Stephen Cone, Cole Doman, Nina Ganet, Pat Healy and Elizabeth Laidlaw on “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party”

Cole Doman in Stephen Cone’s “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party.” Courtesy of Cone Arts.

Cole Doman in Stephen Cone’s “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party.” Courtesy of Cone Arts.

“Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party,” the seventh feature from director Stephen Cone, is a masterpiece of nuance. It assembles a large cast of characters, observes their behavior as they interact during the period of a single day and evokes the depth of Altman classics such as “Nashville” and “Short Cuts,” while clocking in at half the running time. In terms of its technical achievement and narrative audacity, this is a remarkable leap forward for Cone, though it also shares the insight, empathy and aching authenticity of his past work, which includes 2011’s “The Wise Kids,” 2013’s “Black Box” and 2014’s “This Afternoon.”

Cole Doman stars as Henry, a boy turning 17 while in the process of discovering his sexuality. His mother, Kat (Chicago theatre vet Elizabeth Laidlaw), is finding herself drifting further from the Christian community at her church, as well as her husband, Bob (Pat Healy, who played the pharmacist in Paul Thomas Anderson’s similarly Altmanesque “Magnolia”), who happens to be the pastor. Henry’s sister, Autumn (Nina Ganet), is struggling with an emotional turmoil of her own that seems to have been caused by her ex-boyfriend, Aaron (Tyler Ross). Attending Henry’s pool party are various friends and acquaintances, both secular and devout, including assistant pastor Larry (Francis Guinan), who has an unmistakable penchant for wine; Candice (Kelly O’Sullivan), a pregnant young woman vigilant in her faith; Bonnie (Hannah Dworkin), an older woman whose beliefs have caused her to regard the world with bitterness; and Ricky (Patrick Andrews), an outcast harboring unspoken agony.

Indie Outlook spoke with Cone and the entire Gamble clan—Doman, Ganet, Healy and Laidlaw—about their experiences making the picture as well as their own views on art and faith.

Editor’s Note: The following individual interview transcripts have been edited and strung together, much like the interlocked vignettes in a film by Altman, Anderson or Cone.

Stephen Cone (SC): I had written a script a few years back that wasn’t very successful. It was a comedy called “Porn Ministry,” and it was about two ministers. One of them starts to discover porn on his son’s computer, and he asks his youth minister to go with him and spend a few months spreading the word of Christ to the adult entertainment industry. I was trying to write a quirky dark comedy in the vein of Jonathan Demme, but it wasn’t that funny. It culminated with the men returning, and the minister’s son has a birthday party. I thought it was a great idea to have a movie about porn end with a ten-minute sequence of all these Christians getting together and taking their clothes off. Then I started thinking about new aesthetic tactics that I could bring into this world, which I had previously tackled in films like “The Wise Kids.” If the last ten years served as my film school, what would my first feature be? I looked at that pool sequence and thought, “What if that’s the whole movie?”

Elizabeth Laidlaw (EL): “The Wise Kids” and “Henry Gamble” both tackle the evolving relationship between a more traditional Christian world and the people who step out of it. Stephen grew up with these people and I admire his ability to tell all of their stories with a great deal of compassion and to give everybody a voice that is nuanced. There may be a character who holds beliefs that really clash with your own, but Stephen films it in such a way that you get angry and frustrated with the belief rather than the person. You can’t get angry at someone for simply feeling what they feel.

