Ask Grace McPhillips about how she’s been able to make a living as an actor, and she will give you a multitude of marvelous stories—more than any one interview could adequately contain. She’ll tell you that actors need to help each another as a community and that more indie films should be built around its cast rather than the other way around. She’ll tell you that Chicago is sorely lacking in executive producers and that the city’s numerous postproduction houses are hungry to work on projects more interesting than Toys “R” Us commercials. She’ll recommend Good Pitch as a great method for filmmakers to build essential partnerships, and she might even recount her cringe-inducing experience of shopping around her TV series and being told, “You need your Judd Apatow.”
Whatever obstacles McPhillips has faced, she has managed to forge ahead, serving on the Board of Directors for SAG/AFTRA Midwest and following her passion all the way to the big screen. Her company, Sterling Rock Productions, has a feature that screened at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival. “The Other One” stars McPhillips as Amber, a young teacher reeling from the trauma of surviving a school shooting that resulted in the death of her husband, David (Brian Crawford). Three years after the tragedy, she returns to her childhood home to care for her dementia-stricken mother (Nancy Sellers) and finds the eerie house haunted by the memory—and, perhaps, the lingering presence—of her late brother (Jesse Bob Harper). Written and directed by Josef Steiff (“SoulMaid”), the film invites viewers to be an active participant in the ever-twisting plot, unspooling the mysteries along with the characters.
Indie Outlook spoke with McPhillips over a late October brunch about completing the film on a tight schedule, connecting with her character and embracing a faith-based demographic.
“The Other One” has a companion piece in the form of a short film entitled, “Eclipse.” Did that come before the feature?
They were shot simultaneously. A month before we started shooting the feature, we decided to shoot a short that would be woven into the larger picture. The first ten minutes of the feature, beginning with the daughter coming home, is a short screenplay that Joe Steiff had written and cast me in about five years ago and it never got made. When I read it, I immediately connected with Amber and I also envisioned the house that we would use. The house belongs to my little brother’s godfather, and it’s one of the four original farm houses of the Galena Territory. I could just see the whole thing happening in that house, and it kind of kept me up at night. As my career progressed, and I knew that I was at a place where I needed to make a feature, I approached Joe and said that I wanted to do this really fast as a non-for-profit endeavor. We were sponsored by Fractured Atlas and then Hewlett Packard came on board and gave us a RED Edition workstation that enabled us to edit simultaneously while shooting. The scenes in the basement and attic were shot at the Florsheim estate. When you see me moving the board to get up in the attic, there are carcasses of bugs falling all over me, so brushing my hair was totally natural and in the moment. [laughs]
What was the process like for developing the story?
When we were workshopping the script in February of last year, the other actors and I began developing our characters’ backstories and coming up with our own thoughts and theories. I even had Joe over to my house for dinner and was in character as Amber. I shared stories about my life with David, still not fully knowing how he died, but also knowing that I was injured at the same time, both physically and emotionally. I also felt like whatever happened was a catalyst for the rift in the mother/daughter relationship. Working with what we were giving Joe, he then compiled an outline and gave us a PowerPoint presentation that went through the whole movie. He came up with the school shooting concept, and it was that last puzzle piece that really fit for me. I talked with Joe and was like, “What do you think of this being its own short film—something that we could take to schools and engage students not with documentary [statistics] but in a role-playing conversation about what you would do if you were in the classroom?” We incorporated Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” which deals with death and mental illness and the allure of it, the comfort of it.
If we had gone the traditional funding route and said that we wanted to incorporate this, they probably would’ve said, “It’s too hot of a topic,” or, “Okay, but you need to show all of the blood.” I saw William H. Macy’s film, “Rudderless,” which also dealt with a school shooting, and there were times where you could almost see the Hollywood tropes mixed in. It feels completely insincere, and I felt like I heard the audience groan at the plot twist. We launched an IndieGoGo campaign as soon as we became a non-for-profit and raised $27,000 on the first campaign. We applied for the Chicago Digital Media Production Fund and we didn’t get it, but we knew that we were going to move forward with the film either way.
Your film chooses not to show the shooting itself, which in some ways, makes it even more horrifying.
