Peyton Kennedy on “American Fable,” “XX” and “Odd Squad”

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Millie Bobby Brown in “Stranger Things.” Angourie Rice in “The Nice Guys.” Ella Ballentine in “The Monster.” Dafne Keen in “Logan.” All excellent examples of performances by young women who anchor their respective films with the sheer strength of their presence. With female voices still criminally underrepresented in modern cinema, these actresses represent the face of an emerging generation that promises to turn the male-dominated industry on its head. I can’t imagine any of these fine talents being content with playing an endless series of love interests or damsels in distress. They are stars worthy of lead roles, and so is 13-year-old Canadian actress Peyton Kennedy.

She delivered one of the best performances I saw last year in Anne Hamilton’s gorgeously lensed “American Fable,” which screened at the 2016 Chicago Critics Film Festival. Kennedy plays Gitty, the youngest member of a struggling farm family, who discovers a man, Jonathan (Richard Schiff), imprisoned in their silo. As she gradually befriends Jonathan, Gitty starts to piece together the moral compromises made by her family, while deflecting the suspicious gaze of her moody brother, Martin (Gavin MacIntosh).

To celebrate the February 17th premiere of “American Fable” in theaters, Kennedy spoke with Indie Outlook about her already prolific career, which includes the horror anthology film, “XX,” PBS’s “Odd Squad” and NBC’s upcoming “Taken.”

What first inspired you to become an actress?

I read the Harry Potter books at the same time that I watched the movies, and I saw how the actors got to take these wonderful words off of the page and turn them into these spectacular movies. I especially loved Hermione and Ginny, who were both strong female characters. They knew what they wanted in their lives, and I looked up to them. Hermione was the character I closely identified with because she was always the smart one. That’s my earliest memory of wanting to become an actress, and I eventually told my mom that I wanted to act.

I had never done school plays or any kind of theatre. My first film was a short called “The Offering,” which I did through the Canadian Film Centre. I was eight years old, and it was a really great experience. I’m still in touch with the people who I worked with on that, including Laura Nordin, who played my mom in the film. I just did a feature film that she produced. It’s really nice to still have connections with people I worked with so early on in my career.

I imagine it must be empowering to have worked with so many great female artists in the industry. 

Yeah, for sure. I’ve been really fortunate to work with lots of great female directors and writers and producers. They’ve made me want to actually write and direct one day. I’d love to make my own drama or fantasy or mystery or thriller, which are right up my alley because I’ve acted in all of those different genres.

What was it like making your first feature, Atom Egoyan’s 2014 mystery yarn, “The Captive,” where you played the daughter of Ryan Reynolds?

I felt that I was—not necessarily amateur, but I was at the beginning of my career. Since I was working with people who have been doing this for so long, I really learned a lot from them. Ryan is such a nice and funny person outside of filming, so it felt easy to connect with him. It was nice that he was able to be so kind to someone who had only been in the acting business for a little over a year. The experience really propelled me into the next part of my career.

The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, which was the first festival I had ever gone to. We weren’t there for very long, but it was great to be somewhere with such rich history and culture. I loved just being able to see the landscape. It was quite warm for May, which was unexpected but really nice in comparison to Canada. [laughs]

In the same year “Captive” was released, you began playing Dr. O on the children’s show, “Odd Squad.”

When I got the audition for it, I was able to read for Dr. O, and she was unlike any character I had played before. I think it’s really important for actors to constantly be doing roles that are different from what they’ve already done so that they are always working on their craft. I also had never done a comedy before, and Dr. O is such a crazy, wacky character.

I especially love her take charge attitude, as signified by her catchphrase, “What’s next?”

Yes! That’s what made me fall in love with her. She may be wacky and crazy, but she knows what she wants and she’s really ahead of everything. I really like playing someone like that. I’m the only doctor and head of the medical department, which is a great message for girls. I also liked what happened in “Odd Squad: The Movie,” after Odd Squad gets shut down. While everyone else goes back to being regular kids, you see Dr. O going on to have an actual career as a doctor in a real hospital. That’s important because it shows you how great of a doctor she actually is, even when she’s not treating “odd” illnesses.

Any particular episodes that are among your favorites?

The “Jinx” episode, because it was the first time my character got to go outside of the Odd Squad building. When she and Oscar get a chance to go outside, it’s really an eye-opening experience for her.

The “OddTube” viral video is also a great showcase for Dr. O, requiring her to spout out all sorts of absurd viruses in a very funny manner.

That was great, and the show’s directors, J.J. Johnson and Timothy McKeon, were very helpful with it. They told me that since this is a YouTube video, it will be different from a standard film, and I won’t have to deliver all my lines in one take. YouTube videos often cut in between takes, so I didn’t have much pressure to get it exactly right the first time.

Has performing in films with frightening subject matter—such as “XX”or “Lavender”— helped you in conquering your own fears?

I’ve never really had many fears. As a little kid, I was never afraid of the dark or anything like that. That’s why I think it’s been easy for me to play such creepy characters. I played a vampire in “The Offering” and I play a super-creepy person in “Lavender.” I’m able to play characters like these because I’m not scared of them, and I won’t go home having nightmares about them. I actually didn’t have any lines in “Lavender.” It was just a lot of actions and facial expressions, and I was drawn to it because, like I said, it’s important for me to do things I haven’t done before.