Nina Ganet (NG): I grew up Jewish and went to Hebrew school. My dad’s side is pretty religious in the Jewish faith and my mom is Methodist. It’s not like I can’t relate to Autumn because I’m not super-religious. If you care about anything in your life so much that it effects your decisions, effects your relationships, effects how you are perceived, then you can relate to her. Everyone cares about something that much, and if it effects your life that much, it’s impossible to judge you for that

EL: There’s a moment in “Wise Kids” that made me a Stephen Cone fan, and that’s when Allison Torem and Tyler Ross are talking, and he says, “I think I’m gay.” There are tears coming out of her eyes and she is absolutely terrified. She’s explaining to him that he’s going to go to hell, that she’s terrified for his soul and for what she feels that he is going to lose, the risk that she feels he is taking. Her beliefs may sound like nonsense to somebody that doesn’t believe in them, but to her, it’s as if she is talking him off the edge of a building and he’s about to jump. It’s that real to her. As far as she’s concerned, he’s committing spiritual suicide. It made me think, “There is a lot this young lady needs to learn, but she’s not a bad person. She just doesn’t see the world in the same way I do.” My problem with her belief system is that it doesn’t allow for people to be different, but it comes from a place of need and love, and I can’t discount it. I can’t say that it comes from a hateful place.

SC: I’ve always liked Altman, but I’ve never aspired to be a director of ensemble pieces. So, in a sense, it surprised me that “In Memoriam,” “The Wise Kids” and “Black Box” were ensemble pieces. This is my first intentional ensemble piece, the others were accidents. I might be selling myself short here, but I don’t think I’m very good at choosing who my movies should be about. “The Wise Kids” was conceived as a movie about two girls. “Black Box” couldn’t decide whether it was about Holly or the kids and you see, maybe for better and for worse, that indecision in the film. A lot of people have said that what you do best arises from the sort of flaws that you’re pushing against, that your strengths come from working around your weaknesses, and maybe one of my weaknesses is a fear of/aversion to small-scale character studies. It’s almost impossible for me to really hone in on one or two characters. I also lack a single strategic bone in my body, which I think, in many ways, has slowed my progress down.

“Henry Gamble” was a very deliberate attempt at taking everything I’ve been trying to do for the last ten years and fire on all cylinders. Just pull everything out, do things that I’ve been scared of before, take stylistic risks that I’ve had aversions to in the past, and just go full throttle. The widescreen aspect ratio, slow motion interludes, direct-to-camera scenes, elaborate dollies—all that stuff I was skeptical of early on. With this film, I decided to do them while trusting that they would fit seamlessly into the picture. There’s kind of a serene, distant quality about “The Wise Kids,” where it feels as if we’re floating around Charleston, watching these people. There was a desire here to be a little more incisive, cutting and just go close, deeper and more intimate, to not have quite so much of a remove. I wanted to examine things a little more microscopically.

One of the many things I love about Jonathan Demme is his direct-to-camera style, as well as his humanity and expressiveness. He’s never been afraid of confronting sincere emotion head-on. I always feel like he’s a curious soul leaning in, investigating, and that comes across in his films. You can actually see Demme’s inquiring mind at work in all his documentaries and narratives—the excitement that he is feeling exploring something new is palpable, and for that reason, he is probably my favorite American filmmaker. Most people think he dropped off severely in quality in the early ’90s, but I’ve maintained that it never dropped off, it’s just grown and changed. There are people who think that “Melvin and Howard” and “Something Wild” are two of the greatest films that have ever been made, and when Demme got to the ’90s, he just went completely downhill. But I even love his failures. I love his “Manchurian Candidate” remake and I love “The Truth About Charlie,” which everyone hates. “Rachel Getting Married” is wonderful, and I thought about that particular movie while making “Henry Gamble.”

Anne Hathaway in Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married.” Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Anne Hathaway in Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married.” Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Cole Doman (CD): I had never seen myself on camera before I shot “Henry Gamble.” It wasn’t until a class that I had the next semester at school that I was able to see myself on camera, and afterward, I was nervous to see the film because I was like, “There are a lot of things that I want to reshoot now.” [laughs] Film is now what Nina and I want to do, and that’s because of Stephen’s support. He feels like a mentor to me in many ways.

NG: My favorite shows that I did in school were in the smaller spaces. We used a found space in this underground classroom with windows that we were opening and climbing out of. It was my favorite show that we did in school because it was so, so intimate.

