Inside The HERO Winter Annual 2021
Dane DeHaan and Odessa Young are set to play the adopted siblings of the Peterson family (whose tragic and suspicious story was laid bare in a Netflix true-crime docuseries that turned global audiences into sleuths) in a dramatised iteration of The Staircase by Antonio Campos, starring Toni Collette as the ill-fated Kathleen Peterson and Colin Firth as her accused husband.
This role comes straight off a scene-stealing performance in Eva Husson’s Mothering Sunday, which saw Odessa lead an extraordinary cast of Academy-Award winners with a level of maturity that will, no doubt, see her join that prestigious group one day soon. A common thread throughout is an exploration of the uncomfortable and the unforgiving: a scratch both Odessa and Dane can’t help but itch.
Dane DeHaan: This gives me an opportunity to really pick your brain in a way that I feel like I haven’t, so I’m excited. First we should talk about what we’re doing together right now, The Staircase for HBO Max.
Odessa Young: We play adopted siblings.
DD: Yes, and it’s a really interesting story based on a true crime about a woman who dies at the bottom of a staircase and then her husband is put on trial for the murder. What made you excited about The Staircase when you first got the script?
OY: Obviously seeing that Dane DeHaan was attached was really exciting…
DD: Sure, among others I would assume. [laughs]
OY: Among others. [laughs] I have been a fan of Antonio’s [Campos] work for a long time, I really like what he and his peers are doing in the realm of New York cinema. So that was very exciting, and then obviously the fact that some of the best actors working today are involved, such as Colin Firth, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Juliette Binoche, and Dane DeHaan. [laughs] It just felt like all of the stars aligned to be this thing that was really undeniable. What about you?
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DD: Well I was coming off over a year-and-a-half not working because of the pandemic, so I think first and foremost I was eager to get back to work. Although it’s a smaller part, the ensemble aspect of it was kind of intriguing to me. I’ve had a personal relationship with Antonio for a while and I’ve seen the documentary twice so I was super into the story.
OY: You’d seen it twice before you got this?
OY: You freak.
DD: [laughs] I really like true crime podcasts and documentaries. You live in New York?
OY: I do, I’ve lived in New York for pretty much three years.
DD: When you describe the New York film scene and Antonio and his peers, what specifically is it about those films that you really identify with or are inspired by?
OY: I think when I say the New York film thing, it’s less about what ends up being on the screen and more about the fundamental aspects of production. When I first moved out here and started to pay attention to what was being made, watching movies critically and thinking about what I was doing and what I wanted to do, Antionio’s films – along with his community of filmmakers, like Brady Corbet – made me really excited because it felt like something that had been undervalued or underappreciated in recent years. I spent two years in LA before I moved to New York and I’d never really found a film community out there that really excited me. There’s this very typical New York attitude of trying to make an uncomfortable point, trying to de-gloss a story or how one produces a movie. In the simplest terms, and I hate this word because it doesn’t ever really mean anything, but it’s ‘gritty’, you know what I mean? It’s less about the perfection of production and more about responding to the unpredictability of the city, that’s how I would intellectualise it.
“You have a purpose and that’s where the discomfort comes from, because having a purpose is actually not easy. I appreciate people who put themselves in those positions to try and get further.”
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DD: Yeah, I’ve spent some time in LA and obviously chose to end up in New York also and I feel like LA is a place where I would say it’s easy to just exist, but in New York you have to fight to survive.
OY: You sure do, and I think everybody should in a way. I feel like you don’t ever have to make a choice about whether you live in LA, you just live there and all of a sudden you realise that you’ve lived there for years. In New York, you have to make a choice to live in that city every single day, it tests you and it challenges you – I think really interesting creative things come out of that constant fight.
DD: I also think that with Antonio, Brady and all those guys, they all really support each other, they’re all big fans of each other. So in their movies when they go to these uncomfortable places or focus on these singular topics that people don’t always address, they’re comfortable being uncomfortable. A lot of my favourite movies are ones where people are comfortable being uncomfortable, or being ugly, [where actors aren’t] afraid to go there.
OY: Those aren’t only my favourite movies but my favourite people, because it feels like you’re actually living for something. You have a purpose and that’s where the discomfort comes from, because having a purpose is actually not easy. I appreciate people who put themselves in those positions to try and get further.
