‘Always Shine’: Director and Star on Jealousy, Femininity, and Cinematic Titillation

The first line of Sophia Takal’s Always Shine is “please don’t kill me,” a plea pronounced by a sobbing blonde woman (Masters of Sex‘s Caitlin FitzGerald), Beth, in close up, her tears besmirching a face Hollywood would deem perfect, framed against a neutral background. “I’ll do anything you want. Do you want to kiss me? Is that what you want? You want me to take my clothes off? You want to touch me?” she continues. She begins to remove her top. Then she breaks character.

A man off-camera tells her that if she’s going to do the movie — the movie we’ve just figured out she’s auditioning for — she has to be comfortable doing nudity. The eroticized sensationalism of the monologue she just performed reinforces an all-too-familiar role, exuding fear and an air of desperate victimhood while trying to make it look uncomfortably sexy. “Please don’t kill me/do you want to kiss me/you want me to take my clothes off?” sounds like it could be a chorus of underwritten, objectified female characters from all of film history, speaking directly to their audiences. Such is our introduction to Beth.

From there, we’re introduced to another character, Anna, set against a similarly neutral backdrop, likewise looking like it could be set in an audition room. She is also a young blond woman (played by Mackenzie Davis, of Halt and Catch FireBlack Mirror‘s “San Junipero” episode, and the soon-to-be Blade Runner sequel). She has a firm and combative voice, and a harsh glare that almost pushes the camera away as opposed to her predecessor’s inviting its invasion. She’s yelling about car parts and it seems like another audition. But then the camera pulls away, and we see she actually just is yelling at a mechanic. Such is our introduction to Anna; she doesn’t get as many auditions; the “audition” we’ve just seen is the way she presents herself in real life.

And with that, Always Shine reveals two actress friends contending with the burdens of the flat ways Hollywood — and society— casts femininity. Beth’s acting career is on the rise, but only because casting directors are seeing her as their ideal of a pretty face and unchallenging personality that can be exploited and destroyed onscreen. Anna, meanwhile, is discounted due to her aggression and jealousy — and the fact that she doesn’t fit into that model. That only leads her to feel more jealous and aggressive.

After introducing them, and the roles they’ve assumed in their L.A. lives, Takal’s film (written by her collaborator/husband Lawrence Michael Levine) removes the characters from their daily context. These two women, it turns out, are old friends who have less and less in common; and they’re going to spend some quality time together in a cabin in Big Sur. Here in isolation, these two polar perceptions of “desired” versus “undesired” femininity amplify, morph, and antagonize one another. Their fight proceeds as a means of cinematic self-reflection, pondering film’s culpability in the calcifying of gender roles.

I got to sit down with both Takal and Davis, and discuss the making of the film, and how — since it happens to be a film about film — both of them deal with its themes in their lives within the industry.  

Flavorwire: For reasons I won’t go into very explicitly, I assume MacKenzie and Caitlin had to rehearse a lot together to make sure their interpretations of their characters aligned. What was the process before shooting? 

Takal: We did do a week of rehearsal; I’m really interested in having more fleshed out characters, but filmmakers rarely get a lot of time with actors prior to shooting. This was my first time working with MacKenzie. I met MacKenzie for the first time the day she came to Big Sur.

Davis: That’s not true! We met at BAM!

Takal: Well, it was my first time working with her and learning how to communicate, and so what I thought would be more helpful than rehearsing the scenes would be to do backstory rehearsals. Something I love about movies is how spontaneous things are captured on camera. So to me it’s not the greatest to rehearse scenes, because you’re not capturing anything. If something amazing happens, I don’t want an actor feeling like they have to repeat it. So Cait and Mackenzie and I all came up with a list of scenes or moments within the girls’ relationship that may have been essential. We decided they were roommates in acting school. And the time when they moved in together; getting ready on a Saturday night; going out; the first time Anna hears that Beth got cast in a short film. Tracking their relationship so they could observe each other’s behavior, so that when it was time to make a movie they could transition seamlessly, but also just so that when they were talking about aspects of their friendship, they had a shared memory and shared experience, even if it was all improvised for a week in Big Sur. We also did private exercises — I remember we went to Big Sur Bakery and I just watched Mackenzie drink coffee.

