everybody else – including me – has to come up to her level.’ Her concentration, her focus, her emotion, her understanding of the part, was beyond anything I’d ever seen in an actor. When – accompanied by her parents - she came to Riga to work, her father, Sol, shared something with me that perhaps helps explain in part why what I saw in that audition tape moved me so powerfully. The Windheim family comes from Poland. Sol’s parents were trapped in a Jewish ghetto there. They experienced much of what we portray in this film: the pervading atmosphere of fear, the round-ups, the executions, the deportations. Most of his family did not survive the war. Rebecca’s father told me he’s honored that his daughter has this opportunity to be the voice of the family members who didn’t make it.

Q: Were there scenes that were particularly challenging?
Yes. The scenes where parents are making the decision to give up their child or their children. The only way I could really tackle that while I was writing was to imagine giving up my own children, my two daughters, whom I love more than anything else on this Earth. What would I have said to them? What could I possibly have said? When it came to filming, those parents-parting-with-their-children scenes were the most difficult ones to get through. It was heartbreaking. The cast cried. The crew cried. Our cameraman, who is Polish, had to take his eye away from the camera lens, he was so affected. He just couldn’t watch. It’s a miracle, really, that we got some of those scenes on film.

Q: Is there any other scene that was difficult to film?
The scene at the train station. We had 700 extras that day; 400 children and 300 adults. We only had six hours of daylight to work in, and the scenes with the adults chewed up almost all the time. When we got to the children we only had 45 minutes left. They’d been there six or seven hours waiting, and kids being kids, by the time we got to them they were bouncing off the walls, talking loudly to each other, laughing, using cell phones. I had 45 minutes to shoot the scene. So I asked the actors playing the SS guards – who were standing on a reviewing stand – to get down, and I got up there with a microphone and a Latvian translator and a Russian translator, and I told them to repeat to the kids exactly what I told them. I said, ‘Many years ago, this event that you’re about to recreate really happened. Children were assembled in this square and then loaded on trains to be taken to the death camps. They knew they were going to die. They were terrified.’ ‘Out of respect for all those children, to honor all those children, we must do this without anyone smiling.’ They did me proud. No one smiled. We wrapped 30 minutes later.

Q: Are you a big believer in rehearsals?
No. I make sure the actors have a general sense of what the intention is in the scene, but then I like to film without a detailed rehearsal, because I always like to leave the door open for an actor to make a mistake. Sometimes a ‘mistake,’ or an ‘accident’ can yield something miraculous, something that was not planned, was not anticipated, something that just ‘works’ for the character and the scene. Those moments are precious, and you don’t get them if you rehearse to within an inch of your life. For example, one of the most dramatic scenes is where a father, played by an excellent English stage actor, Scott Handy, is saying goodbye to his son, played by an amazing young Russian boy, Sergei Marchenko, who just has a natural gift for acting. We did five takes, and it just wasn’t working. I took Scott aside and told him something different was going to happen next time, but I didn’t tell him what it was. And then I took Sergei aside and I told him, ‘You’re gonna learn something new today, a new acting trick. It’s called “mess him up.”’ Of course Sergei had no idea what I was talking about, but I explained to him that whatever Scott says to him – whatever distraught father says to devastated son – Sergei is to talk right over him, say ‘No, papa. Please, papa. I love you papa, please come with me papa. Don’t papa, please don’t leave me.’ So the scene began, Scott began delivering his lines, and Sergei just started talking right over top of all those carefully-scripted lines. Scott became very frustrated with Sergei, who was chanting ‘No, papa, I love you, please.’ Finally, Scott couldn’t take it any more. He yelled, ‘Shut up!’ And then, ‘You gotta be brave!’ Those words, that emotion, just popped out of him, and it was perfect.

Q: Anna Paquin, what does she add to this film?
Anna was much more than the actor in the lead role. She was a key member of the team that made this film. She came early every day to the set, just to be there, whether she was working or not. When it was cold – which it was most of the time – she didn’t wear insulated boots. She wore regular shoes. She wanted to feel the cold. I really admire her.

Q: Goran Visnjic…
Thank goodness he’s such a pro, because he brought magical timing to every scene he’s in. He was perfectly cast, I think, as this tower-of-strength anchor character in our story.

Q: Marcia Gay Harden…
She’s terrific. She doesn’t actually have that many lines in the script, but she brings such a presence to her scenes that the viewer really does get to know who she is, why she says what she says and does what she does.

Q: Why Riga?
Warsaw is just too modern. There is absolutely no remnant of the ghetto left today. Riga, on the other hand, has a whole neighborhood that has been preserved, just the way it was at the end of the war in 1945. By shooting there, we could shoot with great freedom. Every direction you look, it’s real. And if you’re telling a real story, you’re blessed if you can shoot on location like this, and not on a sound stage. We also had terrific cooperation from the city and from the people of Riga. The whole town got behind this film. The people there shared our sense of mission. The story of this courageous lady is a story that needs to be told.

  All Photos: Eric Heilila/Hallmark Hall of Fame.
©2008 Hallmark Hall of Fame. All Rights Reserved.






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