I first saw actress Angela Dee about six years ago, when we were casting my first film, The Way I See Things. I put out an open call online, and everyday there were baskets of resumes and head shots from the mailman. It was like Christmas everyday for this first time filmmaker, and I saw a lot of great people, but no one fascinated me like Dee. The five minute reel she sent me was riveting; some scene involving her and the camera against a blank background. In the scene, she was breaking up with her boyfriend. She was so casually intense, so strangely real, that I had to remind myself that a.) I was gay and b.) we weren’t dating.
I wanted to cast her in The Way I See Things but Dee was reticent to go off into the sticks where we were filming, I think. Too many unknowns at play out there on location in rural Arkansas–first time filmmaker, rustic cabins, maybe snakes, and only the movie Deliverance as a reference point, I imagine. I emailed her after we finished shooting, declaring that I intended to do something with her, some way, some day, and several years later, when I wrote the Loretta section of Woman’s Picture, I created the role of Joan for her.
A few months ago, I talked to her about Joan and the experience of finally working together.
BRIAN PERA: What do you think Joan’s general bio is?
ANGELA DEE: Joan was an only child raised in her family-run motel. Her parents died suddenly when she was a young adult. The motel was left to her and due to her history of both living and working in the motel from a very early age she was able to pick up where her parents, specifically her mother, left off, managing the business. She has never traveled and rarely takes any time off. Running the motel is her one sanity and purpose in life and she does it 110%.
BRIAN: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got your mind around the character of Joan? What was your approach and what kind of background work did you do developing her character
ANGELA: Well, I approached it in a couple of ways.
She reminded me of a girl I know. Someone I have a complicated relationship with. And because I know this person really well, I had a little insight about what propels her to behave the way she does. So I spent some time playing with her physicality, her voice, the way she presents herself. As a sort of jumping off point. Whenever I got stuck, I’d consider her.
I also connected with Joan personally. I’ve experienced isolation like Joan has after a kind of systematic rejection from a close circle of friends as a teenager. I think when people experience deep loneliness they do one of two things: They either disintegrate or they fortify – crystallize, if you will. And that was the impression I got from Joan. She had a very tough, hard exterior which was created after a deep and painful loss. So I spent a lot of time considering the events in her past that would have made her who she is. Alone with all this responsibility and feeling a kind of need to prove herself to people who were no longer around. Joan survives by following and making rules – so I made sure that even the way she did her hair had an almost military system to it. When Loretta comes along, her whole approach to doing things is rattled and threatened but she also sees an opportunity to offer herself as a friend, to finally be accepted as someone to rely on. There’s a sort of personal atonement Joan is seeking through Loretta.
I also found a great deal of footing through my conversations with you. You had such insight into who this person was and her relationship to the motel and to Loretta that it was easy for me to find a way in. We discussed her past, including her relationship with her parents and then her desires for the future. It was a great and very rare experience for me to work so openly with a director on some of the specifics of a character that no one would ever really see/hear about in the final movie.
BRIAN: I imagine you had done work beforehand on the character, but you had no idea
what to expect. We’d never worked together before. So then you get here and it’s a very specific environment – and you’re meeting Joan’s peers, these others actors for the first time. And me. And our set-up. How do you carry that work you’ve done beforehand into the unknown like that? What tends to happen for you? What kind of adjustments did you make and did anything about the “reality” of the environment and our little posse of collaborators cause you to rethink your decisions about Joan or expand them in interesting ways?
ANGELA: Outside of group-dynamics and the overall vibe on set, I feel like I did know what to expect. I had a script and I’d had some conversations with you on the phone so I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to be doing. I had no idea what to expect as far as the casting of Loretta and the other characters were concerned, but I knew how Joan basically felt about the situation so there weren’t any real surprises there beyond what would probably exist in the real world. I didn’t feel like any of the actors pulled any major u-turns with their characters either, so other than the individual personalities – which only helped add dimension to our relationships – that part was pretty smooth, too.
BRIAN: So you arrived and it was just ‘jump right in’?
ANGELA: I did feel quite alien on the set when I first got there. And that was superbly helpful. All my own personal insecurities came swiftly to the surface and I got a great, hands-on chance to connect with Joan viscerally. Up until that last night of shooting (for me anyway) I kind of gently allowed that feeling to stay rather than fight against it. Of course, though, making a film can be immensely enjoyable and it’s hard not to bond with people on set, and that last night was both exhausting and a riot!
Overall I felt greatly supported and safe and if anything both the environment and you as a director helped me flesh Joan out and give her some depth. As for what I showed up with and how that may have changed once there, in general, I think I just form an impression of the character – an emotional center and a sense of a fundamental behavior – and then I show up on set and see what happens. Obviously, I get that impression from the script. I already have an idea of who this person is by the way the writer has illustrated her. Even a really minor character, I find, has some basic wash of color – some simple way of being that I can play with. But I’m not attached to it. A huge part of the fun with acting is the collaboration with the cast and director, so if I show up all locked-in over how I’m going to say this line or move my head when such-and-such happens, I’m limiting the opportunity I have to really discover who I’m playing. I really believe that it’s my job to understand what the director needs from me to help fulfill his/her vision of the script. If I don’t understand what’s needed I’ll ask a bunch of questions until it clicks. Having my lines memorized is REALLY helpful, because then I can be completely available to whatever is presenting itself in the moment and if I need to adjust what I’m doing, I can.
BRIAN: When I told you we were doing a film inspired by women’s films of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, did anyone come to mind?
ANGELA: The woman that comes to mind is absolutely Giulietta Masina! My first exposure to her was in the movie Nights of Cabiria. I’d always struggled with the way actors/actresses performed in the classics – so stilted, self-conscious and pretentious, even. And then I saw that movie. All the way through it I was mind-blown by the nuances of this bright little fire-ball. And by the end of the film I’d completely fallen in love with her. That very last moment of the film, where after everything she’s been through she gives us a little smile straight to the camera and joins in with the kids messing around hit me so hard. I don’t think I’ve cried as much after a movie. The Fellini films that star her are by far my favorite.
Do you know what’s funny? Now that I’m thinking about it I just realized that I’ve been unconsciously modeling myself after her. I’m obsessed with that look!
Then, of course there are other standard favorites like Garbo, Crawford and Dietrich but I have a kind of detached admiration for them. I have a bit of a blind spot with movies from the 30s – 40s, in general. Of course there are the odd movies like Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, King Kong and Citizen Kane which are amazing but they didn’t define me as an actress or movie-lover. My obsession with films and acting most definitely kicked-in with Streetcar in ’51 and especially movies made in the 60s. Kate Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe were really amazing and their movies take me closer to the 60s (Funny Face, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Misfits, etc).
Ed. note: Stills from Woman’s Picture by Tommy Kha