“I think if you decide to love someone, you can see who they really are, even if they have problems.” That line concludes the trailer for Valerie Weiss’ sublime drama, “A Light Beneath Their Feet,” and it is delivered by the film’s marvelous leading lady, Madison Davenport. These words are heard soon after a quote from my four-star review materializes on the screen, an honor that is deeply poignant for me, considering that Madison’s line feels as if it were plucked directly out of my own life. As someone who has previously taken on the role of a caregiver for a loved one afflicted with bipolar disorder, I can honestly say I have never seen that sort of relationship portrayed more movingly and insightfully than it is here by Weiss, screenwriter Moira McMahon and their impeccable cast.
Davenport has been delivering impressive work for years in films such as “Noah,” “The Possession” and “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl,” yet her performance in Weiss’ picture may very well be her finest cinematic showcase to date. She plays Beth, a teenager faced with an incredibly difficult decision. Will she attend her desired college located far from home, or will she opt for a local school in order to continue caring for her mother, Gloria (Taryn Manning), whose struggles with bipolar disorder led to the dissolution of her marriage? In my review, I wrote, “Davenport is adept at conveying tremendous feeling with the slightest flicker of longing or heartache that registers on her face.” It is one of my favorite performances I saw last year, and I’m so excited that it has finally arrived on DVD (not to mention iTunes and VOD).
In the midst of a summer vacation, Davenport took time to chat with Indie Outlook about her goals as an artist, why this film was a passion project for her, and how Robert Rodriguez (creator of her TV show, “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series”) inspired her future endeavors.
Does the degree of creative freedom you have as a performer increase considerably on an independent film like this one?
“A Light Beneath Their Feet” was a passion project for everyone involved. When you take on an independent movie, you are doing it because it is a story that you identify with in some way. It’s funny because in all of the movies that I have made, I’ve been very fortunate in terms of having a lot of input and being able to say, “You know? I don’t really think my character would wear this.” Even the big budget movies have been pretty open to my suggestions.
All of that creative freedom is just more elevated on an independent project. Many of the flannels that Beth wore were actually mine, as well as some of her jeans and boots. I envisioned Beth as someone who didn’t have a lot of control over her life. She wanted to blend into the background, and if you really look at her, she appears just a bit unkempt and a bit tired. I felt she should look a little sloppy, since she is the one who has to make sure her mom’s meds are always laid out and that everything is in order at home.
What initially drew you to this film?
I have family members who have suffered from this disease, but that’s actually not what drew me to the project. What drew me to it was Moira’s fairness in writing the characters. Her script wasn’t trying to vilify one character over the other. It wasn’t trying to make Beth look like a villain for choosing herself over her mom, and it wasn’t trying to make Gloria look like a villain for having no control over herself. Gloria didn’t choose to have this disorder. Beth loves her mom and loves the fun that they have together, but at the same time, she feels a little dwarfed by how much personality Gloria has. It can be suffocating at times to be with somebody who is so outlandish and energetic. It can make you feel small.
The film is so perceptive in how it shows the unhealthy dynamic that can emerge between two people who truly love one another.
You’ve got a 17-year-old girl looking after a full-grown woman. As much as she tries not to, Beth is a bit of an enabler for her mother. What’s so great about the movie is that it leaves you wondering what Beth’s ultimate decision is: does she continue to enable her mother and stay nearby or does she do something for herself?
To me, it seemed that Gloria had to be on her meds for nobody but herself before she could truly get healthier.
Totally. On a much smaller level, it’s like going on a run. You can have somebody behind you going, “Do it! Do it! Do it!” but until you find it in yourself to run that mile, you are gonna hate it the whole time. You are going to hate the person behind you too, or you will become dependent on them. That’s kind of like the relationship between Gloria and Beth. You’ve got Beth cheering Gloria on and you’ve got Gloria saying, “What happens when you leave? How will I be able to continue without you?”
Valerie told me that you’re not a big fan of rehearsals. Does avoiding overpreparation keep your work more intuitive?
Yes, I feel like once you overthink things, it can become too mechanical. I’ve worked with a few directors who finish shooting a scene after two takes, and that’s an actor’s dream. At least it is for me. I know a lot of people who like to rehearse and rehearse, but I like only one rehearsal to get the feel of the scene, and then I am good to go. That way, you don’t waste any of those true moments. The truth all comes out when you are in the scene and you find what feels right without having to think about it. It’s just who I am in the moment.
The roles Beth and Gloria play in each others’ lives continuously shifts throughout the film—sometimes they resemble sisters, and other times Beth emerges as the more maternal figure.
There are some moments where Gloria is able to take on the role of the mother again, but oftentimes, it is Beth being the caretaker and Beth being the strong one. We wanted to show that their relationship was unhealthy in spite of the love that exists between them. When they are looking in the mirror and Beth looks at her mom and sees how much they are alike, she realizes that she might get this disease too. It makes her panic because she’s like, “If I stay here forever, I’m going to be just like my mom.”
Moira based the film in part on her experiences of living in Evanston, Illinois, where the film was shot.
