From The Fits to The Diary of A Teenage Girl, meet the women who helped bring to life some of the most strikingly honest portrayals of contemporary girlhood in recent years. Shot by Jacqueline Harriet.
Anna Rose Holmer
Anna Rose Holmer was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film 2015. Oscilloscope Laboratories released her critically acclaimed narrative directorial debut, The Fits (Venice 2015, Sundance 2016), in 2016. The film follows Toni (Royalty Hightower), an 11-year-old tomboy who struggles to fit into a girls’ dance troupe, which begins to suffer from a sudden epidemic of violent fits. Of The Fits, Rolling Stone wrote, “Holmer turns this coming-of-age movie into a dreamy, dread-inducing portrait of a young woman in full self-discovery mode, with woozy dollops of magical realism and next-level spiritual transcendence mixing it up with mesmerizing drill routines.” Anna was nominated for Breakthrough Director at the 2016 Gotham Awards, as well as Someone to Watch and Best First Feature at the 2017 Independent Spirit Awards. She recently produced Jody Lee Lipes’s Ballet 422 (Tribeca 2014) and Mike Plunkett’s Salero (IDFA 2015).
Jaclyn Bethany: What was your childhood like?
Anna Rose Holmer: I grew up in a rural area. I played in the woods as a kid and worked on a farm as a teenager. My mom was an art teacher and my dad was a piano tuner, so art and music were a big part of my daily life.
JB: When did you know you wanted to make films?
ARH: I wasn’t a film nerd or a movie kid growing up, but I did become very interested in photography as a teenager. I saw Streetwise when I was 16, and it was the first time I thought about wanting to be a filmmaker—specifically, it made me want to study cinematography. [Photojournalist] Mary Ellen Mark was my bridge between the still and motion worlds. I decided to attend New York University to study cinematography and that was really my foundation in cinema.
JB: The Fits is a fascinating, bold, and haunting film. Where did the idea come from? What was it like to work within the Venice Biennale College Cinema program, where you developed the project on a micro-budget?
ARH: The objective of the Venice Biennale College Cinema program is simple: Pitch a film that can be developed, written, produced, edited, and premiered in under a year—and with a budget of only 150,000 euros. From the moment of conception, we designed The Fits around those constraints. Making a micro-budget film on an accelerated timeline has been a gift to me as a first-time director, and developing The Fits through the program has been the single most rewarding process of my creative career. I didn’t just develop this project, but also developed my own directing voice and leadership style.
JB: Can you tell us more about the experience of making The Fits?
ARH: From the film’s conception, we wanted to cast a real dance team…. We were looking for a choreographic language that better articulated Toni’s internal struggle. I watched endless dance team routines on YouTube, and eventually a recording of The Q-Kidz Junior Squad doing a “stand battle” (when two teams take the dance floor at the same time) was suggested. I had a very strong emotional connection to it right away. From that first video clip, I knew instinctively that drill was the dance form for The Fits. The call and response structure of stand battle speaks to the greater themes of the film; the tension between individuality and conformity is present in the dance form itself. We reached out and the founder of the Q-Kidz, Marquicia Jones-Woods, immediately understood the film and supported our vision. She worked closely with us as an Associate Producer as we adapted our script to the world of drill.
Casting all of the girls from the same real-life dance team meant that we could emphasize the authentic sisterhood and collective memory making that young women experience when they bond on a team. Our lead, Royalty Hightower, was also part of the Q-Kidz dance team and had been dancing with them since she was six years old… We filmed The Fits in an immersive environment, living on location and inviting the young cast to see themselves not just as performers, but also as co-authors of the characters on screen. In the writing phase, we had intentionally scripted placeholder dialogue and the cast worked closely with us to rewrite these minimal conversations into their own words… The local community didn’t just embrace our film; they shaped it. We spent a lot of time listening and observing and weaved that reality into our vision of the film.
JB: What do you consider to be one of the most important themes of the film?
ARH: One of the central themes of The Fits is breath. We often discussed when Toni would breathe in a scene, so even inhaling and exhaling became choreographic moments. The score was conceived to accent the internal turmoil that Toni’s body is undergoing throughout the film and to heighten this sense of quiet discomfort.
We wanted to treat the instruments like bodies and emphasize air moving through the woodwinds by recording breath, reed, and pad noises in the recording. We foleyed every time Toni’s braids flew in the air to sound like wings. Every single breath she takes, we lifted in the sound mix, so that it pierced through. All of these creative choices were to pull the audience as close to Toni as we could. We wanted to keep the tone as claustrophobic as possible to create pressure and the feeling that she is truly trapped in her body.
The Fits ends with a powerful exhale. In this release, we experience a subjective, transcendent, out-of-body awakening with Toni.
JB: How do you feel now considering the success of the film? Do you feel a sense of relief now that you have successfully made your first feature?
ARH: I am so grateful for the reception The Fits has had. I’m in awe of its life. I hope the film continues to travel and connect with audiences all over the world. I think the barriers to and challenges of creating a second feature film can often be more daunting than your debut. I’m looking to not only make a second film, but also to build the foundation for a sustainable career. I feel empowered, but I also feel a sense of urgency.
Anna Rose Holmer wears a dress by Family Affairs.
On working in the arts:
As a woman, it can be challenging to get ahead in this industry while still maintaining your integrity and protecting yourself. It’s like, on one hand, I want to work and put myself out there, but on the other hand, if I have to audition for one more character whose description only includes their physical attributes, I’m going to scream. But after being in this business for a while, I feel like I have a much clearer sense of what kind of work I want to do and I have become okay with holding out for the right projects.
Things are slowly changing in the industry, which gives me a lot of hope. This past spring, I worked on a pilot that had an entirely female producing team. I remember walking into the audition and blurting out, “Whoa, all women!” because it was so rare—I had been to dozens of auditions that pilot season, and the rooms were mostly filled with men. It was such a pleasure to be part of that and it inspired me in my personal work—I went on to create my own project with my friends that had an entirely female cast and crew (except for one amazing sound guy).
For me, the purpose of this is not to be exclusive of men—I admire and respect the talents of so many males in this industry—but rather to give females who want to explore roles that are traditionally given to men (producer, director, cinematographer, etc.) a chance to experiment and perhaps even to fail. I think it’s just where we happen to be at this moment in time. I hope in 20 years we won’t have to boast that crews were all female, because things will have evened themselves out.
On her role in Quarry (Cinemax):
Quarry was an incredible experience and I credit it as a turning point in my career. The show takes place in Memphis 1972, after the Vietnam War. During rehearsals, we talked a lot about how the South was a bit behind the rest of the country in terms of fashion, social, and political trends, and so my character being a single woman in her late twenties really stuck out. Most women her age in the South would have been married with children. Sandy is quite independent, and is kind of a moving target that can’t be pinned down. I read a lot of Cosmopolitan articles from the time period, and the emerging ideas of sexual liberation that arose during and after the War influenced a lot of the choices that I made. Sandy is a character who embodies these ideas—she's comfortable in her own skin, knows what she wants, and isn't afraid to break it off with a man who isn’t satisfying her.
CREDITS: Quarry (Cinemax, 2016), Gotham (2016), Army Wives (Lifetime, 2013) and The Carrie Diaries (CW, 2013) Upcoming: Model Woman (Pilot), Kensho at The Bedfellow (Film)
Kaley wears her own clothing.
Jaclyn Bethany: How did you get into modeling? In what ways do you feel that you defy the typical “model” stereotype?
Kiara Barnes: I’ve had a passion for modeling since I can remember the days of America’s Next Top Model with Tyra Banks. I knew that I wanted to make a positive impact in the media, while at the same time of doing what I love.
