Friday, May 27, 2016

Zerha Leverman: X-Men's Ms. Maximoff

X-Men: Apocalypse opens today and I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Maximoff herself, Zerha Leverman.

Ms. Maximoff is Magneto’s (Michael Fassbender) baby mama and Quicksilver’s (Evan Peters) mom. Leverman and I talk about her experience in both Days of Future Past and its sequel, plus her twenty-year theatre and film career.

TorontoVerve: You began your film and theatre career in the 90’s. When did you know that you wanted to be an actor? 

Zerha Leverman: I was 18 when I admitted it. That’s when I had the guts to say it out loud, but I always knew I wanted to perform. I didn’t get into actual acting until I was 24 years old. That’s when I went on my first audition. As a teenager, I was inspired by Sissy Spacek’s great performance in Carrie and I loved that funny high school movie, My Bodyguard. I remember watching television shows like M*A*S*H, All in the Family, Barney Miller and Three’s Company with my dad. He’d always say, “They’re just actors. Real people don’t act like that.” [Laughs] That’s what I always heard because I was so enthralled with what was on the screen.

TV: What did your dad think about you wanting to become an actor? 

ZL: My dad is a visual artist and his query was, “Of all the arts, why acting?” He was least interested in performance art. My grandfather in England was an actor. When I was a kid, my dad would wake me up late at night to watch my grandfather on TV. He did an episode of Fawlty Towers and TV productions of I Am a Camera and Cleopatra.

TV: Did you get the acting bug from your grandfather? 

ZL: I may have. I didn’t grow up with his part of the family. I definitely got into the arts because of dad, and he fully supports anything I do – provided that I’m committed and serious about it.

TV: What was your first real part? 

ZL: I was Lady Torrance in a George Brown production of Tennessee William’s Orpheus Descending. I did the professional acting program at George Brown. It was an exceptional program — probably the best three years of my life. The first time I auditioned for the school, I didn’t know what I was doing. I remember I was memorizing my Shakespeare in the parking lot and then I walked out on stage in this dark black box theatre with the panel in front of me. After I completed all of my pieces, the panel asked, “What have you done?” I said, “Nothing,” and they replied, “Go away, get some experience and then come back.” So I did a SummerWorks Play and took a night course at Ryerson. I went back to George Brown the following year and auditioned my pants off and this time they told me, “Alright. You’re in.” That’s where it all began. I love the stage.

TV: What do you like about the stage? 

ZL: The ability to fully articulate yourself. You just lose all sense of space and time, and you’re able to be your entire self. The cast and audience are taken on a journey together. There’s nothing like it.

TV: You co-starred with one of my favourite actors, Mario Van Peebles, in HBO’s Valentine’s Day (AKA Protector) in 1998 so I have to ask, what was it like working with him? 

ZL: [Laughs] He was lovely and very funny. I knew he was a bit of a director then and his dad was famous. He was a sweetheart. I remember him doing a lot of push ups between takes. [Laughs]. He did a sweet thing and I can’t believe that I didn’t get in the habit of doing it myself. After the shoot, he asked me to sign his script. I guess he collected signed scripts from all of his co-workers on film projects. I remember his script had all these cute little drawings on it. I couldn’t believe that he was asking me to sign it because I was brand new to the business. What a gracious thing to do.

TV: Last year, Variety reported on a study that found that there are fewer lead roles for women in Hollywood, and I would assume that that number dramatically drops for women over 40. What are your thoughts about that? 

ZL: [Laughs] I fully agree that it drops over 40. It drops right off the map. I can’t believe that I’m still poking around this business. I think it’s women’s responsibility to write projects too. Yeah, Hollywood is predominately male, but it’s also up to me to write something that I want to be in, and get it made. Women can’t complain that it’s not being done if they're not doing something about it. Yeah, it’s rough, but men aren’t interested in hearing that because they don’t have our story. Of course, there are extraordinary male writers who are connected with their feminine side, but there are very few.

TV: Are you writing? 

ZL: I am. Finally. I had this idea for a while and who knows if it’ll ever get made. I ask myself, “What do you want to do if this acting thing doesn’t pan out?” I could manage my dad’s artwork. That’s a massive project. I could go back to school and start a new career. I could do those things, but I would still feel the need to tell this story that's in the back of my head.

TV: How did you first get involved with the X-Men films? 

ZL: I auditioned. The film was under a pseudo name at the time, but my agent knew it was X-Men. The character break down was that she wasn’t a great mom and she drinks too much. She’s kind of a jerk. That’s why I really like her [laughs]. I don’t drink much or have any kids, but I love this woman. She’s fierce, but her self-destructive habits get in the way of her being all that she can be. Anyone can relate to that. I love the underdog. Those are the kinds of roles you fight for.

