Interview with Elisabeth Subrin
By FF2 Senior Contributor Lesley Coffin
BamCinemafest is one of the film festivals which makes it their aim to showcase unique and emerging voices outside Hollywood. Sunday Elisabeth Subrin’s feature debut A Woman, A Part will make its US premiere (it premiered earlier this year at Netherlands’ Rotterdam Film Festival), starring character actors Maggie Siff, Cara Seymour and John Ortiz.
Three friends who had success in New York’s new wave theater in the 90s eventually separated and went their own ways after the bottom fell out of independent theater. Ortiz’s Isaac, the writer of that piece, now lives with his wife and child but hasn’t found subsequent success as a writer. Seymour’s Kate left acting (and drinking) all together to find inner-piece as a yoga instructor, a profession which pays too little to afford the city she loves. And Siff’s Anna found financial success in Los Angeles as a TV actress, but physical and mental health issues threaten her livelihood and sense of self…an identity crisis which makes her consider leaving the profession all together.
For visual artist Subrin, her direction on this film shows a different side of herself. Rather than use extreme visuals or taking an experimental approach to the material, she choose to primarily focus on the intersecting, internal lives of her characters. It can be easy to assume the visual style is minimalist, or secondary, but she clearly takes care to use the city’s visuals to show the age and journey of these people facing an uncertain second act in their lives. The lived in apartments on screen have a musty, old feeling (rather than warm and lived in) and the Brooklyn neighborhood grey and dusty. All this to allow her character state of quite, growing anxiety about the future to wash over them.
Ortiz and Seymour, two of the best character actors working today (even audience probably don’t know them by name), are both given smart, meaty character to dive into, and they clearly relish the opportunities. The smart and often composed Siff, has the more internalized character, but her often quiet performance is as good as her co-stars. Walking through the film like a woman carrying a 100 pound weight with her, Anna merits empathy for her inner struggles (even when her worries can appear minor to those with less material opportunities). It’s also worth noting that the fine character actress Khandi Alexander has a small but memorable role as Anna’s agent, bringing her signature powerhouse style to the screen….reminding audiences that she is an actress we simply don’t get enough of.
Before the US premiere, I spoke with Subrin about making her feature film debut, her casting choices, and the must read Tumblr page Who Cares About Actresses she created.
LC: I know that you’d been working on a version of this film six years ago. Had you been thinking of moving into narrative filmmaking and developed the story, or had the story come to you and you decided to take the leap into feature films?
ES: I started working on my first narrative back in 2000 I started exploring narrative and wrote a script that went to the Sundance labs. And it was my first script and we were developing it for a long time. I co-wrote it with a friend of mine from art school. I’d never studied narrative films before, but we had Rachel Griffith and Kal Penn attached. But then the stock market crashed, which was ironic because the film was about the dot.com world. The budget had been simply too high for a first time director, and it was a period piece about corporate excess, so you can’t do that kind of movie as a micro budget. So I went back and made more art that excited me, working with a commercial gallery and doing instillations, because I just felt like I’d given up years of my life on a movie that I couldn’t afford to make. But, I kind of had PTSD and all this sadness about that experience. After studying acting and writing the screenplay, having a story I really wanted to tell, and not being able make to. So it took my producer Scott before I could even think about writing another screenplay, because I didn’t want to go through it again, trying to direct another female focused movie that wouldn’t get financed. So I thought I’d make an experimental version of the first film, about an actress who came to New York to be in that film, but the way we saw the film was through the table reads and rehearsals and filming. So you’d learn about the film almost through black-box Theater. But then I got so interested in the actress, and everything that being an actress symbolizes in cinema, I threw away that script and wrote this film almost from scratch.
LC: When you say you studied acting, was that a profession you were interested in pursuing yourself?
ES: I never studied acting until I started to develop that first feature, and I did that just so I could be a director. I’m a horrible actor. So I really just studied it to learn how to work with actors.
LC: And give you an appreciation for what they do I’m sure.
ES: A gave me a huge appreciation for actors. As you can see on my blog.
LC: Speaking of that Who Cares About Actresses started to exist on its own and has had great pieces on issues such as gender, sexuality and ethnicity in Hollywood. Did you start that as a marketing tool or were you trying to get feedback while writing the script?
ES: The script was almost done when I started the blog. But the reason I started it was, when we were starting to get financing, we kept being asked who cares about actresses? And even Maggie, her first question was “why should I care about an actress?” Which in her case is a very humble question, but it started making me really think, why do I want to make a film about an actress? And for me, as someone who has made short films about female representation for almost 20 years, actresses are the most meta representation of a woman. As I say in the blog’s manifesto, we understand what a woman is from our representations of them. We understand what a woman is far more from Hollywood than from someone like Hilary Clinton, which is the reason her appearance is constantly being criticized. She’s constantly being told she’s the wrong woman because we understand that the right woman is from Hollywood’s depiction. So for me, this was a political act to interrogate that question. And the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to have that blog. Initially, I did think of it as a side project, using it support my film, using it for research and finding a community. But then I realized it could an incredible venue for my missionary zeal and political side. This way could keep this more activist side out of the film, which is a work of art, and put it in a place where I could have a conversation. And I’m proud to say it predated some of the conversations we are having now. We launched in 2014, before the whole awards season started, so we were part of that conversation that isn’t just about sexism in the industry, but looking at what actresses are and what we allow them to be.
LC: When it came time to talk with Maggie about Anna’s character and that public’s impression of Anna as a celebrity, did you ask with Maggie if she’s had faced the same frustrations with the industry Anna’s talking about?