CD: I got to do a play at the Oracle Theatre my sophomore year of college—and that’s a really small theater. It was my first play in Chicago, and I had an amazing experience. I think that might have something to do with why I like film so much. The people were sitting as close as you are to me, and a lot of what my character did was a direct address to the audience. There was something about being so conversational that made me feel comfortable in my voice and in my body. I actually never thought about that until now.

Pat Healy (PH): I work with a lot of young filmmakers, and some of them may have figured out the technical aspects of things and may have even figured out how to communicate with actors to a lesser degree, but they haven’t learned that the artistic and creative side of the process is only one part of the job. The other part is running that set and making sure that people feel comfortable and feel safe. When they feel comfortable and safe, they will do their best work. I had a teacher who said a wonderful thing during a filmmaking workshop: “Don’t be so set on what you want when there’s something happening right in front of your face.” Actors will do wonderful things for you that they didn’t even know they were capable of if you give them the space and support to do it. All of the great filmmakers I’ve worked with understand that. Even Michael Bay engenders respect and loyalty, he just goes about it in a different way. [laughs] He’s unmistakably an auteur. People like Anderson and Herzog haven’t really made money for anyone, so they must be doing something right. They make great films, and they’re also good people to deal with.

NG: Jason Chiu, the cinematographer, helped me feel more relaxed. He’s so calm no matter what—even if we were shooting something more vulnerable, like the scene between me and Tyler. The neighbors had us use their yard and they would come out with their little kids and watch us scream and swear at one another. We had this audience of little kids, and we were like, “Should you be watching this?” [laughs] It just felt like everyone was on my team. I didn’t feel like I was on a stage, I just felt like I was there doing my thing and Jason was there running around us. Having someone be that close to you while feeling completely at peace was a huge gift. Having Stephen be so free with us and open with what we were doing felt really good. It made me feel like I could do anything.

PH: The production of “Magnolia” was scheduled around the actors’ availability. Everyone who had a scene with Julianne [Moore] got together for a twelve-hour day a week before we shot. We sat around a table and rehearsed all the scenes together. I was there with my hero and late friend, Phil Hoffman, Michael Murphy and Julianne, of course. Everyone was there except Jason Robards, because he was ill at the time. Paul really involved us in the process and that’s when you discover all the layers of each moment. With Paul, there are no bit players. Every character is fully formed and every actor is a participant in the authorship. You are a true collaborator. I worked with someone recently who seemed to view everyone on his set as an impediment to his vision. Bad directors will immediately manipulate you into doing something rather than asking you. I’m a trained actor, I’ve been doing this professionally for twenty years at this point. Tell me what you want, I’ll figure out a way to make it work. I don’t like being tricked, I don’t need to be tricked, and in fact, I feel that you’re insulting me.

I want to have a good process. At the end of the day, if the movie’s good, that’s great, but especially when working on low-budget films, you don’t know if you’re going to get anything past the experience of making it. If it cuts together and gets finished, that’s extra. If it gets into a festival, that’s extra. If people like it, that’s extra. If it gets distribution, that’s extra. If it makes money, that’s extra. What I do expect is a good experience onset, a creative experience and a good personal experience with the people that I’m working with. And if I don’t have that, then it’s really not worth it for me. Directors like Werner Herzog and Paul Anderson and Stephen Cone and Robert Altman are people with great hearts. They are genuinely compassionate human beings and they love actors because they love people. Stephen is an incredibly empathetic, compassionate, loving person and a caring and nurturing person as well as a really talented person. If you’ve seen his other work, then you really want to work with him.

SC: To me, my work with actors is good because I love them, not because I know what it’s like to be in their shoes. In some ways, that’s a little bit patronizing. It’s really more about how you feel about the person in front of you.