I feel that models are often stereotyped as self-absorbed and socially unaware people. I’ve been raised in such a way where I’ve been able to actively break that stereotype and to engage in important conversations in regards to social and political issues in order to be not just a model, but also a role model.
JB: Tell me about Kiki's Space: How did the idea originate, and how do you go about choosing the content?
KB: I came up with Kiki’s Space because I wanted to create a platform for young creatives to get together and to feel heard. Whether that’s through writing, art, music, food, design, etc. I am open to it!
I feel that there’s a recycling effect that happens when it comes to media. There are a lot of amazing creators who aren’t ever seen or recognized for their work because they don’t have enough followers or “hype.” Through my platform, I want to be able to shine the light on these talented individuals so that they have an opportunity to share their work and voices among many.
JB: What's next for you?
KB: For now I really want to get into acting and directing, along with continuing my modeling career. I have always been into photography and film, so I want to explore those mediums, as well. Down the road, I plan to build a non-profit that would serve as a safe haven for young adults. The non-profit would be for those who have been victims of abuse or have faced adversity—for anyone who needs to be heard.
Kiara wears a top and pants by Samantha Pleet.
Kiara is represented by Elite Model Management in New York City.
Liesel Allen Yeager
Jaclyn Bethany: Where are you from, and where are you currently based?
Liesel Allen Yeager: I am from Charlottesville, Virginia and currently live in New York City, though I spent the past two years in Los Angeles.
JB: How did your interest in acting start?
LAY: My mom cast me in my first role in kindergarten. I played Peter Pan's shadow and remember being very excited that I got to wear fishnet gloves for the part. I dabbled in theater and performed occasionally throughout school, but I realized that this was what I wanted to pursue when I was 17 and I came back from an audition for a play (which I did not get cast in) and just realized how much I love doing this.
JB: What is the first film that really inspired you?
LAY: I remember seeing Elizabeth and Oscar and Lucinda within a few weeks of each other. This was before Cate Blanchett was super famous, and I had never heard of her, and I remember watching these performances and thinking, “I really want to do that, and I think I can.”
JB: You went to the Juilliard School for drama. What was your experience and training like there? How did it prepare you for a professional career?
LAY: Juilliard was life changing for me. It challenged me to use my body in ways I had not been willing to before, and it also made me encounter some of my true weaknesses as a person and artist and encouraged me to constantly work on them. I think, ultimately, it helped me to find a sense of confidence in my abilities and gave me the technical skills and courage I needed to pursue this professionally. Juilliard runs on a highly demanding schedule. It gave me a kind of endurance that I think is pretty enviable.
I think Juilliard is also really valuable in the artistic relationships it helps you build. My classmates and the friendships I have with playwrights that were formed there are the bedrock of my artistic life to this day.
JB: You recently appeared in Plenty (a feminist drama about Britain following the Great War) at The Public Theater. What was your role, and what was it like to work with Rachel Weisz?LAY: I play a young girl who comes to Susan (Weisz) to ask for money to get an abortion. The scene is both funny and deeply moving, especially considering our current political climate. At the time, in England, abortions were illegal, so my character would have to go to a back alley doctor and hope for the best. Rachel is a really smart, kind actress and a bit goofy backstage, which I always appreciate. I had admired her work for a very long time.
JB: If you weren't an actor, what would you be?
LAY: I have always fantasized about being a journalist. I think ultimately what interests me most in this world are people and their stories and struggles. I love reading (I am addicted to The New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times), and I think journalism is another profession that concerns itself mainly with the human condition and the truthful depiction of it.
JB: What's next for you?
LAY: Oh God, if only I knew. I promised Rachel I would write a play in the next two years so I better get on that...
CREDITS: Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike (Broadway debut, 2013), Plenty (Public Theater, 2016), Rehearsal (Film, 2015), among others. Liesel Allen Yeager is a graduate of the Juilliard School’s drama division.
Leisel wears a jumpsuit by Current/Elliot.
Mallory Merk is currently a student at the University of Pennsylvania. She is represented by Elite Model Management.
On her upbringing:
I was adopted at a very young age from Louisiana and moved up north. My parents were divorced and I was in second grade, and that's when I began traveling between two households. I have five brothers—four are younger and one is older. Both of my parents worked very hard for everything that they gave their children. They taught me something that I think not all children learn growing up, which is that hard work, compassion, and love for every person should be equal, no matter what they look like. These may seem like simple things, but a lot of the time, they are lost in today's world. I am grateful to my parents, who are wonderful people who see eye-to- eye with me on issues that matter, such as my sexuality and equality on earth. My parents made their children's happiness a priority, too. Even if they didn't have it all, they made sure we were always smiling.
On discovering music:
When I found music as a kid it was the one thing that made me smile in a long time. I was surrounded by all types of music growing up. My parents both had equally different, but equally beautiful taste in music. My mom turned me on to Stevie Nicks, Patti Smith, Joan Jett, and Cyndi Lauper. If I could have lunch with any woman, it would be Patti Smith. I'm itching to pick her brain. I listen to her music and I hear something more than words. I know that if I got to feel her energy in real life, it would change me.
My dad liked everything from The Rolling Stones to Grateful Dead and AC/DC. My parents had a bridge between them of music they both liked, so in the house when I was younger, Amy Winehouse, B.B. King, and Frank Sinatra were always playing. My first memory of music was probably playing the piano when I was a baby. I used to just crawl up on the seat and bang away; half the time it didn't sound that bad. I can't really talk about my (upcoming) album, but when it begins to show its face it will be special.
I began working in the fashion industry when I walked in a VFiles runway show when I was 14. Then I modeled in Kanye West's YEEZY Season 2 Zine…. Fashion media dictates what we should “aspire to be.” Fashion magazines tell women how they should look, dress, and act… I recognize my power to set a positive example and to show young girls they can be anything they wish. There are so many things that are built into the industry to hold women back. I realized I could use my platform to help change the false representations of women mentally, physically, and spiritually.
Fashion is one of the most important industries because it offers the biggest opportunity to positively represent diversity: people of color, women, men, and the trans community. To not take advantage of the platform that is fashion media would be a colossal failure.
On education and what she stands for:
I think it's important for young women to stay educated because everything in this world is set up for the white man. Your education is the only thing that nobody can take away from you. They can't take your brain away: Enrich it, and beat them with knowledge. It's the most dangerous weapon when we are knowledgeable about our enemy and superficial barriers… I encourage learning as the next step to world domination for women. In high school, I studied behavioral science, math, literature, and basic core classes. Take advantage of school—it's a literal life hack.
I stand for originality and independence of thought. Stand up for what's right even if you're the only one standing. Support people who have positive outlooks and ways to change the world for the better. Stop supporting people who are racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and transphobic. Set the standard. Stop closing your mouth and start opening it more. Open your mind more. I can't stress how important individuality is, too, because everyone is starting to blend. Without new ideologies and plans, the standard of positivity and acceptance will be lost. I'm working on being a pioneer for peace and love. That's the strongest thing I stand for.
Quinn Shephard & Nadia Alexander
Quinn Shephard directed her first feature at the age of 20, which almost makes her a child prodigy. While Shephard has been acting since a young age, she notes, “I always knew I wanted to be a director.” Her debut film, Blame, is a high school drama that centers around a circle of events— a drama teacher, an unstable student, her jealous classmate—that draws parallels to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. I’m hooked already.
Jaclyn Bethany: Quinn, tell me about your debut feature, Blame. How did it come to be? What was the inspiration behind it?