DD: How would you define the purpose of your mission?
OY: Oh that is ever-changing. I’m interested to hear what your experience was like not working during the pandemic, because I think that something really happened to me early in 2020 where I had this big kind of crisis – the world went into lockdown and I was still getting sent self-tape requests, but I couldn’t do any of them because I was so depressed. I was also thinking, “Why don’t I feel excited about this?” and then I got really scared that because I didn’t feel excited about it, I was falling out of my position as an actor. I started thinking about what else I could do and I took writing workshops and stuff – I shouldn’t be a writer, put it that way. I think out of that desperation for clarity I had to find this idea of my purpose, like, “Okay, if I’m not doing this because I love acting so much that I just want to get on set and do anything, then what the hell am I doing it for?” It’s that desire to be uncomfortable, my pain tolerance is really high and I think that puts me in a position where I know I can do certain things and be okay, I can be made uncomfortable and make something productive out of that. I see that as a service I can lend to productions I believe in and that need something like that. For example, The Staircase feels like it’s a pretty emotionally demanding role, not only is it emotionally demanding when we’re on set and doing the job, but also because it’s based on a true story. These are real people’s lives, so there needs to be a certain delicacy, and I feel like we’re the kind of actors who can be sensitive about that. I guess that’s the mission at this point, but it’ll probably change next month when I have my next existential crisis. [both laugh]
“There’s this very typical New York attitude of trying to make an uncomfortable point, trying to de-gloss a story or how one produces a movie.”
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DD: When you’re doing The Staircase, how much do you feel like you need to honour the actual person you’re playing?
OY: It’s a fine line. I think it would be really unwise to forget this is a real story, because it has real-world implications and I think that our production will be added to the canon of the way people see this, so it’s never felt to me like pure fiction even though there are some aspects of this show that are speculative. We didn’t have access to their private conversations, we didn’t have access to the pathologies at the time of the trial. That’s what we’re speculating, and in that way I’m comfortable with it being fiction because it feels like we actually get to give life to a private world, but it’s never been divorced from the reality of it. Saying that, in a technical way there are certain things I think we’re all trying to do to represent our characters in a physical or vocal way to differentiate them from the rest of the family, which I think is very important. It’s interesting because Michael Stuhlbarg for example, who is a very technical actor – he studies his characters, he studies these scripts – he’s had meetings with David Rudolf who he is playing and his approach is very involved with the reality of it, but I was talking to him and he was saying there’s a point where you need to stop thinking about that. There’s a point where you cannot have the real person in your mind while you’re doing these scenes because you weren’t present, you don’t actually know how they would react; you need to be present with your own emotional reactions, so I think it’s a fine line between fiction and reality.
“I can be made uncomfortable and make something productive out of that. I see that as a service I can lend to productions I believe in and that need something like that.”
DD: I watched Mothering Sunday last night and thought you were really wonderful, you really are a great actress.
OY: Thank you, Dane.
DD: There’s certainly a lot in that movie that could be seen as uncomfortable, like we were talking about, is that something that attracted you to the project?
OY: I think the attraction came in stages. It was undeniably a really good script and then being locked down with it and getting to re-read it distilled the parts that were really attractive to me. Specifically I liked the fact it was a story written before the pandemic, but it spoke to the themes of collective grief and loss in such a convoluted way – it felt a little ‘meant to be’. Throughout the script, and this might be one of the uncomfortable things that I really was attracted to about it, Jane doesn’t have a catharsis. I’ve done a lot of emotional movies and a lot of stories about grief. I’ve played a lot of characters who are going through that kind of grief and there’s always one scene where they scream and breakdown, the big crescendo of emotion happens and then life goes on. That’s all well and good, but I really enjoyed that there was no moment like that in this story. I lost my grandmother in November of 2018 and she was the first person close to me that I’d lost. By the time I read Mothering Sunday it was a month or two later and I found my personal experience with grief aligned quite similarly with Jane’s. Especially in the middle portion of her life, in the sense that there’s no big moment, there’s no catharsis, there’s no climax to your grief, it’s just an ache that continues and you just have to keep doing what you’re doing because there’s no other option. I liked the idea of that discomfort. I sometimes find as an actor, and I’m curious to hear how you feel about this, when you do have those emotional roles, to be able to sleep at the end of the day it really helps if you have one of those crescendos in the scene, if you get to let it out, if you get to scream and cry and do the big thing. I found that a really interesting challenge to never have that moment and just wait on eggshells in this emotional state for six weeks.