Your short in “XX,” Jovanka Vuckovic’s “The Box,” is also effective in its moments of wordlessness, since so much of the horror—such as the precise contents of the box—is left unspoken.

I love the final product of “XX” because each of its four horror films shows a different type of horror—you have the classic horror, you have the funny horror, and then our film is the more unnerving type of horror you get in a psychological thriller like “Lavender,” the kind that gets inside your head. You never see what’s inside the box, and the director never even told us what was inside of it. But she did say that what everyone sees inside the box is different, depending on what each character fears. I really played off of that idea, as did the other actors, in order to envision what was inside the box.

Anyone who follows you online knows you are very active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. What role has social media played in your life? 

I think social media is very important because it enables you to brand yourself. You’re able to be seen by people who wouldn’t necessarily see you or be able to contact you otherwise. We wouldn’t have the relationship we have now if I hadn’t had social media. We just would’ve had a brief meeting at the film festival. That’s why social media is important to me. I really value technology, though I don’t think it necessarily plays a huge role in my life. I wouldn’t freak out if we lost technology for a day. But I’m really grateful for growing up in a time period where I’m able to contact people and stay connected with all of my friends in the business.

Was it enjoyable taking a break from technology by immersing yourself in the ’80s era where “American Fable” is set, while shooting in rural Illinois locations like Pearl City?

It was so great to be in a place where people weren’t as addicted to technology. We were nearly two and a half hours away from Chicago and I didn’t have a cell phone back then. I remember people freaking out because they weren’t getting cell phone reception. When I was getting into character, it was really nice not to have that technology around me. It made it easier to get into the ’80s mindset. The community members at each of the locations were so helpful. They all knew each other, and were excited that something big was happening in their town. These people were like a tight-knit family, and they were all willing to volunteer to assist the project.

Your portrayal of Gitty was easily one of my favorite performances I saw last year. How were you able to relate to her?

Thank you, I really appreciate that. I connected with Gitty because she’s a young girl who is very close with her family—not necessarily with her brother, but with her mom and dad. She has a great relationship with her parents, and that helped me because I am really close to my family. I think that when you’re playing a role, even one that is completely different from your experience, you always have to put a little bit of yourself into it. By harnessing a little of myself to put into Gitty, I think that made her more realistic.

How did you go about navigating your character’s complex arc during the shoot? Was any part of the film shot in sequence? 

We didn’t shoot any of the silo scenes until the end of production, and those were mainly shot in sequence. The rest of the film was not. But I think my character arcs often occurred during my interactions with Jonathan, either inside or outside of the silo. I was really grateful to be able to portray that arc every day without it being completely out of sequence. The film is really a coming-of-age story for Gitty. She starts as a very innocent young girl and eventually becomes a strong and courageous young woman. It was really important for me to portray that arc correctly.

Anne Hamilton is an amazing director. Before I flew out to Illinois, we had Skype sessions together where we talked about the character and went through the whole script. I was able to see the entire script through her eyes. She didn’t tell me exactly what I needed to feel in every single moment of the story, she just gave me a general idea of it. From there, I was able to elaborate on what I thought the character would be like, and my ideas would end up being close to what Anne had in mind because of our earlier discussions.

The chess game between Gitty and Martin is so wonderful in how it allows you to finally stand up to his threatening character.

Yeah, the chess scene was one of my favorites too. I really loved that scene because it shows my growth as a character. It’s a testament to Gavin MacIntosh’s acting that he was such a kind and funny person when not in character. When we got onto set, it would be like a switch went off in his body and he was immediately Martin. That’s the sign of a great actor. You despise him so much as a character, and like him a lot in real life. Gavin and I would actually play chess outside of filming. We started doing it just to prepare for the scene and it eventually became like a pastime when we were in between filming.

What was your working relationship like with the film’s exceptional cinematographer, Wyatt Garfield?

Wyatt was very accommodating. He would give me a little bit of wiggle room if I didn’t hit my mark exactly. Richard was very adamant about not having eye contact with any of the crew because it would get him out of character in the silo. Wyatt made himself an invisible presence. The actors were able to get into the scene without being aware of Wyatt, as he filmed all of these great moments.

Are you planning on making more films in America as well as Canada?

For sure. “American Fable” was my first American production. It had been on my bucket list because I really wanted to do something in the states. It was important to me that I saw the difference between Canadian and American filmmaking. I just did another American production, “What the Night Can Do,” last September and October, and I definitely want to do more American projects in addition to Canadian projects down the line.

I’m really excited to see “Taken,” which premieres on February 27th. I’m in the fourth episode, and I had a blast filming it because I got to do tons of stunts. I also recently finished principal photography on a Canadian feature called “Pond Life,” which is written and directed by Gord Rand. It’s based off the hit play of the same name that he also wrote and directed. The character that I play in it is also unlike anything I’ve done before, so I’m excited to see how it all comes together.

“American Fable” and “XX” are both currently in limited theatrical release and are available on Amazon Video, iTunes and On Demand (“American Fable” will also have an expanded release in March). “Lavender” will be released on Friday, March 3rd, and Kennedy’s episode of “Taken” airs on Monday, March 20th.

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