Harrison talks with the star of new horror flick, The Executioners
By Harrison Abbott 04 April, 2018
You’re clearly a versatile talent, skilled in the realms of acting, writing, dancing, choreography and more. What compels you to dip your toes into all of these different areas and how do you manage to keep on top of it all?
The love to create is what compels me to wake up each morning knowing that I get to choose to live my life and everyday fight for the things that make me happy. It doesn’t matter what form it is, as long as I get to inspire others with my creativity. I consider myself an artist and artist don’t limit themselves. With all of my approaches to the art, on any given day, I have to prioritize what gets addressed first and then move down the list. There’s no formula on how to get it done, it just has to and to be honest I wish I had time to do even more. On another note I don’t think that anyone is born with a talent; I think people are born with a passion and the talent gets created over time. For example, I started to train to be a ballerina at 3 years old and rose to become a professional. But I got there through hard work and dedication. Every teacher that saw me said that I had no talent whatsoever in dancing but yet I took it upon myself to not only prove them wrong but prove myself right. My talent came from my work ethic. I truly believe that when we recognize talented people in the world excelling in their respective professions, we are acknowledging their dedicated hours of work that they have put in. With that being said, when I moved on to become an actress I didn’t ask anyone’s opinion if I was talented enough to become one. I set-up a goal, I saw a path and I took it. And every day of my life, what makes me happy is that I follow my passion. That one day my passion will turn into talent and that talent will one day be undeniably acknowledged by the ones I consider the greatest. Anyone can be talented at something but it's up to them to figure it out. Malcolm Gladwell wrote once that “it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field.” When you know you're the best at something, that’s when you have found your talent.
Speaking of your diverse workload, you’re also an accomplished producer. Right now you’re shepherding 59 Rows of Teeth through pre-production. I know it’s still early days, but what can you tell us about the project?
When I first read “59 Rows of Teeth” working title today is “The Bayou” I was intrigued by the charters that Peter Iliff developed. It took me to his world and I was fascinated by this story overall. That’s how I remember movies that inspire me, actors that push me to be better. It’s the characters that great writers create. So, I contacted Peter and I told him that I believed in his script, could he hopefully take a chance and believe in me as a young producer? He responded with a very quick rebuttal question: But you’re an actress. Why would you pick a project where you can’t star as the lead? To which I replied, “because this story needs to be told and something is drawing me to it.” Passion will drive us toward paths we did not know had our names on them already. With this particular film, it has been 2 and a half years walking on this path and we are finally seeing the fruits of our labor... I can’t say too much because things are still being finalized contractually but just know that this is a piece that I worked very hard on and I can't wait to share it with the world. It will have Gary Fleder sitting in the director's chair with my movie company “Born to Burn Films” co-producing the project with Millennium Films. Production begins this summer.
Do you ever find that your behind-the-scenes experience enriches your acting work? Does it give you a broader perspective and make it easier to work with writers and directors?
Yes, it definitely broadens my perspective. It opens up our tunnel vision of what we believe our roles to be when we are given tasks to do. Being an actress, I believe it’s ignorant to think that my way is the only one that matters because there are so many other moving parts that go into creating a film. For instance, when I’m auditioning for a movie and I don’t book it, I don’t take it personally. I understand that there are other elements involved in casting a film that I don’t have control over. Sometimes there are things that actors don’t see that producers have to deal with when going down these avenues of creation. Being a producer has taught me a great deal and it showed me the hard work that other people put in that never gets seen nor recognized. Actors and actresses get so many accolades & praise for what they do while the majority of those same people don’t realize that there are hundreds of others behind the scenes that make the movie possible in the first place. They all work symbiotically, including those actors on screen, to be able to show the world a film. In my opinion, to make a movie It is truly a collaborative effort.
Alongside your extensive dance education, you’ve also received training in kickboxing, jiu-jitsu, wire work, sword fighting and have even picked up a few languages along the way. It’s certainly an impressive resume. Of all these things, which was the most challenging to learn and which are you most proud of?
