Radha Blank: Joke About Writing Harriet Tubman Musical in ’40-Year-Old Version’ Is All Too Real

Sundance: Triple-threat Blank mined her own experiences as a struggling writer for her comedy breakout.
Radha Blank
Radha Blank

Triple-threat Radha Blank has a comedy breakout on her hands at the Sundance Film Festival with “The 40-Year-Old Version,” an autobiographical sendup of her woes as a struggling artist at the age of 40. Blank writes, directs, and stars in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic Competition premiere that finds her character, emboldened by a motley group of teens in her theater community, returning to rapping to make ends meet.

Blank recently stopped by the IndieWire Studio at Sundance, presented by Dropbox, to discuss her black-and-white, New York-set comedy, joined by cast members Reed Birney, Oswin Benjamin, and Peter Y. Kim.

“There’s that point in your career where you’re questioning what you’re doing. Is it worth it?,” Blank told IndieWire, “If you’ve been an artist, and you’ve been broke, sometimes you’re just waiting for that breakthrough, and mine is happening right now. It’s a little later than I thought.”

There’s a bit in “The 40-Year-Old Version” about a Harriet Tubman musical that Blank is asked to write, and the director/writer/actress said is in fact, “very real. I’m not naming names, but just last week, as I got off the stage from accepting my 10 Directors to Watch Award, a producer said they’d like to talk about working on a musical, a piece about slavery,” Blank said. “Wow, OK. Art imitating life, imitating art, imitating life. […] In theater, there’s an expectation that if you look a certain way that you should be writing certain stories, and I wanted the film to talk about that. Who gets to tell what stories in what spaces?”

Blank said she approached the film almost like a documentary, giving her actors plenty of space to experiment. “I wanted it to have a documentary style so that when the audience is seeing through the lens of the camera, it’s like the P.O.V. of someone who’s just walking in a room as the conversation is happening. For it to feel that natural and raw, I felt like the actors had to take ownership over the role,” Blank said. “We didn’t do a whole lot of improvisation, but it was important to me that actors had a chance to build their characters up.”

“The 40-Year-Old Version” premieres this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. The IndieWire Studio at Sundance will be open through Monday, January 27. Follow all coverage out of Sundance via IndieWire’s festival bible here.

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