TV: Were you familiar with X-Men prior to getting the Ms. Maximoff role? 

ZL: No, but here’s a really cool story. A week before my audition, I bought my first smart TV and it had Netflix. It took me three days to choose a movie because there were just too many to choose from. Finally, I told myself, “Zerha, why don’t you just…,” and this is so ridiculous, but it’s true, “…why don’t you just pick a movie you think that you could be in.” So I chose X-Men: First Class. I didn’t know what it was. 

TV: What a minute — this is before you knew about the audition? Wow! 

ZL: Right. This happened a week before I got the audition. So, I watched it and I didn’t understand it at all. And that was that. Then a week later, my agent told me about the sequel, and I was like, “Wow! That’s very serendipitous!” Before the audition, I went to Fashionably Yours vintage boutique on Queen West and bought a 70’s wrap-around. I’m still meaning to go back there and thank them for it [Laughs]. Three weeks later, I found out that I was Ms. Maximoff. I screamed. I was so happy. I couldn’t believe it.

TV: Did you do a lot of research on her? 

ZL: Not a lot. I knew that she was human, but I didn’t want to over-think it. They didn’t tell me much about her nor did they tell me the story. All I knew was that I was going to be opening the door to some cops. So the day before filming, I was in wardrobe getting fitted and I was telling the wardrobe person that I was playing somebody who opens the door to some extras. That’s when she told me, “She’s not anybody.” She was talking about my character. “She’s Magneto’s baby mama and Quicksilver’s mom for Chrissake.” I said, “What?! I have a child with Michael Fassbender’s character?!” And she said, “And the guys who come to the door aren’t extras, they’re Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult.” I was like, “What?!” I found all this out just the day before shooting. Thank God I had the rest of the afternoon to myself. I rented a Bixi bike and rode around Montreal for six hours to get rid of all that excitement and energy. I wanted to show up like a normal human being the next morning [Laughs].

TV: Describe what that day of shooting was like for you and opening the door to those guys. 

ZL: It was a long day. There were multiple takes in and outside the house. I opened the door and they entered the house over and over again. I remember director Bryan Singer telling me, “Ok, you can’t be gobsmacked when you open the door to them. You have to open the door like you’ve opened the door many times before.” I needed to get rid of that ‘deer in headlights’ look [Laughs].

TV: You must be excited about seeing X-Men: Apocalypse. 

ZL: Yes, I still don’t know where the story is going to go. I don’t know any more than anybody else does. I’m still a little bit in the dark about who Marge (Ms. Maximoff) is and what happened. I remember going up to Evan [Peters] (Quicksilver) and asking him, “Did you read the script?” And he said, “Yeah.” [Laughs] He chuckled, but he still didn’t tell me anything.

TV: What does it mean to you to be a part of such a massive franchise like X-Men? 

ZL: It’s really awesome. I just can’t believe it. The best part for me is I’m playing a character that I love. I adore flawed characters. They’re what I relate to the most. I love seeing them work hard to figure things out. Their constant struggle is fascinating to me.

TV: I shot your street style back in 2013 and I saw your play, Anton in Show Business. So when you first appeared on screen in Days of Future Past, I immediately recognized you. Do you get recognized on the street often for playing Ms. Maximoff? 

ZL: No. Maybe after people see X-Men: Apocalypse. Who knows? People who know me, definitely identify me in the film. It’s kinda cool that I’ve had a taste of this crazy thing and been able to keep my anonymity. It’s not intrusive or bizarre. I really love my life and love my responsibilities. I’m happy for it to change, but I prefer a slow and gradual change.

TV: We were talking about the amount of roles for women over 40 in Hollywood. When I learned that you were back as Ms. Maximoff in X-Men: Apocalypse, I was so happy for you because that doesn’t happen often. Even leading ladies in major film franchises are rarely asked back for sequels. 

ZL: My agent called me and he wouldn’t stop laughing. He said, “You’re not going to believe this, but X-Men want you back!” I thought that was crazy. I always thought that if anything ever happens with this character, they’ll recast her [with a big star]. So it’s really nice to be brought back.

TV: Now that you’ve appeared in two X-Men movies, how do you feel about superhero movies overall? 

ZL: I’m definitely more interested in them. I want to know how they are made, what the actors are doing in them and who the fans are. I’m also fascinated with Comicon and Fan Expo.

TV: Those are in your future. 

