SXSW Interview: Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas Talk ‘Gayby’, Theater and Watching Themselves On-Screen

Jenn on the quick shoot: "I think in one day... [We shot] like 22 pages"

Gayby-jenn-harris-matthew-wilkasWhen Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas made the short film, Gayby, they had no idea their friend and Director Jonathan Lisecki had thoughts of turning the short into a feature film.

The original short got such a great response on the festival circuit, Lisecki decided the time was right. He had a winning cast and a great idea and that’s how the film, Gayby was born.

Gayby is about two single 30-year old best friends from college, Jenn and Matt. Jenn is a yoga instructor, Matt illustrates comic books and both are having trouble finding the right man to settle down with.

One day, they decide to fulfill that college promise they both made to each other: have a baby together. With Jenn’s biological clock a-tickin, the time is ripe. So, they go about the deed… the old fashioned way.

The film premiered at this years SXSW festival and it was by far one of the best films I saw that weekend. Jenn and Matthew have great chemistry together and their scenes sparkle. They’ve been friends for years in real life and it absolutely translates on-screen in reel life.

Both Jenn and Matthew are currently starring in shows in New York; Matthew recently made his Broadway debut in Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark and Jenn is currently playing Clarice Starling in Silence! The Musical based on Silence of the Lambs.

I talked to Jenn and Matthew right after the premiere of the film and you could tell they were still excited from the reaction of the audience (who loved it!). I talked with them about the shoot, auditions, theater and what it’s like to watch themselves on screen.

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So how did the screening go today?

Jenn Harris: It was great.

Matthew Wilkas: We were really nervous going into it.  Just like watching yourself onscreen is kind of complicated, you know?

Jenn Harris: It’s new to us. I mean we’ve done films but this is, for both of us, it’s our first full length feature where we’re leads. We do shows in New York, we’re mostly theatre actors so it’s a different thing watching yourself. It’s a different thing.

Matthew Wilkas: It’s one thing to watch yourself too alone but then to watch yourself like in a room of 100 people, yeah.

Jenn Harris: People like, you know, “Why did they laugh?  Why are they laughing? I’m so glad they are laughing. Oh, I’m so glad they are quiet. Oh the sound, did they hear that joke?  Oh no,” things like that.

Matthew Wilkas: Things we have no control over.

Personally, how did like watching yourself on the screen? Was it like, “I should have done that better?” or “What I did was awesome!”

Matthew Wilkas: There are some things that I think like acting wise, I’m like why am I, like you notice tics or things that you do that are just…

Jenn Harris: Right.

Matthew Wilkas: I don’t know. It’s like not so important but I keep noticing myself like closing my eyes and talking.  I’m like, “Why am I doing that?” [laughs]

Jenn Harris: I didn’t notice that at all! I didn’t notice that at all. That’s funny.

I kind of feel the same way. I don’t feel as hard on the acting sometimes, I felt like, “Oh my God, wait, that was weird. Are we sure that was the best take?” And maybe it would have been like, for sound, it might have been the best take.  You know these are things that are very new for me with film.  It just seems so basic but I feel like, how is this stuff so basic for me? Things you can’t control like your make up, your hair, and the lighting, it’s stuff that you notice because you’re looking at yourself. As trite as it might sound, its new to me.

How many takes did you get per scene?

Jenn Harris: Oh my God, three.

Matthew Wilkas: The most you think, really? Sometimes it felt like we got more.

Jenn Harris: I feel like honestly, the average was three. At least for me, I felt three was the average.

Matthew Wilkas: What was the most pages you shot in one day?

Jenn Harris: I think in one day, when I was in the yoga studios? It was like 22 pages.

No way.

Matthew Wilkas: And like they are some of the best scenes in the film too. Maybe there was something to the rush of it that we were able to…

Jenn Harris: Yeah, sure. I remember Clay [Liford, the Cinematographer] was like, “I’m going to light this in two minutes and we have like 30 seconds to shoot it.” And that’s literally what we had.  We have five minutes left in the yoga room to shoot the scene. And it got done.

Did you guys have rehearsal personal prior to shooting?

Jenn Harris: We did have a little bit.

Matthew Wilkas: Yeah, minimal, but we did.  We had a table read and we had like…

Jenn Harris: I met with Louis [Cancelmi] one day, which was nice.

Matthew Wilkas: Right, individually with different people that we would be acting with.

Jenn Harris: Matt and I read through a couple of scenes but I mean literally no more than like, for me, two hours. I think it was two hours total.

