Robert Kojder chats with Mercury in Retrograde stars Najarra Townsend and Alana Arenas…
Mercury in Retrograde is the second directorial effort from Chicago-based filmmaker Michael Glover Smith and reaches profound messages on relationships; this is aesthetically pleasing, strongly written and directed, superb work with an outstanding ensemble. It’s a must watch for anyone that values relationships and the definition of love. And it needs to be stated that the trio of women are unequivocally absorbing. The film should be available on streaming devices towards the end of the year, but for those fortunate enough to be in the Chicago area it will have screenings at the Gene Siskel Film Center accompanied by Q&A sessions with Michael Glover Smith, and don’t delay looking up ticket information on the website as they are expected to sell out. If you can’t attend or want more dialogue on the film, please enjoy my interview with two of the incredible women. First up is Najarra Townsend:
You have, by far, the most challenging role in the film, so what drew you in and how is this different from your other performances?
I knew I wanted to play the role of Peggy as soon as I read the script. There were so many layers to her and I really wanted to dive in and uncover them all. Every performance is different. Every character is challenging in their own way and dealing with their own baggage and battles. That’s part of the beauty of this job. Learning about different kinds of people, the struggles they go through and how it affects them/their lives.
What do you think it is about Wyatt that makes Peggy unable to open to him regarding her dark past? Is she only physically attracted to him? They are definitely emotionally distant.
Peggy’s past isn’t something she’s ever been very open about. The fact that she thinks about trying to open up to Wyatt and so soon in their relationship shows how far she’s come, and how much he does mean to her. Their relationship is still new and she’s constantly testing the waters to see if Wyatt would be able to handle her truth. The emotional distance between them I always believed was a mixture of still how far they have to go to get to know each other and how walled up Peggy is.
There’s a subtle great moment during Friday night where Peggy is afraid to sleep and somewhat anxious. Wyatt tries to comfort her, but do you think that this instance of anxiety is directly related to her tragic past?
I think this is one of the many scenes that will make you think about exactly that, the second and/or third time you watch the film. Michael did a great job of leaving all these breadcrumbs throughout the movie to hint at everything that’s really going on underneath the surface of all these characters. This is one of those films that will get more interesting the more times you watch it.
Did you prefer shooting scenes with the other women or Shane Simmons? I’m asking this question to Alana and Roxane too.
That’s impossible to answer. Shooting one on one is always great. Shane and I had developed a past for our characters relationship and being able to feel that come to life and grow was great.
Working with Alana and Roxane was amazing. Both together and one on one, I learned a lot from both of them. (And Roxane has become a close friend of mine) And the group scenes with everyone was also a joy to be a part of. Every actor in this film was so generous and smart and simply amazing.
You have the task of delivering the important, mood setting, lengthy horoscope readings. Was that all entirely one unbroken sequence with the camera rotating around your circle, and how did you prepare for that scene? It’s also a great scene to immediately rewatch quickly after finishing the film.
Yes! This was one specific scene that Michael shot as one take. I believe it was roughly 8 pages and we all did it I’m guessing 9 times. Lucky for me, Peggy is reading horoscopes out of the newspaper so I asked our production designer and Michael if they could actually put all the horoscopes in the newspaper for me to read. It wasn’t something I believed I should have memorized considering I am actually reading it. That was a really fun scene to shoot.
You also have the most emotionally powerful speech in the film, which is obviously the confession of Peggy’s past. How did you prepare for that scene, and can you describe how having Alana opposite you in that dialogue exchange affected the scene or environment?
Preparing for that scene was interesting. Michael gave me the luxury of one: putting that scene last on our shooting schedule and two: giving me the freedom to rewrite the monologue. Having the scene be the last one we shot really gave me the chance to have a full relationship with all the other characters and know my character so well by then. I ended up coming to Michael maybe 2 days before we shot that scene and asked him if I could change the monologue. We discussed it and he really gave me the freedom to do whatever I felt was best. It was quite a learning experience and made me really grow as an actor.
And Alana! Working opposite her is such a dream. She is so open and giving and raw. Being with her in that scene required no acting, she was giving me so much I was purely feeling it. It was a beautiful experience.
This question might be tricky, but can you explain what kind of man it would take for Peggy to reveal her past, and why do you think she’s comfortable doing so with Golda?
The night she opens up is caused by the right series of events in a way. It’s a long time coming as it is something she so desperatly wants to be able to share. But that night after not being able to tell Wyatt after multiple attempts and being at a bar and having these new women in her life be so open, she finds herself not being able to keep it in any longer. Golda is so kind and loving and nonjudgemental. There couldn’t have been a better person to share this with. Thats exactly what Peggy needs. A person who is loving and patient and understanding.
What was the most important detail to get right about Peggy’s complex character?
I didn’t focus on a specific detail but rather her entire backstory. I wanted to do my best to give her a full past with memories of the things she experienced. I did research on the trauma she experienced as well as what its like living with that after the fact and how one adjusts to “normal” life. It was important to me to show that she is trying to simply fit in and be liked by her boyfriend’s friends but also is constantly deflecting from herself. She has strong walls up but she doesn’t want anyone to realize that.
Why do you think Roxane almost instantly becomes irritated by Peggy’s “try-too-hard” personality? It feels like it could be a way of venting her frustrations with Richard (taking out her anger on the wrong person).
