Marianna Palka has endured a bumpy decade: The filmmaker and actress was a Sundance breakout whose career was nearly derailed by the prospects of a life-threatening disease. She makes challenging movies that don’t face easy commercial prospects. And yet, over the past year, she has entered a whole new chapter of her career — premiering her daring new movie “Bitch” in Sundance’s Midnight section, acting on a popular new Netflix series, and heading straight into the biggest production of her directing life.
The actor-director is getting used to a busier routine. In the last half of 2016, she not only completed her fourth feature; she also found the time to appear in several episodes the Netflix hit “GLOW,” as female wrestler Reggie Walsh. She called it “the best year, yeah, of my entire work life, it’s like the best year ever, it’s just beautiful.” That sentiment is especially profound considering the struggles she’s endured over the past 20 years.
When she was just 17, Palka moved to New York City from her hometown of Glasgow to study acting at the Atlantic Theater Company. The relationships she formed with her first group of New York friends have remained the bedrock of her personal and professional life – she dated fellow actor Jason Ritter for over a decade (the pair are still close) and she considers Bryce Dallas Howard the person who knows her best, even today – and Palka still works with many of the same people who were there from the beginning.
In 2008, she wrote, directed, starred in, and produced her feature debut, “Good Dick,” a deeply felt drama about a woman recovering from sexual abuse. It screened at Sundance in 2008 to moderate acclaim, but she remained mainly in the acting arena, including Peter Mullan’s “Neds” and Howard’s own short “When You Find Me.”
“Marianna’s advice, feedback, and her example has been vital to me in my filmmaking journey,” Howard said. “The courage, wisdom, and vision it took to self-finance, produce, direct and self-distribute ‘Good Dick’ is probably what motivated me most of all to aggressively pursue my own directing and producing career.”
On paper, it looks like 2014 is when Palka hit her own directorial stride, churning out “I’m the Same” and “Always Worthy” just a year apart, and pulling her usual quadruple duty as writer-director-star-producer on both. Palka has never been bound by genre, but each feature is about finding yourself in the midst of strange circumstances, from being an ex-pat to making it as a struggling Hollywood actress, stuff Palka knows well enough.
But her real struggle preceded all of that. In Lucy Walker’s Emmy-nominated short documentary “The Lion’s Mouth Opens,” Palka is again in front of the camera, this time as subject: The film finds her preparing to take a 2013 genetic test for Huntington’s disease, a neurodegenerative disease that is described as a cross between Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
The deeply personal documentary follows Palka and her closest friends – including both Ritter and Howard – in the days just before and after she takes the test. The results are sensitively portrayed in the documentary, and Palka’s optimism never wavers. That positivity impacted the HD community as well, as the doc helped raise over half a million dollars for research, while also delivering an empowering message to those already in the community. (There’s still more reason to celebrate lately, too, as HD was cured in mice as of two years ago, and primates just last year.)
The test and its outcome didn’t change anything for her. She didn’t stop being Marianna. If anything, she became more herself.
“I don’t think anything really changed for her after,” Howard said. “I think what changed is that by sharing her journey with us, she gave the rest of us insight into who she is, where she came from, and taught us all to use our obstacles as opportunities for growth and contribution to the world.”
But there was a change in her filmmaking, a new drive forward, the kind that could push someone to make two features in two years and show no signs of slowing down.
“She has always grabbed life by the throat and made the most of it,” Ritter said. “There’s always been a sense of urgency to her work, and that has only strengthened. She’d always rather get into unexplored territory, emotional and otherwise.”