Flavorwire: The beginning of the film depicts the absurdity of audition processes. Did you think you wanted to work specifically with Caitlin and MacKenzie as a pair beforehand? Were there auditions, and if so, what did those entail?

Takal: [To Davis] Do you know I just found your audition again? But here’s the thing. I hate auditioning. I don’t think you can learn anything from an actor; it’s like, your audition is great and you’re a great actress. But when you’re pantomiming all this stuff, and you don’t have the wardrobe — to me that’s not really showing me an actor who’s really taking a work in and really reacting to it. For me, it was the second I spoke to Mackenzie over Skype. I don’t think Halt and Catch Fire had come out yet —

Davis: I was shooting it.

Takal: And I remember your agent was like, ‘we can’t give you any footage of anything she’s done, but she has all this amazing stuff coming out.’ And so that’s why you taped an audition. But it was actually the way Mackenzie spoke about the role and approached it with such honesty. So many actresses I Skyped with said, “I related to Beth,” who to me is just the perfect idea of femininity. To say that just seems dishonest, like they weren’t willing to admit to the fact that they felt jealous in their lives.

Davis: First of all, I don’t have a lot of friends. I was really excited because I was like, ‘Oh my God, we speak the exact same language.’ Skype can be so awkward, but it was thrilling to meet this smart person — you don’t have a lot of meetings like that. Sophia leads with a level of raw vulnerability, she exposes herself and her demons. I thought I was like that until I met Sophia. And it’s refreshing to be with somebody who isn’t worried about presenting a refined image of themselves, who wants you to see the entirety of themselves, and their work. It felt like someone telling my own secrets in a public way, and it was sort of embarrassing. Did you read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels? I felt almost embarrassed reading them. Like someone was telling these private bad feelings and inner thoughts I’d had towards one friend in particular — my best friend; I definitely contended with a lot of jealousy towards her when I was younger, because she’s just this incredible human being. And I had the same feeling with the script, and it was gratifying to see that being treated with dignity and urgency but also kind of embarrassing, like people would know I was bad. But that’s so exciting!

Flavorwire: Via blog-speak and social media, I’ve noticed a trend of flattening this notion of the “Female Friendship” into a blanketing, inspirational thing, as an empowering clickbait topic.

Davis: Like #squadgoals?

Takal: If there’s a group of women who have no feelings of jealousy and competition, that’s so cool, and I wish I was friends with them and was like them. But one thing that was really important to me about making Always Shine was to address these feelings of inadequacy that a lot of women and men feel about not fitting into these traditional gender roles. Women feel so compelled to be perfect or else they won’t be loved. Feeling jealousy is an imperfection and I think a lot of women feel it and don’t want to admit it. This is what’s going on for Anna in the movie — to me is that she’s not allowing herself to fully feel this, she’s so ashamed of it that it’s coming out in these perverted, violent ways. [To Davis] Four years ago, if I had been doing this, I’d have been insanely jealous of you. Like, ‘Everyone wants to talk to Mackenzie.’ In a society that’s so outwardly focused, where external validation is such an essential part of how people build their identities, it’s really natural to feel like you’re always comparing yourself to other people. So it’s been really exciting for me this week to realize I don’t feel that way anymore. Maybe I do feel it a little bit, but instead of being mad at myself for feeling it, I’m like, ‘That’s just your jealousy popping up.'” It feels so much easier to have the feelings when they’re less repressed and thus less aggressive.

Flavorwire: There are so many movies by male directors that similarly touch on jealous, embittered relationships between actresses. There’s Mulholland Drive, All About Eve, Persona, Black Swan

Takal: That movie was a weird inspiration to make this movie in opposition, and I feel weird saying something bad about Black Swan, but —

Flavorwire: No, please do.

Takal: I remember I was acting in a movie in Detroit, with a bunch of dudes. I was living in a house whose nickname was the Boneyard.

Davis: The boner?