Quinn Shephard: Blame was born out of an interesting time in my life. When I was a sophomore in high school, I was cast as Abigail Williams in a regional production of The Crucible. At 15, it was by far the most exciting and adult role I had played, and it had a huge impact on my perspective as an artist. Beyond my fascination with the complexities of both Abigail and the world that she lived in, I was aware of how the role began to permeate my day-to-day life. I was an escapist as a teenager, always wanting my life to be a film or a theater piece, so I started to imagine what Abigail's story would look like set in a modern-day high school much like my own (or exactly like my own, since we filmed at my old school!). My protagonist was a girl who, after being cast by her drama teacher as Abigail in the school play, throws herself into the character so deeply that the lines begin to blur between reality and her art. The first few drafts were a bit off-the-wall, like Fatal Attraction meets Black Swan—it wasn't until I created the titular antagonist of her vengeful classmate “Melissa” that the story as I know it now really began to take shape.
Blame was a part of my life for years, but I could never have brought the film through actual production without the help of my mom, who was my partner in the development and actual production of the film from beginning to the end. Without her intelligence, hard work and support, I never could have done something like this, especially at such a young age. I also count myself excessively lucky to have worked with such incredible actors and talented crew. When we cast Chris Messina and Nadia Alexander, everything just came alive. They are both immensely talented and unique actors who brought 110% to the table every single day. Nadia brought a totally different direction to Melissa than the character as she originally read on paper (I believe she touches on this in her interview), but when I met her, I knew she was the only actor who could capture the driving darkness that I needed to bring to her character and, subsequently, the film. With Chris, I think we knew for about two years leading up to the shoot that he had to play [the role of] Jeremy.
JB: Given that the film resonates with themes present in The Crucible, do you think it might also possess parallels to our current political state?
QS: I won't pretend that the film makes a broad statement about politics in the way The Crucible reflects on McCarthyism, but it definitely delivers a message about the psychological damage caused by the sexualization of young girls—something that’s become way too normalized in our culture. I had fun toying with and poking fun at a lot of familiar motifs in the styling of the characters (the “bad girl,” the “Lolita”), with nods to high school movie clichés and schoolgirl fetishism—and then turning it all on its head by the end. There's a definite “aha!” moment where you get what it all means. I wanted Blame to be a fun ride, not a vessel to teach a lesson—it's fast-paced and dramatic and scandalous, even morally ambiguous most of the time—but by the end, I think the audience learns something they weren't expecting to, or at least stops to think. Our test audiences have gotten heated in talkbacks, which I love. I'd rather someone leave my film furious than forget about it!
JB: As a young woman coming off of your first feature, what advice would you give to other women pursuing directing. What did you learn? What were your challenges?
QS: My number one piece of advice is know your stuff, and people will respect you. My biggest fear was not being taken seriously. I think I was born wanting to be taken seriously. I started taking meetings about Blame when I was only 18 years old. I never wanted to be seen as “an actress who wants to direct.” When I walk onto a set, I know the camera, the lenses, the color palettes, the technical, and the creative [aspects]. I know what I want. And I think the second people see that, it takes away their ability to dismiss you.
CREDITS: Hostages (CBS, 2013-2014), Windsor (2016), Upcoming: Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, Blame (as writer/director/actor), The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and Midnight Sun
Nadia is a graduate of Fiorello H. Laguardia High School as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts. She is a graduate of the Macauley Honors College, where she holds degrees in Psychology and Physics.
On her role in Blame and working with Quinn:
Melissa (my character) was unlike any character I have played in my career thus far. I was initially very hesitant about taking [her] on. On paper, Melissa was an overtly sexual cheerleader—a “hot girl”—which couldn't be further from anything I usually play. I always wanted my intelligence to trump any kind of “sex appeal” I could have. Those feelings carried into my young adulthood, and as such, I was uncomfortable with the idea of playing someone who was an outwardly more sexual character. My only “in” was her manipulative tenacity bordering on dark obsession—that was something I comprehended on an intellectual level, and something, as it turned out, that Quinn was more interested in than Melissa's sexuality, hence, why I booked the role.
Quinn was extremely open minded with regards to casting that character, and she was willing to shape the role to suit my acting style. As such, Melissa evolved from that sort of classic “high school bitchy girly-girl” to a darker, “badass in a leather jacket smoking under the bleachers” girl. She let me dye half of my hair bright red (a goal of mine from my high school days) and to give Melissa a bit more of a crass, angry edge from the get-go.
Quinn is an extraordinary director, and working with her was a real gift. I was playing someone who felt so far away from myself, so it was thanks to her that I was able to consolidate all the little fragments of what I thought could work for Melissa into a fully formed character. She also helped me to feel incredibly at ease during some of our most difficult and vulnerable days. We used to joke about how so many of the scenes and situations would have felt creepy had she been a fifty-year-old man!
I would go to set on days I wasn't even working just to watch her in her element. Honestly, I don't think there is anyone quite like her out there in the directing world. To have a young female director examining teen sexuality in such a raw and powerful way is just something you don't see every day. She has an incredible eye for aesthetic and mood, while never losing sight of the bigger story. She knows exactly what she wants, and she will work beyond the scope of what you thought was possible to achieve it. I have never met anyone as hard working and strong in the face of every obstacle. I will literally work on every film she does in the future, regardless of if she invites me or not. I'll be hiding behind the craft-service table or something.
CREDITS: Fan Girl (2015), Jamie Marks is Dead (2015), Ten Thousand Saints (2015), The Devil You Know (2015, Pilot, HBO) Admission (2013), Upcoming: Blame, Boarding School
Quinn and Nadia wear outfits by Samantha Pleet.
I first met Rachel Trachtenburg when she was still a teenager. At the time, she was in an all-girl band and wore star stickers on each eye. Even at that young age, she was totally unique, and highly intelligent. Today, she wholly retains these qualities; she’s just grown-up. I have enjoyed watching her multidisciplinary career evolve through fashion, music, and now, acting. Trachtenburg always has a new project up her sleeve. Creativity runs in her blood, as her parents are both musicians, formerly of The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players: “Once the family band started, we toured a lot. I loved it, I love being on the road and living out of a suitcase… I grew up listening to a lot of ELO, Quasi, ABBA, and Led Zeppelin,” she says.
Trachtenburg was only six when she started playing drums in the family band. Although she was born in Seattle, she considers herself a New Yorker, having settled in the city after her early life spent on the road. In her teens, when she was looking to start her own band, she started to discover her own artistic voice, and found herself attracted to “music that lets the artist's personality shine out very strong: mistakes being purposely left in… Syd Barrett, The Moldy Peaches… those were the kind of bands that I really connected with and made me want to write my own songs.” Currently she’s been listening to a lot of AIR—one of my favorite bands, too. With her petite physique, retro haircut and freckled face, she brings to mind some of the classic film stars of the ‘60s and ‘70s. But Trachtenburg maintains a style all her own. It was her distinct sensibility that led Lanvin to cast her in a campaign shot by Steven Meisel, which launched her modeling career. I still recall seeing the ad, whether on a billboard or in the pages of Vogue, and remember thinking that girl was going places. In regards to modeling, Trachtenburg says, “I've learned about myself through modeling, like how to be focused and comfortable on set in order to capture hopefully something that is special.”
With a look and talent that seems like a match made in indie-film heaven, Trachtenburg recently wrapped a role in her first feature, Diamond Soles, directed by Michael Preysler, alongside fellow model/actress, Ali Michael. The film follows an alienated dancer named Cecilia who returns to New York to reconnect with her high school friends and ex-boyfriend. Of the project, Trachtenburg says, “It was a really fun shoot. I play Elodie, who is an easygoing New York City girl. The filming process was very natural and we got to keep the lines loose and improvised.” But back to music: Trachtenburg tells me she’s recently joined a new band called Wooing that just shot a music video with director John Zhao. As a touring musician, Rachel has gotten to travel the world, but her favorite places (thus far) might surprise you: “I love Amsterdam. I've been twice, and I love the history and architecture. I also really enjoyed Columbus Ohio—great thrifting.”
