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Zoe Cassavetes On What Inspired Her to Tell the Story of an Aging Actress in ‘Day Out of Days’

Zoe Cassavetes On What Inspired Her to Tell the Story of an Aging Actress in 'Day Out of Days'

Towards the beginning of Zoe Cassavetes’ “Day Out of Days,” we witness an awkward phone conversation between a former ingenue and her agent: the actress asks, “Don’t you think I’m a little bit young to be playing … [the] mother?” Mia (Alexia Landeau “2 Days in New York”) is becoming increasingly disenchanted by the business that made her a star. The only auditions she’s getting are for deeply unsatisfying roles — and she’s not even booking the gigs. Mia begins to wonder if the emotional and psychological toll she pays to be a 40-year-old actress in Hollywood is even worth it — or if it’s time to leave acting behind altogether. 

Women and Hollywood spoke with Cassavetes about her inspirations for the film, how to make ageism less of a problem in Hollywood and co-writing the script for “Day Out of Days” with its star, Landeau, 

You can catch the film on Digital HD and VOD February 23. 

W&H: How would you describe the film in your own words?

ZC: “Day Out of Days” is about a woman — an actress — who finds it increasingly hard to find significance in her work now that she’s marginalized by her age. She also has to learn how to change and adjust to create some sort of peace in the second half of her life, now that the power of youth has fled.

W&H: While women in general face immense pressure about how to ‘best’ age, and basically to avoid looking their age at all costs, no one’s looks are scrutinized more closely — and critically — than Hollywood actresses. Is that what drew you to telling a story about a 40-year-old former star?

ZC: The pressure for an actress to look good and be skeletally thin is insane and unrealistic and it’s a subject I’ve been fascinated by for a while now. The celebrity culture demands a camera-ready-at-all-times look or else the photo is circulated in a demeaning headline. And going out all the time where the actress needs a stylist and hair and make up. Who pays for all of this? Actresses feel immense pressure to keep up. Nobody wants someone who doesn’t know how to market themselves.

Those were my observations. And then my actress friends would tell me their horror stories, or say they couldn’t get work, and were deemed too old, even though they were established and talented and fit and gorgeous. It was frustrating for them and it was frustrating to hear. Maybe because I was the same age as them and it was already hard enough trying to cross over to the 40s without someone judging your every move.

W&H: When you told people what subject matter “Day Out of Days” was going to tackle, what kind of reactions did you get? I’m guessing it sparked some interesting conversations.

ZC: It’s funny, there was an overall reaction to the sentence “It’s the story of a 40 year old actress in Hollywood.” The response was a knowing “Ahhhhhh.” Like that was all I had to say and I hit a nerve.

But for Alexia and I, it was really more of the story of a woman of a certain age who has to learn to face her fears and take command of herself regardless of her past. It just so happens she’s an actress and it’s a great forum to really accentuate those points. But I really loved some of the reactions. A projectionist I was working with when we were finishing the film came to me after and told me how much he liked the film and that his wife was a dancer and how she was feeling all the same pressures. So I think it’s universal, this aging thing. 

W&H: In the top 100 grossing movies of 2015, males 40 and over accounted for 54% of all male characters whereas females 40 and over comprised 34% of all characters. And the percentage of male characters in their 50s is almost twice that of female characters in their 50s. What do you attribute these numbers to? How can we change them?

ZC: Ahhh! I hate math! Listen, have these numbers really changed drastically in the last 75 years? Probably not. Do I think it’s fair? No. Do I think it needs to change? Sure.

The only way to do that is to do it. Write awesome material for women of those ages. Start there. If there is no content, there can be no parts.Then we have to convince the people who give the money to accept it! I’m pretty sure a lot of directors would be thrilled to cast age appropriate roles. I am.

W&H: You co-wrote “Day Out of Days” with Alexia. How much of the script was based on her personal history or anecdotes you’d heard from other actresses? Mia’s interactions with a verbally abusive director and the meeting that becomes a bizarre sexual proposition seem like Hollywood horror stories — the kind that are actually much more common than people realize.

ZC: Alexia and I both had a lot of personal stories and of course heard the other legendary ones. It was fun to create characters who had truth to them but were also made up so as not to completely offend!.

Alexia was really smart when we were writing. She knew when we were pushing too far and it might seem over the top and could bring it back to a reality based moment. She did that in her performance as well. In a way I’m sure it was a fun part for an actress to play. Therapy acting.

W&H: The film shows how alienating the film and television industry can be for actresses. What’s your experience been like behind the scenes?

ZC: The thing is, once you have the job it’s not alienating it all — it’s just getting to that point that can feel like the loneliest place in the world sometimes. Because when you create, it comes from this deep part of you, and your job is you, and so when you don’t get heard it can feel bad and frustrating and you have to somehow keep the confidence up. But I try to turn that around and think, “I want to do something different and people might not understand that so I have to make them understand it and that may be the harder road.”

I just want some people to get it. In a way I’m lucky because when people suggest I won’t be able to do something I have no choice but to show them they are wrong. If I say I’m doing it, I’m doing it. No matter how hard it is. 

W&H: You previously worked as an actress. When did you decide to step behind the camera?

ZC: I wouldn’t say that I was an actress. I tried to be an actress. I really didn’t have the gift. Also, there was so much maintenance involved. Even way back then. It was just something you were supposed to do if you lived in LA and so I did it.

I was embarrassing but I wouldn’t trade any of it in because it made me realize acting is really an art. It’s not easy and not everyone can do it. And I also knew the sensitivities of the actor — it gave me more compassion and respect for them when I started directing. 

W&H: “Day Out of Days” is the second feature you’ve directed. What were some of the most important lessons you learned from making your first movie, “Broken English“? What advice do you have for other women directors?

ZC: I had an amazing experience and a lot of support on “Broken English” with my actors and crew. And even though I had made short films or commercials before, I felt a little intimidated by the grandness of it all. I thought I should listen to people who were telling me what to do instead of listening to my own instincts because they must know better. I learned to find my voice more and not be afraid to use it.

If you are the writer/director especially, no one cares more about the project than you do. You know it in and out. You created it. So always listen to input but don’t be afraid to veto and fight decisions that you know instinctively are wrong. That’s my advice.

W&H: Were you influenced by any other movies about actresses or the business?

ZC: Yes! I will watch a ton of movies while I’m writing for inspiration. “Postcards from the Edge” was one. I love the mother-daughter relationship and all the hard humiliating stuff she has to go through. Or thinks she has to go through.

I loved “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “All About Eve” and even “Sunset Boulevard.” There is another movie I love that always sticks with me and influenced me called “Frankie” starring Diane Kruger as a model past her prime trying to make it work and going crazy from how she is treated. It’s directed by Fabienne Berthaud and it’s great.

W&H: What’s your favorite woman-directed film?

ZC: Agnes Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7.” 

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