We believe that there’s such power in restraint. We’ve had 57 shootings and attacks on schools this year. Ten have happened in the last month. On the news, we’re seeing children running out of schools, bloodied and being carried out in stretchers. Hollywood has already put all kinds of dark fantasies in our minds with all the shoot ‘em ups. I look at planes flying in the sky and expect them to explode. That’s never going to happen, but Hollywood has given us those fantasies. Our film is much more about emotional engagement. A lot of audiences have found the film to be very cathartic because of a held anger towards all of the school shootings and the grief over what’s been happening. Journeying with Amber through this grief to forgiveness was cathartic for them. Had we shown more violence, that wouldn’t have happened. It’s important that my character forgives herself as well, which again, is something that we, as a nation, forget about—the need to forgive ourselves and sometimes for unnamed things.
Do you think we suffer from guilt as a country?
Yes, I think it’s in our Puritan culture. We suffer from guilt, from the fact that we can’t talk about sex, which is also why I think some people have such a problem with homosexuals and the whole marriage issue. It’s because we have this guilt complex, and it’s often not based in any reality. It’s based on a method of control.
It seems that it was beneficial to have the actors involved as such an integral part of the film’s development from the very beginning.
In some ways, it’s really a gift. You can move so quickly, but also, it’s forced upon the independent filmmaker too, because we don’t get money for development. We only get money a year-and-a-half or two years down the road when we sell and complete the project, which is really messed up. Sometimes you live by faith in American Express and if you can’t handle that kind of stress, then the artist’s life is certainly not for you. Being an actress has prepared me to be a producer more than anything else because you learn how to handle rejection. You’re constantly being told no. Moving as quickly as we did, we knew that every “no” would bring us closer to a “yes.” We just had to keep asking, and you can’t be afraid to ask for things. Our goal was to film it in ten days. We filmed it in twelve and then did two weekends later in the summer. I would be jumping from the beginning of the script to the end and back to the middle and had I not been so emotionally grounded and such a part of developing my character, I don’t know if I could have done as successful a job as I did. It ended up being a huge help for the lead actors, especially for Jesse, who plays the brother. He’s this fortysomething ghost of an eight-year-old.
I was shocked when he initially appeared in the house. It was like something out of “Twin Peaks.”
He doesn’t have a tremendous amount of dialogue, so when he does, it’s super-important that he’s grounded in his choices. When we were working through scenes during filming, I felt comfortable adding something in or changing something to give Joe variety but also to come to a greater truth. There’s a line where the mother and daughter are arguing and Amber goes, “Are you playing crazy?” That’s not in the script. It just came out of a moment where I looked at Nancy and saw her going in between her character’s dementia and recognition. I did that and Joe ran over and said, “Yes, we’re keeping that.”
What was it about this role that made you want to make a long-term commitment to this project?
If you’re going to make a really long term commitment, and certainly producing and starring in a film is a long term commitment [laughs], I think you need to see something of yourself in the character, and there are two things that I see in myself that are also in Amber. One is the tremendous love that she has for her husband. My husband and I have one of those relationships where we knew within seven days that we were meant to be together. We work together, we live together, we never get sick of each other—it’s like we’re siblings in that weird kind of love way. I really felt like Amber had this relationship with her husband too. In losing him, she’s lost such a tremendous part of herself, and in my dark fantasies, I wondered what it would be like and sometimes I don’t know if I really would want to go on, as dark as that may be.
The other thing would be depression. It’s a huge topic, frankly, in our nation, which I don’t think that we really acknowledge. My father battled depression. He’s one of those larger than life guys who ran for the U.S. Senate, wrestled and played football in college and started the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Princeton with Bill Bradley. His depression caused him to lose 60 pounds and my mother would call me in tears, telling me how he’d be sitting in a chair not doing anything. Luckily, I have the kind of career where I can take a month and go help my family. I really got to see up close and personally what depression is like. Also, my grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s for a little over fifteen years, which was a massive descent and decline. I’ve had experiences with depression too. Maybe I’m just an overly emotional person, which helps as an actress, but I can go from totally elated in the morning to thinking, “What am I doing?” and feeling totally depressed by the end of the night.
You founded the Chicago Acting in Film Meetup in 2007 to help counsel other actors in their careers. What inspired you to create this non-for-profit group?