Without a doubt, the most challenging thing in my life that I struggled with was becoming a professional ballerina. There’s nothing more difficult than getting up every day at ungodly hours of the morning and taking a ballet class. Walking up to that barre and doing the same exercises over and over again, day after day. You literally put your body through agony and hide injuries so that you can move forward without losing your edge. It is such a brutal profession and it is not remorseful. If you can’t do it, there are a 100 girls waiting for you to fail and take your spot. Ballet challenges your body and your mind while bringing you to the line of your pain threshold. It has been the one place that has truly taught me to never give up, that failure is not an option. That quality has helped me in my professional work as an actor and producer. The passion and desire to not quit has served me well and continues to propel me forward. When I make the decision to not fail I always find solutions. And that demand to be perfect, with ballet and now my acting, pushed me to places I never thought I could reach because it forced me to go into the unknown. “Only when we reach our “do not cross” line and pass it will we truly know what we can really do.”
Moving onto The Executioners itself now, I was interested in how the film initially presented itself as a simple home-invasion flick. I mention this because the premise actively subverts our expectations on a few occasions. I wondering if you could talk a little about that?
When I first read the script I was drawn to how the story unfolded and where it took me. I conversed with the writer about the elements and my character i was curious to get a better understanding of which direction this film would go. Once I had a better grip on things I saw that the director and the writer wanted to leave things ambiguous for the audience. They wanted the audience to have the opportunity to create their own conclusions on things and allow them to have debates about it after the credits rolled. It is a harsh movie to watch but it was intended that way in order to reveal what is being said within the hidden lines of this story. It starts off as a home invasion film and it turns around to become a twist driven movie filled with violence and sexual deviance. The director chose this path so that the ending makes sense thus validating the dark turns this story makes. Two things that drew me to this psychological thriller was the twist in the middle with the women taking back the power and using it on their oppressors. I loved how we show women in a place of controlling decision making in this film as well as the second quality to this story which was my character “Kay” and her unique journey through these forced trails & tribulations she faces and what she ultimately does with that challenge. Again, this film is not an easy pill for many to swallow but that was the intention of our director. He has great rhymes & reasons for why it goes where it goes.
On that note, the script also plays around with the audience’s sympathies. The characters are put into a highly distressing situation and this causes them to make rash decisions and clash with one another. Was this exciting ground to cover as an actor?
As an actor, I never play for the audience. I do my research, I trigger my imagination and I truly submerge into my character. I don’t know how the other girls find what they need that will serve their instruments but when we come together, it is truly exciting. The script comes alive and characters clash while as actors we bond. When there is trust amongst your fellow actors, there is true freedom to explore and create. That ebb & flow becomes the lifeline of any scene, moment, act, etc. and your scene partners connection becomes as thick as blood. We were a part of many intimate, demanding and violent scenes so the support of not only your acting peers but of a professional/respectful crew goes a long way. The safe environment creates a great breeding ground for everyone’s imagination to flourish and grow. The most exciting thing for me when I get to sink my teeth into a character that myself Natalie will disagree with what “they” will do so I have to find that common ground where we can both operate as one. It’s in those moments of trust between one another that I begin to fall in love with my roles and I no longer find disagreements with their reactions. That is the most exciting quality of my journey with my characters. I find my disagreements, go deeper to solve them, and then I let my acting go and just live in a role that is truly alive & uninhibited.
Towards the middle of the movie, we venture into an extremely dark territory. Some of the things that happen are really disturbing, specifically those involving Kay. Was it daunting to film these scenes, as they’re unflinching and don’t really shy away from showing what happens.
It was definitely difficult & uncomfortable to shoot those scenes but that’s what was needed in order for the story to work and I felt like I was truly living in the moment. Comfort kills in anything we strive to achieve in life and acting is no different. The more uncomfortable I was, the more it showed on the screen which worked perfectly in those scenes it was in those moments that I felt “Kay” took over me completely. On top of those complex scenes, there were crew and lights and cameras so all of that, combined with where I was going emotionally, added to the uneasy air that I was taking in. My biggest fear was to be fake in those high-stress moments that I wanted to be as real as possible. As actors, the more we give ourselves over to the vulnerable parts of us, the more we live in our truth, the more real we become on screen. And we were very lucky to shoot those scenes during the middle of production. We had all shared secrets with one another by then and that knowledge kept us connected to one another during those tough scenes. We supported each other no matter the cost. By the end of production, we all had an undeniable bond with one another.
