When I watch a film I want to be convinced the characters are real… even if they are a 4000 year old mummy. A great actor can become many characters while evoking emotion from each. I will always be in pure awe of an actor when they can infuse themselves into a character so believable with such a compelling story to tell. They have my full attention because of damn good acting and phenomenal casting.
Being able to find the right fit for your film can make or break it. I believe we’ve all seen examples of the right film with the wrong cast. I’ll admit, I’ve seen um… friends cry over a good dramatic performance and who hasn’t enjoyed a great gut splitting laugh because the actor owned that character and was able to bring a little something special and magical to it, usually due to somebody funny they may have known from their past. I have heard it often, that an actor will use a memory or an event from the past to conjure up that emotion they were feeling that day. Wherever it comes from, I have so much respect and appreciation for the craft that it keeps me going to the movies regularly. The popcorn and candy all serve to enhance the experience. Pure genius.
Since VIFF was recently in town I’ve had many great opportunities to watch some truly amazing films. One such film was LEVEL 16 written and directed by Danishka Esterhazey and starred Katie Douglas. I was very fortunate to have the rare opportunity in speaking with them both on separate ocassions regarding the film. Having previously spoken to Danishka, I recently caught up with Katie Douglas in Toronto. She was so candid and open about the film and her career.
“How did you prepare for the audition and how did you prepare for the role?”
“When we’re talking about Vivian, we’re talking about a person, a human being with a personality and characteristics, but in her case, throughout her entire life she’s been scolded and beaten and taught to dismiss her individualities and to obey her superiors. So the idea was that the school had worked to make her into this ‘perfect’ example of their virtues. Essentially when preparing for the audition, I wanted her to look like a broken dog, like a hollow little porcelain shell of a woman. In preparing for the audition the jaw became clenched, the eyes became hollow and the character became very cold. What might read as being nasty and cold comes out of her fears and history at the school. I tried to think about what that would be like, to be ashamed of your own individuality and to be taught that your life is set in stone and the results are very bleak.
“Did your character change at all between the audition to the set?”
“It actually did a little. Going into the audition I had this idea that these women were suppose to be very beautiful and look like porcelain dolls, so I wanted to come off like a doll. When I went to the set for the first time I looked at what a wonderful and creative Art Director had created. It was actually a very gritty and dirty set that had more of a rawness to the atmosphere than I had prepared for, so that changed things a little bit. I became less articulate and less doll like. I became more gritty, more raw and frightened.”
“Playing a character like this, is it easy to switch back to your real life personality or does it take a new role to finally say goodbye? How do you shift back to yourself?”
“Personally for me it isn’t hard to switch back and forth between characters because as an individual I don’t really have a solid character. I’m consistent, if that makes any sense. I find comfort in the characters I get to play and they’ve always been solid for me. With this film, my roommate had made a comment. I normally come home from work or school and I’m usually goofy and myself but apparently with this film I‘d come home from work, I’d open my door and slowly go into my room. I’d close the door and go to bed. I think it’s easy to get out of character but she had noticed something this time.”
“What did you learn from being in this film and the subject matter?”
“With this film I learned a lot in regards to being a leader. Cause unfortunately, even today sometimes we’re faced with ‘boys club’ etiquette, but that didn’t happen on this project at all. There’s absolutely no question of whether women are leaders after getting the opportunity to do it and they do it damn well. It was the subject matter of the film that highlighted the situation and reinforced/strengthened our creativity and confidence to have our say and be in charge of our art. It shed a lot of light in allowing us to be the leaders that we are.”
“What other characters would you like to play going forward?”
“Moving forward, after playing such dark haunting characters, I think it would feel very freeing to do something comedic. With that being said I choose roles for many different reasons. My heart lies in the drama and the angst; it’s how I love to move people. I also like range as well and will really do anything. I’m never not excited when something new comes along. I usually have an idea on whether its good or not but I’m usually optimistic.”
“Have you driven by the facility where you filmed since its completion? If so, did you experience any residual emotional connected to your character?”
“It’s funny, I was working on another project this summer and was filming right beside it. I do feel residual emotion from the character sometimes in everyday life in a weird way. The movie had made a statement about the ridiculous nature of suppressing women and even now I’ll hear somebody say something similar to the feminine virtues of the bad guys enforced in that movie. I can hear it and I laugh now because this is a fictitious movie and like the villain, you just told me that women are suppose to be clean and tidy and pristine. It’s almost humorous and I feel Vivian inside of me laughing like a maniac.”
“What is the hardest part about playing the lead in a feature film?”
“In a feature film, it’s the pressure to do well and carry the movie while living up to the expectation of being a solid lead. Keeping everyone else comfortable and a good environment, which is not hard because I like to goof off a lot. It makes a world of difference when your environment is not a happy one and comfortable to work in.”
“When did you catch the acting bug and were your parents supportive?”
“I was actually very young when I was given the opportunity. I think I did some kind of after-school summer camp and I was six years old. We had put on a play and one of the parents in the audience happened to be a casting agent. They sent me off to sign a contract and that’s how I got started. I’ve been doing commercials and modeling and other stuff. My parents weren’t necessarily excited about it but when they saw the paycheck they thought University, so they let me keep doing it. It’s stuck with me throughout my life and I believe I’ll always have a love affair with acting but I am in university now and am grateful for a young career to be able to pay for it.”
“What are you taking in university?”
“I’m taking film studies. The goal in mind is to end up working behind the camera. I have a lot of ideas and I think that’s where my passion is; making a film from a different perspective.”
“Was Danishka an influence in your choice to take film studies?”
“She was actually a very large influence in that and quite honestly, one of the best directors I’ve worked with. She was very strong and direct with her vision and knew her art. It was very respectful; working with her was so easy, lovely and educational. She was a very large inspiration for my aspirations to direct.”
“Is there a difference between working with US and Canadian filmmakers/directors?”
“I have worked with both. I think it’s really hard to say and it depends on the project. On this Independent film, Danishka had been working on it a very long time and was very passionate about it. There was so much more freedom and creativity that I was able to bring to work everyday. There’ve been other times where I’ve worked on an American show or television series and they already have a set idea of what they want to do and it’s more restricted than other projects. Again, it all depends on the project.”
“Was it quite different working with a female director like Danishka than a male director?
“I want to say no, there’s absolutely no difference. The acknowledgement that a female is directing is there and she definitely did an amazing job but honestly there is no difference. I’ve worked with both male and female directors and have found no difference. I think it’s more of an opportunity rather than our own strength to get there.”
“What’s the best part about being an actress in today’s world?”
“In todays world, it might be having a voice. Having the opportunity to put yourself out there and tell a story to people and have them listen. That’s essentially what I want to do; I want to make art and influence people in a meaningful and moving way. Film and television is a delivery system in how to do it. I think that is the best part about being an actor right now.”
Katie Douglas has another film coming out this weekend called Believe Me, the story of Lisa McVey. She just wrapped up another film called Thicker Than Water, but the title may be pending. If you recognize Katie, it’s because she had a recurring role in the series, Mary Kills People She plays a very bad troublemaking girl but tells me it’s fun to play characters far removed from yourself.
She has the acting down and will eventually be directing. Will her new career behind the camera surpass her skill as an actor? Stay tuned to find out.