Rachel wears a vintage dress and top. Earrings by Family Affairs.
Rachel Trachtenburg is a New York City-based model, activist, musician, and actor. She is represented by Elite Model Management.
Last year, over the holidays, I saw the film The Diary of A Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller’s fascinating and raw debut. I found myself wondering who created the animations, which perfectly capture the feelings of Minnie Goetze, the lead character. I soon discovered that the woman behind the magic was none other than Icelandic-born, Brooklyn-based artist, Sara Gunnarsdóttir.
Below, Gunnarsdóttir talks to Constellation about her childhood in Iceland, and the experience of making her work and films:
I feel very blessed to be from Iceland—it´s a special place and feels even more so since I moved away. The presence of nature is very strong, even in the city. It has a lot to do with the weather I believe; we have so much of it and it´s ever changing. And the light is special there, too. The winters are very dark but in a warm way—you´ll find blue and violet and green in the sky. And the summer is extremely bright and vivid. Color is very important to me, and perhaps it has something to do with Icelandic nature. Growing up there, I was also given a lot of freedom and independence as a child. It helps when finding the courage to go after what you want in life.
I don´t really have a first memory of animation. It was always around me somehow, with the Saturday morning cartoons of the ‘80s. The first time I saw animation that felt different and exciting was Fire and Ice (1983) by Ralph Bakshi. It looked completely different from children´s cartoons and liked the way it looked. It’s also not really for young audiences and that was probably part of the attraction.
The Pirate of Love was my Thesis film from Cal Arts. It´s a documentary of sorts about an outsider musician, Daniel C; nobody knows who or where he is. It had been a few years since that CD started circulating in Iceland and I´m a friend of the guy who originally brought it to Iceland from Canada. There had been some attempt by another Icelandic filmmaker to start a documentary to try and find this mysterious singer, but nothing came of it. I genuinely liked the music and the story behind it was intriguing, partly because it could lend itself perfectly to animation. I just wanted to make a film about the myth itself, I didn´t need to find him in order to have a film. I could draw him any way I wanted because nobody knew who he was.
It took me two solid years to make that short. I started out with interviewing fans in Reykjavik and then used those to edit the story together on a timeline with some help from the music. Then I storyboarded out the musical chapters to tell different parts of the story before animating them. I found some inspiration in older movie posters about epic romances, but also in classic stories like The Wizard of Oz, and the pirate at the beginning is drawn after a Paul McCarthy sculpture.
It was a relief to get into some of those festivals; I had worked so hard and I believed in what I was making. It then really paid off once I released it online, because I started to get messages from people in Canada who knew and loved the music, and finally, The Pirate of Love himself found me! Turns out Daniel C is driving a truck down in Mississippi where he lives with his family.
The work I did on The Diary of a Teenage Girl is heavily inspired by Phoebe Gloeckner’s work. I wanted to make sure I was honoring what she had done. At the same time, it was kind of a perfect project for me because I think our drawing styles are quite compatible.
Working with Marielle Heller was a privilege. She trusted me for this part of the film and allowed me to make it my own in a way.
Currently, I am working on a documentary series as an animation director. I am also working toward making a feature-length documentary about The Pirate of Love (now that I´ve found him!). —Sara Gunnarsdóttir
Sara Gunnarsdóttir is originally from Reykjavik, Iceland and is currently based in Brooklyn. She is an award-winning filmmaker and artist, and is best known for her animated short film, The Pirate of Love (2013), which tells the story of a lonely truck driver who has written a full album of love songs to a woman he calls Sherry. The film played AFI Fest, where it was nominated for Best Short, and was selected for New Directors/New Films at Lincoln Center. She is also known for her animation work on the feature film The Diary of A Teenage Girl (2015), directed by Marielle Heller. She holds an MFA in animation from the California Institute of the Arts.
Sara wears her own clothing.
Originally from New Zealand, Amy Woodside is the founder of the women’s digital platform OKREAL, an online database of “wisdom shared by inspirational women.” The company also offers mentoring, workshops, and one-on-one coaching to foster women’s ability to forge their own paths.
Jaclyn Bethany: Amy, what do you find exciting about being a woman today?
Amy Woodside: The chance to lead by example, particularly if we are in a position of privilege. Seeing other women using their power for good and learning how I can do the same—that is exciting.
JB: Where did the idea for OKREAL come from? What was the process like from idea to execution? Why do you think websites and platforms devoted to inspiring women are important?
AW: I was at a point in my life where I needed to make a choice about what was next. I knew I wanted to start my own business and do something that combined my values and my strengths. I wrote a ton of lists; what I was good at, what I enjoyed, what was missing out there that I thought people might need. I began emailing women in my network, interviewing and photographing them. Events were a natural next step. I started doing live interviews, which led to mentor circles, which led to one-on-one coaching. I think it is important for women to look at the lives of people they admire and know what it took to get there—that it doesn’t just happen. I think there’s a lot of value in learning from others in order to see yourself more clearly.
JB: Tell me about the events you run as part of OKREAL. What have you learned from coordinating gatherings and establishing mentorship, among other aspects of the platform?
AW: Like a lot of things in life, they come down to being a good listener. Listening to your interviewee, your audience, and yourself. Being really honest about what’s working and what’s not, and always looking for opportunities to improve or offer something that’s missing. Which is how our mentor circles came about—the women coming to our live interviews were so engaged, intelligent, and hungry for connection with other likeminded ladies.
I started leading weekly mentor circles: intimate, curated groups of women who meet to discuss what they’re going through, with themes like leadership, confidence, transition, and purpose. Mentor circles led to one-on-one coaching, where I focus on helping women figure out what their version of fulfillment is and how to get there. I’ve always felt supported by the OKREAL community. Whether something goes perfectly to plan or the opposite, I always have someone rooting for me, and I feel very grateful for that.
JB: What have been your favorite posts thus far on OKREAL? How do you choose who to feature?
AW: I love what Audrey says about courage, the advice Saada Ahmed has for women who never feel like they’re enough, and what Stella Bugbee says on balance. But it’s impossible to pick favorites—I learn something new from everyone I interview. Which is how I choose women—they all have something to teach.
JB: Why do you think women's stories need to be told?
AW: Because that’s how we learn. Because getting out of our own worlds is how we empathize with others, because vulnerability is how we connect. How miserable would life be if we existed in our own bubbles! There is so much joy, for me anyway, in discovering how other people figure things out for themselves.
JB: What does feminism mean to you?
AW: Treating others how you want to be treated.
JB: What cause do you stand for and why?
AW: Lifting up the women around you. I don’t think that’s an official cause, but it’s something everyone should do, every day.
JB: In your opinion, what book should every young woman read?
AW: Someone recently left How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran on the “free-for-takers” bench in my apartment building. Thank you, kind stranger!
The books I hold closest to my heart are the ones I read when I was a kid, like Little Women, The Secret Garden, Little House On The Prairie…
JB: If you could have dinner with any woman (dead or alive), who would it be and why?
AW: Maya Angelou, because… obviously, and I would make a three-course meal using recipes from her cookbooks (which I didn’t know she had written until I looked up her favorite food).
JB: Who would be your dream woman to feature on the site?
AW: One day I will interview Oprah. I love Oprah.
JB: And Amy, I am sure Oprah would love to be featured.
Amy wears stylist’s own clothes.
