Five years ago, the world didn't yet know the shape-shifting abilities of Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany, as "Orphan Black" and its captivating clones had yet to debut. This was when she caught the attention of actor and aspiring writer/director Joey Klein.
In 2009, Maslany was gaining praise for the teen runaway drama "Grown Up Movie Star," where she met Klein on a set, and a friendship sparked over a similarly quirky sense of humor. So when Klein began scripting a love story about a captivating young woman afflicted with bipolar disorder, there was only one name he considered.
"The Other Half" has Maslany playing opposite her real-life beau Tom Cullen. Here, the dashing Welsh actor, who won critical praise for the English drama "Weekend," plays Nickie, a man who's life has been ravaged by grief over his younger brother's disappearance. But his despair and rage lift when he meets Emily, a beaming beauty who is full of life but plagued by demons of her own.
Following the film's world premiere at SXSW, SPINOFF sat down with "The Other Half"s director and stars in a roundtable interview, and discovered how the film evolved over its five years, from idea to page to screen.
Maslany had "never read anything like" this script
Asked what draws her to a project, Maslany, who speaks excitedly with enthusiastic hand gestures, declared, "Something I've not done before. Something that turns me on on the first read.
"This script, I was just like aaah!" she said, playfully covering her face. "I don't know what it even is about it. It was just so unusual to me. I'd never read anything like it. It was just this beautiful mix of very abstract and very concrete. Like, huge emotions. Huge things that these characters are dealing with. Also getting to work opposite Tom was a huge pull and getting to work with Joey, people who I respect and who I admire and whose work I admire. Like that's what turns me on: the chemistry between a group of people that want to create something together."
Playing Emily subversive and freeing
At first blush, you might think Emily, who swans into Nickie's life like a glorious gift, will fall into that treacherous trope of "manic pixie dream girl." But one whirlwind of a sequence reveals Emily is manic-depressive, throwing audiences into the drama that can come from a manic episode. Maslany spins around Emily's home, spilling paint, spouting proclamations and worrying her overprotective father.
Asked how she managed to keep up this intense energy for such a prolonged sequence, Maslany shrugged, "I don't know. We just talked about it a lot. And I think we got to shoot that sequence from the painting to the break in sequence. So that really helped in terms of pitching it and ramping up into it and allowing it to grow. And then it's a real trip as an actor to get to go there. You're so often as an actor afraid to be big or afraid to be too expressive, or too loud or too high or whatever. I think there's such a fear in our world too of our emotions and of the largeness of our emotions. We don't want to care and we don't want to show that we care. So it was really freeing to get to feel that large. I don't know how we got there or what it was. But the actors I was working with was incredible. We were all just in it. So whatever that was, it just happened. There was a safety net there. It felt very safe to do."
Cullen credits Maslany's high energy for the scene's intensity
Cullen added, "I've never worked with an actor before who has such a machine and an energy as Tat does. The capacity to keep going. I mean, she does a show where she works the most insane schedule you can possibly imagine, and does it with such energy and passion and hunger. She's unrelenting. It's like a force of nature. It's extraordinary to be around. It's a privilege."
Cullen came up with his character's distinctive look
Klein was quick to admit Nickie's 1950s greaser aesthetic and tattoos were not his idea. He'd imagined the withdrawn protagonist being so thoughtless of his own appearance that Nickie's look would border on slovenly. "My idea was much more banal," the filmmaker admitted. But two weeks before production began, Cullen sent Klein some images he thought might better suit his character.
"The reasoning was that Nickie is somebody who doesn't quite fit into the world," Cullen explained. "And after he lost his brother, without any answers, I think he has a huge sense of anger. ... He feels like there's a huge lack of justice in his life. Something happens when you lose somebody. In my experience, the day after you walk out into the street and you don't understand why the rest of the world is still breathing. You're so angry. You're so full of hate that everyone else can just get on with their day and be happy. It's as if somebody has pressed on the pause button on Nickie. He is so trapped in his angry, grief and guilt. That event changed the way he looks at the world. The world isn't the same color anymore. And he looks at the way normal people carry on and do their jobs and he doesn't understand it. He doesn't fit in. And he has given up on life. ... So, he kind of just goes, 'Fuck it.' He wants to be the person he wants to be. He wants to almost insult people the way that he dresses. Everything he does is aggressive. He doesn't understand the system; he's resentful of the system. And that is a physical manifestation of that."
His other inspiration came from nature. "In nature you have animals who are prey and animals who are predators," Cullen said. "And often prey disguise themselves as predators to ward people off from going anywhere near them, like, don't dare go anywhere near me, motherfucker, because I'm a scary motherfucking arsehole. But actually underneath, he's a very damaged, damaged man. So for Nickie that was what that was. He wanted to scare the shit out of people. ... He's like painting a huge warning sign around his neck."
Maslany and Cullen's real-life relationship affected the scene's emotional climax
"There's a certain level of trust [needed] because you're going to very dark places," Cullen said. "We shot it in 16 days, so we had to drop very quickly into those places. We trust each other and we respect each other as actors. So yeah, the relationship really did help, even though Nickey and Emily are so alien and different to us as people, and very different from our relationship. The relationship did help in the working environment as actors."
Maslany added, "Specifically the last scene on the bench. It was just a difficult scene to get to for a lot of reasons. I think there was a lot of pressure on that scene, and whatever, we just didn't know what it was going to be. But I felt so supported by Tom because we both understood what we were going through--"
"But we'd rehearsed it one way, hadn't we?" Cullen asked.
"One entirely different way," Maslany said. "We didn't even talk about it, but it just didn't feel right."
"No," Cullen continued. "So I just got on my knees and turned to her, 'We're just going to go this place. We're just going to go deep. Just be there.'"
"Yeah, we were just talking in character," Maslany recalled, "Just improvising, just vamping. And Joey and Bobby [Shore, director of cinematography] --"
Klein interjected, "I ran over to Bobby and was like, 'Start fucking shooting.'"
Maslany smiled, and said, "And he's the DP, who could have been like, 'Well, this is the darkest scene ever and it's not lit for this [blocking]. ... But everybody was up for it. So, not only does it help to be in a relationship with Tom and get to go to all of those places and feel safe there, but Joey being one of our best friends and Bobby being one of our best friends and such and artist. Everyone on the crew, the focus puller, props guys, like everyone was supportive of it and the process."
"No judgment," Cullen added.
"And their process was just as integral, " Maslany insisted. "It was really awesome."
It was a very safe environment to expose yourself," Cullen said. "Because it's a very naked film, a very human film and a very raw film, very vulnerable. So it felt nice to be in an environment where we could dance in that vulnerability."