Sophia Takal’s Always Shine, which recently premiered at the Tribeca film festival, explores the bizarre world of the “actress,” one that feels both inexplicable and palpable. Her vision, combined with a sharp script from her partner in film and life, Lawrence Michael Levine, explores animalistic ambition with a fresh tone. For nearly two hours, you’re consumed by the reality of the Los Angeles actress: the auditions, the manipulation…the terror.
Best friends Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Anna (Mackenzie Davis), both actresses trying to escape the L.A. life, decide to road trip up to Big Sur. Anna is assertive, bordering on abrasive—she does Pop Physique in the morning while Beth sips her coffee and watches—while Beth is “successful.” She’s done some movies, been in some magazines and continues to get naked in them. But hey, she’s doing better than Anna, right? Already, it’s uncomfortable. Are they friends? Enemies? Who’s right and who’s wrong? Horror slowly bleeds onto the screen—this movie becomes anything but what you expected.
Paste had a chance to sit down with Davis and FitzGerald—who have both been working steadily on awesome TV shows: the latter on Masters of Sex and former on Halt and Catch Fire—to talk about their killer performances in the film, provoking questions about the feminine dynamic in sex, friendship and ambition.
Paste: There’s so much to unpack with this movie. I feel like you leave it and you hate acting and hate actors…So I want to ask you guys, what do you like about acting? Why are you actors?
Mackenzie Davis: It’s really hard to articulate ’cause it’s dumb. I love feeling emotions. [Laughs] I love thinking about something and then having an emotional response and sharing it with a stranger or someone I just met. There’s something religious about it—when it’s good. Totally transcendent and beautiful, which has nothing to do with filmmaking for me, just a very selfish exchange of emotions that I get high off of. When it’s bad, it’s just like, “What a stupid, fucking job. Waited around for 12 hours, did a wipe in front of camera.” It’s like these two polar experiences.
Paste: What about for you, Caitlin?
Caitlin FitzGerald: Why do I like to act?
Paste: Yeah. It sounds like such an elementary question…
FitzGerald: No, it’s a great question. It also changes all the time. More and more I like to act for the community and the people. There’s something so incredible about the culture of a film or a play, or a TV show—the kind of connection and intimacy. But also, I really just like to tell stories and I like to have cathartic emotional experiences for sure. Although, more and more these days, I’ll have this big emotional crying scene and I’ll be like, “I really nailed that, I cried a lot,” and then I’m like, “This is the dumbest profession, what am I doing with my life?”
Paste: Well, you’re the vehicle to tell stories, but it can be strange, because it is so personal.
FitzGerald: Yeah, it is, it’s like hiding in plain sight a little bit. Which is probably why I first started to be an actor because it felt like a really safe place to have all my big, sensitive feelings.
Paste: So what do you dislike about acting—the process, emotionally, as well as the business of it, the lifestyle?
Davis: It’s so lonely! I had this experience going back to the show this year, which is so different, because I’m living with two of my cast mates and my boyfriend’s in Atlanta, so it’s the most, like, community that I’ve ever had in Atlanta. But to be around that many people all day, not just doing your job or performing, but having conversations all day long…
FitzGerald: And being touched by people, right?
Davis: Yeah, being touched by people all day long, and having all this emotional output, and then it’s just like, the day ends, and you’re in your car and it’s silent. And it’s so fucking lonely.
FitzGerald: And that’s when you’re working! Those first couple of pilot seasons I didn’t know anyone in L.A., the only people I would see were casting directors and actresses who looked exactly like me, waiting around. It was really surreal, like Barton Fink, except an actor’s version.
Davis: I wanted to do an art project this summer. I love saying “art project,” makes me feel like I’m in the fifth grade. I took a break. I was just tired from the show and wanted to have the summer where I wasn’t working. And then I wanted to work again, but there wasn’t a job that was like—
FitzGerald: “We’ll take you.”
Davis: Right. And all of a sudden it was like six months, but in that six months I’d done the work you don’t get paid for where you’re auditioning and making tapes and going on meetings, and you’re doing all this work on each audition and creating characters for this thing. And it all goes into the ether and doesn’t amount to anything. I wanted to print out all the emails I’d sent between agents, and all the scripts that I’d written on, and all of this paperwork, just to have this material thing in my house, and be like, “Six months without a job is this box,” [so it] it exists and doesn’t just go into the ether. It’s not like I haven’t been working, but it’s this work that you can’t account for.
FitzGerald: I think that’s something people maybe don’t understand, too. Not to toot our collective horns—but it’s a lot of work that you don’t get paid for. And for me, it was like years of work before I even booked a job. It just took so long to get the machine running.
Paste: How do you keep the machine going?
