Oftentimes, women, or anyone in general come across lots of problems in this world where it seems like everything is always out of control. We all have issues and one of the many cures to feeling better from issues and personal problems is to talk about them. I have a close personal friend who I tell all my problems and he seems to understand a lot better than most people. It helps when you’re discussing your problems with someone who’s experienced similar in their life. A good example of that is shown in Sarah Polley’s film, Women Talking, which showed at a few different festivals (TIFF, Telluride, and New York Film Festival to name a few) and got released last year. Taking place in 2010, the movie focuses on women in a Mennonite colony who have been sexually assaulted and need to work things out to feel like they’re part of the faith again. It’s not an easy task though, and they end up getting together to talk out their problems with each other. Ultimately, they learn what choice must be made in a decision for their own safety. Pretty intense-sounding film, even based off a book written by Miriam Toews.
It just so happened I got an opportunity with one of these women who acted in the film. Let me tell you a bit about Michelle McLeod and her character. She played the role of Mejal Loewen, who is the younger sister of another character named Mariche. Mejal is pretty intelligent and shown to have good patience, which makes up for her filthy habit of chain-smoking. Michelle is perfect for the role for so many reasons. One of them being her many years of experience in acting, and her training in acting courses, schools, and productions. I just had to talk to her about the film, and learn more about her as I’m confident she’ll make great strides in the future just as she has in the past.
HNMAG: As an actress, did you find the role of Mejal to be something you related to or did you really have to prepare?
Michelle McLeod: This role was quite unique, and was definitely something I had to prepare for. There was a lot of history behind the role, and since it is based off true events, I wanted to make sure I understood wholeheartedly what those events were and how they impacted the story that Miriam wrote, thus impacted what Sarah wrote. Definitely a lot of preparation for this one.
HNMAG: So it was a lot of studying history to understand things better?
Michelle McLeod: Yeah. The movie is a fictional tale based on true events and the events were that these attacks were happening in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. They were silent for many years because the women didn’t know that these attacks were coming from men, they thought they were attacked by demons sent by God as they were told. They were gaslit, and then Miriam having the Mennonite experience herself, heard of this story, and she wrote a fictional tale about what it would be like if after these events the women actually had time to talk out the situation and have a better understanding of it, then what would they do if they had that information? What if they could actually choose to do nothing, stay and fight, or leave? That’s where the movie came in where Sarah did a great adaptation of this book and I wanted to make sure going into this that I fully understood the history.
Michelle learned the whole series of events so when acting alongside a large group of women, she completely understood perspective. The book itself is intellectually written so there are a lot of words to really look at. There was a lot of language she had to understand too.
HNMAG: Seeing as your role in Women Talking is a chain-smoker, was that a habit that almost affected you while on set?
Michelle McLeod: The chain-smoking was kind of important to show the vice of the character. I think when we all go through some sort of anxiety or dealing with various situations in our lives where we may not understand or even notice; it could be a subconscious situation that you’re going through. There’s always something that pulls us or gives us comfort to move forward. For Miall, her comfort was smoking. It was a way to almost calm her nerves while she’s trying to process the trauma that happened to her so it was kind of fun for me to go on set and smoke. Not gonna lie, I’ve had a couple of opportunities to practice in my lifetime so I understood what the whole process was like. The vice itself was extremely important to portray, but it was fun to go in smoking every day. I always like to joke that my parents were definitely proud (laughs) when they’ve seen me smoking on screen which they’ve NEVER seen me do.
HNMAG: A lot of the cast were women. How did it feel to connect with all these other different actresses?
Michelle McLeod: It was such an honour to work with such an amazing group of women. This was such a great atmosphere to be in, and it wasn’t solely female-driven, but there was a lot of female presence throughout this process. The other actors, I feel like I had the opportunity to bond with them as people who they are in this world and who they portrayed in the film. It was such a supportive and collective community during this filming. We talk about it all the time in interviews, that we don’t think we’ll ever have this opportunity again to be as close as we were before and are.
HNMAG: And was it hard to focus on such a touchy subject matter, given what everyone talks about in the film?
Michelle McLeod: Yeah, it’s always a challenge talking about hard things and especially trauma. What’s so great was a huge support system we created for all of the traumas we had to go through as our characters. We had the support of each other as human beings, as colleagues. For all those hard scenes that you see in the film, where someone’s reliving their trauma or talking about how it affected them. When there’s tears, when there’s anger, we were there for each other and those were very real. I remember this one particular scene where Sheila McCarthy is crying and on the off-camera side, she’s holding Jessie Buckley’s hand so tight it’s allowing her to feel vulnerable and cry. For me, being able to watch Claire Foy do her monologue about the trauma that’s happened to her child, I just felt so connected to her and she was just so deeply rooted in her emotions it almost inspired me to get there myself when it came time to do my scenes.
HNMAG: There must’ve been quite a few difficulties.
Michelle McLeod: We are talking about some pretty deep-rooted emotional trauma that happens to these women and even just thinking about that is a mind-blowing thought to think that real women went through this. They were gaslit, raped by men, and told that it was their fault. Now we’re here telling their story and to know that this is just a story which is fictional in this sense, but the underlying part of it is true. I think that’s why it’s a little bit hard to get there sometimes.
HNMAG: What was the best moment while working on set?
