Grace Folsom on “Things I Don’t Understand”

Grace Folsom stars in David Spaltro’s “Things I Don’t Understand.” Courtesy of Wandering/Cut Films.

The acclaimed indie drama, “Things I Don’t Understand,” is notable for many reasons. It marks the second directorial feature of New York filmmaker David Spaltro, who earned praise for his 2007 debut, “…Around.” It also stands as impressive example of the miracles that can be achieved on a limited budget. Yet aside from its assured craftsmanship and strong visual sense, what holds the film together is the strength of its human relationships.

Violet (Molly Ryman) is a jaded grad student who forges a friendship with Sara (Grace Folsom), a teenager stricken with cancer. She may be confined to a wheelchair, but her spirit remains restless, utilizing snarky humor as a defense shield to cloak her vulnerabilities. This is merely one plot line in Spaltro’s film, but it’s the one that broke my heart. Folsom is a revelation in her first feature role–funny, riveting and deeply moving. Moviegoers in the Chicagoland area will be able to catch the film when it screens at 7:30pm Saturday, July 28th at the Blue Whiskey Independent Film Festival in Palatine.

Indie Outlook spoke with Folsom about her preparation for the role, the audition tape that won over Spaltro and the intriguing short films that served as her cinematic starting point.

Q: In your interview, you mentioned that HBO’s “Angels in America” impacted you as a high schooler. How so?

A: That definitely had a big impact on me, not only because every single actor in that movie is brilliant, but because it showed me that TV could showcase actors in a way that I didn’t think was possible before. It was my first experience with HBO-style TV–it has a film quality to it.

Q: It’s an intimate drama where much of the story is told in the actors’ faces. The same could be said of your performance in “Things I Don’t Understand.”

A: It’s an interesting character to take on. When you’re playing a terminally ill patient, there aren’t a lot of physical expressions that you can do, especially when you’re confined to a wheelchair. That was definitely a challenge, but at the same time, all of that expression is still there, it’s just internal. Another thing that’s always attracted me to certain films and actors is their realism, even in the case of “Angels in America,” which has many fantastical situations. There wasn’t a moment of that series that I didn’t fully believe, and there were angels and ghosts in it. I love that I got to play a very real character in [“Things I Don’t Understand”], but at the same time, she was kind of fantastical in a way. She’s a teenager who’s put in a situation that you could never imagine happening to you.

Q: As in “Angels in America,” the ghosts in “Things I Don’t Understand” are manifestations of the character’s inner psyche, such as Violet’s imagined version of Sara.

A: It totally is. It’s very interesting thinking of your character as “someone else’s version of you,” which is very meta. It was fun to be able to play that flip side of her. They put me in that goth makeup and funky clothing. It was like Violet and Sara had a baby and became a ghost. [laughs] In the afterlife, Sara’s character continues in her position as a mentor for Violet. Even though she’s younger and just as scared as Violet is of the world and what comes next, she does guide her through these emotional issues that she’s been having, and she continues to do that in Violet’s mind after she’s gone.

Q: What role does Violet fill in Sara’s life?

A: I think Sara is in desperate need of someone to be with her because she’s pushed everyone away, whether she meant to or not. She talks about her boyfriend Dan, who tried to stay in her life and she kept pushing him away. She also mentions her mother who stops coming to hospice because of the decision that Sara made to not get her other leg amputated and continue with treatment. She is abandoned by everyone that’s close to her in her life, and Violet comes in during those last days, and fills that void when she needs it the most. They share an interesting and sacred bond.

Grace Folsom. Photo by Kristin Hoebermann.

Q: How did your experience on shorts such as “Pose” and “Beautiful Garbage” prepare you for this feature?

A: I’ve learned something from every shoot I’ve been on, which is what I love about acting. It turns out to be a different situation every single time. I had really brilliant directors and writers on both for those shoots. “Pose” was a 30-minute short film by Ivaylo Getov, who’s a really good friend of mine. That was an interesting shoot because most of it was silent. It’s almost an art piece as opposed to a short film. I kind of love that because there is so much to be said for what you communicate through your facial expressions, and I tried to use that in Sara. There are so many times when what you’re saying doesn’t match what you’re thinking or feeling. “Beautiful Garbage” tips to the opposite side of the scale because that was originally filmed as a book trailer. Jill Di Donato wrote this great book, and a lot of the dialogue was in the form of monologues. It was done in a more lyrical style, but the challenges still apply. You have to put in that movement and feeling while getting the words across in a way that feels realistic and honest.

