Julia Sarah Stone on “Weirdos,” “Wet Bum”

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While covering the Toronto International Film Festival this year for RogerEbert.com, I had the great privilege of chatting with some of the most revered filmmakers in world cinema: Herzog, Farhadi, Assayas and the Dardenne Brothers, to name a few. Yet the person who I was most excited to interview was Julia Sarah Stone, an 18-year-old Canadian actress who has already proven to be one of the most promising talents of her generation. I first saw her in Lindsay MacKay’s sublime 2014 coming-of-age drama, “Wet Bum,” where she played an awkward teen who works at a nursing home run by her mother, while drifting into a relationship with her swimming instructor. It was one of the most authentic portraits of adolescence I have ever seen, and Stone’s performance was utterly mesmerizing.

She’s every bit as impressive in Bruce McDonald’s “Weirdos,” a beautifully lensed picture that starts off as a romantic road trip and ends up unfolding into something much more interesting. Dylan Authors plays Kit, a boy who hitchhikes across Canada in order to go live with his mother (Molly Parker). Joining him for the journey is his girlfriend, Alice (Stone), who senses that his affection for her may not be the kind she desires. I saw the film at its TIFF premiere, and it will be screening tonight at the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Stone spoke with me about her experiences making “Weirdos” and “Wet Bum,” her approach to acting and why TIFF has played a key role in her career.

First off, I must ask how you became involved in Lindsay’s film.

“Wet Bum” came to me through a self-tape. Lindsay was in Toronto and I live in Vancouver, so I just put myself on tape and she saw it and loved it. I met her on Skype and that was that. I fell in love with the story the first time I read it. I could not put it down. Lindsay is a fantastic writer and director, and she was just so great to work with.

To what extent did you find Sam, your character, relatable?

I think everyone can kind of relate to Sam, in a way. She’s just finding her way and is very unsure about her direction. She’s getting into things that are not [characteristic of] who she is, but gets into them anyway because of the pressure to find herself. At the same time, there are other people in parallel stories who are finding themselves, and they all end up helping each other. I definitely feel there are elements of Sam in everybody. We all have our coming-of-age story.

In my interview with Lindsay, she referred to you as a “one-take wonder.”

Part of my job as an actor is to arrive onset and be one hundred percent prepared. I need to know my lines, of course, but I also need to know the journey that the character is going through on that day and in that scene. It’s all about being ready emotionally and being very open. I like to arrive onset and be an open book and absorb things because that’s how you become present in a scene. A scene is just an honest interaction between people, and that’s the situation that I’m putting myself in when I go to set.

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Lindsay also told me how she never wanted Lukas, the swimming instructor, to be considered a villain, even though he ultimately crosses a line.

All of the characters are so complex, and that’s really a testament to Lindsay’s writing. You can’t label anybody in this movie. There is no villain. We were simply making a movie about people making mistakes. Sam is emotionally needy, and wants to belong so badly. Lukas gives her that, though maybe not in the best way. But in a way, he doesn’t know that what he’s doing is wrong or that he should know better. That’s what makes it such a complex story.

Was it a challenge filming underwater?

We shot in the pool for three full days, and it gets cold going in and out of the pool all day. Those were three of the toughest days I’ve ever had onset, and I think it was tough for everybody, but when you have such an incredible team that is working together, you feel supported. Everybody had my back and Lindsay takes good care of her actors.

The film’s portrayal of life in a nursing home is heartbreakingly honest.

We filmed in a real nursing home and it was such a beautiful thing. People were so happy to see us there and they would come up and ask, “What are you filming?” They were so excited about it.

In “Weirdos,” it was wonderful to see you inhabit the role of a young woman who is less concerned about how others perceive her.

Alice is comfortable in her own skin, but like Sam, she’s also vulnerable and emotionally needy in that same way. She falls in love and she falls hard. Whatever she happens to be feeling, she feels it all the way and that’s kind of freeing, in a sense.

How aware did you feel Alice was about Kit’s orientation?

The intensity of her love and her fear of getting hurt kind of force her to blot it out. She doesn’t want to acknowledge that he might not be able to love her in that way, but the story is about love in all of its different forms. Alice learns that she doesn’t need to have that kind of love with him, and that they can love each other in a different kind of way. It’s a really important lesson.

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I initially didn’t recognize you in this film, partly because of the costumes, and partly because of the black-and-white cinematography.

The black-and-white adds a whole different layer to the film. I got to choose what clothes felt suitable for the character, but they didn’t offer me anything that I didn’t like. It was all clothes from the ’70s, and when you put them on, you get transported into that time. Even though I didn’t live through the ’70s, I felt like I was in it. In fact, the first movie that I did, “The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom,” was set in the ’70s, so it was a little bit of a flashback to that.

How did you get your start in acting?

