Paul Risker continues our American Mary feature by chatting with star Katharine Isabelle…
No American Mary feature would be complete without an interview with American Mary herself Katharine Isabelle. It was at FrightFest the 13th that I had the opportunity to sit down with the perceptive Katharine Isabelle to discuss her instinctive approach to acting, becoming best friends with the Twisted Twins, and observations of a Canadian girl or girls on the other side.
One tiny confession before we continue. Meeting Katharine last August was I thought, after having only watched the films hours before, the perfect opportunity to discuss some personal modification ideas. That was until she broke the shocking news that neither was she a surgeon, nor had she ever attended medical school.
Paul Risker: How did you become involved in the project, or more so how did Jen and Sylvia approach you about playing the part of Mary? When you read the script what made you think this is something I want to do?
Katharine Isabelle: Well they emailed it to me. They’d already had me in mind and when I read it, I got it through an email on my Blackberry and I was at a friend’s house and I was like, “Oh yeah sure, I’ll give it a little read through.” I ended up reading the whole 180 page script on my Blackberry through the next few hours and looked up and rubbed my eyes and went, “What the fuck did I just read? What was that?” Then I read it again probably a few more times over the next few days. I really liked it and I wasn’t sure why? I really liked the character Mary, she was so interesting. She was hurt, she was weird, she was funny, she was a little bit crazy, a little bit dark, and the whole script read so well I pictured it all as I was reading it. That really is what I think a good movie is when I read a script. I don’t have to sit there and analyse it. I just have to like it immediately, my first instinct and my first feeling. I just have to like it and I said to my dad who is a filmy, “So dad I don’t know I might be fucking crazy, tell me if this is like too weird or too whatever, tell me if I’m insane.” He called me back and he said, “No, this is awesome you should so totally do this. Whoever wrote this is a genius.” And I said, “Oh good I’m not crazy, ‘cause I really want to do it, I just needed someone else to back me up here saying it isn’t too weird.”
Then I met with them. We met for Sushi and ended up staying out till 4 in the morning talking and laughing and drinking beer and became instant best friends. As soon as I met them I knew this was going to be something awesome if we could manage to pull together some money and some people and actually make it. Then it faded away; it didn’t fade away, it’s just with any low budget independent film especially with strange content it took a while to actually get made, and so it sat there in the back of my head for about 8 months before we actually made it. I think that time was really good for me because it allowed the character to think subconsciously without having to feel like, “Oh I’m gonna work on the script and think about it too much, analysing it and rehearsing it.” It all just gets so deluded and becomes really inorganic, and I feel it should be all of instinct and it shouldn’t feel really natural, “You know what I mean?” And to let the character sort of absorb and understand her and then just go in there and do it. Those months are really good for just letting it sink in, to be able to just kinda roll with it, and we didn’t have time for rehearsals making such shit anyway; so it was perfect.
PR: I just find it interesting that approach of not wanting to do too much.
KI: Well, no because you get confused and you second guess, it becomes completely mechanical.
PR: And I guess art in a way, well, would you say functions best on a purely instinctive level?
KI: Well yeah, human beings function instinctively and they act and react instinctively, offer feelings and gut instincts. No one mechanically knows every situation they are going to be in that day and how they are going to respond. And so I feel that takes away what the audience will bond with because the audience needs to feel something natural and organic from the character that they’re watching, especially the protagonist, especially the one person you want them to understand and emphasise with. If it’s all mechanical it’s just crap.
PR: Jen and Sylvia said that one of the things they admire most about American Mary is the way it will create a discourse on why cosmetic surgery is universally acceptable, whilst body modification isn’t. Do you see film as a medium that can simultaneously entertain and inform?
KI: Well I think any film, any good film should entertain and inform, otherwise you could just throw together a bunch of gratuitous tit shots, slashing and you know fart jokes and it’ll entertain you for a minute and you’ll never think about it again. We wanted people to think about this movie, we wanted them to come away thinking about the socially acceptable cosmetic surgery and the not so socially acceptable body modification; which are really the same thing. You’re cutting and you’re completely modifying your body to express your ideal of beauty, and everyone’s ideal of beauty is different so who’s to say that somebody who’s had $300 dollars’ worth of plastic surgery that is acceptable when they look freakish, and you know someone with a couple of two incisions and little beads under their forehead, somehow they are demonised. I think if people come away from this movie having been thoroughly entertained but also thinking maybe about having a little bit more empathy and compassion for people, and thinking twice before they judge someone on their outward appearance that would be very important to us. The body modification people in this film are the most normal, well-adjusted, happy people, whereas the other people who are socially accepted and are idolised like doctors, surgeons, they’re the most fucked up. And I think that’s a very interesting play on that.