EL: Stephen is exceptionally good at giving you the one piece of information that you need to play a scene. He gave me one acting note that ended up informing the rest of my scenes in the film. He said, “I don’t think Kat knows what’s going to come out of her mouth this whole day. I think Kat’s in that place where all these thoughts are in her head, and she just doesn’t know what’s going to come out until it does.” That’s a really strange, tense, interesting place to live in, and it had the effect of making Kat, in a weird way, a quieter and more thoughtful person than I thought she was going to be. When you don’t know what you’re going to say, you tend to be quieter. She’s in very unfamiliar territory. Most of the time, we kind of know what we’re going to say before we say it. She’s surprising herself all day long.

SC: We were filming the scene where the women are talking about sex trafficking, and I gave Elizabeth that piece of direction. What I was trying to avoid there was a certain piety. She says some very smart, democratic things about politics and the economy, and it’s a socially progressive diatribe coming from a conservative preacher’s wife. What I didn’t want it to seem like was that she was patting herself on the back and very pleased with herself. It needed to feel like she’s accidentally saying these things, so she wouldn’t come across as a saint or a martyr.

Cole Doman and cinematographer Jason Chiu during production of “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party.” Courtesy of Cone Arts.

Cole Doman and cinematographer Jason Chiu during production of “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party.” Courtesy of Cone Arts.

CD: The first scene that we shot of the movie was us running out of the house and into the pool. It was such a weird summer. We had to act like it was so beautiful outside—by the time we were doing the night shoots, we were in the pool and it was freezing. Every time we would cut, the PAs would bring us cups of soup. Stephen would be like, “Okay, guys, no shivering this take.” [laughs] I remember the first day the adults walked onto the set. Fran Guinan walked in and Pat and Kelly and Elizabeth and Hannah—they’re Chicago theatre veterans, and being a young actor in this theatre town, it makes you star-struck.

EL: Fran Guinan is one of my favorite people to be in a room with. He had the moment in “Boss” that hooked me in. I had been cast on the show and hadn’t seen the first season because I don’t have Starz. I figured that I had to catch up, so I watched the first episode, and Kelsey Grammar is making this speech about Chicago. I had heard it was a very seedy series, yet his speech was about illuminating Chicago and how it was going to be a grand space and that he’ll weed out corruption. I’m going, “What am I into?” Then Fran, while smiling, leans over to his wife and goes, “What the f—k is this s—t?” And I went, “Okay, I’m in.” [laughs] I’ll never forget that. Of all the characters I’ve seen him play, both onscreen and off, the real Fran is most like the dude in “Henry Gamble.” It really gets the essence of his sweetness and his ability to shake things off.

CD: I’m 22 and I play a 17-year-old in “Henry Gamble.” I was taught to do things on my own at a young age, and I think I matured really early. I feel like I can now look at those years from 15 to 20 really objectively and that’s helped me in my career. I love exploring that age. It’s such a gritty and confusing place to be, and there’s so much to be learned and discovered.

NG: It’s so much more interesting knowing the depths of everything you see going on around you. I think sometimes the adults in coming-of-age films get underwritten so easily. Adults are still going through stuff too, and Elizabeth’s character goes through a coming-of-age in a different sort of way. You rarely root for as many characters as you do in this film.

EL: Kat and Henry are having parallel discoveries in the film. Kat’s drifting away from the relationship that she has with her church and her husband and everything else. The church’s belief system doesn’t allow room for her son and who he is, and it also requires her to believe that certain profound moments in her own life have been somehow wrong or sinful. She doesn’t want Henry or Autumn to base their decisions on the fear of doing something shameful.

PH: Stephen knew me as a person before we worked together, and Bob is much closer to who I am, at least emotionally, than the guy in “Compliance,” for example. What I saw in Bob was someone who was depressed, which I could certainly relate to. It’s something that’s really close to my heart. I wrote for the show, “In Treatment,” during its second season on HBO. It’s about psychotherapy, and during the first season, I felt like the show was speaking directly to me. I wrote for the character that John Mahoney plays. That was significant, since I had started my career at Steppenwolf in Chicago and had certainly known John from my early days. That character was a guy who had made his whole life about his work and now it’s ending. His daughter had separated from him at the same time, so he’s in a deep crisis about who he is. I recognized some aspects about him in my father. There’s some bleed-over into the role of Bob, whose life is slipping away from him. His children and his wife are separating from him, and it’s all because he put everything into his work, and now that’s got some cracks in it.

