In one of James Cameron’s Titanic most memorable scenes, the fatalities among the third-class Irish immigrants in steerage were heartbreakingly told with an Irish mother telling her children a famous tale from Irish folklore to send them to sleep, knowing that they would never again wake.
With the 1997 movie, the actors behind these minor characters, who nonetheless had a big impact, are paying tribute to the touching scene that has been the cause of many a teary face in the past two decades.
"And so they lived happily together for 300 years, in the land of Tír na nÓg, the land of eternal youth and beauty,” the Irish mother, played by Jeanette Goldstein, says in the movie, while her daughter, played by Laramie Landis, and son, played by Reece Thompson, drift off to sleep as the ship sinks around them.
American actress Goldstein, who had previously worked with James Cameron on “Alien,” revealed to Cosmopolitan that it was the other Irish actors on set who recommended the story of Oisín and Niamh in Tír na n-Óg, explaining that the idea of a boy and girl going to an eternal land would be extremely fitting for the scene in which a mother is attempting to comfort her children in a terrifying situation.
The Irish mother and children scene in "Titanic" is heartbreaking
Even though the minor characters are simply known as Irish mother, Irish boy, and Irish girl, the part immediately jumped out at Goldstein when Cameron asked her to read the script for its simple beauty.
“That mother, her focus was making sure her children were calm and happy — knowing they were going to die. I mean, my god, I’m getting chills right now. Those scenes are fantastic,” the actress told Cosmo.
“The very last scene, putting them to bed, was in one way easy and in one way hard. The easy thing was putting myself in that position because I had gone through the big Los Angeles earthquake in 1994 when my oldest son was five. I was a single parent, my son was in the bed with [me], and it felt like a bomb was going off. I got him out of the bed and stood under the doorway, and he was asleep and I was holding him, and I wanted to scream, but I didn’t, because the same thought [that my character has in Titanic] was in my head: We’re gonna die. Let him die while sleeping. Don’t scream. So that was the easy part. The hard part was, during the scene, trying not to cry.”
“I think in the script it said, ‘She tells them a bedtime story.’ That’s all it said. And so I said, ‘Which one?’ I was talking to a lot of the Irish actors [on set] and they said, ‘You’ve got to tell them the story of Tír na nÓg,’ and they wrote out the whole tale for me. It goes so well with the kids — you’re going to a place of final rest, where it’s youth and beauty.”
In an even more heartbreaking moment, the young actor Reece Thompson finished off a sterling job in the scene by asking her when they were going to film the next one where they would eventually get to the boats and make their escape from the sinking ship.
“After we do the scene, he goes to me, ‘So when are we gonna do the next scene?’” she revealed.
“And I said, ‘Which one?’ And he goes, ‘The one where we get onto the boats and escape.’ Oh my god. I was just like, ‘Uhhhh, talk to your mom.’”
Although only a minor character in the overall "Titanic" movie, the Irish boy was an extremely memorable role
Fortunately, then a five-year-old and now 25 years old, Thompson himself doesn’t remember much about making the scene or any of those heart-wrenching questions he asked his co-stars.
Although of Irish descent, Thompson had to draw on a few more freckles to apparently make him look a little more Irish for the movie, the first he had ever acted in.
“I had done commercials and print ads [prior to Titanic], so the magnitude of a major motion picture, especially one as big as Titanic, was pretty overwhelming,” he told Country Living.
“I had very little understanding of what was going on. I was mostly just excited to be in Mexico [at the Fox Baja Studios in Rosarito] and doing something that seemed fun.”
With just one line to say, Thompson explains how he struggled to understand how he had to put on an Irish accent at such a young age.
“They wanted me to say it in an Irish accent, and as a 5-year-old I had no idea what that meant,” he said.
“So I had my handler or whatever — my mom was on set, but my mom's not proficient in accents either — trying to explain to me how to say it, and I remember just trying to say it over and over and over again. That was the more frustrating part.”
The "Titanic" Irish mother and children scene originally had the room filling with water
Sharing a makeup room with the movie’s star Leonardo Dicaprio on the few days he was on set, Thompson was also asked if he could swim with the initial thinking behind the scene being that the room would fill with water, entrapping the Irish mother and her two young children.
“Initially they really wanted to fill the room with water, have it slowly fill with water, but I didn't know how to swim,” Thompson said.
“I don't know exactly what they were planning, but I remember them specifically asking me if I knew how to swim and me going, ‘If I have floaties, I can swim.’
“Every person who's ever found out — especially women who find out — that that was me in that scene, they always tell me that was the most heartbreaking scene, watching this mother having to, essentially, talk the kids to sleep in a genuinely terrifying moment. So from what I remember, it was only ever played that way. It didn't take that many times to take that one because it was just like, ‘Look like you're falling asleep’ — something I had mastered at 5 years old.”
What is your favorite scene from James Cameron’s “Titanic”? Have you visited any of the Titanic centers in Ireland?
* Originally published in Dec 2017.