Jeremy Hersh is a recent college graduate (like
a couple years recent) and already his short films are playing Sundance and
SXSW. Ponder that, and then consider the simple beauty of his latest film,
“Actresses,” starring Taylor Hess as Sara and Rebecca Henderson as Danielle.
The premise is simple: “Actresses” follows the
relationship between a young aspiring actress and an off-Broadway star. Hersh
writes and directs with an assured, deft hand, painting a detailed portrait of
this microcosm of a community–fraught with competition, self-consciousness, and
longing—and respecting his talented actresses enough to let their chemistry
Hess, a journalist/producer/sometimes actress,
and Henderson, funny and infuriating in this year’s Appropriate Behavior, are both spectacular. They layer the seeming
one-note qualities of their characters with kernels of fully realized emotion.
Though their conversation never strays far from the subject of acting, the
focus seems to make sense here; their trade is their connection, their point of
contention, and, unfortunately for them both, their biggest concern, making for
a mostly hilarious but sometimes-sad counterpoint.
Hersh was happy to share his thoughts on
Jessica Chastain, why he cares about lesbian stories, and what’s next for this
talented young filmmaker!
Bent: Let’s get it out of the way: “Jessica Chastain bad” is a
phrase spoken in your film. What’s that about?
Hersh: It’s an attitude a lot of
young artists have: “I could easily do what she does.” It’s
jealousy. It’s a defense mechanism. In Sara’s mind, she’s as talented as
Jessica Chastain, and should already be as successful. I thought it would be funny
if Sara acts as if her opinion of Jessica Chastain is ubiquitous—when,
obviously, the majority of people with an opinion highly respect Jessica
Chastain, myself included. She’s one of my favorite actors. It could have been
any beautiful great actress—in one improv, Taylor said Lupita Nyong’o instead
Bent: What inspired a film like this, about competition and insecurity? Do
you have an acting background yourself?
Hersh: I’ve never acted but I have a lot of friends who are actors. I became
obsessed with the those moments in the theater lobby when the actors come out
and see their friends. A lot of actors I talked to said those moments are often
more stressful than the performance itself; I wanted to investigate that. But
quickly the script became autobiographical; looking at two actors dating was an
apt vehicle for me to explore my dysfunction, in relationships and as a
filmmaker. Sara is a manifestation of a voice in my head I’d rather wasn’t
there—the one that wants to make art in order to be loved and told it’s good,
as opposed to making it for the enjoyment of the process. Theater actors
were a good vehicle to look at this stuff because they’re inherently so
Bent: How does this film figure into your narrative interests as a whole?
Are you particularly interested in telling queer stories?
Hersh: There is sometimes a social or political undercurrent in what I
write, which is absent here, but other than that, this is is a good
representation of me—I’m interested in actor-driven films. And yeah, I am
interested in telling queer stories, mostly just because of the “write
what you know” thing. Also, there still aren’t a huge number of movies
about lesbian relationships being released, so on a superficial level it’s ground
that’s been trod less. I’ve heard people (gay men) say at film festivals
“no one wants to see lesbian films” so I guess I want to prove that
wrong. Because that’s so dumb.
Bent: One can kind of view this as a “women’s film”—in name and
content—similar to some golden era Hollywood productions (Bette Davis, Joan
Crawford) and even the work of Pedro Almodovar. Is there a particular reason
you wanted to focus on two female characters?
Hersh: That’s so interesting! I’m not super familiar with that genre, so it
definitely isn’t a conscious inspiration (I feel like a failure of a film geek,
and of a queer, right now because I’m looking at the IMDd pages of Joan
Crawford and Bette Davis and the only film I’ve seen from either is All About Eve!). Almodovar is also not a
conscious inspiration, but I love his films, so I’m sure on some level he
influences me. My biggest conscious influences on this were Mike Leigh and
Cristian Mungiu, specifically Beyond The
I didn’t set out to write a film about women.
Taylor is my best friend, and I wanted to write a lead part for her, and then
the queerness of it came naturally. I guess I do think in New York theater,
women do have a more difficult existence than men (which makes the story more
interesting); the numbers aren’t in your favor—there are much more women
auditioning for parts than men, and fewer substantial parts for women. My
thinking with the title was just to make it as simple as possible. That was the
underlying principle for everything aesthetic in the film. Of course, the only
thing worse than lack of representation of lesbians on film, is another male
fantasy of lesbian relationships—which, technically, it is, no matter what I
do. But I wanted to avoid that sense of the male gaze as much as possible, by
giving as much control as I possibly could to the actors.
Bent: You’ve had quite a lot of success with “Actresses” at film
festivals across the country; how has that affirmation of the film’s merits
(and your own) felt?
Hersh: It’s been incredible. This film is an expression of these weird
demons of mine, and during the entire process I needed to continually check in
with my producer, Natasha Giliberti, and make sure what we were making wasn’t,
like, the stupidest shit ever. The fact that people respond to it, and
recognize something in it, is amazing. I’m so grateful.
Bent: Do you have any upcoming projects?
Hersh: I’m writing a feature about Abu Ghraib.
is playing SXSW on March 14 at 11am (Topfer Theatre), March 15 at 1:45pm
(Rollins Theatre), and March 21 at 7pm (Stateside Theatre). If you’re attending
the festival, be sure to make time for this vital new voice! For more
information go to www.actressestheshort.com.