ZL: That’s what my friends tell me. Fans are very passionate about their superheroes. It’s charming to see them dressing up as their favourite characters. The connections they have [with comic heroes] are real. Any art that transports you to a different world is vital and necessary.

TV: Jackman personally told you on the set of Days of Future Past that he was thinking about retiring from Wolverine. Did you get a sense of how he felt about that?

ZL: Not really. I was surprised that he shared something about his professional life with me. I can imagine the amount of effort it takes for him to put on that kind of muscle. I’m sorry to see him go as Wolverine. I would think that he could do it for a while longer.

TV: What did you say after he told you? 

ZL: I don’t think I said anything. Honestly, I was just happy that he was talking to me [Laughs]. I was like, “Yeah, whatever you say, man. That’s great!” Hugh Jackman is talking to me! I couldn't believe it! [Laughs]

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Gender Inequality, Sexual Politics & Sugar Daddies: A Conversation with Actress Kelly McCormack

Kelly McCormack refuses to wait for somebody to write her the perfect part. Instead, she’s taken a more hands on approach to her career by writing and starring in her own movies (Play the Film, Barn Wedding), and just last week, she was at the Cannes Film Festival selling her third feature, Sugar Daddy; which begins shooting in October.

The Vancouver-born actor admits that she’s only a novice in the film business, but her trajectory as a writer and producer begs to differ. I sat down with McCormack in Kensington Market to discuss her rising success and her arduous journey to realize her dream.

TorontoVerve: Your first feature, Play the Film, won so many festival awards (including the 2014 Canadian Film Festival’s “People’s Pick for Best Flick”). What kind of pressure does that put on you as an artist? 

Kelly McCormack: I’m relatively new to the film writing industry. I’ve been an actor for over twenty years — since I was seven years old. So I haven’t really had time to breath yet to figure out what I’m exactly doing, why I’m doing it or what kinds of stories I’m supposed to tell. I’ve made Play on a whim with a bunch of friends. I wrote it in two weeks. I shot it in two weeks and then it was done. When I do a movie and it comes out a year later, I’m a completely different person. I’m dressing differently. I’m thinking differently. I’m writing differently. I’m wanting to live in a different place.

I do a lot of different types of art. I started in opera, I sing classical music, I do musical theatre, I do theatre, film acting and I write. Everything that I want to do right now is the most polar opposite of the thing that I’ve just done. So when one of my movies comes out a year later, there’s a moment when I say, “I hate it.” I am so different from when I made that piece of art. Music and theatre is immediate. You give the art and people are giving you feedback in real-time. The delay in the film industry is really hard for me. As an actor, I want to move up and reach the next level, but as a writer, I think I’m just figuring out what I’m doing. I don’t think that anything I’m making right now is the best work of my life.

TV: Do you watch a lot of film? 

KM: To be perfectly honest…I don’t think I’ve said this in an interview yet. I don’t really watch movies. I didn’t grow up watching movies or television, but I do read a lot of scripts and books. That’s where my storytelling abilities come from. This is going to sound crazy, but I just started watching movies. People have told me that Play is like a Robert Altman movie or I’m like a young John Cassavetes because I’m making movies with all my friends. And I’m like, “Oh cool, thanks.” And then I go watch their movies and I’m like, “Holy shit! That’s like the greatest compliment!” Until I see more film art out there, it’s hard for me to know where I fit in.

TV: You have a lot of friends in the arts community. What’s it like to often compete against them for the same parts? 

KM: I’m never in competition with other people. I don’t really get jealous. I just get really happy for people — especially in Toronto. When I see other artists do something awesome, I’m like, “Yes! You’re doing that thing for you!” If you’re an actor in Canada, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have money. It probably means that you’re living a hipster lifestyle. So when I see friends get parts or do well, I think, “Oh, they can pay their rent. Yay, for them!” If I don’t get cast for something — let’s say the director wanted Jessica, then the director wanted the Jessica experience. They didn’t want the Kelly experience. The director wanting Jessica does not change my value or doesn’t diminish my work. When someone is really good and they’re doing really well, it gives me confidence in the industry. When someone is really bad and they’re doing well, that irks me, but that’s the industry too. I’ve not entered into a fair industry.

TV: That’s a great attitude. 

KM: I was a musical theatre performer in New York. When you have 600 women lining up in the same dress as you at six in the morning…this in not an over-exaggeration.You’re literally in competition with at least 600 people for one little part. You’re spending all day with them, curling your hair at the side of the street and changing underneath your hoodie. There’s no room for you to be a competitive bitch.

TV: What are some of the sacrifices you've made for your art? 