FitzGerald: I mean, I’m always terrified it’s going to stop. I think, for me, I started to relax. Being on a TV show and being employed for half the year, for multiple years in a row, has done wonders for my sense of ease. Talk to me again when the show ends!
Paste: After the premiere last night, you guys got up and did the Q&A, and you said, “That was really difficult to watch.” Why was that?
Davis: It was quite a bit of our faces! [Laughter]
FitzGerald: No cutting away! It’s totally different to like, go for it in Big Sur, without cell reception, and it’s just like the three of us. It’s raw and honest, which is of course what we’ve always claimed we’ve wanted to do as actresses, and then you’re sitting in a theater with, like, your entire family and everyone you’ve ever known.
Paste: Even more so, did you feel like people were seeing a side of you that you didn’t want people to see?
FitzGerald: Yeah. [Beth] is a side of me that I don’t want to be, and hate. My boyfriend afterwards said, “Wow, I spent a lot of that movie wondering if you were that woman,” and I was like, “Oh, that’s my worst nightmare, thanks for articulating that.”
Paste: What parts of her are your worst nightmare?
FitzGerald: [Beth] is a character where the impulse to speak happens, and then gets squashed. I watched the way both of us played her, and it felt like she was hiding in herself and that squashing mechanism is deeply uncomfortable to do over and over and over. I’m not Beth, but, certainly at times in my life, particularly around being an actor, squashed what I really wanted to say, to be liked, to be nice. I’m so over it.
Paste: Mackenzie, are you more like Beth or Anna?
Davis: Anna is an exaggeration, but I definitely connect with that character more. I think it was hard making the movie and watching it last night because I’ve spent so much of my life being envious of other women, like close friends of mine, of being like, “You understand the right way to be a woman”—and it’s being small, and it’s being soft, and being intelligent, but not too pushy. It’s having the right thing to say but not being too loud—don’t laugh like that. [It was] just always feeling there was something fluid and messy about the way I was that people didn’t like being around, and there was a right way to be woman. That whole movie was just that incarnate for me and how oppressive it feels to always feel like there’s a right way to be, and you’re not it, because you were born too big or too this, or too that.
FitzGerald: And conversely with Beth, we do get to see a little of what is lurking under…what she’s not saying. I think both of these characters, and [with] all women, certainly, there’s always a part of ourselves that we’re not. Whether it’s the I’m too loud; I’m too much or I’m too quiet.
Paste: I know I have those friends who are “lilting flowers” as you say in the movie, and they get men all the time! And I am always single, but I’m also very aggressive as a person.
Davis: That’s me!
FitzGerald: It’s also the words we choose, right? Just because you have opinions and you state your mind, you’re aggressive. This is also gendered.
Paste: Yes! But also in the film, Beth gets the dudes! Is that real?
FitzGerald: They’re always projecting on her. I remember going on so many dates in my twenties. My friends and I would call it “vessel-ing” where you just show up like, “I’m a vessel… for your ego.”
Davis: I never had this experience and then never go on dates because I was just too much.
FitzGerald: But now you’re with someone really, really awesome who loves you for who you are. Vessel-ing is the worst. And you’d get to the end of their soliloquy, three hours later, and they’d be like, “I just feel like we really connect. I really like you.” There was a power in it. I remember being like, “I can make this person fall in love with me, but they have no idea who I am, and actually I hate that.”
Paste: So, [Mackenzie,] you played Hedda Gabler and you said something like, “She’s the best female character outside of Shakespeare females.” Why?
FitzGerald: Because she’s impossible to play. I remember the last week of rehearsal, coming up to my director and [saying], “I don’t know what to do in the third act. I have no idea.” And he was like, “I don’t either,” so I was like, “Great. Fuck.” She’s an articulation of all we’ve been talking about.
Paste: Right. Hedda Gabler is all of [your] characters just spilling out of one character. Do you think that if the wide culture saw women portrayed more that way—flawed—would the perception and the expectation to be beautiful change?
Davis: Yeah. I think that’s maybe the most valuable thing about the film industry. It does have the power. Those that are represented on screen feel represented in real life. One of the potential greatest things [about the film industry] is to represent many different facets of human experience and not just, like, saving Los Angeles from an earthquake.
FitzGerald: Yeah, and women who aren’t totally devices—totally diminished and only in relation to men.
Davis: We don’t all need to be badasses who are not lilting flowers. You just want a whole character who has an experience.
FitzGerald: And it’s gendered, you’re strong, because you can wield a gun like a man, you know? But strength comes in—
Paste: In vulnerability.
FitzGerald: Just whole people. I think there’s this idea that there can only be one whole woman and everyone else is the bitch, you know? We’re all really different. It’s complicated.