If you have ever seen HBO’s series “True Blood,” then you know of the character Arlene played by Carrie Preston. What you might not know about Carrie is her involvement in a variety of other projects outside of “True Blood” and her recently released film that she directed titled, “That’s What She Said.” I had the opportunity to speak with Carrie about this film, her other projects, and the foundations of her transition into film. Read below to hear what she had to say and to get a look at her recent film.
You’ve had a variety of roles in film, predominantly acting but also some directing and producing. What would you say you prefer, being in front of the camera or behind it?
Well my first love is acting, I certainly have been doing that longer. I started when I was about 8 or 9 years old and I started my own theater company in my back yard at 12 in my neighborhood with all the neighborhood kids. I would enlist them, direct the shows, and then charge the neighborhood parents and kids to come see it for a quarter or a dime. So I was already in that directing arena, I just didn’t know at the time what I was doing. I would be in the plays in community theaters and at school and would always memorize all the other parts as well. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and have done throughout my life. So I always love it but I tend to purge my directing through the lens of acting. When I’m directing, I think about a project in terms of the performers and characters and not so much in terms of the visuals.
So would you say that acting is more entertaining than directing?
No, I would not say that. They both exercise different muscles. With acting you’re only responsible for your one role, when you’re directing you are responsible for getting in the skin of all the roles and conducting how everyone works and collaborates together. You’re the captain. There is something very fulfilling about directing that I don’t get with acting.
You’ve had a variety of roles in film and TV. Right now you’re probably best known for the HBO series, “True Blood,” but you’ve also had a variety of roles in films such as “Doubt” and one of my personal favorites, “Cradle Will Rock.” Between a high profile, recurring role on a popular TV series or a role in film where you have more limited time on the big screen, which do you prefer?
You’re making me try to pick between chocolate and caramel…I love them both! True Blood is an extraordinary experience because it is a show that’s lasted for five years and it is a show that has gainfully employed me for five years, which has afforded me the opportunity to do things like “That’s What She Said” and “Ready? OK,” which was my production company’s second feature film. Then to go off and do indies like “That Evening Sun” or this one I just did in May called”Blue Potato” or a film that I did last Summer called “Vino Veritas.” So one [True Blood] allows other projects to happen more easily. Being on TV allows me to do the more independent work because economically, it’s more permissive. And you brought up “Doubt” and I was almost completely cut out of that film. I didn’t have any scenes with Meryl Streep and it’s funny how that comes up as this great thing I did on my resume and when you go to IMDB, there is a lot of emphasis on the higher profile projects but the bulk of the work that I’ve done throughout my career has been more independent films but I would not have been able to do those things if I didn’t have the success in higher profile things like “True Blood.” I don’t ever want to seem ungrateful for the opportunities that I’ve had in Hollywood, because I am grateful and they’ve been awesome! A lot of people go and do plays and indies just to try and get back to why they even started doing it.
Right, I’ve always said they’ve been the passion projects for everyone and they’ve always been significant to me because you get to see another side of the actor and their true self. You get to see what they want to do and what they actually want to convey through film. So speaking of passion projects, let’s talk about your film, “That’s What She Said.” One of the things I noticed in the film and it was also described as having a Woody Allen feel to it. I could definitely see that from the transition between the characters and the depth and focus of their conversations. Would you say you were inspired by some Woody Allen films or is that just a coincidental comparison?
I try to think that if Woody Allen wore a yellow dress, he would have made this movie. At the same time, his work is wonderful and I even had an opportunity to work with him in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” but I would say I was more influenced by indie films of the 90s, which is when indie films started making an impact on me as a creative person. Films made by Nicole Holofcener, films by Hal Hartley, films that are not afraid to be a little theatrical and put the actors front and center. I deliberately shot the film [“That’s What She Said”] that way because I wanted the audience to feel like they were the fourth chick sitting at the table with these three women, that they were getting a really up close and personal look at them. I did it that because I thought that’s how I experienced the characters but I also did it because a lot of flaws in women are shied away from by Hollywood and I was interested in actually exposing those flaws and knocking the women down off the pedastool lifting them up again because that’s what makes things true, makes it funny, and it’s what makes things more interesting in life. Woody Allen has definitely done that over the years and I think about Judy Davis in “Husbands and Wives” and how close they got to her and everything she was going through and how funny she was in that, so I think he does understand those things. So you could say I was influenced by him but it is not what I talked about when I was creating the film with my collaborators.
You definitely focused on strong character development which I feel is the foundation of a good film. Another thing that I noticed, which I felt was a really cool concept was that the men in the film seemed to fall into the background to show that the women are the focus of the film. This happened on a conversational level and the camera shots themselves where men seemed to be nothing more than a background prop. Would you say that was intended? Where did that idea come from?
Yes that was absolutely intended. It was a play at first, a three character play called “Girl Talk” written by Kelly Overbey. I directed it on stage and Marcia Debonis played Dee Dee. So after doing the play on stage, I became obsessed with giving Marcia Debonis, and everything that she represents as an actor and a woman, an opportunity to have a leading role in a film because Hollywood would not do that. I found that to be a personal crusade that I wanted to make that happen. I said to Kelly, I want to turn this into a film, and I took her script and I made a path on the script. I didn’t change any of the dialog, I just showed Kelly how I wanted the film to open up. Then I introduced the idea of men being completely in profile or out of focus because they are not a part of today. It’s not a man-hating film, it’s just a film about how women relate to each other by talking about relationships. We took our cues from films like “Thelma and Louise” where the men were not the main focus and just took it a step further. I also added the flashback element because I thought it would be a great way for us to maintain a dialog which is why I loved the writing to begin with. The dialog is so well drawn by Kelly and it’s so funny and so specific to these characters and I wanted to maintain that and I wanted the film to in some ways have the dialog be the soundtrack to the film, although we ended up getting an amazing soundtrack.