KM: I live on my own. I don’t have any money. I put relationships on hold. I don’t see my family very often. I see my mom once a year. I don’t have much of a social life. I don’t own things. I live paycheque-to-paycheque. I don’t fulfill any type of expectation or monetary thing that I’m supposed to have for someone my age, but I am very happy. I haven’t sacrificed my happiness; which I feel would have happened had I done something else with my life. I think it was Lady Gaga who said, “Passion is dedicating your full self and everything you do to something that you have no control over.” It’s living dangerously. You have to be willing to give up everything to do it. You have to be willing to live out of a suitcase, move around, have relationships end, not see friends, and not be able to afford going out. It’s a lifestyle for certain people and it’s a lifestyle for me.

TV: How has your passion for performing ended your relationships? 

KM: As actors, in order to say yes to something, we have to be able to drop everything to go do it. You can say to someone, “I’m here for the next two months,” then soon after say, “Oh, I’m gone for a year now,” or “I will be at that dinner with your family — Oh no, I have to be on set.” For me, my career comes first. It’s almost as if someone is entering a threesome with me and my career [laughs]. That’s why people say, “You shouldn’t date artists.” Artists date each other because it’s very hard for anyone else to understand the kind of life that we lead. I’m also an independent woman and a lot of men say that they want to be with an independent woman and then they say, “Wait, you’re just going to do whatever you want and make these decisions on your own?” That’s right. I’m going to make them independently [laughs].

TV: Your character in Play the Film is a method actor. She tries to be a bitch so people in the theatre industry will take her seriously. How successful is that strategy in real life? 

KM: That’s funny. It’s a good question. In Play, I was playing off the stereotypes of theatre actors. I do not think that being a diva is a successful way to run a career. I have lived in Vancouver, London, New York, Los Angeles and Toronto for more than a year each, and I would say that if you’re predominantly an asshole, the industry will not reward you. When you create art, you’re a part of a family. You have to be someone who people want to hang out with — someone cool and normal. Not an asshole. Being a diva is a bad plan. At least I don’t want to work with you.

TV: It’s like Katherine Heigl (Grey's Anatomy, Knocked Up). No one wants to work with her anymore. She has a reputation for being difficult and criticizing her fellow filmmakers. Now she’s making cat commercials

KM: When I see people talk shit about other actors or bitch about things, it’s so shocking to me. I’m just so happy to be here. I’m so excited and in wonder of everyone else’s work. I don’t complain about anything. To me, complaining is a manifestation of an insecurity that you’re just not dealing with. If you don’t like something then deal with it in a real way instead of giving noise to it.

TV: Sadly, men get away with being an asshole more so than women. 

KM: A hundred percent. It’s like that Jennifer Lawrence article. Being a diva or an asshole is different from what Jennifer Lawrence is saying. She’s saying that you need to look at your self-worth and look at your value as a human being and as an artist and demand that people respect that. That’s not the same as being a high-maintenance bitch. You look at these high-level CEOs in Hollywood. They have a certain crassness to them. Men are allowed to be very authoritative. As soon as a woman does that, she’s a bitch or the C-word. For a woman CEO, I can just imagine the bullshit that she had to go through to get to there. Of course they’re going to be hardened. Of course they’re not going to trust anyone. The sexual politics alone in this industry are so daunting. I know I get more ruthless every year. I do. I’m a very kind person, but when I’m in a production meeting, I’m very intense. Again, being a diva for the sake of being a diva is not a good call, but if you’re good at kicking ass and taking names, then you should do that.

TV: Your next feature is called Sugar Daddy — a film about a struggling singer-songwriter who signs up for to make extra money. What inspired you to write the film, and how did you research it? 

KM: As an artist, I’m interested in the questions of art and self-worth and how sex is constantly this commodified thing. Also, how we somehow improve as artists when our personal life plummets a bit. I was inspired by people like Amy Winehouse whose tumultuous personal life seemed to make her songs better. I knew some friends in New York who had signed up for [] years ago, and at first, I judged it very hard, but, as I grew as a person and started moving into a more sexualized industry, I learned that there’s not a right way for a woman to behave, and there’s not a right way for a woman to claim, reclaim, commodify or embody her own sexuality that’s wrong. There’s not one way to be a woman and there’s not one way to be a feminist. Sugar Daddy chronicles my becoming a very outspoken feminist. I’ve researched people who had done this. I’ve never [joined], but I considered doing it when I was broke. The only reason I didn’t do it is because I feel like my industry is constantly dealing with sexual politics and adding another evening of that onto my life would be too exhausting. The movie is about sugar daddies and this feminist nightmare that she’s thrown herself into. It’s also about exploring the questions: "Is anything worth it to reach one’s own potential, and is there a right way or a wrong way for a woman to behave?"