Just being in the place that the film was written about made us feel very much like the characters. We were in the actual places, such as the ice cream shop, and we wore the actual uniforms. Then you have Northwestern University always looming in the background, reminding Beth about the choice she has to make about her future. It was all very conducive to playing the reality of Beth’s world.
Is it important for you to forge a close working relationship with your director?
Definitely, not only because you are together for so long, but because then you will feel more comfortable about voicing your opinion. If you’re not comfortable around a director, then there is no way you’ll be able to say, “I feel like this is what Beth should do.” Valerie and I had a great working relationship, and all of our life experiences helped play into how we approached the film. I couldn’t have played Beth if I had a horrible relationship with my mother. My mom and I are very, very close.
Have you been able to maintain a relatively “normal” coming-of-age while working as an actor?
My life is so normal. My mom has made sure of that. [laughs] I went to a regular high school for the first year, but then it just became so stressful that I had to start a homeschool program. But it was a program where I could go to all of the dances and I could go to lunch on campus if I wanted to. I could even take a class on campus, and I actually graduated with my high school. So everything that Beth was going through, I was basically going through during that time as well. I was also trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and whether acting was the right choice. In the end, I decided that it was.
Were you able to have your own prom experience?
I didn’t really want to go to prom. I went to prom for the pictures—for my mom. I think back on it and I’m like, “Ugh, I should’ve just listened to my gut and not gone,” but hey, I had fun in the moment. Still, when I look at the pictures, I’m like, “Oh god. Why, Lord, why?” [laughs] But I was able to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and that’s something I did for myself. That felt like a normal experience—getting the opportunity to study abroad.
I’ve really appreciated not having a “normal” life. I feel like my mom and I have become closer because of my career and I’m also really close with my dad and brother. A lot of people say that this sort of career hurts their families, but for me, it has done the opposite. My family and I have gotten to go on so many great adventures together. Life is all a matter of perspective. If I told myself that I was going to hate it the whole time, then I would’ve hated it. But you can’t hate everything and have a mom like mine. She is so positive. She’s like, “Let’s go exploring!”
I love how this film defies the stigma of mental illness by portraying it in a real way.
You’re right, it doesn’t make Gloria cartoonish. What hit me the hardest was realizing how Gloria has no control over her illness, and neither does Beth. There’s that scene late in the film where I’m pleading to her, “Just be normal, stop acting crazy!” But Gloria can’t snap out of it. It’s not like she’s just in a bad mood. I remember being little and having somebody in my family who was bipolar. I’d be like, “Why can’t you just be happy today?” Looking back on that, I realized that it was not their choice. What I hope this film gives to people is a sense of empathy for those who are struggling with this disorder. It’s not something that should be feared and stigmatized—it’s something that can happen to anybody.
I was so moved by how you wrap yourself around Gloria to prevent her from harming herself in that scene.
We did so many takes of that scene. It was so exhausting, but we didn’t really rehearse the scene very much, so it was one of those moments where the realness got to come through. I was supposed to only hold her arms, but that didn’t work because she was trying to grab the knives. So I just did what I would’ve done in that moment. I hugged her.
You’ve mentioned in interviews that your “Sisters” co-stars, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, encouraged you to write your own characters. Is that something you intend on doing?
This is absolutely a goal of mine because it is so important. You can whine all day and say, “There are no characters written for me,” but if you go out there and write a character for yourself, then guess what? You’ve now got a character to play. That’s the only way to get stuff done. Don’t wait for somebody else to do it for you. I definitely want to direct, I definitely want to produce, and writing is definitely something that I do. I’ve written a few things. I just have to overcome the fear of people seeing my work. It’s like giving away your baby.
Your role on Robert Rodriguez’s “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series” has placed you in some very extreme situations.
It’s so much fun! What I love about TV is that I get to grow with my character. I’m changing just as she’s changing, and this latest season is insane. It was such a stretch for me and I can’t wait for people to see it. I put some literal blood, sweat and tears into this. [laughs]
Has Robert inspired you to create your own work?
He has. In fact, he actually inspired me to start singing and playing the guitar again. I started in musical theater when I was younger, and I stopped singing because acting took the lead. Working with Robert unleashed that inner musical passion in me again because he’s always playing the guitar onset. I have a couple songs written right now, and they are both so different. One is kind of dark and moody and the other one is an empowerment song—for me, at least. My mom says it’s an empowerment song for her too.
My goal with writing—musically or otherwise—is to inspire people and to speak to them on a level where I am able to connect with what they are going through. That’s another thing that “A Light Beneath Their Feet” does—it takes away that stigma. People who watch it will be able to say, “God, I have gone through that.” Maybe they are on the Beth side, maybe they are on the Gloria side. That’s always been my passion, and that is why I love acting. I hope that I can portray real feelings and real situations that people are going through every single day.
“A Light Beneath Their Feet” is now available on Amazon, iTunes and VOD. Click here to read my interview with director Valerie Weiss. The third season of “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series” premieres on El Rey Tuesday, September 6th.