Ana Nogueira began her career as an actor. She is mainly known for her career in television, with roles on shows such as The Vampire Diaries, The Batterys Down and The Michael J. Fox Show. Growing up, Nogueira loved writing, but didn’t think she was good enough at it to make it her career. Obviously this has not been the case. She cites Annie Baker, Tanya Saracho, and Clare Barron among her favorite writers. She stepped into the theatrical spectrum with the recent premiere of her Off-Broadway play, Empathitrax, which just so happened to be directed by another Constellation lady, Adrienne Campbell-Holt. An accomplished theater actress, Nogueira was also part of the 2013 Hamilton workshop cast, in which she played Eliza.
For Constellation, Nogeuria talks a little bit about her journey as an actress and the experience of working on Empathitrax:
Empathitrax is a play set in the near future about a couple in crisis who turn to a new prescription drug that allows them to feel what the other person is feeling. There are complications along the way, including the fact that the female character suffers from depression. But I promise it's not a total downer!
My father is a psychiatrist so I grew up in a house covered in pharmaceutical knick-knacks (e.g. Zoloft mouse pads and Prozac pens). Beyond that, I am married and my husband and I are two of the most communicative people you will ever meet but sometimes we still get stuck. I can't believe when it happens—how trapped we are in our own experiences. So I wanted to write a play about people who are not as emotionally compatible as the two of us are and see what a drug like this would do for them.
On the importance of arts education:
There are people who will never go into the arts professionally, but who benefit from arts education in ways that we need to start valuing. Imagination is the beginning of all innovation and progress, and nothing trains or expands your imagination better than the arts. It's also the best way to teach empathy. I realize there are some people in the world who think that wanting to teach children empathy makes me some bleeding-heart liberal (and I am!), but I'm also a tough cookie and a smart businesswoman who thinks that being able to put yourself in another person's shoes emotionally can only do good things for you.
On working in television and what attracts her to a role:
When the cable networks started providing a platform for writers to tell different kinds of stories than we had previously seen on television, everything changed. I would say it probably started at HBO with The Sopranos and Sex and the City. Then AMC showed up with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and suddenly anything was possible. I would say the number one reason for this television renaissance is that the power has been given back to the creators. Vince Gilligan, Jill Soloway, Jenji Kohan, Shonda Rhimes, Matthew Weiner— they all had a vision, and the networks got out of their way and let them make the show they had envisioned. This is the key to success in any art—give the power back to the creatives.
As a woman, when I'm reading a script, I need to make sure that the female characters are well-drawn. Beyond that I'm half-Brazilian so I a lot of the roles I go in for are Latina. I can't tell you how many racially tone-deaf scripts I come across. My first question is always: Is this character a function for the male lead or does she have her own wants/needs/flaws? Beyond that I love playing women who are complicated or unlikable (a term only used to describe female characters, BTW)—I love figuring out what got them there. Oh, and it better be funny. No matter how serious a project is, I won't fall in love with it unless it has some humor.
Ana wear a top, skirt, and coat by M Missioni.
When Annabelle Attanasio began studying at New York University, she had no idea that she wanted to be a filmmaker or write plays. But then, as her course of study went on, after playing the lead role in Antigone and being challenged creatively by her professors, she knew she wanted to do something unique. She created her own major whilst studying at New York University’s Gallatin School. Writing came later: “I was not getting cast in the roles I wanted, and [I felt like I] was waiting for permission to act at all. Frustrated, I asked myself: What story do I want to tell in this moment in time? What relationship dynamic do I want to play out? Once I realized what it was, I just wrote it for myself.”
Attanasio has always been a go-getter, as evidenced by her writing, directing, and appearing in several of her own films and plays over the past few years, while keeping herself busy in each medium: “Creating my own work has liberated me as an actor,” she says. She has also somehow found time to appear in some of the most-hyped dramas of 2016, including the Netflix series The Knick, directed by Steven Soderbergh, which she describes as “one of the best experiences of my life.”
She is currently developing her play, Mickey and the Bear, into a feature film: “In essence, the movie is about a teenage girl who must choose between loyalty to her father and her own independence as a young woman.” The film takes place in Montana and she plans to film it within the next year. When it comes to women directors, she sees a bright future ahead and admires women such as Jill Soloway and Andrea Arnold. When I ask her about the combination of acting and directing (a challenging feat, which I, too, sometimes take on), she says: “There is an objectivity required to act and direct simultaneously. You have to be able to watch yourself and be critical, but only in terms of‘Am I telling the story?’ and if not, then ‘How do I better tell the story?’ It has been the most rewarding endeavor I've embarked on.”
Attanasio’s other film—a feminist farce—slated for 2017 is a short entitled “Frankie Keeps Talking.” “It’s about a girl and a guy on a date in a café, in which the guy never stops talking. Literally. Once the girl realizes this, she goes to extreme, potentially dangerous lengths for his attention.”
CREDITS: As actor: Barry (Netflix, 2016), Bull (CBS Television, 2016), The Knick (2015, Cinemax). As Writer/director/actor: Drooler (Short, 2016), Mickey and The Bear (NYU, 2014), One Row Over (NYU, 2013), Anchovies (Short, 2014).
Annabelle wears a coat and skirt by M Missoni.
Minifie’s theatrical dreams came true when she starred in the Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s devastating drama, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Every night, she shared the stage with Jessica Lange, Michael Shannon, Gabrielle Byrne and John Gallagher, Jr. Next to Lange, as Cathleen, she was the only woman in the cast. “Confidence can only come from yourself; we are all in the same room, the actors and the audience, so it serves us on the stage to act like it. The subconscious is present for a reason,” she says.
Given that Minifie made her Broadway debut at age 11 in The Pillowman, she was not too intimidated to share the stage with such prolific actors, who were each “marvelous in their own way and so giving and open to each other’s process.” “I got so damn lucky,” she says. Now, reflecting on her early career, she says: “I so admire these child actors that blow up and are still able to compile a body of work that is self-reflective and challenging. I think I really needed to work all that stuff out away from the public eye. I also needed a kick in the pants when I started resting on my resumé and my natural instincts too heavily. I needed to fail. I still need to fail.” Not every actor will admit to risking failure. Minifie’s words bring to mind Cate Blanchett, who once stated, “If you’re going to fail, fail gloriously.” Ironically, Blanchett is one of Minifie’s inspirations, along with Gena Rowlands (“I admire the trajectory of her career.”). Minifee has just joined a writing class, and eventually wants to write and direct, but for now, she’s focused on acting—and she’s still got much to explore in that realm. “I want to play Pippa in whatever manifestation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch materializes. And any part in her The Secret History. Her characters are so alive. I want to do a remake of Little Women. I want to do a movie on Henry David Thoreau and play Louisa May Alcott who, at 16, used to sit on the steps of his cabin at Walden Pond."
Minifie also co-stars in the female-centric Netflix original series Jessica Jones, which recently announced that it’s upcoming second season will be directed entirely by women. “That show sets a precedent for women in the industry. (Show-runner) Melissa Rosenberg helmed that ship with power and grace. When I met her, I remember thinking I had never met a woman with that kind of presence.” With two upcoming film roles and another Broadway show on the horizon, it’s clear that Minifie’s integrity, hunger to learn, and determination—not to mention her bright red hair and glowing smile—make her a standout in the competitive world of young actresses.
CREDITS: The Pillowman (Broadway, 2005), Long Day’s Journey into Night (Broadway, 2016), Jessica Jones (ABC/Marvel, 2015/recurring), Punk Rock (MCC Theater, 2014), Upcoming: Radium Girls, An Actor Prepares, Six Degrees of Separation (Broadway)
Colby wears a coat by DROMe, stylist’s own top and pants, Brian Atwood heels.