TV: How will feminists respond to the film? 

KM: I think it will cause a lot of arguments. When people finish the script, they either love [the lead character] or they can’t stand her. The movie doesn’t give a hardline of whether or not this is good or bad. I’m not interested in tying a bow around an idea and saying, “This is what I think.” I’m always interested in asking questions. The movie is not only about women who sign up for It’s about women, men, sex and money and how those things get put into a giant bowl, stirred around, and how you navigate them.

TV: You’ve said, “I think sometimes poorly written female roles are so embedded into the history of movies that we don’t even notice how bad they are anymore.” Can you explain? 

KM: Typically, in cinema, women characters have been defined by their morality. Male characters have been defined by the change they experience throughout the film. Female characters are often just a pillar for the males to bounce off of. It’s not about whether she’s going to grow, it’s about whether she’s right or wrong for the man. When you meet a female character at the beginning of a film and she’s a big bitch, you know instinctively that she’s not the one that the [male protagonist] is going to end up with. There are female characters whose only function is to find a love interest -- you have the intense and angry pant-wearing chick who gets soften by a man, and you have women who only talk about men. Heaven forbid that you have a woman who is just dedicated to her career and happiness. Finding a man should not always be the story that needs to be told. We’re all ingrained about what should naturally happen to male and female characters. The male character should figure out how to be a man and the female character should figure out which man to be with. People don’t notice that much.

TV: Diversity in front and behind the camera is a huge topic now. There’s an all-female Ghostbusters coming out. Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) is helming the new Wonder Woman movie. There’s even an all-female Ocean’s Eleven in the works. Why do you think it’s hard for some people to accept this growing trend in Hollywood? 

KM: I think because they can’t admit to the fact that they’re on some level a misogynist. The men that I know in the industry think that women are awesome and the women I know in the industry think that men are awesome. If you have a problem with an all-female Ghostbusters, then we should grandfather your stupid opinion out. Film is the largest consumed type of art worldwide. It has the opportunity to reach the largest amount of people and create the largest stir. And it also has the opportunity to unveil people’s deep-rooted disrespect for men and women. Right now, the cool thing is that I have the opportunity to make art in a time when people are discussing gender and sexual equality.

TV: What are some of the pitfalls that you've encountered as a woman in this cut-throat industry?

KM: In theory, some people want to keep me down, but they’re not successful at it. I never grew up feeling that I was less because I was a woman. I was very lucky to grow up in a progressive and secular family who didn’t have old religious ideas of what a woman is supposed to do. I was never expected to get married, have kids and a white picket fence. I have to remind myself that there are people out there who think that a woman’s place is not being a producer, director or a person of high authority. As a woman in this industry, it’s hard when there are physical and sexual expectations. I didn’t become an actor because I wanted to be famous, or get my picture taken or be in a tiny outfit. I became an actor because I love performing. It was a shock to me to find out that people cared about how skinny or pretty I was and how young I looked. There are times where I’m like, “Oh yeah, I should lose weight.” Because then it won’t be a discussion. I can go for an audition and the discussion will just be about the art. And then I’d ask myself, “No, Kelly. Why would you feed into that part of the industry -- the part that you’d like to see change?” It’s too much pressure not to constantly think that I should lose weight. Negotiating sexual politics is hard too. I know that sometimes when I’m approached at an industry party it’s because I look a certain way. I don’t say, “I’m not going to talk to you because you’re trying to hit on me.” No, I find out what they do in the industry and if they’re someone I want to connect with, I’ll connect with them. Do I use the fact that I look a certain way? Of course. Is it something I love doing? No. The sexual politics is a f@#king shit show. I can tell some incredibly awkward stories.

TV: Can you share one? 

KM: In New York, after auditioning for this man in his 70’s, he got really close to me and asked, “Do you want a job for a job?” I just said, “Um, no thank you.” I walked away, got in the elevator, threw up all over myself and then took the long train ride back to Harlem. That’s an extreme example of the old Hollywood casting couch. It’s hard because you will get cast in things based on your appearance. So when you’re in an audition, you’re partly there because of the way you look. So what’s wrong with them acknowledging the way you look? Nothing. But if I go out for drinks after and they continue to talk about the way I look, I have to wonder, “Am I on a date?” It’s very complicated. And it’s not all malicious. A lot of it is finding someone creatively inspiring; which is not that far from having sexual chemistry. Like I said, [laughs] it’s a shit show.


Follow Kelly McCormack on Twitter, Instagram, & Facebook.