Actress Kristen Harris, based out of Winnipeg, studied voice performance at the University of Toronto. As a teenager, she studied with the famed improv troupe The Groundlings in Los Angeles. Harris has worked in both America and Canada, with various roles in film and television. In the year 2011, she was in two films at the Cannes Film Festival, “The Lost Dreams Of Narcissus” and “Echo, The Forest Path”. “Passionflower” marks the first time she has worked with fellow Winnipeg resident, Shelagh Carter. She was generous enough to speak with me over the phone about her unforgettable performance as Beatrice in “Passionflower”, the mother and wife deteriorating at an accelerated rate with mental illness.
See my review of “Passionflower” here.
Sheila O’Malley: How did you meet Shelagh and get involved in Passionflower?
Kristen Harris: I’ve been living in Winnipeg for 10 years, but I did not know Shelagh before this project at all. I met her in April the year that we shot the movie, 2010, and we did a workshop for the film for one night, and that was my first time meeting her. Polly [Washburn, the producer] called me and said, “Would you come in and read for this workshop for this script that we’re developing” and so I went. Shelagh is such a warm person. It was just one night but obviously a project she was really passionate about. We all could see that. I really didn’t have any contact with her again until the auditions.
SOM: When you first got the script, what was your reaction to it?
KH: You know what, we didn’t get a script. She didn’t want to release the script. The only thing I had read were the audition sides. She was still developing it, and they were moving really fast. We did the workshop in April and we shot it in August. Shelagh’s work ethic is crazy, she works around the clock. She doesn’t come across as Type A when you meet her because she’s so laid back and relaxed but she works. She was always very candid that this was her family story, it was never a secret, right from the workshop. We were very humbled to be a part of this vision to tell her story. I think I felt – more than I felt “I have to do this for the sake of what was on the page’ – I felt that about Shelagh when I met her. That time at the workshop, there was a connection that I had with her, in between scenes. You can tell instantly when you finish a scene based on the director’s reaction if they are responding – taking in what they’ve seen and responding to what they’ve seen and want to build on that versus somebody who’s looking at something and they’re superimposing what they want onto it, and their desired effect is for you to conform to what they’re superimposing upon you. There’s so many subtleties of that. You can experience that in so many different ways. And I am not saying it as a pejorative, it’s not necessarily a negative thing. I don’t necessarily like it when people just let me go my own way, but there was something implicit between Shelagh and I. I just felt, “Oh, she’s gonna let me play.” I felt that instantly after the first scene that we did. I think I wanted to do Passionflower because of her.
SOM: I know you shot in 14 days, so that’s a marathon. The arc of this character – what I perceived anyway in seeing it – was at the beginning she’s clearly still somewhat socially engaged and then you watch the deterioration. The woman at the end is not the woman at the party scene, and it seems like a spiral down. I’m curious about creating such an arc under the gun of such a schedule, and how do you track that disintegration?
KH: On a certain conscious level, I was very aware – even though we were moving in fast time as a crew and as a film production, and even though we’re making an hour and 20 minute film – I was very conscious as an actor that I wanted to portray not the totality but certainly a generous slice of this woman’s life. Despite the fact that we were moving in fast time, and despite the fact that we’re telling this very specific story – even within the film, because it happens within a relatively closed time frame – I wanted to explore how these things happen. The groundwork for illness is always there, the possibility of mental illness is always there, and it’s not so much that she necessarily changes, it’s that circumstances presented themselves over the course of the film in which she could no longer hide. It was getting more and more difficult for her to hide. I think it’s much like the bumper sticker, When Preparation Meets Opportunity. I think you could say the same thing for any kind of illness, or mental illness: when the groundwork meets the opportunity to express itself, there’s quite a chemical reaction. And the subtleties, when you think about illness of that nature within the context of motherhood: suddenly your kids are both gone and to combine that isolation with the groundwork, which is already there inside of yourself chemically and psychologically … you don’t have your children at home anymore to distract from that, and the husband was getting promoted at work – These are all of the subtleties of life that sort of massage the illness out. That’s how I felt about it. In the shooting of it, though, I was just in the moment. We certainly talked about what happened, not just the moment before, but the series of events, we would always contextualize what we were shooting in the moment – but there was no need to be anywhere other than in the moment.