As a freshman in college, I found myself auditioning along with 20 other girls for one space on the a cappella group. I was like, “This is stupid. Why don’t we make our own a cappella group?” We came back to school in our sophomore year and started a group called Sweet Signatures, which has now been going for the last ten years. Hundreds of girls have gotten to be in an a cappella group and perform and compete and put out albums, as opposed to just ten girls.
That’s the beauty of the independent spirit too. Why does it only have to be for a few people? In Chicago, there’s not a sense of competition between actors—maybe a little here and there, there’s always a drama queen—but mostly, we all feel like we’re the supporting roles. We rarely get cast in the leads. Look at Amy Morton on “Chicago Fire.” Everybody in Chicago and in the theatre world knows her but Hollywood still doesn’t get it. So they put her in a small role which has gradually grown into a bigger one, and she made that happen. But my point is, LA doesn’t see Chicago actors as being capable of having leading roles. So Chicago actors feel like they have to help each other out and that a rising tide will lift all boats. I definitely believe in that concept.
When you become an actor, the first thing agents say to you is, “Don’t talk to other actors about your contract, because you’re working in the non-union world here.” There are no standard contracts. On a union set, you know that everybody is making scale. Amy is making twice scale and she can, and it’s okay. Everybody’s fine with that. You know everybody is making a decent wage, but in the non-union world, that’s not true. Obviously when I came to Chicago straight out of college, I wasn’t in the union and nobody told me very much about it but you aspire to it, you know that you’re going to get there. In the meantime, you’ve got to figure it out. I was doing a spot at a big hospital in DuPage, and the producer asked me if I could pick up another actress on the way there. It was a super-early call time, and I grabbed her at five in the morning. She gets in my car and laments, “Oh my gosh, the things we do for $250.” And I was making $850 that day.
That’s when I realized that we, as actors, need to get our s—t together and talk with each other and guide each other. Honestly, in some ways, it’s us against the world. Everybody can make money off of us and if we aren’t protective of that, we won’t be making any money at all. The producer is going to make a deal with the agent and the agent is going to pay you directly. You have no idea what the negotiated rate was for. They’re going to tell you one rate, and then they’re going to take 20 percent out of it, and then maybe another 20 percent.
What are your future plans for “The Other One”?
Since audiences are finding the feature to be very cathartic and are using it to open up a discussion on forgiveness, we’d like to screen it for interfaith communities and churches and universities and have it be a topic of conversation. We’re calling it The Forgiveness Tour, and it’s going to be our theatrical release in a lot of ways. Our film has been certified by The Dove Foundation, which is a conservative MPAA—not that the MPAA is not conservative [laughs]—for faith-based and family friendly films. Our film is approved for “12 and Over,” and we had a lot of kids around the age of 12 watch it and they were totally engaged. It opens the conversation with their parents about some major topics that are hard to talk about.
What draws you to faith-based films?
I feel like I’m coming to them through family. You work with what you know. My grandfather was an Episcopal priest and my father was a civil rights attorney in Montgomery, Alabama. My grandparents helped start the Peace Corps in India. I have these great role models of civic engagement, and I think that’s probably why I feel drawn to them. I like the faith-based community because they tend to still be the purchasers of DVDs and they don’t illegally download or pirate them. [laughs] I’m an Episcopalian Christian and my husband and I led the music portion of our church services for several years, up until that portion got cut. A lot of churches are dissolving and a lot of people are still searching and I feel like a shift needs to happen. Our film is not overtly saying, “Take Jesus into your heart!” There’s none of that. But the film does have many spiritual themes that can be discussed.
I’ve always loved bringing my faith to secular concepts. I think it’s also easier to talk to people from an evangelical standpoint when you talk about things that are on a level playing field. The Fleet Foxes, for example, are highly spiritual musicians that have such depth in their songwriting. There’s a song called “Someone You’d Admire,” where you can change one word and it becomes a song about Jesus. I don’t expect anybody who listens to Alanis Morissette and is not a Christian to know who Jars of Clay is. I’m not going to be like, “Listen to them, let’s talk about why Jesus is your Lord.” No, let’s talk about “Head Over Feet,” and what that could mean from a faith-based perspective. It’s not scary, it’s a language anyone can understand.
“The Other One” screens Wednesday, Nov 19th, at the Hendricks Center for the Arts, in Beloit, WI, as part of the Beloit International Film Festival. The film’s Blu-ray/DVD edition can be purchased at its official site. For more info on McPhillips, visit her site.