Before the inciting incident, we spend quite a lot of time with the characters just hanging out as friends. Given this, did you do anything special to develop your chemistry as a group, or did you just fall into a natural rhythm?
Each one of us knew what we were getting ourselves into when we shot this movie. And being professionals we knew we had to get to know one another to create real bonds because “winging it” on set to find chemistry was not an option for us. From day one we found out all kinds of things about one another from our likes to our dislikes. I took it even a step further by confiding in secret with actors that had solo scenes with me. So by sharing private moments with them, we were able to take our trust to the next level and that, in turn, allowed our intimate scenes to blossom & live. Also, all of our shoots were at night so in the beginning, we thought it was cool & fun. Waking up late with one another and turning in before the sunrise. But after 7 days straight of the same thing, we all started to get delusional as a group. We never saw the sun and since we all were having the same experience it was even more things to connect us that was unique to our investment to one another. On a lighter note, being in Orlando we all went to Universal Studios together during one of our off days and let me tell you: if you can’t bond with someone, free falling on a rollercoaster or getting freaked out in a haunted maze, then you must be stranger than the home invaders from our film.
Spoilers below for The Executioners
At the end of the film, we discover that Kay has actually orchestrated the entire thing in order to stir up publicity for her new book. Was it this reveal that attracted you to the character?
Yes. When I read the script the director told me he saw me as Kay and I agreed. Kay has a lot of depth to her and I was very intrigued to explore that abyss as an actress. I usually do not get to play these types of characters so I saw it as a beckoning challenge. It was an opportunity to take her where I wanted to go as I had free reign to do so, (and obviously with the discretion of the director’s vision), too. create something unique. I still remember the first day of shooting. I had changed into my costume and when the director saw me, he jokingly asked: “are we shooting a Greek mythology film?” I was dressed all in white with elegant boots that had laced up my legs. I looked like a holy virgin. He wanted the wardrobe dept. to get something different for me. I pulled him to the side and told him to trust me. That I knew how I saw this character in my mind and that he would be satisfied with my vision. He agreed and I went with the make-up & wardrobe people to find my new costume. We halted production that day to a standstill. And with these type of independent movies to lose a day of shooting can be debilitating. The next day, he saw me dressed up as this awkward girl with glasses on, a pencil in my hair, weird notes scribbled into the palm of my hand and an unassuming outfit on. He was overjoyed with excitement. He said, “that’s EXACTLY how I imagined Kay to be like!”
I’m curious, after reading the script, did you consciously play Kay as a secret villain, leaving hints scattered throughout your performance? Or was your approach to try and conceal her true nature so that it would be more surprising for the audience?
I definitely played her as NOT the villain. I spoke to the director several times about it because I was trying to leave hints throughout my performance. After the 3rd day of shooting he pulled me to the side and said “Natalie, I saw some of the playbacks we did the other day and I love what you’re doing but I need you to play her as someone who has NO IDEA what’s happening and not gives away anything that is going on. That way the end will be that much more surprising to the audience.” He continued, saying that at the beginning of the film we have enough hints dropped that give our audience clues as to what might be happening and he didn’t want to insult their intelligence. I complied with his notes but as an actress I still tried to do my best, to plant seeds here & there in hopes that the audience caught things. Certain reactions Kay had that happened to other characters, over exaggerated laughs or screams, moments that affected Kay, etc. I was doing my best to subtly show that, honoring the ending so that the audience could have a chance to figure it out but could still be surprised. One of my favorite “twist-character-movies” that inspired me in creating “Kay” is “The Usual Suspects.” To play a villain is any actors dream come true and to play a SECRET villain is even more daunting & invigorating. Luckily I got to play both.
You can find our review for The Executioners here: https://reelopinions.com/review-the-executioners/