Matthew Wilkas: And then on set rehearsals. We’d get to rehearse and then go into hair and makeup.  Then it was a lot of me and Jenn running lines with each other while we’re getting our hair and makeup done.

I know when I have auditions, if somebody gives me sides, I’m so much better than like having a day or two with them.

Matthew Wilkas: Yeah, auditions for better, for me whenever I don’t put, you know if I really want it and I put like tons of rehearsal time and energy into it, then I end up going in totally a mess.

What were your auditions for this like?

Matthew Wilkas: It was written for us.

Jenn Harris: Yeah, Johnny because we’ve known Johnny for years.  We performed with him years ago downtown, like performance art land on is where we all kind of met. We did this sort of performance piece show and that’s where we met years ago.  2002, probably? It was 2002 or 2003, Lower East Side, like Pyramid Club and The Fez and all these great, great spots for performance art in New York.

It’s a small community, especially like comedic people who are into like funky performance artsy stuff.  It’s not like not the UCB scene. We’re not stand-up people. We’re not sketch comedians.

Matthew Wilkas: We’re not improvers.

Jenn Harris: We’re not improvers. We come from a very like performance art, downtown New York like loud, in your face, like really mapped out pieces. Like really thought out original, conceptual pieces.  That’s sort of the land we all sort of met in, besides Matt.  We’ve known each other since the summer of 96.

You were doing a show at the time you were shooting this?

Jenn Harris: Yeah, I was doing and I’m still in a show called Silence! The Musical. It’s a musical parody of the film Silence of the Lambs.  We did it six and a half years ago at the Fringe Festival and now we’re running off Broadway and I was doing Silence at night and I would shoot all day.

So were you just completely exhausted the whole time?

Jenn Harris: Yes, I’ve never felt so like completely in the moment in my life. It was like wake up at whatever time in the morning and it was like, okay, like literally go to the bathroom, drink a cup of coffee, get on my motor bike, that’s in the film, and that was the only time I had like to myself and then get on the set and it was nonstop until I had to leave for my show, or if I wasn’t in the show, we would keep shooting, go to bed, wake up.

I sort of felt like doing this film and being in my show was sort of a blessing because the show was just starting out as well. It was like only in its second month. It sort of kept my attention. I wasn’t so obsessed with Silence and I wasn’t so obsessed with Gayby.  I would go to Gayby on the set and I would talk to people about Silence and then I would go to Silence at night and I would be like talking about what we shot that day so it kept me calm, which is normally not what I am.  So, it sort of forced me to just live in like, “Okay, what’s happening right now?  Okay, the first act of my show is happening. Okay, I’m putting my wig on right now.” And then it was like, “Okay, now what it is? Okay now it’s this scene.  What’s the scene?”  It was intense but it was really fun.

What’s your advice to actors?

Jenn Harris: I think the greatest thing you can do is just go in full blown, full tilt, have zero inhibitions.  Throw it all out.  Get an idea about something.  If you’re reading, just keep going over the material until you get an idea.  If it’s comedy and if you think about it and it makes you laugh and if you think about it doing it, or saying it.  If you think it will make your friends laugh, just fly with it and just go in there and have no inhibitions.  If you want to bring a prop, bring a prop.  I’ve done it a million times.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Matthew Wilkas: Like let other people take you down.

Jenn Harris: Let other people edit you. Like let other people be the ones who, like if they see energy and a good idea and spark, people are hired to light you, to costume you, to clothe you, to put you on a set.  They will trim you down and they will go around you like if they can’t pull stuff out of you, so just throw it out there.  Get it out there.  That’s how I look at it.

Matthew Wilkas: I’m going to regurgitate something else that I’ve heard you say before which is that seeing other’s work, like going to see plays and films and watching TV, it’s always really helpful.

Jenn Harris: Get inspired. I always feel like I’ve never been better at anything by hiding in my apartment and studying, cramming, and conjuring and feeling bad for myself and comparing myself to other people.  It’s bullshit.  Go out and support your friends.  Go out and see live music.  Go see art.  See an exhibit.  Read a blog.  Go watch bad things.  Get upset because you just paid money to see something horrible.  Inspire yourself.  Just cramming over something alone by yourself, it doesn’t work for me.  Get out there and see.  Be an audience member first.

Matthew Wilkas: And also don’t be hard on yourself, there you go.

Jenn Harris: That’s a good one.  It is.

Matthew Wilkas: I’m still learning that.

Jenn Harris: We’re all still learning that.

Matthew Wilkas: Don’t be hard on yourself.

Jenn Harris: We can probably refer back to the very beginning of this interview and refer back where we’ve gotten now.  Don’t be so hard on yourself.

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