SC: I told Pat in an e-mail that Pastor Bob was standing on a shore or a dock watching three boats drift away, and those boats were his family.

EL: Pat and I have known each other personally since college. We’re both in our 40s, we’ve both had relationships change and turn sour and evolve. We both have a lot of understanding about how marriages don’t always fall apart in this big, loud, catastrophic kind of way. Sometimes it’s just this slow, gentle, painful pulling apart. It’s this quiet realization that we’re not the same people anymore and it can exist in the face of so much love at the same time. It’s not that I don’t love you anymore, I just can’t be who you need me to be anymore. I’m not that woman anymore and I can’t lie to myself and we can’t lie to each other.

PH: I had a big revelation about ten years ago. I wasn’t moving forward in my career, and I didn’t feel that I was moving forward as a person either. I began psychoanalysis, which I still continue. I used to be the guy at parties that people would come up to and say, “What’s wrong?” I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about, because inside, I thought I felt fine. It turns out I wasn’t, and I was communicating that with my face. I just wasn’t in touch with my feelings. Once I did, I became comfortable with showing that to people in the movies. Suddenly what I was feeling inside and what I was attempting to convey were reaching people. You need to be focused on the conscious thing that’s going on, and the unconscious speaks for itself, especially on a film because the camera magnifies everything. If you’re thinking it and feeling it, it will be there. I recently had a conversation with an actor friend of mine, Lou Taylor Pucci, who’s one of the best actors I’ve worked with. We agreed that when you communicate something wordlessly, and the audience receives it exactly as you had intended it, there’s nothing more rewarding than that.

Great art gives us a feeling that we’re not alone in the world. There are other people who feel exactly the way that I do, and they’ve communicated it through this medium. We’re all connected in some way, and we’re really fortunate as actors and filmmakers to reach really broad audiences all over the world. Stephen has obviously, so far, made movies that are very personal about his experiences with his sexuality and his religion and spirituality. There are people who are grappling with those same issues, and this film will make them feel less alone.

Pat Healy in Stephen Cone’s “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party.” Courtesy of Cone Arts.

Pat Healy in Stephen Cone’s “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party.” Courtesy of Cone Arts.

SC: Repression extends past sexuality. The world explored in this film is one in which heated and provocative emotions are kept underneath the surface consciously and subconsciously. It’s bad enough to put sex and violence on the same level, but to actually have sex be less tolerable than physical harm is one of the great ironies of that world. My team and I discussed how this film was about, in many ways, the public versus the private, and how the film’s [climax] is the only moment where the public and the private become one. That being said, I don’t go into these projects very politically or socially minded at all. I’m not thinking about opening up the dialogue, and I have to say, it’s not even there in the conception. It’s more of a personal thing than a public thing for me. The idea to tackle this stuff maybe has to do with my own background. It’s nostalgia and anxiety and convictions all wound up into one impulse, so I’m very glad that it opens the dialogue.

CD: Stephen says he still receives e-mails all the time from people who have seen “The Wise Kids” and were so effected by it that they felt the need to seek him out and thank him. That must feel amazing.

EL: Kelly and Patrick are probably two of the most diametrically opposed people in the movie, and the look that she gives him near the end of the film reminded me of the look on Sadieh [Rifai’s] face as she stares at her husband in “The Wise Kids.” Both women are having very different experiences. Sadieh is a married woman who realizes that the man she loves dearly is gay and they’ll never have the relationship she wants. She’s making a realization about something she thought she could control and change and can’t. Kelly’s having a very similar moment in a completely different context. “I thought I could order the world in a certain way, but if I do that, I can’t have compassion for this person next to me. The only way for me to have compassion for what this man is going through is for me to let go of something.”

