LOS ANGELES — Everybody hates airports — until the moment when that loved one’s face materializes from the crowd, and you find yourself in a viselike hug, oblivious to the swirling mob of strangers.
During a long wait at Los Angeles International Airport, British writer-director Richard Curtis was so struck by the tenderness of reunions that he incorporated montages of airport greetings into his romantic comedy “Love Actually.”
Dozens of airport embraces, caresses and kisses open and close “Love Actually,” whose ensemble cast includes Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and Alan Rickman as Londoners in various throes of pre-Christmas romance.
The reunion hugs are of real people, shot by a hidden camera at London’s Heathrow Airport.
“What is lovely in these airports, before the person you love comes through the door, the people waiting look their least attractive,” said Curtis, who wrote “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill.” “They’re tired, they parked in some airport car park, they arrived 45 minutes early. They look like they couldn’t muster a smile if you paid them a thousand pounds. Then their person comes through, and this explosion of personality takes over.”
Airport farewells carry just as much impact, Curtis said.
“They can be equally moving in a very different and sadder way,” said Curtis, who turns 47 the day after “Love Actually” opens. “When I go through my melancholy phase in my 50s, maybe I’ll do a movie that begins and ends with airport departures.”
Curtis and some of his cast share memories of their own airport experiences, whether happy greetings or sad partings.
Curtis, actually, has a sad greeting. In Paris years ago, he developed a crush on a British woman. Before he returned to London, he arranged to meet her at the airport when she came back home.
“When she came off the plane, I didn’t recognize her. She was wearing a slightly different dress, and I was looking straight through her,” Curtis said. “I remember telling this annoying person in front of me to move because I was looking for this fabulous girl in a blue dress, and it turned out to be her.
“Not the perfect start to a date.”
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Linney, 39, plays an American living in London, whose attempts at romance with a co-worker are disrupted by trouble with her mentally ill brother.
The actress’ strongest airport recollections date back to childhood, when she would leave behind her mom and dad to visit her grandmother in Georgia.
“I was one of those solo-flier children, and I would go down and spend part of summer with her,” Linney said. “Just getting off the plane and seeing her face, it was wonderful.”
While most people tend to blot out demonstrative scenes among strangers at airports, Linney said she always has been a bit of an emotional voyeur over such moments.
“I get very choked up at airports watching other people greet and say goodbye. When you see those hellos and goodbyes, people coming together or taken apart, you see their chemistry change,” Linney said. With Curtis’ script, “I was very glad somebody else saw it the same way and was as sentimental about it, and as much of an emotional sponge as I am.”
Rickman, 57, also has been a longtime spectator of other people’s emotional airport dramas, so much so that he bears a friendly grudge against Curtis.
“Strangely enough, I’ve always had in mind that I wanted to make a short film of just people saying hello and goodbye at airports, and he snatched it away from me,” said Rickman, whose “Love Actually” character is a steadfast husband put to the test by a flirtation with an amorous colleague. “It just goes to show if you have an idea, you better do it fast before someone else does.”
For Rickman, no particular airport scenes from his own life come to mind.
“The trouble is, my airport experiences usually are, ‘Where’s the driver? Where’s the luggage? There’s too much luggage. The luggage is too heavy,”’ Rickman said. “That’s why I look around at airports for signs in other people that they’re having a better day than I am.
“I think it’s everybody for themselves at airports.”
British TV and pop star Martine McCutcheon, 26, gets her big-screen break with “Love Actually” as an adorably klutzy aide who catches the eye of Britain’s new bachelor prime minister (Grant).
McCutcheon recalls her mother’s glum face a couple of years ago, when the actress took her first trip from London to Los Angeles to meet with agents.
“My mum drove me to the airport, and she knew I’d be out there on my own. She was kind of breaking her heart when I left,” McCutcheon said. “Suddenly you’re independent, growing up, all those things. It was pretty emotional saying goodbye. We were both crying our eyes out.”
Among drivers holding placards with passengers’ names at Heathrow, McCutcheon once saw a man with a sign saying, “Susan, will you marry me?”
“I didn’t ever see Susan,” McCutcheon said. “I don’t know if she said yes or not, but I remember thinking, I hope she says yes.”
Bill Nighy, 54, who played a dinosaur rock ’n’ roller in the 1998 bandmate-reunion comedy “Still Crazy,” co-stars as another has-been rocker in “Love Actually.” With shameless glee, his character hits the comeback trail plugging his awful Christmas version of the old Troggs tune “Love Is All Around.”
Nighy recently had a heartfelt reunion with his 18-year-old daughter when she returned to England after a trip to South America, in countries “she chose very carefully to put the wind up her father, countries where her cell phone wouldn’t operate.”
So Nighy had barely spoken with her for two months when he picked her up at Heathrow.
“On the way to the airport, I was thinking, if I squeeze her the way I want to squeeze her, we’d end up in casualty. I will squeeze her to death,” Nighy said. “You understand your mother, suddenly. The physical distress you get when you haven’t seen your child for a long time.
“When I actually saw her and hugged her, I restrained myself. I didn’t break both her arms.”