Sandra Oh and Anne Heche had never worked together before last year, but the seasoned actresses have both enjoyed a diverse series of successes. Oh broke into the film scene as the motorcycle riding free spirit in Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” while Heche had roles in “Donnie Brasco” and “Wag the Dog.” More recently, they are better known for television projects such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Hung,” respectively.
In “Catfight,” these seasoned actresses get to sink their teeth into a script that is as ambitious in its simplicity as it is politically searing. Oh and Heche relish every punch and barb thrown in the film’s three rip-roaring fights, and both are pitch perfect in bringing Tukel’s daring script to life.
Veronica (Oh) bluntly berates her son for drawing at the dinner table, as her husband, Stanley (Damion Young), speaks gleefully about the money he will make from “the war.” Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Ashley (Heche) is frenzied and acerbic as she explains to her girlfriend (Alicia Silverstone) that her art takes more precedence than menial, wage-earning labor.
It takes a minute to adjust to the tone of writer-director Onur Tukel’s biting and boisterous political satire, but once you do, the film reveals an incisive prescience behind its heightened reality that is normally the domain of absurdist theater. IndieWire spoke with Oh and Heche by phone about the film.
What are the challenges involved in playing an unlikable character?
S.O.: I wouldn’t necessarily narrow it to likable and unlikable. Both Anne and my characters have a complete transformation. They have a character arc that actually goes somewhere, and that doesn’t necessarily come along all the time. So whether it’s an unlikable or likable character, you just want to play a complex character.
Anne Heche: And when it serves the story. It’s a comedy, so it really makes it funny when you have someone who doesn’t see themselves. It’s so self-indulgent. These women being very unlikable is what does that.
S.O.: That’s what people can relate to. Hopefully some of these characters will be familiar to the audience.
A.H.: Of course! Oh my god. The person who thinks that everybody else should serve them (which is what my character thinks), that person was so interesting for me to play, because we’ve met that person. “I am more important than everyone else,” that’s exactly what my character thinks. And that’s why you want her to fall down, or get hit by a wrench, or, you know — end up in a coma — because she’s awful.
How do you approach such self-indulgent characters?
A.H.: For comedy, we played into it.
S.O.: In some ways, the rule of thumb is you don’t want to judge your characters, blah, blah, blah. But I think to make this funny, we had to go as, the person has to be as — oh, as clueless! — as clueless as possible. We were just joking with Alicia [Silverstone], we try to say the name “Clueless” in every single interview. Just to drive her insane. Tangent. But, yes, the more arrogant you find Ashley or the more soul-crushing that Veronica is when she deals with her son, the funnier it is.
You two seem to have such a great rapport. How was it to play opposite each other?
A.H.: I don’t know what Sandra’s experience was on “Grey’s Anatomy” —
S.O.: You asshole!
A.H.: I said it! I said it!
S.O.: I gotta get one in! I’ve done a lot, I’ve done a lot. Well, I wish I wasn’t such a “Psycho”! Isn’t that the — oh, fucking “Wag The Dog” — shit, I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it. Shit.
A.H.: No, to be honest, I don’t know what her chemistry was with those other broads.
S.O.: What’s that one on the plane?
A.H.: But, um, I can only imagine that I’m a bit more fun than Ellen—
S.O.: Oh, my god!
A.H.: I’m totally kidding. I’m jealous of everybody she looks at now, and works with. We are all having a battle for who’s better friends. We have a little bit of friendship jealousy, because the three of us got along so well. Not be like: “Yay, we were friends.” We truly came together to create a piece of work that we believed in, and we allowed each other to flourish in ways we haven’t done with other actresses. We haven’t been given the opportunity, so it’s not fair to say about other actresses, although I don’t think Sandra will like working with anybody else as much as me from here on out, but…
A.H. (Cont.): The thing is we were given the opportunity to help each other grow as artists, and I think when you share that with someone, it changes your life and opens you as an artist.
Sandra, did you want to get a dig in at Anne?
S.O.: Oh, I got “Psycho” in there. I gotta go onto your IMDb page, you’ve got a shitload.
A.H.: I have so many bad movies. But you know, I got to say it, and it came out natural.
S.O.: You know what? Fuck you.
What compels you to work on a smaller project like this?
S.O.: I think at this point in our careers we try to choose whatever we work on to believe in. I know in a long and full career you don’t necessarily get to exercise that choice all the time.
A.H.: Sandra can make fun of me about many things, but when you commit to a horror movie or you’re fighting aliens, you’re doing it 100%. I don’t think I’ve ever not done anything 100% and I don’t think Sandra has either.
What’s interesting about our careers right now is that… You start to be in a kind of universal understanding of what you should be doing and what gets offered to you, because you’ve laid a foundation for who you are. For better or worse! Some people like me, some people don’t. I’m about 50/50, and that’s okay, I’m okay with 50/50. But that 50 percent starts being how I shape my career.
S.O.: We shot this in 2015, and now we’re in the beginning of 2017 and a lot has changed. This came out of the things that Onur was thinking and feeling, and it attracted people who wanted to participate in a piece of work that was saying something, that had a point of view. I’m not gonna say what that point of view is, but we were interested in the allegory of war and how this never-ending cycle of anger and suffering that these two women harangue each other for is a great and hilarious way of representing where we are right now.
“Catfight” opens in theaters on March 3rd, at Cinema Village in New York and the Laemmle Noho 7 in Los Angeles.