In Depth

Not the Usual Movie Shoot

‘Bernard and Doris’ Showed How Cable Can Make the Most of Its Limited Budgets

In the end, Susan Sarandon says, it was their mutual addiction to dark chocolate that enabled her and co-star Ralph Fiennes to get through the long, cold nights.

Ms. Sarandon, an Emmy nominee for actress in a movie or miniseries for her portrayal of billionaire tobacco heiress Doris Duke in HBO’s “Bernard and Doris,” said the low-budget indie was shot in about three weeks and “in the spirit of no dressing rooms and a lot of young kids helping out.”

Critics, who didn’t know about the cold or the hardships, have mostly praised the intimate drama, taking note of the feisty, intelligent vulnerability Ms. Sarandon brought to her performance.

The off-kilter love story between employer and employee was about “kindness and acceptance and being there for someone who’s not your blood relative,” Ms. Sarandon said. “They bore witness for each other.”

Ms. Sarandon, the oldest of nine children, said she understood Bernard, the Irish, alcoholic, gay butler to whom the flamboyant and seemingly amoral Ms. Duke left her considerable fortune.

“He defined himself by facilitating someone else,” she said. “He made her feel good. And [in real life] I think they probably loved each other.”

The actress said she and Mr. Fiennes approached their roles from opposite directions. “He’s very exacting,” she said of Mr. Fiennes. “It’s the antithesis of the way I work. I do research, but then I fly by the seat of my pants.”

“We did this movie independently and then sold it to HBO, which meant we were shooting it for $500,000,” said Bob Balaban, the project’s Emmy-nominated director. “You can do a lot on $500,000, but it’s hard to do rich on $500,000.

“It meant Ralph and Susan were cold, had no comfort, nowhere to change, nowhere to warm up—but they loved their work, loved working with each other, and in the end that brought about a kind of freedom.”

Ms. Sarandon, currently shooting “The Greatest” in New York, said, “If you have the right group of people, the good news is you get very like-minded.”

“Bernard and Doris” is an HBO/Trigger Street Independent Films production in association with Little Bird and Chicago Films.

Other nominees for the actress in a movie or miniseries Emmy are Phylicia Rashad as Lena Younger in ABC’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (Storyline Entertainment and Bad Boy World Wide Entertainment in association with Sony Pictures Television); Catherine Keener as Gertrude Baniszewski in “An American Crime” (Showtime Presents in association with First Look Pictures/Killer Films/John Wells Productions); Judi Dench as Miss Matty Jenkyns in “Cranford” (PBS; BBC and WGBH/Boston); and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams in “John Adams” (Playtone in association with HBO Films).

Last year’s winner was Helen Mirren for “Prime Suspect.”