ES: Like when she says, “you’re righting my character as a profession” and she’s told, her character is her profession. Before even meeting Maggie, I spoke with a lot of actresses. And one thing a lot of women touched had been concerns about medical issues. I spoke more with Cara than Maggie, because I wrote the part of Kate for her and we’d already worked together on a short. I also made a short with Gaby Hoffman, so we spoke about it. Maggie’s an interesting case because she isn’t burnt out. So when we did a reading, she brought friends who are on TV shows and work in movies, and after reading the script, we talked a lot about the industry. All the women started out saying, who cares about actresses. And by the end they were crying and talking about depression and addictions and insecurities. I don’t want to put words into Maggie’s worth, but in terms of parallels of her own life, she has talked about being conflicted about being on a very violent TV show. But I don’t think she feels that similar to the character, but she had profound empathy for her character and the broader experiences of women in the industry. She has made smart choices in her profession and she’s a smart actress, who can take what might be a less dimensional portrayal on the page and turn it into something special. I’d never even heard of Sons of Anarchy when she came up, I knew her from Mad Men. But when I started watching, I was amazed at the way she brought so much to a part that could be described as just the wife.
LC: And that’s such an interesting case, because we seem to be facing a third wave of feminism in cinema. It used to be just have a female represented, then we needed the woman to be “strong” but that’s not a three-dimensional performance either. And now we are talking about having women play characters with as much depth and variety as the guys.
ES: It’s what Maggie Gyllenhaal said at the Golden Globes. She doesn’t want to just play strong women, she wants complex women. And the problem with the expression strong women characters is, it implies being weak or vulnerable, or showing that side of yourself, can’t be as interesting. We didn’t mean we just want strong female characters, we just don’t want all the women we see on screen to be dumb, one-dimensional, slutty, sexualized, boring and reductive versions of women.
LC: When it came to casting Cara, what was it about her performance in the short and working with her made you think, she’d be the perfect Kate?
ES: I met Cara on the short, but she came in literally a week before, to replace an actress we’d cast. It amazed me on the short, because she’s playing this very neurotic, high-strung, difficult woman. Which isn’t her nature at all. And she can do those roles, but it was hard to get her to play mean. And I knew that Kate had to have a lot of anger inside. So I knew while writing it that I could have her say anything and really load stuff on Anna, and you’d still feel empathy for Kate. I just knew Cara would be great at showing those two sides of the character.
LC: In your informal study of acting, did you feel it was helpful to have an actress playing against their nature, so there is something always just under the surface?
ES: Usually, when I write a character I don’t have an actor’s face in mind. But I did in this one case. What I knew about Cara was, if we went out to eat and got onto the topic of sexism or politics, I could feel this anger that I didn’t know she had. But always coming from this warm, compassionate person, who also happens to have this incredibly impressive face. So I don’t know if I see that as a casting strategy, but when I see actors play against type or against their own personalities, I love that. It’s not that she doesn’t have a fierceness in her own life, but I knew pulling on that side, I wouldn’t lose her inherent sweetness.
LC: And we also need to talk about the third part of this relationship. John Ortiz is a great actor everyone’s scene in smaller parts. But it’s so nice to see him is a part this big. Being a theater guy himself and having worked in the independent theater depicted in this movie, had you seen his stage work before casting him?
ES: I’d never seen him do theater. What’s amazing is, I forgot he’d been in Silver Linings Playbook, so when I went back to watch his scenes, I couldn’t believe how different he is in that. It’s kind of embarrassing, but when his name was brought up, I realize I never looked at the cast of Togetherness. But when I saw him, I remember saying, “who is that? He’s amazing!” And they told me, he’s on Togetherness.
LC: But I think that’s double-edged the key to great character actors. You can see them in many different things, and they can often stand out in each role, but you don’t always put it together that it’s the same person.
ES: Which is so unfair to actors. Especially when IMDB now, because you think, I’ll look them up later. And then you never do. John was cast somewhat late, because we were looking for a New York actor and he’s in LA now. But he just turned out to be THE ONE. And I’ve never seen an actor enter a role so quickly. He understood and got into this part so fast. And he hasn’t played a part like this before. He doesn’t play romantic leads, but he just became Isaac before my eyes. Even during his wardrobe fittings. I’ll be honest, I kind of styled him to look like my ex-boyfriends. My friends have taken note of that. But he looks so cute in the film, he’s really sexy.
LC: And then we have Maggie, who just seems drained of life, which is even more noticeable around these two.
ES: I was going to say the same thing. All the parts were challenging because they’re complex. The arrival of Anna triggers past behaviors and feelings. They are relating to each other’s past selves, in the present. So the performing, writing, and directing’s all hard. But I will say, audiences often like supporting characters more because the audience empathizes with them more. So I think Maggie had the hardest role. She’s the lead character who is depressed, strike one against her, financially well-off and entitled, strike two, and playing someone who is unhappy with her life, strike three against her with the audience. Trying to bring empathy to a white, privileged successful actress is very challenging. Especially playing someone who’s also depressed and suffering. So I knew casting the role of Anna, I needed a really smart actress to counter the intense assumptions people lay on an actress. People make so many assumptions about who an actress is, and what they have.
LC: Was that the reason to have those scenes at the beginning of her in LA at the house and on set? Do you feel it was vital to make audiences aware of where she’s coming from, so we know what she’s keeping from Isaac and Kate as she suffers in silence?
ES: Right, she keeps that stuff to herself. I love films that don’t require lots of backstory and you can take things at face value. But I felt, people make so many assumptions about actresses, especially actresses over 40, that I needed to create context. And I don’t feel it’s a film about an actress. I see it as a film about reaching mid-life, having some professional success or just your way in life, and then thinking, “what am I doing with my life?” And also, as a representation of women, that glass ceiling and compromises women have to make. But we’re telling it through the lens of an actress representing these ideas.