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DD: You live in this world where you often have to suppress everything you’re feeling, but you also have private moments where you get to suppress nothing, right?
DD: Which is really an incredible dichotomy and then you get to see yourself in the future looking back on all that with a more mature point of view, I guess. I hate it when a script says, “He cries” – it’s my least favourite thing in the world. The first thing I do with a script is scratch out all of those little things. I also find the performances I have less of a visceral reaction to, or that don’t sit right with me, are ones where there’s too much crying. I often sarcastically say, “Oh, acting is crying,” because I think a lot of people feel like acting is crying, right? Like, I cried today so that means I did a good job. It’s this strange association people have, to make a scene emotional equals I did a good job.
OY: Yes, exactly.
DD: I find a lot of times that’s actually the opposite because, I mean some people cry a lot but I personally don’t cry a tonne. There are very pointed times in my life where I actually have a breakdown and those are such profound moments, to try and make every moment like that waters down the experience.
OY: I had that realisation in my teenage years when I’d done a few projects where there was that ‘big cry’ moment because all the characters I played were teenagers on the brink of a mental breakdown.
“Quite often in our real lives the things that happen to us that might be emotional enough to make us cry never make us cry in the moment. There’s always that buffer of shock which I find way more interesting to play with.”
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DD: I’ve been there. [both laugh]
OY: I remember doing a job where I was looking through the progression of the script to be like, “Where’s the moment, where is it?” and realising that I didn’t have to put that in there and make it the big thing. There was much more strength to the other ideas of this character that were way more interesting. I’ve also done the film where I’m like crying in every scene and that’s something too, that’s a choice and a whole other challenge. But I think you really have to scrutinise where those moments belong. I think the most accurate and interesting way to experience distress, to watch distress and view it as an audience member, is to see where that person is unable to feel it themselves. Quite often in our real lives the things that happen to us that might be emotional enough to make us cry never make us cry in the moment. There’s always that buffer of shock which I find way more interesting to play with.
DD: Me too. I was looking at your bio and you’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing actors that have had long careers and continue to do incredible work. I’m going to ask you about individual people and I’m curious what you’ve learned from working with them in the earlier stages of your career. One thing I also remember is when I first met you, there was a lot about you that made me reminiscent of my 20s and being a young actor and how exciting that can be. I feel like a lot of what I’ve learned since starting to act professionally has been through working with amazing people. So I think the one we have in common, who is in Mothering Sunday and The Staircase, is Colin Firth. What have you learned working multiple times with Colin?
OY: Such a good question. You also worked with Colin about a decade ago, right?
DD: Yeah, this is my second time working with him but I’ve never worked with him as intimately as I have in The Staircase.
OY: I feel like whenever you’re going to work with somebody who has won Academy Awards or has that reputation and who you consider to be one of the best actors, I think that there’s always this instinct to create the experiences in your mind before you get there just to prepare for them. Colin defied all of those expectations because he is an extremely humble and grounded person, he’s also extremely professional in the sense that he has no ego about what he’s doing on set. He could be way more difficult to work with and to be around as a person but in fact he’s extremely relaxed and laid-back. I think he’s very confident in who he is and what he does. When Colin comes to set, even if it’s a big scene, an emotional scene, even if he’s got a lot of lines… the other day when we were doing the Thanksgiving scene and there were two scenes in the same location, he thought we were doing the other one and it was such a relaxed realisation, he was like, “Oh, I only prepared for that one, I guess I have to learn these lines really quickly.” And then he did. There was nothing to it, he didn’t make a big deal out of it, the world didn’t come crashing down around him. I think he has enough confidence just to carry himself with grace through this work. I would say that’s probably the main thing about Colin I love so much. The thing I hope to pick up on and take with me is that ego-less confidence and humility, that even-keeled way of being, and he’s just extremely generous as well. I think that’s a really important thing as a performer, to be generous. You come into contact with so many people who are not generous in this work, both as people and as actors, and that is something about Colin I really love, appreciate, and respect.