CD: Stephen’s not judgmental, that’s really clear. At the Q&A in Maryland, someone said, “we’re all laughing at the religious people,” and he said, “That’s because we are in this metro area.” There are scenes where characters are comparing being gay to committing murder. That does exist, and Stephen’s not saying that these are bad people who are saying this—he gives them life. But he also shows you how oppression is really toxic and really dangerous. I went to Catholic school for eight years and am from a big Irish Catholic family. I wouldn’t call myself a Catholic, but I wouldn’t say that I’m not religious. Religion may not be a part of my life now, but what it’s given me is my moral compass, and there’s something to be said about that kind of religious community. Believing in something bigger than yourself makes you a more selfless person.

Marilynne Robinson. Courtesy of The New Yorker.

Marilynne Robinson. Courtesy of The New Yorker.

SC: The community that one finds in religion appeals to me. I haven’t been a believer in a long time, but I love the idea of very socially progressive liberal Midwestern congregations. I love the idea of people coming together in mind and heart, who don’t shut their brains down and are politically engaged and spiritually engaged and socially engaged. One of my great heroes over the last few years is Marilynne Robinson, the author. I don’t share her belief system, but she is a powerfully engaged liberal Christian who writes gorgeous fiction and essays that engage with science and politics and America in satisfyingly intellectual ways. She takes these fiercely independent angles on things, and her beliefs overlap with those of progressive atheists as well as conservative Christians. I may not have a traditional belief system, nor do I believe in the supernatural at all, but I do believe in a spirit that is not really all that different from space and time. Whenever someone comes along who has managed to define that for themselves, more specifically than I have, while combining rigorous intellectual fervor and deep spirituality, I find that totally impressive and exciting, and in some ways, maybe I am not as unlike them as I think.

EL: At a screening, somebody asked, “Do you see positives to the religious people in the film?” One of our younger actors said, “I think it’s really cool how respectful of adults and integrated with adults the religious characters are, because they are part of this really close-knit community and grow up with a respect for authority and adults.” The ability to openly admire and look up to adults is very much built into the Christian faith, and obviously if you ascribe to god and religion, you are always looking up to an authority. Secular kids reject the idea that there is anyone above themselves. It’s very much an individualistic mentality and it can lead to friction between the older and younger generations. I’m not saying that either is inherently bad, but there is something to be said for kids who are really—with open faces and open hearts—looking up to their elders.

CD: My mom’s mother is super-Catholic and super-religious. I’m closer with my mom’s side of the family, and when they were all trying to come to the Baltimore screening, my mom wanted to know how Christianity was being perceived in the movie and what was overtly sexual. My grandma was always going to come to Baltimore, but she wasn’t going to see the movie. I haven’t told people because I’m embarrassed by it. I’d like to think that no matter what I do or what kind of art I’m creating, my family would be supportive and be there, but I also understand. She’s 75 and from a different world. But the family came out to the screening, and they loved it. I had a long talk with my grandfather on the phone and he said, “I just want to say again how impressed I was with the movie.”

NG: Last summer, my best friend died in a car accident, and I drove from his funeral to the first day of filming. I had just done all this work for the film, and then it was like, “Boom, just kidding, your life is going to be turned upside down.” I hadn’t moved to my apartment in the city until mid-filming. I would come home from filming and my apartment wasn’t even set up yet. Dealing with this while dealing with Autumn’s own confusion and state of mind, was both a blessing and a curse. Stephen literally saved me. If I didn’t become a part of that community of actors last summer, I wouldn’t have a family in the city. Cole and I are best friends and we hang out every day. The whole experience made me more creative, more open, more accepting.

CD: Stephen has a way of finding great people and putting them together to make something even greater. We were given these relationships at a time in our lives when we needed them. That’s what art does and can do.

Stephen Cone on the set of “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party.” Courtesy of Cone Arts.

Stephen Cone on the set of “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party.” Courtesy of Cone Arts.