I feel like this is a question that should be asked to Roxane lol It definitely could be a bit of misplaced anger but also Isabelle and Golda had a close relationship in the past. Having a new girl come in and hit it off with your group of friends can always make a person feel a bit threatened. Isabelle is so unstable in her relationship and confidence with Richard, she’s already on edge throughout the whole trip. It’s definitely a combination of things.
What was your favorite scene to perform in the film?
Probably the scene at the bar. Even though it was the most emotionally intense scene it was also extremely therapeutic and rewarding.It was the last two days of shooting and to finish the film on that scene felt amazing. Everyone was really emotional and it was a beautiful ending to the shoot.
How did you and Shane go about preparing the emotionally distant but physically clingy dynamic for the relationship between Peggy and Wyatt?
Lucky for us our characters are still at the beginning of their relationship. So that emotional distance but physical desire for each other is naturally still there. Shane and I could use the backstory we made for our characters both separately and together to bring that dynamic to the screen. We also could use the fact that we were getting to know each other and get comfortable with each other in real life and bring that to our characters.
I wrote that this film is a must-see for anyone in a relationship, so what do you feel is the most important takeaway for couples checking this out
Communication is everything. Also the way a relationship dynamic can change whether you are spending everyday life together or going on vacation together. It is amazing how having nothing to do but just spending quality time alone with your significant other can really show you different colors of your relationship. Communication and honesty are probably my top two relationship must-haves and this film shows the importance of that.
What would you tell women that have similarly suffered like Peggy and are also afraid opening up about it to significant others?
Everybody handles things differently. I personally would say start with your closest friends. Or even going to a therapist. I’m a big believer that therapy is beneficial. And if you don’t feel ready to talk about it then that’s ok too. Write about it. Find support groups. There are so many different resources out there and I’m not one to say what the best way is. Go with your gut.
Peggy is a character that can relate to the #MeToo movement, so can you as an actor discuss that movement and what it means to you?
#MeToo and the Times Up movement have made such a huge impact not only for our industry but all over. I know this has been very eye-opening for a lot of people and that’s exactly what we need. I truly believe there’s no going back from this. People will have the courage to speak out now. It’s beautiful to see all these women (and men) come forward and stand strong together. As we’ve heard time and time again being sexually harassed kind of comes with being a woman. We are taught to just accept it as normal. Having these movements really take off and start so many conversations is potentially life-changing for so many. It makes having a daughter one day just a tiny bit less scary.
This is off-topic and random, but I noticed you did voiceover work for a Final Fantasy game (I also enjoy video games). Did you enjoy that and would you ever do voices again?
I did! I had a great time doing the voice of SEVEN in FINAL FANTASY TYPE-0. I would love to get more into voice over. It’s a really great job and so much fun.
What can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
Last year I spent 5 months in Qatar shooting a tv series called MEDINAH. We had a preview screening at Comic-Con last year. The show should be coming out later this year. I’ll be releasing more information through my social media over the next few months. I also shot two features in 2017, a thriller called DIVERTED EDEN and a dark comedy called COLD FEET. I have a few more projects in the works currently. All updates and information can usually be found on my IMDb and Social media =)
And now for Alana Arenas:
Golda seems to not want to be a “mother hen” per se to her friends, but she’s wise and compassionate. Isabelle doesn’t seem to appreciate her advice and ears but Peggy does. How do you think this newfound appreciation will affect Golda?
I think Golda wants Peggy to feel welcome and the fact that Peggy is willing to hear Golda’s advice is a compliment but I think Golda more so wants to be a source of support and offers her advice sparingly because she knows that Peggy has to decide what’s best for herself. It’s the very reason why she began to hold her tongue in her friendship with Isabelle.
Elaborating on that, Golda and Jack seem to understand love more than most couples. How did you establish that tender chemistry between yourself and Jack C. Newell?
Jack and I, mainly, just talked about our characters and came up with a background for the couple. But I think it was helpful for us to just talk to one another, to get to know one another as fellow actors.
Do you think Isabelle acts up towards Golda out of disrespect or as a coping mechanism for her toxic relationship with Richard?
I think whatever feelings Isabelle has about her relationship with Richard show up as tension in her friendship with Golda because she may feel that if she expresses any discontent, Golda is ready to say, “I told you so!”
I asked this question to Michael too, but why do you feel Peggy is able to open up to Golda but not her own boyfriend, factoring in that they are actually distant? Was it the alcohol kicking in or Golda being so gentle to converse with?
It could be that Peggy thinks that Golda has a healthier relationship and wants to get advice from someone that seemingly has what she wants. It could also be that there is less risk involved if Peggy talks with Golda.
How often do you read your horoscope after participating in this project?
I actually don’t read my horoscope.
What was it like being on the receiving end of that phenomenally moving confession by Peggy regarding her tragic past? Did you provide Najarra Townsend with any tips for that scene?
Najarra’s very moving performance as Peggy confessing a very challenging past warranted that I give my best support as a scene partner.
If Golda and Jack were unable to conceive a baby, how do you think their relationship would pan out? I think Jack and Golda are a type of couple that appreciate togetherness.
I think they value each other and whatever their obstacles will find a way to maintain their unit. I imagine that if they weren’t able to conceive they would consider adopting.
Read my review of Mercury in Retrograde here: https://www.flickeringmyth.com/2018/01/movie-review-mercury-retrograde-2018/
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com