Gabby Richardson is a Brooklyn-based artist and activist, and the founder of Art Hoe collective.
Richardson explains how she approaches her work and the inspiration behind her current project, Art Hoe Collective:
I was surrounded by African art when I was growing up (in Philadelphia). My family has always valued art, especially black art, and it largely affected me. The people in my family were not artists but they had a really strong appreciation for our culture and all aspects of it, especially the art. I think if you want to educate yourself on art, the Internet is a priceless tool. It’s accessible and a hub for information—even if you were to get a “classical” education in the arts, the possibility to miss the contributions of many overlooked women artists and artists of color would remain.
The inspiration behind my project, Art Hoe Collective, is that there are so many talented POC creatives and artists out there and one of the only venues where they can showcase their work is online. We want the platform to be accessible, so we make it that anyone who has an online connection can have his or her work shown on the site. We show work across all mediums so no one will be excluded no matter what they make. The work we show isn’t based off of a hierarchy— it’s based off of growth.
I am inspired by the people I surround myself with daily. Women, especially women of color, carry the weight of the world. Feminism to me doesn’t just mean women being “equal to men,” it means women also being equal to each other. [I’m invested in] the removal of the structures in place that cause some women to be forced to work in factories where they’re getting paid twenty cents an hour; in getting rid of a system where one woman is flourishing, while one woman is struggling and being taken advantage of… We need to recognize those differences, and not try to overlook them to get along. We need to address them and work together.
I advocate for women’s ability to have complete autonomy over their bodies and lives. I feel like there is always so much debate over what we can and can’t do with our bodies. Whether it is our ability to have birth control, hormones, or even receiving the information about our bodies in schools, there is so much taboo [surrounding women’s bodies and health]. Women deserve to have control over their own bodies; it’s a basic human right.
The artistic work I do is mostly sculptural or painting, and revolves around my experience of being a POC, and a woman, and how my dynamics with my peers and America as a whole affect me. I want my audience to see my work and to think about themselves and their relationships to each other and the world around them.
Publications and projects (like Constellation, which represents diverse women) are important, because a lot of times when you need to create a platform you can’t trust that you will be treated correctly if you work within the system that has constantly oppressed you. In order to make sure something stays completely true, you have to make it for yourself and with your peers who believe in your movement. You create a safe space between yourselves and others who have shared your narrative and can empathize with your experience. That’s why our publications and collectives are so important—they’re for us and for each other.
All clothing stylist’s own.
Katy Smail is a Scottish-born, Brooklyn-based illustrator, painter, and art director. Her work blends the beauty of femininity—“tragic girls in pretty dresses”— and nature with strength and a sophisticated dreaminess. She is a graduate of the Edinburgh College of Art and is represented by Kate Ryan Inc. in New York City.
Jaclyn Bethany: Katy, what was your childhood like?
Katy Smail: I grew up in the Scottish countryside; our garden was basically wild woodland, so there was a lot of playing make-believe outside, building dens with my brothers. I have three younger brothers, and I would force them to put on performances with me. I was bossy and liked to be in control. There was lots of dressing up and reading and drawing. I dreamed of being an actress and spent so much happy time in drama clubs and theater productions.
JB: Do you remember the first drawing you ever made?
KS: I'm not sure I remember the first thing, but I know that I loved to draw girls in dresses with flowers when I was little; I’m still fascinated by the same things. I'd say that I knew by age 16 that art was going to be a huge part of my life.
JB: What are the challenges and joys of making a living as a female artist/illustrator in today's changing artistic climate? Why do you think it's important for women to unite and to stand up for their beliefs and choices?
KS: I think it's interesting that upon seeing my work, people almost always comment on its “inherent femininity” in a way that can seem dismissive. But I refuse to feel embarrassed by my femininity. I think describing something as “feminine” is so often a pseudonym for “weak” or “frivolous” and that is such a problem. Our culture does not value feminine, or yin, qualities and I think that is such a mistake. Just because my flowers are soft and delicate, does not mean they have no strength. Just as someone protesting peacefully is not weak, and a woman is not less capable than a man. It is a different kind of strength. Sensitivity, subtlety, empathy, tenderness, and beauty: These are powerful tools. Screaming above each other will not bring the change we need, and I think that women have always known this.
Making a living as an artist will always be tricky, no matter your gender, but I think that as a woman, you have to be especially tenacious. I am working on letting go of self-deprecation and trying to step into my power. I think that excessive modesty can be such a problem for women (perhaps a generalization, but I see it a lot, and I know it has been for me) and that owning our gifts is such an important step in being able to wield them for good. It seems more important than ever that women artists support each other, and use our voices to stand up for our beliefs. I think that raising each other up and building our collective confidence, rather than tearing each other apart, is going to be such a powerful shift. I see it happening already.
JB: Who would be your dream subject to sketch?
KS: That is hard. Maybe Frida Kahlo.
JB: What female artists do you admire? And going off that, what other women in the current New York arts scene inspire you?
KS: Some of my favorites: Joan Mitchell, Frida Kahlo, Helen Frankenthaler, Anaïs Nin, Angela Carter, Kiki Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Georgia O'Keefe, Deborah Turbeville, Yelena Yemchuk.... I could go on.
I have so many female friends in New York making beautiful work, inspiring me not only with their talent but their work ethic, ambition, and business skills.
My friends Ariel Dearie and Alexandra Grecco, in particular, are such inspirations for me. They both make beautiful work that is feminine, yes, but also so strong. I have watched them both grow their businesses from the bottom up, never sacrificing their intentions or values. I feel lucky to be surrounded by so many strong women working for themselves.
JB: What's a typical day like for you?
KS: Wake up, drink warm lemon water and make an herbal tea. A little meditation followed by my yoga practice or sometimes a run. Shower and then a plant-based breakfast with all sorts of herbs and seeds and potions; making a nourishing breakfast is my favorite thing.
I walk to the subway and listen to podcasts. When I get to the studio I catch up on all my emails and then settle in to work; this could be painting, or working on an illustration commission, or researching an upcoming project. I love that my work is different every day. I drink tea all day and gossip with my studio mate, Sam [Kalda].
I get excited about what to make for dinner, go food shopping on the way home and sometimes meet a friend or my husband for a glass of wine. I cook dinner with my husband, chat and watch something. Call my mum in Scotland. Hot bath with salts and oils, then read in bed. I am an old lady and love to go to bed early under a cloud of lavender oil.
Coat, stylist’s own.
Lexie Smith is a NYC-based baker and artist. She opened her wholesale bakery business, Reluctance Bakery, in 2016. She has lent recipes to some of New York’s buzziest joins, including El Rey Coffee Bar and Luncheonette.
Jaclyn Bethany: Hi, Lexie! What is your first memory of cooking? When did you discover it was your passion?
Lexie Smith: I remember spilling oil all over a pair of jeans my mom had just bought me, while trying to make brownies. And then hiding the pants, terrified. A bit scarred, I held off from further exploration for a while but started experimenting with food regularly at around age 15.
JB: Tell me about your business, Reluctance Bakery. How did it start? Where do you source your ingredients?
LS: Reluctance began as an avenue for wholesale and event clients, but has become an outlet for my own personal recipe development, more than anything else. It is really just the name, under which I categorize the “food” part of myself—sometimes when a thing is very fractured, it’s helpful to give the different pieces names to keep track.
JB: What’s your favorite food market in New York City?
LS: Union Square Greenmarket early on a Saturday is the happiest place in the world.
JB: What is a typical day like for you?
