The film, the debut from writer/director Riley Stearns, is about a woman named Claire (Winstead) who is in a mysterious cult. Her parents locate a man named Ansel Roth (Orser), the worlds foremost authority on cults and mind control, and hire him to try and deprogram her.
This was my first interview of SXSW and they definitely made my job easy. Both were incredibly cool and funny and I loved talking to them. We talk about the film and one 12-page long scene, research and back-stories and horrible auditions!
So, obviously I haven’t seen the movie yet.
Leland Orser: Neither have I.
We have something in common. So, I’m gonna ask the worst question in the world, but can you guys tell me about the movie and your characters real quick?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: You start.
Leland Orser: Well, I think it’s a black comedy is what I’m saying it is, although at first I thought it was a thriller. I play a down on his luck cult deprogrammer psychologist. I think. And I am… essentially when you meet my character, Ansel Roth, I’m so down on my luck I’ve lost everything. I’ve lost my family, I’ve lost my house, I’ve lost my career, and I’m essentially living out of my car. And that’s when you come into the picture.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Yes. Well, I play a character named Claire who’s in a cult and my parents come to Leland’s character because he is, as I think he’s already said, a sort of… an expert on cults and mind control and deprogramming. And even though he hasn’t done deprogramming in quite some time, they convince him because they’re gonna pay him to kidnap me and deprogram me. She’s sort of mysterious and I don’t really wanna give too much about it away. So I’m gonna keep that part simple.
Did you sort of research anything cult like people or people who have been in cults?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Yeah, I think Leland and I both read Ted Patrick’s book, or one of Ted Patrick’s books, which was Let Our Children Go. Is that what it was called?
Leland Orser: Yeah, yeah.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Which was great. And he is sort of one of the people in this time period of the 70s kind of cult boom that loosely inspired Leland’s character. So that was a great book to read. And I tried to watch a lot of videos on YouTube, whatever I could find, specifically from that era of people in cults or people who had just gotten out of cults because there was something I think about that time period that was so specific the way people were just sort of falling like flies into these, you know, cults and sort of the youth particularly why they were so attracted to that idea was interesting to me.
Do you guys do, not only for this but for other roles, a lot of research? Do you do back-stories for parts?
Leland Orser: I do, yeah. Very much so. After Riley and I met we went into production very, very shortly after that, like a month or two. Not even 2 months. And so I went home and started immediate. Yeah. Reading, watching, now we have the luxury of watching so much stuff on the internet, and I think backstory is vital, especially in this because our… my backstory was so important to who I had become. So you need to know all of that to bring your present state onto film.
Even though it’s not in the script do you find it completely helpful though?
Leland Orser: Yeah. And a lot of it, actually, for me, was in the script.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Yes.
Leland Orser: And for you too.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Yeah. I mean, for me it was sort of, God, it’s just so hard to talk about my character without…
You can spill the beans, it’s alright.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Yeah. I had to come up with a few different kind of backstories to work for different parts of the film. Just to work for whatever emotional state she’s in because she goes to a lot of different places. So, I mean, there was one through line that it was like the sort of… her arc that I had in mind, but I would have different stories.
Leland Orser: There’s personalities before the cult, personalities within the cult…
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Exactly.
Leland Orser: …and personalities after the cult.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Yes.
Leland Orser: So she’s like literally 3 different characters.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: That’s a great way to put my character. That’s what’s so complicated about her was that it really is like 3 people in one and so each scene… and shooting somewhat out of order was kind of like, “Ok, who is she now?”
Leland Orser: Where am I now?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Where’s her frame of mind?
Leland Orser: What level? Yeah.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: So that was… it was really challenging, but really, really fun.
Leland Orser: And you need to have all of that very clear in your mind and, for me, very clear on the page on the script in my notes so that on any given day depending on what you’re shooting you know at what level you’re at, at what degree you’re at. So, gotta keep that very clear.
I saw this was an 18-day shoot?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Yeah.
Leland Orser: Was it? 18?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Well, I think 19… oh, was it 20?
Do you guys like those fast, quick paced shoots?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I do.
Leland Orser: If you’ve done your homework, yeah. You have to do your homework. You get lazy on big films. You know? Because you can… there’s so much…
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Then you start feeling guilty about being lazy. It’s such a cycle of like… and on this it’s like there’s just no room for being lazy at all.
Leland Orser: No. Train has left the station and it’s… yeah.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Which is an exciting kind of energy for everybody to have, I think. Everybody, the whole crew, the whole cast, everybody was kind of on their toes the whole time because it’s moving so quickly.
Leland Orser: Yeah, it’s dangerous. You’ve gotta make your day, you’ve gotta get out of that location. You’re pinching every penny because every penny is going into what you’re gonna see up there, not into how nice your accommodations are and you wanna make it work for everybody, especially for people who are paying to make good film.
