Over the course of four seasons on Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow’s hit HBO show “Girls,” actress Zosia Mamet (daughter to playwright-filmmaker David Mamet) has proven she was born to play Shoshanna Shapiro, the incredibly neurotic, self-conscious and fast-talking fan favorite. There is no trace of Shoshanna in Shiva, the street-smart but deeply troubled young woman she embodies in the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival premiere “Bleeding Heart,” in which Mamet stars opposite Jessica Biel.
The drama, from writer-director Diane Bell, stars Biel as May, a reserved yoga instructor, whose life is thrown out of balance by the arrival of her long-lost sister Shiva (Mamet). After soon learning that Shiva is trapped in an abusive relationship with no hope of escape, May makes it her mission to rescue her hapless sister.
Prior to its world premiere at the festival, Indiewire sat down with Mamet to discuss the challenging role and her work on “Girls.”
Are you nervous about tonight’s premiere? For fans of “Girls,” this role marks new territory for you.
That was really why I wanted to do it, you know? In terms of the work I do outside of the show, it’s always my goal to do something super different. I think that’s sort of the most fun part of being an actor and that’s what makes you a better, stronger actor is to step outside of your comfort zone. I don’t read reviews just because I think it can fuck with you, but I hope people like it. We worked fucking hard on it so I hope people like it just simply for that. I that feeling is more exciting to have people see me in a different way. That’s why I take those risks.
Are you telling me you’ve never read a review of “Girls”?
No! I don’t read them. I mean, I hear from people. Clearly I’m not oblivious to the world. I hear what the general consensus is, but specific reviews, I just don’t like to read them. I think I’m too sensitive to take them in an objective way, and I think that that sort of criticism if it’s bad in any regard — or even good — isn’t necessarily helpful to your next performance. I just don’t think it’s constructive. I think it’s awesome that it’s sparked so much conversation or even controversy. Judd said something to us early on where he was like, “People are going to love it or they’re going to hate it, and they’re gonna talk about it. That’s what matters.” And I totally think that’s true. I think anything that gets people talking is awesome and that’s what we’re trying to do. But just personally for me as an actor — I’m not saying that people shouldn’t read reviews. If you want to, go for it! But just for me, it’s not something that I do.
This role couldn’t have been easy for you to play… Shiva goes through some pretty heavy stuff over the course of the film. Did you feel ready to go there for the part?
I don’t know if you ever feel ready. I don’t know if you can ever really prepare yourself for that, especially if it’s not something that you’ve ever experienced in your life. But that sort of challenge definitely excites me as an actor. I think it’s something , at least for me, super difficult to do in a grounded way. I think, specifically this character, it was super intriguing to me because she isn’t loud about her struggles like so many women who have lived a life of abuse or neglect.
Yeah, she internalizes it.
Yeah, and they also think that that’s just the way things are. They sort of, in order to survive, you have to think that nothing’s better. So, I think it would’ve been easy to fall into the trap of making her loud about her sadness. In order to keep her an internally damaged individual, that was the thing that was more exciting to me to figure out. I think because it was so challenging, that sort of kept me in the work of it. And Diane and Jess were all so incredible in making up that team that that helped not getting entrenched in the darkness. That was really more of an exciting challenge to figure out how to portray her in an honest way.
To prep for that challenge, did you meet with any women who had gone through similar experiences prior to shooting?
Diane had done some really incredible writing about that. She taught yoga to women who had been sexually abused and women who had been “ladies of the night.” So she had a lot of really amazing firsthand knowledge in that regard. In order to create the character she had written based on all of those women, she was really my main source of information. It was so interesting and such a specific thing to have experienced those women in that sort of vulnerable state.
I read your dad’s book on acting, “True and False,” back in the day and I’m curious… do you subscribe his anti-Stanislavski method — basically the anti-“method” method?
I struggled with it for a long time actually, that I don’t really have a method. I’ve always felt that I was like not a real actor. I’m someone who does best being prepared in terms of like, I’m on time, I know my lines inside and out and, depending on the way the director works, we might rehearse before. I talked to Dianne extensively about the character, and Jess and I rehearsed prior to shooting. But I don’t really have any sort of — I don’t write a back story. We talked a little bit about where she had come from and where she grew up and how she got into hooking. But other than that, I don’t really…
You don’t map it out?
No, it’s different for different characters I think. But, especially having come from a TV background where we’re involved in a lot of improv, I found that, at least for me, that’s where I find the work to be the most exciting. It’s where I think some of the best things arise from. I make sure I’m always prepared in terms of knowing the character I’m playing, what they want me to play, what’s on the page, but that’s kind of the way I work.
Does knowing that other actors you work with have a method make you insecure about not having a specific approach?
I mean, when I was younger, sure, only because I thought people were going to think I wasn’t a real actor because I wasn’t doing something crazy about it. But I found that it’s really just what works for you. If I were to write a 20 page back story — I mean, granted, it would be totally different if I was playing an ambulance nurse from World War Two. I would probably do a shit ton of research on that. I would probably talk to women who had been there. But that’s a very specific thing. And I’m sure a different actress would have a totally different way of approaching this part, but if her way of doing it was writing a huge back story, or imaging a terribly sad moment before going into a scene, if I did that, it wouldn’t do anything for me. So, that’s why I don’t do it. I think it’s really what floats your boat, whatever gets you there.
You’re about to go into Season 5 of “Girls,” which is crazy. How do you keep Shoshanna fresh for yourself as a performer?
I think we’re super lucky, not only working for cable and HBO, but specifically for working on this show. On network show, the importance is on keeping the characters the same so that people are tuning in every week and seeing the same humans in different circumstances. We’re really allowed to grow as the show grows, and I also think that we’re playing a period of time where the growth is just expansive in your early twenties. Our team of writers are being so incredibly honest about what that is and they’re really putting it on the page. Although we’re all playing the same characters, I think if you look at our characters from Season 4 back to Season 1, they’re super different. And that’s actually been, not only not boring, but incredibly difficult to play the same person while they’re growing. It’s like, how do I keep them this human still that is this person in the same season but make them this young individual who is like trying on this new hat? So that’s been a really interesting challenge. And zany stuff is happening all the time on our show, just like it does in your twenties, and so it just never gets old.
How long do you have in between seasons?
We shoot about four months out of the year.
So that’s a lot of time off. Is it hard to tap back into Shoshanna, because just meeting you right now, you’re nothing like that character.
I’m terrified every year. Every year I have an existential crisis where I’m like, “I’ve forgotten how to do this!” Yeah, it’s great. We always say it’s like summer camp. We’ve been lucky enough to have the same crew all of our seasons, so it’s nice to have the whole thing feel familiar. After about a week you just drop back in. But, yeah, I freak out every year that I’ve forgotten how to play her.
Are you freaking out now?
I actually haven’t had my first day yet, but we started on Tuesday.
So you’re in freak out mode?
A little bit. I’ll have a freak out on my first day and then I’ll be okay.