LS: Right now I'm working 12 to 18 hour workdays at Lalo, the restaurant in Chinatown where I am the pastry chef, and working on personal projects afterwards and on the days when I'm not there. I write about food, make food for events and installations, and also do design and illustration work, in addition to what little “art practice” I have time for (none). Then I've also got a handful of other projects scattered throughout, food-centric and otherwise. Sleeping doesn't play a huge part.
JB: I can imagine! You also personalize your own aprons. When did you start this process? What has been your favorite apron you've ever worn?
LS: I've always messed around with my clothing, recycled old into new. It is mostly born from frugality. I have a wrap skirt with mallard ducks hand painted on it (not by me—it was found at a thrift store) that I like very much.
JB: And what’s your favorite cookbook?
LS: Les Dîners de Gala by Salvador Dali.
Lexie wears stylist’s own clothing.
13-year-old Malina Weissman first discovered acting while working as a model. She won the coveted role of Violet in A Series of Unfortunate Events, Netflix’s new take on the classic series by Lemony Snicket, which premiered in January 2017.
I play Violet Baudelaire. I heard about the project a little over a year ago and I was immediately interested in the role because I have read and loved all of the Lemony Snicket books. My favorite fairy tale would be
I am excited to play Violet; she has many scenes where she is able to be a leader. I love that she is strong and stands up for what she believes in. Young girls need more female role models. If I weren’t an actor, I would be a director. I dream of becoming a director one day, while simultaneously continuing to act. —Malina Weissman
Malina wears a top and skirt by Georgine and heels by Gray Matters.
Susannah Flood most recently made her Broadway debut as Dunyasha in the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of Chekhov’s iconic work, The Cherry Orchard, opposite Diane Lane and Joel Grey. She also appeared Off-Broadway in Ivo Von Hove’s production of Scenes from A Marriage at New York Theatre Workshop, Tribes, and the hit play The Effect, the story of two patients on an anti-depressant trial that fall in love, both at The Barrow Street Theater. She holds an MFA in Acting from Brown University/Trinity Rep.
On Chekhov and The Cherry Orchard:
The Cherry Orchard is one of my favorite Chekhov plays and not just because I was in it.... It's about so much: time, family, home, society, class, death…. It's a huge, sprawling play that is still incredibly economic in its poetry; it's deeply compassionate but not at all sentimental .It crystalizes all the ideas of form and content that Chekhov experimented with throughout his body of work into one essential piece of writing.
The beauty (and challenge) of Chekhov is that he was really writing for the moment in the process, when the actor is so deep inside the life of the story, so relaxed, that any remnant of psychological appointment falls away and she accepts whatever she is feeling and thinking as what the character is feeling and thinking, squarely and completely. When the character and actor are alive in the same skin, the same breath, the same vivid, raw, contradictory state of mind that we all experience in times of great emotion; when that kind of flow state is discovered, the so-called hairpin emotional turns of Chekhov's scenes, or the seeming non-sequiturs about tea, literature, or another character's beard, don't seem like random eccentricities or impossible acts of emotional contortion, but rather the organic and unfiltered expression of our own inner life. In fact it becomes a balm, a relief in a certain way, to allow our contradictions, our preoccupations, and our deeply imperfect understanding of ourselves to live alongside our purest loves. It is an invitation to our soul—fertile, murky, and unexamined as it may be—to step out and take the air with us.
The challenge is, you can't get there until you get there, if you know what I mean. The more conscious, focused, and effortful work of imaginative construction and discretion has to be done first. It takes a long, long time, a lot of rehearsal, and even a bunch of times through it on your feet in front of an audience to get through that phase and into the (overly) familiar and (deeply) relaxed place where flow is possible. I like to think of Mark Rothko, who used turpentine and eggs to dilute his paint and then applied layer after layer of color to his canvases; the incandescent effect of his paintings is actually the result of hundreds of micro-thin layers of paint. To me, the magic of theater (and of a writer like Chekhov in particular) is kind of like that, where each performance is a single coat, producing, hopefully, over time, a plane of color of seemingly unfathomable depth, a space for the mind to project itself, take up residence, and stay a while. —Susannah Flood
Susannah wears a top by Aritzia, a skirt by Alice and Olivia, and flats by Monique Lhuillier.
New York native, Tessa Albertson is currently a student at Princeton University. She made her film debut opposite Elle Fanning in Phoebe in Wonderland (2008) and currently appears as Caitlin Miller, Liza (Sutton Foster’s) daughter in the hit TV Land series, Younger, which follows a 40-something woman who cheats her way into the publishing industry (while meeting some younger romantic possibilities along the way). Critics have deemed the show this decade’s answer to Sex and The City. She made her Broadway debut in Shrek the musical, and has appeared in Barry (2016), Complete Unknown (2016), Blame (upcoming), About Ray (2015), and Disconnect (2012).
Jaclyn Bethany: Tessa, when did you first discover acting and performing?
Tessa Albertson: When I was nine years old I went to summer camp, and even though I was in one of the youngest cabins, I got the lead role. This was a sort of an “A-ha moment” for me. I realized that maybe I was onto something with this theater thing.
JB: You currently balance a professional acting career with classes at Princeton University. What are you studying?
TA: I want to eventually write sci-fi movies, so I’m trying to study different fields that could help inspire stories to write. At Princeton, we have certificate programs, which are similar to a major. I plan on getting a Theoretical Astrophysics certificate, along with a Screenwriting of Theater certificate and perhaps [pursuing] East Asian studies.
JB: Why do you think it's important for young women to seek higher education, even if they ultimately plan to pursue a career in the creative arts?
TA: Let me first say: to each his/her own. Some of my dearest friends who are amazing actors chose not to go to school. I completely respect that [decision], but I love thinking critically in an academic setting, and once I got into Princeton early choice, it felt like an offer I could not refuse.
Additionally, I took a gap year between high school and college to know what it was like not balancing school and work at the same time. One of the main take-aways from this experience was that I felt slightly limited in the career I was going to have. Being blonde and blue-eyed, I look very naïve and go out for “the girl next door” roles a lot. In reality, I’m a super weird person, and I love playing kooky people. I want to have more control over my career and work on writing my own scripts.
I also think that learning about philosophy, sociology, different cultures, and the environment—this will all help me to become a better actor, director, writer, collaborator, and person.
I’m part of an improv group on campus that has many cool alumni (including Ellie Kemper!), which has helped me immensely in coming up with my own material.
JB: How did your role in Younger come about?
TA: Younger was really funny, because I did not think I looked enough like Sutton to play her daughter. However, a casting director and old friend of mine once said, “If the actors are good, I’ll believe they’re a family.” Sutton and I have similar quirks and mannerisms. The first audition was really fun, and then I got a callback with Darren Star. In the room, he kept giving me opposite direction: Be happier, now be angrier, okay try worried. I thought I blew it, that I wasn’t giving him what I wanted. Then my manager Elise called to say I was very well liked. That was a lesson for me that you can never know for sure how [an audition] went, so you just have to be confident in your performance.
JB: What is it like to work as part of such a strong female cast (let alone playing Sutton Foster's daughter). I know you also played a younger version of her on Broadway in Shrek!
TA: It still baffles me that Sutton and I have this history together. I feel truly blessed, because now I’ve known her for over seven years, and can call her a mentor and friend. She makes me laugh, gives me great advice about everything, and makes me want to be better. Not just acting, but how I carry myself onset.
I’m also very close to Debi Mazar, who plays Maggie, Liza’s best friend in the show. She is also from New York and is a mother, so I feel very taken care of and safe with her. She is SO strong and beautiful and classy and has an incredibly sweet and talented husband and I want her life when I grow up. Dottie Zickland, who is a producer and writer for the show, also inspires me. I am currently working on a script about my generation’s “hook-up culture,” and she has helped immensely with this project. She was also very supportive of me going to school. And Patricia Field [the costume designer and stylist behind Younger, and formerly, Sex and the City] is life.
