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.


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