Michelle McLeod: Honestly, the best moment was just having this cast and crew as my friends. We worked tirelessly for five to six days a week, and we were around each other all the time, but always found time to laugh. That was a really great thing. Off-set and being together, it was full of the sillies and every weekend or so, we would pick out a new house to go to and we’d have dinner together and maybe some drinks. Then we’d talk and we’d laugh, and let the week kind of fall off our shoulders before we prepared to go into another week.
HNMAG: Now let’s talk a little more about your acting career. Why did you choose to go into acting?
Michelle McLeod: Acting to me is just so magical, I’m just enthralled by people I see on the screen and I’ve always been drawn to acting. Wanting to perform, tell a story, be a character, I just find it so invigorating and exciting. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. Whenever I questioned myself growing up, the answer was ALWAYS ‘Actor’. It never faltered, so I knew this was a path that I had to be steadfast in and keep my feet moving. It makes me the happiest I’ve ever been in the world.
HNMAG: And how do you feel things would’ve gone if you hadn’t pursued acting?
Michelle McLeod: I don’t even think that’s an option for my life! As an actor, the hustle is real. You’re always doing odd jobs here and there, you’re always trying to make sure you can survive in the world because acting in itself is a roller coaster. It’s part of a journey and you always have to be open to what comes and what goes. If you take my resume from off-camera things and kind of list it, I’ve done every job in the book (laughs). I’ve been all over the place with my hustle, but it’s been worth it for me because in the end I’m still following my dreams and pursuing my goal which is ultimately to be a full-time working actor.
Ultimately, Michelle explained there wasn’t a fallback. If anything she would’ve kept trying if she hadn’t been where she is today.
HNMAG: Besides this most recent role in Women Talking, what would you say was your best?
Michelle McLeod: My takeoff was Irene in Pat Mill’s Don’t Talk to Irene, which premiered at TIFF in 2017. It’s a Canadian Indie film, and I was the star. Honestly, that was one of the most cathartic experiences for me. It basically is following the story of a young girl who is overweight. It’s about people telling her not to follow her dreams and what she can and cannot do because of how she looks. It was cathartic for me because that’s how I felt growing up. I was always told how I wasn’t going to be able to achieve my dreams in acting, or get very far because I am kind of a unique look. But it doesn’t really matter what you look like when you have the drive. With passion, you can get anywhere in life. The people I worked with on that film, I’m still friends with them today. me and Pat Mills, we’re BFF’s for life. He’s my mentor forever and I’m so thankful for that opportunity.
HNMAG: When analyzing a character for a role, what’s the first thing you do?
Michelle McLeod: Very good question. The first thing I do is research, so I love to look up who the producers are, who the writer is, who the director is and I like to go through all of their past work and materials and see what their vibe is. I honestly feel like characters are derived through different types of energy and it’s whether or not I can pick up on their energy. I watch a lot of movies and TV shows, then from there, I kind of dive into the script kind of knowing where the writer/director/producers are coming from. Once I grasp the tone, I kind of play with it a little bit. Kind of deciphering a script and doing my research is my favourite part of acting. Because you find little nuggets of treasure going along and it’s kind of motivating and inspiring as you find your character. Once I feel like I’ve built something from the information I’ve found, I go in and do the audition.
HNMAG: Do you ever experience anxiety on set or during auditions?
Michelle McLeod: I’ve always had a little bit of stage fright, but I’ve kind of learned to use that stage fright or anxiety to propel me forward. I think it’s mostly the excitement of the opportunity and also because I care very much about the auditions that I do and the material I’m given the opportunity to perform. There’s that kind of aspect of it, I don’t know if it’s fear or fear of not getting a role but I think it’s more of the excitement. That ‘Wow. I have this opportunity to do this performance or this audition for this movie or this tv show or this production’ and honestly, everything that comes across my plate is an honour so the way that I’m able to deal with it is I just know that going into every audition that I’ve ever done, I can step away from it saying “I did my best”. If I did my research, memorized my lines, and showed my care that I feel in the audition, whether I get it or not, I find that a very big win for me.
HNMAG: What would your dream role be?
Michelle McLeod: Oh my gosh, that’s a tough question. Honestly, something that’s completely opposite to who I am would be some sort of femme fatale spy agent person. I don’t know, that would be completely opposite of me and a challenge for me. But how fun would that be to be sort of like in an action movie? Some sort of powerhouse kickboxing femme fatale, that would be really exciting but I’m more comfortable doing comedic work. That’s my wheelhouse, and I love doing that because it’s so fun. If I can do movies that make people laugh, that’s amazing. But a femme fatale in some sort of action movie would be an opportunity of a lifetime, I think.
HNMAG: And would you ever try to write or direct your own films in the future?
Michelle McLeod: I’ve always been drawn to directing, I think one day I may try my hand at it. I definitely think there’s a lot to learn when it comes to directing, and I have to practice and make a lot of short films before I attempt something larger than that. Writing is something I love, but I find it very difficult and I say kudos to all those writers out there because for me I’m constantly battling myself with my own word so it’s quite a struggle. I leave that to the professionals, but this career is a journey and I never know what’s going to fall into my lap. If opportunities arise, I definitely think I’m going to take them but I can definitely see myself directing one day. Is it really the ultimate goal of mine? I don’t think, but I’m sure acting is my path.