JB: What's it like developing a character over several seasons?
TA: Caitlin is an interesting character, because she’s going to turn 21 soon, and then her mother will have real problems about bumping into her at bars and such. I think the past few seasons have focused on Liza’s New York life, but what really grounds her is that fact that she is a mother, and trying to pay for Caitlin’s college tuition. I like to think that Caitlin is like the Chekovian gun: This principle says that if there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.
JB: What other young actors do you admire? I know you've worked with Elle Fanning twice, in two completely different times in each of your careers.
TA: I love Evan Rachel Wood. I want to play her sister one day, and have the kind of career she’s having. Elle is also incredible. We worked on Phoebe in Wonderland together in 2006, so for her to remember me on the set of About Ray eight years later was so touching. We talk every now and then, and she is the sweetest. I find her to be viciously talented, and very humble. In both films, Elle plays a character who’s struggling through an issue that no one seems to know how to discuss properly. I think in general, art has that purpose of forcing us to confront the harder topics in society that we shy away from. When the lights come up in the theater after the film or show, all viewers can share in the experience we have just undergone.
Young people should see Phoebe in Wonderland and About Ray because, not to be cheesy, but we are the next generation of movers. We have to start dialogues about social issues that are disenfranchising our friends and family, and strive for a more inclusive world. This involves challenging the status quo with provocative stories that address topics such as disabilities and sexual orientation, among so many others.
JB: Tell me about your roles in both Barry and Complete Unknown—two very different but equally important and interesting stories. How does it feel to be in a film about Barack Obama during such a shifting and unsettling time politically? The film seems to portray him as a real person, which I think sometimes people can forget.
TA: Barry is a really special film. In the scene, my boyfriend and I are at a Columbia University frat party, and joke around with Barry [Barack] for a few minutes. What I like about the scene and the film in general, is that it’s not trying to be a biopic on Obama’s whole life. Rather, it shows a slice of his life—one specific issue he encountered when he transferred to Columbia: He felt too black for the mostly white student body, and too white for the kids he met in Harlem. That’s a real and relatable issue.
Complete Unknown was awesome because I got to work with Rachel Weisz along with Josh Marsten and Julian Sheppard. They were both so supportive of me going to school, and they’re such smart directors. Rachel went to university, and told me she feels there needs to be more stories about women, told by women. I will never forget that conversation, and I think now more than ever, with this “locker room talk” business, that women like me, who will not tolerate such a sentiment, must stand their ground and make art that sparks these different conversations toward progress.
JB: 2017 looks to be equally exciting for you! You appear in Blame, directed by actor/director Quinn Shepherd (also featured in Constellation). What was that process like? What was it like working with someone in front of and behind the camera?
TA: Working on Blame was a unique and wonderful experience. In the film, I play Ellie, and this was one of my biggest film roles to date. Since I was part of this core group of principals, we spent a lot of time getting to know each other and discussing the film’s composure. Watching Quinn put this piece together against all odds was truly inspiring and I have come to see Blame as my baby, too. I’m so invested in it at this point. I got to see a rough cut and I got a very creepy, quiet suburbia feel from it, along the lines of American Beauty or Donnie Darko.
JB: Why do you think often women are sometimes met with prejudice when they take on the role of director?
TA: I think women are met with this kind of prejudice any time they hold a position of power usually occupied by men. Once we can all acknowledge that deep-rooted sexist tendencies within us tell us to be irked by a woman in charge, we can notice that this is simply prejudice, and get over ourselves. Hopefully it’s changing, because we’re pointing it out more and more that sexism has no inherent reason to be— it just feels “natural” to those who were brought up in an environment that discouraged women in power.
JB: What have your experiences been like with the female directors you've worked with? Do you see yourself directing one day?
TA: Gaby Dellal, who directed About Ray is phenomenal. Her energy was strong, and her direction clear. I was actually shooting with her the day I found out I got into Princeton. She told me I had to go. I hope I get to work with her again.
I absolutely see myself directing one day, and I hope to prep myself a lot at school. I might direct a production of Martin McDonagh’s Pillowman next fall, with an all-female cast. I plan to have a creative thesis, where I can direct or write my own piece.
JB: What’s your favorite book that you've read recently?
TA: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (I read it in this dope American and Russian Sci-Fi seminar I’m taking!).
JB: What do you hope for in the future?
TA: I hope that I do not lose this eagerness I have to always be either learning or making creative work. I hope that people reach out to collaborate with me. I hope that school helps make me become a force to be reckoned with in the film/theater world. I hope that I get messages from strangers telling me that my work touched them or made them think differently than before. I hope that I do not have to look “hot” to be a woman on camera, but that’s an uphill battle.
Tessa wears stylist’s own jacket.
Every so often, a young photographer comes along whose work and eye challenge the art of photography and how we see young people and the female form. At this moment, one such photographer is Zora Sicher. Her work transforms what you might think of as editorial or commercial photography, and focuses instead on a beautiful sense of diartistic, realistic images that glorify the female form and girlhood while also showing the magical and poetic colors of each setting she photographs.
I feel pretty strong right now—but at the same time I think there are a lot of challenges. I think it’s great that so many platforms and magazines are centering journalism and art/photography on women. There are also a lot people capitalizing on the concept of “the female gaze” and a certain desired aesthetic without actually paying women well, or giving them the same opportunities, which is a complete contradiction if you actually care about women.
I think that this surge of all-female shows, all-female publications and work is extremely important, but I’d like to see not everything labeled as representative of the “female gaze.” I’d like my work and others’ work to be taken for what it is. Because yes, this is my art, this is my work; this is my “gaze” per say, but clumping certain things together and/or prioritizing work that aesthetically affirms a societally created gender norm is misrepresentative of what girlhood and being a woman is to many people. I think there need to be more opportunities for women to display their lens or gaze, or their work, and not just have it be a “special” story in a magazine—it needs to infiltrate the pages in a manner that’s equal to men’s work, if not more, without needing to be announced.
Feminism, to me, means equality and survival—an alliance. The ideas are also ever changing because we currently have so many things to adjust to and support in our society. It needs to be inclusive and all encompassing. It means doing everything you want and need to do as women, standing by women and respecting and supporting each and every ones’ choices and needs, helping each other, listening, and taking action when needed. —Zora Sicher
Zora Sicher is a photographer based in New York. Her work has been featured in publications including New York Magazine, i-D, and Allure, among many others. She is a photography student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. ★
Zora wears her own glasses, stylist’s own top, pants, and jacket.
Photographer: Jacqueline Harriet. Interviews and text by Jaclyn Bethany.
For Kiara Barnes, Rachel Trachtenburg, Amy Woodside, Tessa Albertson, Katy Smail and Lexie Smith, and Sara Gunnarsdóttir: Hair: Andrita Renee. Makeup: Katie Mellinger. Assistant: Juliet Mueller.
For Mallory Merk, Quinn Shepherd, Nadia Alexander, Liesel Allen Yaeger, Kayley Ronayne, Susannah Flood, Ana Nogueira, Annabelle Attansasio, Colby Minifie, Malina Weissman, and Anna Rose Holmer: Hair: Andrita Renee. Makeup: Caroline Baribeau. Assistant: Juliet Mueller.
For Amy Woodside, Gabrielle Richardson, Tessa Albertson, Katy Smail,and Lexie Smith: Styling: Rachael Wang
For Susannah Flood, Malina Weissman, Colby Minifie, Annabelle Attanasio, and Ana Nogueria: Styling: Lindsay Peoples.