Did you guys rehearse?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: No.
Leland Orser: We were going to.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: We had talked about it, and then it just sort of never happened. But I think that we both agreed that we wanted to…
Leland Orser: We met.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: We met.
That’s always a good thing.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: But I think we both had talked about that we’re not big on rehearsing what we’re actually gonna do on the day. I think we wanted to talk about it more so than rehearse it.
Leland Orser: Yeah.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: And we had planned on doing some form of rehearsal, which we never ended up doing.
Leland Orser: There’s one very, very, very long, long, long very involved scene in the film. It’s like 12 pages long. And Riley had talked about rehearsing it and we were both… I was open to that but I was also, you know, reluctant to do that because I feel that if you can rehearse in front of a camera and have a camera rolling and actually have that be your first take, there’s things that possibly you can get.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Yeah. That are the most exciting things potentially.
Leland Orser: Right. Fresh and real and of the moment.
A 12-page scene?
Leland Orser: Yeah.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: And he’s, I mean, he’s gotta go to some crazy places in that. It’s pretty amazing.
Was it just a full day of that?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I think it was scheduled to be a full day and we did it in half a day, didn’t we?
Leland Orser: I don’t even remember. But it was looming. It was one of those things that it looms.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Yes, for both of us the whole time.
Leland Orser: And scares you and you’re just trying to… “Ok, well at least we’re not in that week yet.” And now we’re in that week, “At least it’s not tomorrow.” That was a very, very scary, scary prospect.
Do you have any your nightmare audition stories?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Oh, man. Oh, I know I’ve had them. Oh, I mean, I have kind of a nightmare meeting story from kind of recently where… and it was a very famous director. No, actually, actually I’m gonna do a different one because it was an audition and it was also kind of recently. Another very famous director who had a picture of me that the casting director had printed out, it was like 10 years old. And he looked at me and I told him I was from North Carolina and he goes, “Oh, so you’ve been eating a lot of that North Carolina cooking, I see. Gained a little bit of weight since this picture.”
Leland Orser: Are you kidding me? Did you just get up and leave?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I just laughed because he’s a director that you kind of know is a little bit… kind of know when you go into that room that he’s probably gonna say something crazy. So I just laughed and I was like, “Yup, definitely been eating a lot of that North Carolina food,” and just went into the audition. But it was just one of those things where you just were like… you just kind of… you just wanna just the audition just to be like a big “f**k you”, you know, and then just get out the door. It was kind of… it was more funny to me than anything because I thought it was such a ridiculous thing to say to somebody.
Leland Orser: I have two stories and I’m wondering if it’s cool to tell either of them. But I remember when I went to meet John Carpenter on Escape from LA and all of a sudden I was really nervous or I was tired or I was hungover or something and I had really bad cottonmouth. And I was… we were on a studio lot or something somewhere and I’m sitting outside this office, he’s in there, and his assistant had a desk and on the desk was a big thing of Red Vines. And there was nobody around and I thought, you know, and I was eyeing the Red Vines and they weren’t coming to get me so I went over and I just grabbed a Red Vine, I stuck it in my mouth, and it wasn’t working. So I grabbed another one and I grabbed like 2 or 3 of them and I’m just stuffing it into my mouth trying to get some sort of fluid and they come out to get me and I had a mouth full of f****n’ Red Vines. And I went in and I sat down and he started asking me questions and I’m like what the f**k do I do? I have a mouth full of licorice and I can’t spit it out and I can’t talk and so I sat there and I chewed it and it took me like 2 minutes to chew it and… anyway. It was really extremely embarrassing, but in some way it worked. I ended up getting the movie. I think he felt sorry for me.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: There’s so many it’s…
Leland Orser: I’ve had producers f*****g cell phones ring in the middle of a screen test. And take the call.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Right. Yeah. While you’re in the middle of a scene.
I’ve had that happen to me on commercial auditions. That’s always good.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Yeah.
Leland Orser: It’s brutal. Not for the faint of heart.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: No, not at all.
What’s your advice to actors?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: Oh my gosh. I always say for me just to act where you can whenever you can as much as you can and just focus on trying to be a good actor and I think that that’s all you need. I think, like when I first started acting, everybody had so many… I’d go to all these workshops and it was so much about the business and you have to have this kind of headshot and you have to do this and you have to do that and you have to meet these kind of people and I just feel like I’ve learned that nothing matters but being a good actor. Literally none of it matters but being a good actor and if you just focus on that, the other stuff will fall into place.
Leland Orser: Watch everything. Watch everybody. Go to the theatre. Watch television. Watch movies. See what people are doing and what you wanna do and what you think you can do and when you figure out what it is that you think you can do, then focus on that. And also never take ‘no’ for an answer.