SOM: How was it working with the kids?
KH: Oh, so magical. I see Ethan [Harapiak] now and he’s growing up so much. I just remember that time and how precious it was. Kassidy [Love Brown] and I had an instant bond. I remember saying to Shelagh before the film, “I’m really worried here. This is the one film that I am not going to become the life of the party on set, I’m not really wanting to expend that energy doing any of that”. I didn’t really buddy up to anybody. I wasn’t anti-social, but I knew going into it that I wasn’t going to be able to turn it on and off all the time and be really social and joking around with everybody. I was worried. Ethan was too young to understand a lot of things, and Kassidy – I didn’t want her to think I was brushing her off. Shelagh said, “I think when you meet her, you’ll see that she’s gonna get that.” And she was right. That was just that way it was right from the first day of rehearsal. Kassidy and I just looked at each other, said “Hi”, and we didn’t really speak after that. We would trade a couple of words here and there, everything was non-verbal between us. I have seldom experienced anything like that. It was absolutely unusual. At the end of the shoot, I remember hearing her talk with people at the wrap party about things in her life, and I remember thinking, “I don’t know anything about you. I don’t know any of these things. And yet how do I know you!” The connection was so profound that it did not involve getting to know each other at all outside of these characters. I loved every minute of it.
SOM: The relationship between you and the daughter was so interesting. Very tense and painful. And remains unresolved at the end, which I loved.
KH: I know Shelagh intended that to be a mixed moment, definitely a hopeful one, but for me, when I watch it, it’s so ambiguous. I remember shooting that scene. It was perfect timing. We shot a lot of it chronologically, particularly the stuff inside the house because we were there so long, and that scene was the last day of filming inside the house. And so there were so many emotions flying around because it doesn’t really hit you how close you’ve become to this person, this character, this family, this home, everything, until the last hour that you’re there shooting. We were all quite overwhelmed. As an actor you’re not supposed to necessarily make these comparisons between what was going on in the real world and what we were shooting, but I don’t care.
SOM: Can you talk a little bit about the marriage and working with Darcy Fehr? Darcy is incredible, and I loved your dynamic. How did you see that marriage?
KH: The same thing that existed with Kassidy existed between Darcy and I. It was instantaneous. At the workshop, Darcy was there. And I was there. I guess I sort of took for granted that that chemistry was pretty great, and then cut to the auditions in July, and Darcy couldn’t make it to the auditions. We were actually reading with the other actors, so I was reading with a couple of wonderful male actors for the husband part, and I can’t describe it but I felt forlorn and lost. I was looking for Darcy. Because of that workshop, I remembered the chemistry, and I felt anxious, I felt that I couldn’t play this woman without Darcy being there. I would go out into the hallway, looking for him, thinking, “Maybe he’s just late.” I was a little bit lost. As an actor, and within that relationship, that’s how attached to him I was. I actually felt like I couldn’t really do my job without him. That, I think, is not a coincidence. Her husband was a witness to her world and she could not have expressed what she expressed to him to anybody else. And so perhaps that was his trump card. His trump card was: “Yes, you do misbehave, and it’s uncouth, and it affects me and it gnaws away at me”, but I think that the reason he can always come up for air is because nobody else has this access that he has. And even though she goes to certain extremes… For example, in the intervention where the mother is there and Beatrice is hitting him and she’s very abusive. There’s nothing really redeeming about that, even when she finally crumbles into the vulnerable submission of it all. It’s not terribly endearing by that point because she is so far gone.
