Casting is key. Without great characters, there can be no great story. And without great actresses, there can be no great films.
I remember clearly the day I watched an actress "act." I could not help but think something felt funny. Off. The more I watched her, the more I could hear her think. It wasn't what she was saying (her lines) or doing (her gestures). It was the woman behind the character that I was seeing and hearing. She was thinking, Was she pretty in this shot? Was she going to get a lot of praise for her performance? Was she going to win an award? Was she going to grace every magazine cover? This was what I saw and heard.
Today, more than ever, there is an infinite quest for perfection. Beauty always steals the show. Somehow this does not sit too well with me as a filmmaker. I love beautiful sets, attractive actors, and great locations. I can watch the first ten minutes of Lola Montes over and over again. Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast is my desert-island film. And I never tire of a great, big classic like Ben Hur. But I also regularly feel the strong impact of Minnie and Moskowitz or Opening Night come back to hit me. Which reminds me of Gena Rowlands... and to the star of Merry Christmas, Alexandra Stewart.
Everyone knows that Gena Rowlands is an exceptional actress. If you look at pictures of Alexandra Stewart, there is a slight resemblance. When a casting director brought me Alexandra's headshot, I had a vivid flashback of The Bride Wore Black, another favorite film. We met. She was smart, curious, kind and witty.
It was an unforgettable experience, and it completely changed the way I wanted to work with actors in the future. On screen, Alexandra was vibrant and luminous, more than an actress and larger than a character. When we shot Merry Christmas, she was already in her seventies. It was a traffic-heavy drive from New York to Pennsylvania. When she arrived, I asked if she was okay, if she was tired. She answered, "When I am working, I am never hungry and I am never tired." Generous as an actor and honest as a human being -- the ultimate combo.
Almost five years have passed since, and we have just finished shooting our third film together. She still looks like a queen and acts like a gypsy. (Cosmetic surgery is ruining cinema.) She understands the true spirit of independent filmmaking and cannot get enough of it. She likes to rough it up and live through the whole experience. She is free and only driven by her love for film, art, nature, people.
And it shows on screen.
Anna Condo is an actress and a director. She was born in Armenia and grew up in France. Since 2000, she has written, directed, and produced four short films. Merry Christmas, shot in two and a half days, is Condo’s debut feature. The film opens in NY on December 6. Details here.