Takal: The Boneyard. It was ten men in their 20s, they were all really great. They were not douchebags at all. But we all went to see Black Swan, and I was already feeling weird; I’d just gotten into a car accident, I was shaken up emotionally, and I remember watching the scene where Natalie Portman masturbates. I don’t know if this is true or if this was just my mind, but in my mind it was shot like an MTV music video — super sexy, with music, with this way of objectifying her body. And I remember when I first started masturbating it was late in my life —

Davis: I started so early.

Takal: I know you did! I started so late — it was scary, and it wasn’t just sexy. It felt weird exploring my body. And Natalie Portman’s character is totally alienated from her body and scared of it [throughout the film], so to shoot that scene in a way that felt so titillating — it felt like such a male gaze moment. And then I saw the movie was written by a bunch of men, and it was directed by a great director, but a man.

Davis: I feel that way in that scene from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo where she gets raped, and it’s supposed to be this horrifying thing, but it’s lit like her beautiful, tight butt is a piece of gorgeous Italian marble, and you feel like you’re a participant, feeling like, ‘I want to bite that fucking ass.’ It’s supposed to be horrible but he’s also making you enjoy it, which maybe is intentional, but also that ‘no you’re the real villain’ type of filmmaking pisses me off.

Flavorwire: It reminds me of some of the debates surrounding Westworld, the way it’s about objectification and some people have critiqued it for objectifying actors, and what it means to cast blame on the viewer. 

Takal: That was something we were trying to play around with a lot, obscuring nudity, obscuring violence, alluding to it, and having the audience feel it. You can do that without showing nudity. You can have a scene where you’re about to see Mackenzie’s breast, and then the camera cuts away, and then you as an audience member have to feel that you were disappointed you didn’t get to see her tit, and be like, ‘that’s weird.’ Or like, ‘aw fuck, I really wanted to see them beating each other up,’ and then be like, ‘why did I want to see that?’ That was something that was really important to play with.

Flavorwire: Right, and you therefore avoid the potential of internal hypocrisy within the film, since in the beginning it makes such a point of emphasizing exploitative filmmaking.

Takal: [To Davis] Have you had to do nudity?

Davis: You’ve seen my bum from a distance once. You look at this skinny dipping scene and…what if…bum? And then another movie I won’t mention, because it’s not out yet. There’s a nude, but it’s only the shape of a body. So…the answer is no.

Flavorwire: Sophia, you got your start making films in New York, and you’re an East Coaster. Why’d you want to set this around the Hollywood filmmaking world as opposed to that of New York?

Takal: To me, L.A. is — and MacKenzie just moved to LA so she can talk about this —

Davis: I’ve been there for four days, so I’ve got a lot of insight.

Takal: Big Sur is a very spiritual place; I remember the first time I went there and saw the physical beauty, I was outside of my own concerns. It’s always a reminder of there being so much more, and L.A. is the total opposite of that; you’re surrounded by billboards and people whose only job is to create entertainment and distraction.

Davis: Why do you call entertainment a distraction?

Takal: I’m talking about Hollywood, Transformers style, like that. I don’t think film is inherently a distraction or art is inherently a distraction, but I do think —

Davis: Certain things are just noise.

Takal: And I think L.A. is where certain ideas of femininity are created. In New York there’s more of a space to be an individual.

Davis: As conventional wisdom I do know that to be true. But I do think there’s something extremely oppressive about New York as well. The requirements for success, the competition for social currency is tangible, and it’s so hard to access. It’s in the proof of party pictures at art parties. I’m just trying to find some place where I fit in!

Flavorwire: Mackenzie, you’re going to be in the upcoming Blade Runner film. Given the way Always Shine — and these conversations about it — address Hollywood careers, what’s your ideal path for yourself within the mainstream film industry?

Davis: There’s no invisible line that says projects with integrity always have to be smaller. I do feel very aware of an exchange with every good seeming thing you get, though. If you take a really large movie, you’re going to get power and money, and your career will open up in a way you haven’t before, because it can finance the types of roles that I would like to play. Under the Skin wouldn’t have gotten made or seen if Scarlet Johansson weren’t Scarlet Johansson. That movie is like a gift from God. I understood why you would want to be famous on that level when I saw that movie. The other stuff is a payment for this — with that access and power comes a risk to your personal life and privacy and free time. That’s my equation.

Always Shine is out in limited release on November 25.