KH: In the beginning, I think, when she has these incredibly vulnerable moments where she’s in tears – and Lord only knows why – only she knows why – he’s the witness to that, and I think before things get really scary and out of hand with her behavior, there is a real tenderness and vulnerability to him that she shows that to him. She shows a completely different face to the rest of the world and always has. I feel like that’s maybe a secret in their relationship. Not necessarily the secret TO their relationship, but maybe David’s secret is: “Yes, but I know this about her, I know who she really is” and it’s funny, because I sort of feel more transparent, me Kristen, than I really am, and I felt like Darcy knew that, that he must have known that I couldn’t do that role without him.
KH: I said to him, “Did I ever tell you at that audition I was really anxious – and looking around for you – I felt like I couldn’t land because you weren’t there.” He had the oddest look on his face and he said, “No. You didn’t tell me that.” I said, “Darcy, you were everything for my Beatrice. I couldn’t have played it without you.” I am sure on some level he must have known.
SOM: I was so taken by the whole pin-up thing and the mother’s sexuality, with this daughter on the cusp of being a teenager. Could you talk a little bit about that?
KH: Sarah is going through the regular confusing pre-adolescent feelings that anyone would go through, and that all seems very rational and normal to me. But watching her mum’s behavior … There was always a fine line for me and I never really wanted to decide, and put it in one column or the other. I mean, there are certainly times when she’s misbehaving. In one column, there’s 1960s housewife stifled by the limitations of that role, and therefore some misadventure results because there’s a freedom that the men had that the women did not have. Where did that sort of combust with her personality to make that go to the next level of perhaps inappropriateness? And then in the other column was her illness, and it’s like an acting out in a childish way. I never really knew where that line was, per se. There legitimately was some sort of back story between her husband and Myra, they had a history together. So I think that this other man comes into the scene because of the inferiority she feels with David. As much as she seems like she has the upper hand – anyone who has ever been married knows that that isn’t always the case. Behind closed doors, whatever is going on in the marriage is a language understood between those two people. So she wasn’t always in control and obviously felt the opposite of in control which is what led to so many of her actions.
SOM: One of the things I loved about the structure of the script was there were a couple of scenes where the character is by herself. Looking in the mirror, dancing around by herself – you got the sense of who this woman was when she wasn’t having to be social. You could feel her boredom and restlessness alone in that house.
KH: Those were some of my favorite scenes to shoot.
SOM: The scene in the road was fantastic.
KH: Yeah. That’s a good one. That one was a golden piece of alchemy. I don’t know how it all came together. I think it’s so powerful because it was the absolute summation of this woman’s grief and rage and shame, knowing that something is wrong but not knowing what. And then coupled with being a mother of children! All the responsibility heaped on a young mother and all of these things coming together… all of that was in the mix that day.
SOM: Your performance stayed with me and I thought about that woman. I wondered what it was like to be her. It wasn’t a diagnosis presented onscreen.
KH: And Shelagh wouldn’t let me do that. She wouldn’t clarify what was wrong with Beatrice specifically. But I thought, She isn’t curled up in the fetal position in a mental hospital, rocking back and forth, chewing on her skin. She is alive and vibrant and vivacious. She is a real person, breathing in and out, and very strong-spirited. Don’t play a caricature here. This is a real woman, and for whatever reason that vivaciousness – depending on the synapses in her brain, the filters go off and the illness spills out – and it translates into ways that are not socially acceptable and beyond that are also quite damaging.
SOM: Did you do any specific research?
KH: Shelagh wouldn’t put a label on anything, but I just knew the general mapping of it all from the script. I don’t even know how a lot of research would have helped because the scenes were written so specifically. Normally, in acting, we get the character breakdowns and there are anywhere between four and eight adjectives and that’s who the character is. We go to these auditions and we hear, “In the breakdown it says that she’s this, and you really need to play that”. But the magic of acting is in the being alive and being a person. Let’s not water that down.