A last-minute casting switch may have led actress Rosemarie DeWitt to Lynn Shelton’s fourth feature “Your Sister’s Sister,” co-starring Emily Blunt and Mark Duplass, but the gamble paid off tremendously — so much so that Shelton envisioned DeWitt specifically when it came to writing her follow-up, “Touchy Feely.” Following Abby, a massage therapist who develops a repulsion to skin on the eve of moving in with her boyfriend (Scoot McNairy), the drama premiered at Sundance this past year (our review here), and boasts a great cast including Allison Janney, Josh Pais, Ellen Page, and Ron Livingston.
The film also marks a return for Shelton back to her experimental beginnings as a director, embracing a sensual approach that puts the viewer inside Abby’s mind as she struggles to pinpoint her problems. It’s a challenge that DeWitt matches wonderfully in a standout performance — no surprise to viewers of her in films like “Rachel Getting Married,” “Nobody Walks,” and “Afterschool.” Next, the actress will take her first stab at horror in “Monster House” director Gil Kenan’s “Poltergeist” remake; recently we spoke with the actress about her attraction to that film, her experiences making “Touchy Feely,” and more.
Because of the subject matter of new age therapy in “Touchy Feely,” some might assume it’s taking a scathing look at the practice; coming into it, did you have to suppress any skepticism to play Abby?
No, no, I think I would’ve always been drawn to this character. I’ll try any kind of weird thing — I remember after “Rachel Getting Married,” Debra Winger and I went to a spa in Palm Springs. We did some transcendental breathing, where you just lay on a table and breathe really heavily and have these weird, out-of-body experiences. I don’t go looking for it and do it all the time, but it doesn’t freak me out.
You’ve said that after reading the script you were somewhat perplexed on your character. What was the root of that feeling?
Well, working with Lynn before made me want to jump into the sandbox with her again, because I had one of the best experiences ever with her making “My Sister’s Sister.” I was sure of Lynn’s talent, and sold on the idea of working with her again, but it was just one of the rare experiences where I didn’t have a hook into the character. I didn’t understand what was happening to her — looking back now I think her enormous fear of commitment froze her somewhat or she got more stuck in her rut. But I didn’t understand why she looked at the skin on her knee and all of a sudden bodies repulsed her. It was also clear to me though from talking to Lynn that it wasn’t a pathology or some sort of phobia; it was just a moment in life.
When was that specific moment that everything clarified for you?
I feel like now it was more a case of seeing the film, because as it happens we shot a bunch of stuff that didn’t end up in the final cut. There was this dream sequence — I didn’t see the edit, but people were shocked — where my character actually had, like, a third breast growing out of her. It was meant to show she was really confused with her own body, which started to make sense to me, but then it’s not in the movie. It just clarified that movies really are really made in the editing room, you know?
I saw Josh Pais in “Arbitrage” the day after “Touchy Feely,” and it was amazing to see the incredible range he has as an actor. Abby and his character kind of swap roles in terms of being the eccentric and straight man; how did you and him handle that tricky balance?
It was hard. You know, it feels more logical or compelling to go from emotionally tight to open and while his journey is all of that, there’s only a split second in the beginning of Abby feeling that way. Now it strikes me more that there’s a kind of faux-authenticity to her, in the movie we only see a little of that and then she starts to shut down. And that was hard, just in terms of going to work and having an internal battle the whole way.
Was the film shot chronologically?
Most of Lynn’s films are shot chronologically, and for the most part I think “Touchy Feely” was.
So you took that mindset home with you after filming?
You know the thing is, these movies happen so fast, so at least you’re wallowing in it for only two or three weeks; I definitely felt like I spent a lot of time walking around in the “Fix Me” mode though. But when I would look at Josh’s performance, just to see the joy in him gave me such joy. I love watching him climb onto the massage table in the scene with Allison Janney.
The film is really rooted in the senses, with scenes of you and the camera exploring every inch of your environment. How were those moments shot and directed with you in the center of them?
The thing with Lynn is you never feel like you’re being micro-managed. As a friend and actor of hers, it was exciting to see her do more with the camera, because when you’re so committed to capturing performances, like in “Humpday” or “Your Sister’s Sister,” you kind of have to plant that camera if you’re going to let them be talky. So I was excited to be more at the mercy of the shot, for Lynn to get to do some cool things.
But within that we felt a lot of freedom, like when Abby takes that long walk near the end, Lynn would say, “Oh, that looks cool, can you stay there with the leaves.” But she would never be like, “Come here now and touch this branch.” She’s not that kind of director at all. I feel like you have to take these risks as a filmmaker; she could do those kinds of comedies really well, but I like that she wants to try different things.
Speaking of trying different things, you’re going into horror for really the first time next in “Poltergeist.” Was your previous aversion to the genre just a coincidence?
Totally coincidental. I mean, it’s not like I sought it out; you kind of work with the things that are coming your way. But I can’t lie — I’m scared. I think the original movie is perfect, I haven’t seen it in a hundred years, and I won’t watch it because I don’t want it in my head. So I can’t tell you how true to the original it is, because I don’t remember the film with that kind of clarity, but I’m really excited to work with this director, and the writer, David Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote the script. I’m a huge fan of his from my days in theatre.
Did you work in any of his plays?
I auditioned for some of them a couple times — “Rabbit Hole” I auditioned for… there was something else too, but I can only remember being in the room and being scared. [laugh] Anyway, I’ve just been in awe of his talent, and the script is really great. I think Sam Rockwell is doing it too, so that’s all I need — a good script and Sam Rockwell. So I say I’m scared, but I can handle the scrutiny. People are going to tear it apart, and there are worse things in life to experience, but you know, there’s an obligation — you want to give people something exciting. If you do a movie like [“Touchy Feely”] and no one gets it, it’s no big deal. If you do a movie like “Poltergeist” and no one understands it, something’s wrong. Someone told me earlier that because I do all of these “navel-gazing character dramas,” blogs were saying the film’s just going to be a bunch of ghosts hanging around talking about their problems.
Are you a big horror fan? How up to date are you with the current slate of remakes?
As a younger person, I probably saw a lot more stuff, but now I just don’t. That’s just not my genre, but my husband Ron Livingston is in “The Conjuring,” and I went to the premiere and I screamed out loud in the movie theatre. It was really fun. And as you get older — like, I’m already scared. I’m scared to take out the trash. But I think young people get that thrill. And that premiere was around the time I was talking about “Poltergeist” and I was thinking, “I wanna be part of doing that to an audience.” It’s really character-driven, and I think the version that they’re going after is a real movie that just happens to be in the genre. I love when they do that with action movies, horror movies — all films across the board.
You just reminded me of your slowly-building scene with Ron [as Abby’s former boyfriend] toward the end of “Touchy Feely.” Being friends with Lynn beforehand, did she cast him based on your relationship with him?
I don’t think so; I think it had more to do with her perception from his films in one way. When we were promoting “Your Sister’s Sister,” she said she had a really nice conversation with him at Sundance and there was something in his essence that she wanted. Although there was a part of me that was weary about doing it, because I hate watching real-life couples in movies, I thought it worked okay. Abby had known his character for a long time, so they didn’t have any meet-cute scenarios — it was believable.
“Touchy Feely” is on iTunes and VOD now, and hits theatres on Sept. 6th.