I started out doing a lot of acting classes, and I’ve never really stopped taking them. It’s a bit like going to the gym, but for acting. In the beginning, I did a lot of student films and I volunteered for a lot of short films. It’s such an amazing way to get experience and get comfortable with being onset. They were a lot of fun.

Acting onstage in high school made me more comfortable in my own skin offstage.

It’s definitely a form of self-expression even though it’s an expression of a different character. When I’m acting through another character, I don’t feel self-conscious at all because I’m not myself. Somebody else has taken control. It’s very emotionally freeing to be able to have that kind of connection with somebody and to be reacting from a place of vulnerability. It takes a lot of vulnerability and emotional openness to be authentic and organic in a scene with someone else.

Molly Parker was so fantastic at doing just that. Every time I saw her onscreen, I was in awe of how brilliant she was. She gave everybody who saw her performance a glimpse into the mind of that character. When she talks to people, she’s so present. She just gives one hundred percent of herself all the time, and that’s something that I think is really admirable, especially in a society where people are often very closed off. It’s refreshing.

What is Bruce like as a director?

He’s such a sweetheart. He’s so easygoing and that kind of energy is great to have onset, especially as a director because they are the ones that everybody goes to and it made the experience special. He’s just a big teddy bear in a cowboy hat.

Is filmmaking a potential goal of your’s somewhere down the road?

I am interested in writing and I’ve started writing a little bit, but I don’t know if I would be able to direct. I don’t think I have the split focus that is required for directing. It seems like directors need to have their focus in a lot of different places at once, and the really great directors that I’ve worked with are able to do that very, very well. I don’t think I would be able to do that.

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What has your impression of the film industry been thus far?

I’ve only really been in the Canadian film industry. I’ve felt so welcomed and people have been so generous to me. They are very supportive of up-and-coming artists and I feel like we really value independent filmmakers who have great stories to tell. TIFF is an amazing place for that. They’ve got the Rising Stars program that has helped so many emerging artists and it was incredible to be a part of it [in 2014]. Four video submissions from young actors are chosen each year from around the country, though I think there were six this year. It’s a very intensive program that involves meeting a lot of people and going to workshops where established artists talk about their process and answer questions. We got to meet a lot of great directors and casting directors.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some phenomenal trailblazers in the Canadian industry. I got to work with Wim Wenders [on “Every Thing Will Be Fine”] and that film was at TIFF last year. “Wet Bum” was the first film I had go to festivals, and the experience was surreal. We put so much love and hard work into that film and to see it pay off like that was a real treat. I get a strange feeling watching myself onscreen, and when I saw “Weirdos,” it took a little while for me to just focus on the story.

Tell me a bit about your TV show premiering this month.

It’s called “Aftermath,” and though it has a lot of action, it’s very character-driven, which is what I love about it. It’s about five family members whose lives get thrown upside down by the end of the world, and they have to navigate their way through that. It’s really cool to see how their relationships with each other change over the course of the show. I’ve never really done something that has so much action. It was an exercise of the imagination.

I also have another film that’s going through festivals right now called “The Space Between,” and that’s going to be at the Whistler Film Festival. The character that I play is very different from any character I’ve played before. She’s finding her way, which is a very common theme, but she’s got this very confident façade, and goes through life not caring about what people think. The film was directed by Amy Jo Johnson, and it was a really fun experience.

You also had a short film at TIFF this year called “Your Mother and I,” co-starring Don McKellar and directed by Anna Maguire [a.k.a. young Danielle in “Ever After,” I must add].

It is an adaptation of a Dave Eggers short story in which my character, Johnna, is listening to her dad tell a story. It all takes place in their kitchen and it just shows them making nachos. He ends up talking most of the time, though Johnna interjects at a few points. A lot of it is just reacting for me. As an actor, it’s a fun challenge to tell a story without actually telling the audience what’s going on inside your head.

So many key moments in “Weirdos” are anchored by your reaction shots.

It’s one of the most fun parts of my job. I get to go onset, put myself in these situations, react to things and then come out of it. We are telling stories, whether it’s through words or just body language and reactions.

Do you have a favorite actor?

I am a huge fan of Meryl Streep. I think most people are.

But there are so many Meryl Streeps.

That’s true! And that’s what I love about her. She completely transforms for every single role. I aspire to be able to tell a story in that thousand-percent kind of way. I recently saw “Florence Foster Jenkins,” and she blew me away as she always does. Playing a real-life person must be such a difficult thing. I would put a lot of pressure on myself if I were to do that. She did it so seamlessly.

She was off-key in all the right ways.

[laughs] Exactly.

“Weirdos” screens Friday, September 16th, and Saturday, September 17th, at the Atlantic Film Festival. “Aftermath” premieres Tuesday, September 27th, on Syfy. “Wet Bum” is available on DVD and Netflix. 

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