PR: I always think film can do both. You take The Dark Knight trilogy, a big blockbuster making a load of money, and yet you look at the themes within it, and it can be watched as a good old fashioned yarn, or it can be watched as something more.
KI: Exactly, and I think if you are going to put that much time and effort and energy and money and so many people’s time into something it should be valuable in that way. It should be thoughtful, and you should take the time.
PR: Both Jen and Sylvia as directors have a unique perspective, their experience of being in front of the camera. Did that change the director and actor dynamic for you?
KI: I don’t think so. I think they are naturally gifted writer directors. I think that is their natural role. They weren’t giving line readings. They’re so confident and they are so passionate about Mary and they knew her character so well it was terrifying for me to go into it and just hope I wasn’t going to fuck anything up. I was also in love with the character and everyone on the whole crew, everyone was so cautious so involved and doing their very best and it all lands on my shoulders; I can’t fuck it up. And they were brilliant for me as an actor these two. Especially when someone as written and directed something, they can get too close, too attached and too possessed over it and not give you any freedom. Not that I wanted to change anything, but there was always the creative collaboration for how you approach something. They were so good with providing their supportive, encouraging, positive environment and really letting me… they gave me Mary, I was allowed to have her, and do with her what I wanted to do. I would come out of a scene and I would be like, “Was that okay?” Sylvia would be crying and hugging me and I’m like, “Okay, well I guess you liked it.” Then it just made me feel more confident, and I wasn’t unsure of my Mary. I was confident in my Mary, so my Mary only grew from there and became stronger and better for me and I could therefore hopefully do better.
PR: American Mary was inspired by both Asian and European horror cinema, and I’ve heard of directors asking their stars to watch certain films as a reference point. I know you said you let the film sit in your mind for eight months, but did you watch any specific films for preparation?
KI: They told me a lot of films they referenced: Audition and a bunch of other movies. I didn’t go and seek them out and watch them because I felt it would have a polluted my image, my pure feeling and instinct about it or towards it. If I’d have seen something I would second guess whether I was doing it because I’d seen it that way, or if I felt like doing it that way, and then I watched that movie I would have to change how I felt what I was doing because I didn’t want it to be… I wanted it to be a film thing and to go out as a film and not be influenced by any of the movies. I’ll go watch them now and be like, “Oh yeah I get the reference, I totally get this, that and the other”, but I felt like it would have negatively influenced me because I would have second guessed, and been less confident in what I was doing.
PR: Is there something deliberate in the use of ‘American’ in the title of the film, and do you perceive the film to be a unique view of America?
KI: It’s funny for a bunch of Canadian girls to make this very American themed movie, very blatantly American. The recession is a big part of the movie sort of, though more subtly in the background, and the obsession, particularly which American culture has with beauty, success and social acceptance, were major themes in the film. As Canadians film says it best: “We are always on the one side looking over the fence, being like… What are you guys doing? You’re so crazy…” (that final part in a humorous accent). I think it was definitely deliberate, I mean it’s not an attack on America at all; it’s just a Canadian perspective on these people on the other side of the fence. We’re constantly bombarded by their media. In Canada all we do is watch purely American, and we have very few indigenous sorts of pop culture, and so it’s all about theirs, and it is very heavily focused on beauty, social acceptance, money, power and all that stuff. So yeah, I mean it’s just an observation by some Canadian girls on the other side.
PR: Would you like to work in the horror genre again, despite American Mary not being your introduction to the genre?
KI: I don’t think American Mary is a horror. I don’t specifically go after one genre or another, every film I do is taken literally, and if I like it, and I like the character, if I think I can do something with it then I’m interested and I’m happy. And I don’t know how to categorise American Mary. I definitely don’t think it’s a horror. I think it’s a psychological thriller, character study, tragedy, kind of funny and there are some bizarre and horrific elements in it; but I wouldn’t call it a horror movie at all.
Thanks to Katharine Isabelle for taking the time for this interview.
This article originally appeared on EatSleepLiveFilm.
Paul Risker is a freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth, Scream The Horror Magazine and The London Film Review.