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DD: He really goes out of his way to connect with everyone on a film set, he makes them feel at ease, and I think that creates an environment that feels safe.
OY: Yeah, he looks people in the eye with intention and it’s unfortunate that’s such a rare thing.
DD: How about Toni Collette?
OY: I mean, she’s amazing [laughs]. Toni as well, she has that level of professionalism where she can turn something on so quickly and effectively. I’m thinking back to when we were doing all of those making the lasagne scenes – it’s a running joke in this show because every time there’s a family dinner it’s always fucking lasagne. [both laugh]
DD: Or Boston Market. [laughs]
OY: But it’s alright because we get Cheesecake Factory this month. I think this was the first scene we’d had with Toni that was all of us together, it was the first scene I had with Toni anyway and there was a lot going on. It was the big introduction to the family and they’re all making dinner, there’s champagne being poured and people talking over each other and there’s a frickin’ lasagne being pulled out of the oven and she handled the mechanisms of the scene with such professionalism. [She had] such an understanding of the beats and tone and exactly what it needed and where she needed to be, where the energy needed to come and she needed to cultivate that as the leader of the family. She could look someone in the eye and have that connection, it was just such a graceful dance around the actions of the scene. It was early on, we hadn’t quite found our footing of who these characters were and how they interacted, and I think her taking that position and leading us through it, you all fall into place behind her. That was super fun, I remember leaving that day and feeling like we’ve got good people to look to in these moments of uncertainty – that felt
DD: She’s amazingly professional and dependable as an actor. She shows up and you know she’ll be there, and present. You can trust in her intelligence; she always has good ideas. I saw you did a play with Isabelle Huppert, who I think is amazing.
OY: She’s incredible. I feel like Isabelle might be one of the actors I’ve worked with who has inadvertently given me the most, or at least changed the way I see this job the most. I’d done a play before and realised that I had really debilitating stage fright. Then in the second play with Isabelle, it kind of got worse, but I was seeing this woman literally try anything. She is the most fearless person let alone performer that I have ever witnessed and worked with. She would get up and try anything. She was learning this play, which was so complex – the play exists in a loop and scenes repeat themselves and change slightly, it’s a monologue and there are really minute differences that change each scene but she’s also learning it in English, which is her second language. We had a month of rehearsal so she did not have a lot of time to learn it, but she was so incredibly fearless and so incredibly game. She would show up at rehearsal every day and do something crazy, like she’d be giving a monologue in rehearsal and just collapse to the floor and start rolling around kicking her legs in the air. I was like, “I don’t know if this works but she’s fucking doing it and maybe there is something really exciting about that.” There were genius moments she came up with that came out of that freedom. She really doesn’t care what anybody thinks of her and that was the operative thing about my stage fright I realised – I care way too much about what people think of me. I care way too much about if I have to stand in front of an audience of however many hundred people and maybe I have a twitch in my face or something that they’re all going to see and they’re going to think that I am the worst actor they’ve ever seen in their lives, or if I have to stand up there and, god forbid, I have to fucking fart or something, what do I do? [both laugh] It was this incredible emotional claustrophobia and then I was seeing Isabelle just not giving a shit about any of that, just completely using the stage and taking it under her wing. She threw her ego out the window and would try anything. That really fundamentally changed what I want out of acting. It was pretty amazing and I felt really changed after that. I still have stage fright though.
Interview originally published in The HERO Winter Annual 2021.
HAIR ADAM MARKARIAN; MAKE- UP CAROLINA DALI
AT THE WALL GROUP USING WESTMAN ATELIER; MANICURIST LOLLY KOON AT THE WALL GROUP; PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS ROMY KIRCHAUER AND WILLIAM EADON; PHOTOGRAPHY INTERN REGGIE DESILUS; FASHION ASSISTANT GABE BASS; EXECUTIVE PRODUCER RUTH LEVY; CREATIVE PRODUCER COCO KNUDSON; PRODUCTION INTERN PAIGE MILLER