Best of What's Next: Alexia Rasmussen

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On Alexia Rasmussen’s first trip to the Sundance Film Festival this year, she jumped straight into the deep end of the pool, promoting not one but two films she appeared in. She had previously appeared in another hot Sundance property, last year’s Our Idiot Brother, but had not made the trip to Park City. So this year’s festival was quite a shock.

“It was a big problem for me,” she laughs, “trying to figure out where I was supposed to be in town at any given point. I’m not an exceptional navigator by any sense. “But I was really lucky because The Comedy was at the beginning of the week and then California Solo was at the end of the week, so it made it a lot easier to sort of compartmentalize my feelings and thoughts about those movies. And it was great to be able to hang out with those people separately and not worry about splitting my time with everybody.”

The Comedy is Rick Alverson’s drama (ironically) starring Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job. Rasmussen had previously worked with the film’s producer, Mike Ryan, who offered her the role outright. “It was a first for me,” she says. “I generally have to audition, but I don’t know how they would have auditioned people because the entire film was improvised by everyone in it. So it was definitely a really unique experience.”

Improvisation can be a scary form, and doing virtually an entire film with improv is an especially daunting prospect. Director Rick Alverson took a bit of the fear out of the process by insisting that the characters’ personalities stay close to those of the actors. “It’s important to Rick,” Rasmussen explains, “that you’re not completely forgetting yourself when you’re acting, so he wanted the character to look like an addition to you. Basically we worked out what parts of me we wanted to keep and what we wanted to add.”

But Alverson’s approach was also notably precise. “Improvisational sounds like it would be all fun and games, but Rick was very clear about the tone he wanted in particular scenes. When we got to the set he’d say ‘Okay let’s just try it; let’s make sure that we hit these little mark in the conversation.’ And then we’d work through it one time, and then go back through and say ‘Here’s what I like and here’s what we’ll leave out.’ It’s easy to say yes to everything and eventually you’ll just keep going and going and going. It’s good to have a little bit of tidiness in there. Rick would say, ‘I really liked this moment when you guys did that but maybe think of a different way of saying it,’ but he’d never really give you the answer necessarily, and he gave you space for decision making as an actor. Which is definitely a little scary. Especially when your partner in the scene is someone like Tim Heidecker who is a fantastic comedian, who is so sharp and so quick with words. Trying to keep up with him is formidable. It was a challenge.”

For an actress who’d never worked extensively in improv before, the film was quite a learning experience, she says: “I sort of expected to leave the process feeling fun but I ended up feeling like I got my workout. It really did feel like an exercise of being in the moment. It’s of course the most cliché thing that any actor could say, but you have to be listening to know what you’re going to say next, and it makes the scene a lot better because acting is founded on listening. That was really good for me, to be able to see that could be applied in even scripted situations. You kind of have to forget yourself for a second and be focused on the other person, and you’d be surprised how organic and interesting it feels to react. So often we’re just waiting for our turn to speak. That’s what’s so great about film; here are these great moments of people. It’s good for all of us to have a little less ego, and improv is one of those places where you can have a lot of bravado, but it’s also very humbling.”

The second Sundance film, Marshall Lewy’s California Solo, required her to play opposite a deeply rich performance by Robert Carlyle. It was another stretching experience that helped her grow as an actor. And once again, it was a producer connection that got her the role. But the biggest problem she faced with the part was that, if her character in The Comedy was primarily built on her own personality, her character in California Solo (though written by someone completely different) actually hit a little bit too close to home.

Rasmussen explains: “She’s an actor, someone who likes to cook, likes some of the finer things in life like a nice glass of wine, and she’s very elemental. I think she’s a little lost in terms of wanting to be an artist but not sure how to do that. It’s getting a little clearer to me that she’s still laboring between wanting to be a mom or a cook. She’s sort of dealing with having to figure out the practicality of being an artist instead of being a person who society thinks is able to survive. And also having a relationship with someone who is older and growing really close to them. That’s something I can relate to. I spent a lot of time as a kid around adults and I feel acclimated to hanging out with people who are older than I am.”

One might think that playing a character so close to oneself would come naturally, but Rasmussen explains that it can actually be a much more difficult task. “As an actor you’re always looking inside,” she says, “to see where emotions live for you, and it’s almost easier when you’re approaching a character with a totally different experience. You can do into it like somebody who is stepping onto a different planet. There’s all this exploring and all of this information is new and exciting. When you’re looking into a character who is so similar to you, it’s hard to look into your daily life to actually examine yourself and see your own shortcomings and struggles. Also, if you’re someone like me and you have low self-esteem it’s hard to force yourself to look at the good things about her and why she might be a redeemable character. It’s really harder.”

Of course, working opposite an accomplished actor like Carlyle, while daunting, also was a great help to finding that character. “He’s incredibly generous,” Rasmussen says, glowing. “The repeated thing about him is that he elevates everyone. All of the acting gets better because his is so good and everyone has to rise to the occasion. I feel amazed by my own performance, but really I feel it was owed to him. Because he doesn’t do or say anything that doesn’t feel true. When he looks into you you feel struck by him. It’s just really easy to act with him. He has this incredible capacity for toughness and edge, but he can soften into the most watery, liquidy thing. He has that transformative thing that anyone would be lucky enough to have as an actor.”

Rasmussen is classically trained, but film acting is so different that she says she’s had to retrain herself for it, in a way. “I had to unlearn a lot of what I learned in the theater just to do film,” she explains. “That could just be me, but there were certain aspects of myself that I had pumped up and fluffed up so I could do theater that I had to deflate and unlace so I could do film.”

And perhaps surprisingly, coming from a theater-trained actress, it’s not the dialogue that primarily interests her in a script. “I like when the action speaks as loud as the dialogue. The little parts in the script are just as important to me as what people are saying. Sometimes I get a little nervous when people are saying too much. It’s too expositional to the dialogue. Sometimes when I’m reading a script and it feels like things are being said, and it’s clear without being actually being spoken I think, ‘Now this is a good script.’ You look at any great pieces of work and… I mean, so much of Tony Soprano is only a 1/4th of what he actually says. And 3/4ths of him is what he’s not saying about himself.”

While it’s doubtful she’ll be called upon to play Tony Soprano anytime soon, if her performances in The Comedy and California Solo are any indication, we’ll be seeing a lot more of Alexia’s work to come.