Would you say that there were any personal life moments that you put into the film? Maybe something from yourself?
By the time we got to shooting, the script was so lean and ready to be put on film and that was my priority and we really did not improv, it was all scripted. I did a couple of little “wink wink” things, I put myself in the opening credits, I put my dog in there, and Kelly’s dog. We did a lot of fun little things out of necessity like putting our friends in the background. We didn’t have a lot of money for background so we were doing things like that. I really wanted to capture New York City and the challenges that one faces just leaving the apartment and going out into the world and not romanticizing the city. I deliberately shot that on film because for me when I think of New York City, it feels like film to me, not digital. It’s [digital] getting more beautiful and cleaner but film gives a more gritty feel which is what I was going for, which to me feels like New York City.
You had a really great cast, Anne Heche, Alia Shawkat, Marcia Debonis. Would you say there were any roles in the film that you found difficult to cast?
Obviously Marcia was already set and Kelly Overbey had acted in a Broadway show with Anne several years before we shot the film. So we sent the script to Anne’s agent and offered her the role and we didn’t hear anything for a long time and we knew that it was just sitting with her agent and she just needed to know that it was a script that Kelly had written and not just some random offer. So Kelly called Alec Baldwin who had been in the play with all of them and said, “I don’t have Anne’s number anymore but could you just call her and tell her that she has an offer to do the film I wrote.” According to Anne, he [Alec Baldwin] called her and said, “Kelly wrote a script, you have to do it,” and that’s what got her to read the script and she fell in love with it and was on board from the first page from the minute she read that she brushes her teeth with a cigarette not ever taking it out of her mouth. Anne didn’t even know who I was or that I was an actor and on an HBO show the same time she was on an HBO show. She didn’t know any of that, she just wanted to meet the director and wanted to be in the project. We had been having a bit of a challenging time casting Clementine because it’s such a specific role and the requirements could be a little intimidating to a young actor because of the sexual content. We had several rounds of auditions and we had even made an offer to someone but then they had to drop out. Anne was then the one who said, “Do you know Alia Shawkat,” and I had watched her on “Arrested Development” and seen her in “Whip It” but she wouldn’t audition and I wanted to see what she would do with the role. Her agent said she would not audition and that we just had to offer it to her, so I took a leap of faith based on Alia’s work and Anne’s recommendation because they had done “Cedar Rapids” together. Boy did we make the right decision there because Alia was so extraordinary and such a pro. She shot the film and she was 21 at the time and she just had such a sense of herself and herself as an actor and she was fearless. We just got really lucky with the alchemy of the other two characters.
I definitely could feel the cohesion between the characters. Out of the three characters, who would you say you relate most to?
I always refer to them as three flavors of ice cream and they make one awesome neopolitan. What Kelly often talks about is how all three of those women are different sides of her. When I talk to men about the film they will mention that their girlfriends or wives have all three of those women come out. I think that there is something to that, that I can relate to the damaged, cynical hard side of Dee Dee, I can also relate to the eternal optimism of Bebe, and I can also relate to the vulnerability of Clementine who thinks that she has to cling to people all the time to keep them. I understand all three of those women and that’s what made the script so wonderful and making audiences excited about the film and are really enjoying the ride with these women because they can see all of them.
It’s definitely different from many of the other mainstream female films you would see, and I think it’s very refreshing to see things at a conversational level like that where you get to see the true female perspective. I think from a male perspective, many men would enjoy it because it would give them a little bit of insight.
Yes, men have definitely said that and asked, “Do women really talk like that,” feeling a little embarrassed and mortified of the things that are up close and center. We as women have had to watch men literally and metaphorically grabbing their crotch for 100 years of cinema, so it’s funny to just turn the tables a little bit and have men consider things that they wouldn’t otherwise consider.
Well it is definitely a film outside of the norm and an interesting take on women. So can you tell us anything you have planned for the future? I know some of the “True Blood” fans would like to know if you have any developmental details about your character Arlene.
Well I don’t have any details on “True Blood,” I have no idea. I don’t even know when our start date is, I think it’s sometime in early January, so I really don’t know what’s going to happen with “True Blood” script-wise but I am invited to come back. As far as other things, I’m doing a couple more episodes of “Person of Interest” since I have a recurring role on that and I have a recurring role on “The Good Wife.” I also wrote and acted in a short web pilot that is going to be at the New York Television Festival. My production company is going to trot that around and we are also catching a couple other shows, so we’re starting to get into television a little bit but it might be through the web first.
Well I thank you for your time Carrie and I hope you’ll speak with us again on your other upcoming projects.
Thank you Ryan.
It’s always nice to see an actor/actress doing something outside of what they’re known for. While Carrie Preston is well known for her role in “True Blood,” there is a plethora of projects she has been apart of prior to that role and while reprising that role. Her latest film, “That’s What She Said,” showcases a different side of women on a conversational level while providing an adequate amount of comedy. For those who would like to see an interesting take on women and something outside of Carrie’s character Arlene on “True Blood,” I suggest checking out the film.