SC: The film thus far seems to be a litmus test of perceived positivity/negativity, optimism/cynicism. I’ve had people who’ve watched the film, like you, who feel very hopeful at the end. I’m on your side but I’ve had some friends who watch it and find it completely and utterly sad and pessimistic. It’s hard for them to get past the inherently cruel hypocrisy of that world. They know that this hypocrisy continues and is rampant and widespread and is hurting teenagers and causing them to kill themselves. We’re seeing the last gasp of this type [of ideology], and that doesn’t mean there won’t be torch-wielding KKK members in the future, but it does mean that they will become this weird little obscure sect of evil, almost like a rat in the corner.

CD: Being gay and coming from a Catholic background, I wasn’t holding onto guilt so much as I was unaware about parts of myself. That’s where I saw Henry. He wasn’t feeling guilty about the way he was or the relationships he had, he was just trying to be something that he wasn’t for a while and then realized that he didn’t want to do that anymore. I love the line where Henry’s kissing a girl and she asks, “Will you be my boyfriend?” He says, “Can I get back to you?” and it’s not because he doesn’t want to be her boyfriend, it’s because he just doesn’t know yet. And if he knew, he would tell her. He’s not afraid of that. That’s why Henry is really special. His two secular friends, Christina and Heather, are talking about the two boys who had sex on the band trip, and he’s like, “Oh weird,” and Heather goes, “You of all people.” It’s like an outing to him. I’ve been there, especially in middle school. That’s when I figured things out, and everyone pretty much knew what was going on with me, but it happens to people at different times. All of a sudden, he realizes it, and it’s coming from those girls, who are so candid about it. It wasn’t the Christian kids, because they wouldn’t want to even talk about it. These are the girls who can catch him up to speed.

NG: Autumn had sex with Aaron and is left feeling so confused. When you’re 18, you’re just getting to know yourself, and in college, you really find out who you are. I’m 100 percent different from the person that I was when I was 18. I remember that time where you’re trying new things and feeling guilty afterward and wondering whether or not they’re normal. That internal battle can be so sad and frustrating. She’s like, “I don’t know who I am.” You get out of your little town and all of a sudden, there are a lot more options and opinions. I think it’s so relatable. Every single person who has been 18 gets that. Autumn ultimately needs to let go of that guilt. You have to, it’s not worth it. Everyone’s had their battles, you can’t live with stuff that will tear you to pieces.

EL: Kat is emerging from a world of black and white and everything is grey. Nothing is certain, whereas the world she comes from is about certainty. She’s becoming very agnostic in that sense. That’s just something that happens to you as you get older. Either you harden as you age, or you become open to the possibility that you don’t know anything for sure. I could state flat-out that this is how it is, except that there’s this exception over here. If we’re going to have a conversation about Christianity and religion and secularism, it’s not about saying your beliefs are wrong, it’s about saying, “How can you take your belief system and be brave enough to open up your arms to everybody?” […] Sometimes people need to feel safe in order to have dangerous conversations. You need to have a dangerous conversation in a safe room, and my artistic goal has always been to provide that.

PH: Everything falls apart so it can be rebuilt again. It’s like “Magnolia” in that way. There’s a freedom for these characters—especially for Henry and Kat—to start living new lives, which is always a scary proposition. Bob is on the tail end of a decline, whether he’s conscious of it or admitted it to himself or not. He needs somebody to push him because he’s not going to do it himself. He’ll just pretend that everything is fine. I wouldn’t have done the movie or played the character if I didn’t believe that there was hope for him and that he had the ability to change. Change is terrifying for people, but it’s like jumping into the water. It’s cold at first, but you’re going to warm up in five seconds. You just have to take the leap.

Cole Doman in Stephen Cone’s “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party.” Courtesy of Cone Arts.

Cole Doman in Stephen Cone’s “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party.” Courtesy of Cone Arts.

“Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” screens at 4pm Friday, June 19th, at the Frameline film festival in San Francisco and at 9:45pm Thursday, June 25th, at BAMcinemaFest in New York City. For more info, follow the film on Facebook.

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