Q: How did you prepare for the audition tape that you submitted to David?

A: That was a funny story. I look for these auditions online every day. As an actor, you’re always interviewing and auditioning. I found this film, read the description for Sara and felt a connection to her. David writes in a very detailed, passionate way about his characters, because he knows them. They’re his friends, and you can really feel that onset because he adopts everyone in the crew and the cast as his friends and family. He wrote that Sara was an old soul who was terminally ill. She was strong but really scared at the same time, and that dichotomy really intrigued me. I also felt that I could understand and empathize with her. For the audition, I had to perform two [excerpts] of the script and a monologue of my choice. So I got my webcam and it was the worst quality video he could’ve received. I sat in my computer chair, turned on my webcam, and was like, “Hey, I’m auditioning for Sara,” and went into monologue. I uploaded it to YouTube and just hoped that he wouldn’t laugh me out of the room. He called me in and I read for them and they were completely silent afterward. I was like, “Ah well, I tried,” and then the next day, he wrote me an e-mail that said, “You got it.” I was completely stunned, but so happy.

Q: Where do you think Sara’s inner strength comes from, and do you see her snarky “mask” as a strength?

A: She was raised by a single mom. Her dad was abusive and they left him while he was at work. Then her mom leaves her at the most important part of her life. So by reading the script, I got the clue that Sara’s really strong. When she pushes people away, that’s also her mask. She uses her mask not only to protect herself from falling apart, but also to take care of everyone else. I think that’s very selfless. It can also end up hurting people, but in the end, she’s trying to make it easier for everyone. When she breaks down late in the film, you can see that she’s terrified. I really admire her selflessness, and I hope that I would be able to protect other people in my life even if something was really hard on me.

First-Look: “Things I Don’t Understand” from David Spaltro on Vimeo.

Q: Had you researched her condition prior to filming?

A: Yeah, I researched the kind of cancer she had and the toll that it took on her body and the meds that she’d have to take for it. Something I didn’t do that people ask me about a lot is go to hospice and speak to people about what they’re feeling. The reason that I avoided doing that was because a situation like that is so personal, and everyone reacts to it in a different way. I didn’t want to mimic and recreate what I saw. I wanted to create a character and put her in the situation as I understood it. The way I react to things is totally different from the way the person next to me on the subway reacts to things. But the research really did help me in knowing exactly what’s going wrong in her body, what’s shutting down and where the pain comes from. Her doctors would be telling her exactly what was going on, and she’d be going on Google and looking up the same things I did. We have that access to information now, and it’s terrifying reading about that stuff. When I was preparing for the role, it was weird to see those commercials that say, “Donate and help children with cancer,” because it felt a whole lot realer to me than it did a few months before. One of the great things about acting is it gives you a glimpse into other people’s lives. I’m not saying in any way that I understand every aspect of [Sara’s struggle]. I don’t think anyone could unless they’ve gone through it, but I have a lot more respect and empathy for it, and that’s a gift.

Q: How collaborative was the set?

A: David was very open. He had a specific direction for the film to go in, but he was really free with the actors, and he didn’t restrict me at all. We also had very similar missions, we communicated in that way where it clicked. Something funny happened the first day of shooting as we were setting up at hospice. David said, “Tuck in your right leg,” and I was like, “No, it has to be my left leg. I don’t know why, but this whole time, I thought it was my left leg that was amputated,” and he was like, “Oh, okay.” [laughs] I danced in college and did gymnastics before that, and I’m a lefty, which means you rely on your left leg.

Q: I hear that you’re signed on to film David’s next film, which he says will complete the New York trilogy he began with “…Around.”

A: Yeah, I’m pumped for it. It’s called, “Wake Up in New York,” and David is refining the script. The estimated start date for production is next summer. He told me it’s his love letter to New York.

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