Exclusive: When screenwriter Sam Levinson got behind the camera to shoot his debut feature film “Another Happy Day,” he certainly didn’t arrive unprepared for production on the low budget indie. He lassoed an amazing cast, starting with old pros like George Kennedy and Ellen Burstyn, and actors like Demi Moore, Thomas Haden Church, Sibohan Fallon, Jeffrey DeMunn, and the rising Ezra Miller. Most importantly, however, is the starring role for the project’s producer, Ellen Barkin.
Barkin plays Lynn, an overstressed ball of under-diagnosed neuroses and selfish insecurities, forced to pull herself together for a family wedding. Unfortunately, she soon realizes she’s in the eye of the storm, coping not only with her abusive ex-husband and her self-destructive son, but her own self-sabotaging ways. As a series of unfortunate calamities befall the family, with Lynn feeling every judging eyeball on her, the family begins to dramatically fracture. It’s clear there is no group hug in this clan’s future.
Levinson’s directorial debut is one of great honesty and verve, and towers over any picture in the dysfunctional family subgenre in recent years. Acidic and funny, it never feels comfortable, less a movie than a volatile weapon wrapped in barbed wire. It’s no surprise that, during a recent Q&A, the talk was practically hijacked by enthusiastic writer-director James Toback who, despite having no affiliation with the film, gushed to Levinson that he had directed “one of the best films of the last five years,” so good that the young, sheepish rookie filmmaker need not be, “too modest.”
Much of the credit must go to Barkin, who infuses Lynn with a desperate streak of self-loathing and completely human victimhood. After a colorful career playing alongside the likes of Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Johnny Depp, with directors like Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh and Bob Rafelson, many are calling this Barkin’s finest performance yet. Barkin is touched by the wellspring of positivity because, as she put it in a recent phone conversation with The Playlist, "The praise is wonderful, but it means so much more to me because I don’t feel like I have ten roles like this in my pocket, [performances] that people haven’t seen. I’ve been waiting for a part like this for thirty years."
“When I read this script I just thought, this is the best role anyone’s ever given me, so I said, why not?” she continued, giving all the credit to writer-director Levinson. “I might fail, but I have to try, because it is something that mothers experience regularly. I grew as a person and as an actor.” Motherhood formed the crux of the character for Barkin, who has two older sons as well. “There are certain things I share with my sons,” she said. “I’ve kind of lived through my mistakes. In order to get where I needed to be, to be honest and true, was painful, very challenging. To not stop myself, to be a little more or less sympathetic.”
Barkin used her experience to poke holes in the popular notions of motherhood on screen. “I still feel like motherhood is kind of a secret in movies,” she sighs. “It has to be very extreme, they have to be depressed, or supportive, or a caricature. But a character like this, how she wants to get what she wants, and everything piles on top of each other, this is interesting stuff. And how complicated motherhood can be, and how easily you can get it wrong, is so powerful. And I wanted to give voice to that.
“The best character to play is someone exactly like you, or not like you at all,” Barkin stated. “Lynn, she’s not like me in a lot of ways, but there’s a lot in her gut that I connected with very deeply. I found the emotional foundation of the character was inside me. The process it took for me to reveal that was hard because secrets are hard to tell, and when I was a young actor, acting is about telling secrets of yourself you don’t want to tell. I think secrets about mothering are the worst to tell. It’s rare to hear mothers say, I fucked up, I made a mistake.”
The sensual, womanly Barkin was aware, however, of the need to re-evaluate her on-screen persona for this film. “I’ve never really played a girl, you know, a girlish woman,” she says of Lynn, who dresses much younger than she should. “That was something that challenged me. There are people who are just actors, who will always will be boys, and those that will always be like men, or women. And I’m not someone who presents themselves as a girl, let alone a baby."
Working with a loaded cast of co-stars felt daunting for Barkin as both actress and producer, but she was able to navigate that potential landmine structure with an unpretentious approach to filmmaking, saying, "I wasn’t going to have too much input with my co-stars, but I certainly had my time with the character, and I had their time as a producer. There was a lot of discussion, but, I never really thought about it.”
She added, “I am not the best actor in closeup. I kinda feel like my toes are on my face. So I was happy to know there would be a lot of wide shots, very few cuts. First of all, you really have to use your A-game if it’s being shot like that. You can take someone who is not really hitting the moment, and with the power of the closeup or a cut, you can knock it out of the park as a director. If you don’t have that cut, you need to step it up. Shooting this was like being on stage. You always have to be there, be present, because I have so many other talented people working. Because this scene is about me, I need to know what’s required of me, since you’ve got Siobhan [Fallon] geniusing it up in the fuckin’ corner, and the rest of the cast present, and I’ve got to bring it.”
As it turns out, her philosophies on acting come from a very familiar perspective. Particularly the man who directed her in Oscar-winner “Tender Mercies.” “Robert Duvall had a great statement, I’ve never forgotten it,” she begins. “When someone asked him, 'How was that?,' and he says, 'You know, I bet when two plumbers put a pipe into the ground, one doesn’t turn to the other and say, god, those last two feet were really great.' We’re just doing a job. So we talked about our characters. It was a dysfunctional family, so everyone had someone to compare their characters to.”
"Another Happy Day" opens on November 18th.