“I think we’re going to make a quarantine movie here pretty soon,” quipped actor/filmmaker John Fortson at the beginning of our Zoom chat a few days ago. Like all families currently sheltering in place to combat COVID-19, Fortson’s wildly talented clan are making the most of their time at home. During our call, he was joined by his wife, Christie Lynn Smith, daughter Abby Ryder Fortson and (briefly) his young son Joshua Fortson, all of whom star in his hugely acclaimed directorial debut, “Rated.” Smith delivers a wonderful performance as Maggie, a mother who wakes up one day to find a star rating hovering above her head. To make matters worse, she only has two-and-half stars (which translates as “fair to middling,” according to Leonard Maltin), whereas her husband (played by John) turns out to have five. As they scramble to get their daughter Hannah (played by Abby, a natural scene-stealer) to school, Maggie embarks on a journey to discover why her rating is so low, while facing discrimination once she attempts to go about her daily routine.
The 19-minute short film began its successful festival run in early 2016, several months prior to Joe Wright’s similarly themed yet immensely darker “Black Mirror” episode “Nosedive” premiering on Netflix. The Fortsons’ decision to release their film on Vimeo this month is a pointed one, since it provides a fitting programming option for these pivotal times in which empathy is literally saving lives. “Rated” also perfectly complements the humanist themes of Nathaniel Halpern’s new Amazon series, “Tales from the Loop,” in which Abby cements her status as one of the most promising actors of her generation. At age 12, she has already built an impressive list of screen credits, the most popular of which are Marvel’s irresistible “Ant-Man” films, where she plays Paul Rudd’s adorable daughter.
There was a great deal of laughter and even a few tears shed during my conversation with this five-star family of actors, as they discussed what they’ve learned from each other and why their short film continues to resonate, while teasing their plans for the feature version.
What’s it like to make films together as a family, and is the experience at all similar to how you play together at home?
John Fortson (JF): We definitely are a family that likes to joke around. It doesn’t mean that we don’t get stressed out, but we definitely have fun with each other and we try to incorporate the fun with our work. Abby grew up with two professional actors, watching me working on projects while coaching Christie, and the next thing you know, she’s like, “Hey, where’s my audition? You’re coaching me, papa!”
Christie Lynn Smith (CS): It’s funny because both of my kids were in my tummy when I was working on some show. With Abby, I think I was filming “Boston Legal.” I remember coming back to shoot an episode, and I was really showing. They were like, “We’re going to have to cover that,” because my character wasn’t pregnant at the time.
JF: Do you remember that, Abby?
Abby Ryder Fortson (AF): Hmmm…I don’t know. I remember some voices.
CS: Abby always jokes that she had been acting since she was in her mom’s tummy. [laughs]
JF: Sharing our craft with our kids has enabled us to build such a supportive creative environment, and it’s an amazing, beautiful thing to watch them thrive. Christie and I understand each other’s careers, the ups and downs of the business as well as the craft and the creativity that’s needed to make the work truthful and honest. One thing I’ve been teaching Abby is that we must respect our audience, no matter what. With “Rated,” there wasn’t one thing that we cut corners on in terms of the script, the acting, the direction. Everything had to be just right. Whether it’s a play or a film or whatever we’re doing, we always respect the audience enough to give them the truth of any given moment through our performances.
CS: I remember John coming to me one day saying, “What if everybody was rated with stars floating above their head?” It was December 2014, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing, we have to do it.” We got the iPad out and just started improvising all these scenes together. Our relationship had been blossoming for a long time. John and I met in an acting workshop many years ago, and we used to drive a seven-hour round trip to a method acting class in Florida. We’ve been each other’s best friend ever since. “Rated” is our first creative baby we’ve made together, in addition to our two other babies. [laughs] It was such a blessing to have made it together with our family in our home, and we actually shot some scenes at Abby’s school as well. You see families of doctors and lawyers where each generation goes into their parents’ business. Our family is a circus of actors and creative spirits and writers and now directors.
AF: We all support each other.
CS: That’s the most important thing.
What have you learned from each other as actors that you’ve carried with you into your own work? In an AP interview, Abby mentioned that you taught her how to “be in the moment” and “feel what the character is feeling.”
AF: My parents have taught me everything about acting and improvising, about becoming your character, about practicing hard. Practice is the one way to become amazing at anything. When we all work together, we are all learning from each other because we each get a piece of the project. When you’re working with other people, you always have to meet them and get comfortable with them. When you’re with your family, you are already comfortable. You are already home.
CS: That’s so sweet. I hope she feels that way for a very long time. [laughs]
JF: Whenever we work with Abby on a project like “Tales from the Loop” with director Mark Romanek, what’s really important for us to teach her is the importance of being in the moment, and being really honest with your character. We talk to her like an adult who understands her craft, and I think she’s in a great place where she does. What Abby has really taught me is just to let go.
CS: I was going to say the same thing!
JF: Since Abby told us that she really wanted to act, really loved doing it, showed how great she could be and continues to have that interest, it’s important for us to keep her very grounded. Whenever people come up to her and say, “How does it feel to be famous? You’re a star!”, I’ll take Abby to the side later on and say, “They don’t know how much hard work goes into this, so their only way to communicate with you is to use those words. What they are really saying to you is, ‘Wow, I really appreciate all the hard work that you did behind the scenes to help you to be so real and true in the moment with your character that was onscreen. I enjoyed your performance.’” That’s what it really means and what we’ve tried to convey to her. What she’s given us is the ability to go into an audition, do your best and then just be able to walk away and go on with your day.
CS: Another thing we’ve tried to instill in Abby is kindness to everyone when she’s on a job, and professionalism, which is really important not only for child actors, but any actor, any human. Being kind to each another is one thing we touch on in “Rated.” I feel that Abby truly is grateful and kind to everyone on the cast and crew. She has made quite a few vegan pies that she’s brought onset, and Mark was a huge fan of them. He’d be like, “What do you have today?” They’ve become Abby’s calling card now. She’s a good actor and she makes pies.
How have your attitudes regarding the inherently judgmental nature of the internet evolved since you made “Rated”?
JF: Having kids who are growing up in this age, you want to teach them about how who you are as a person inside is more important than the perception of what is given to you online.
CS: “Rated” is about how it doesn’t matter what your race, religion, sexual identity or social status is. All that matters is who you are as a person, which resonates now more than ever, especially in light of the crisis we’re dealing with. No one is going to know what the person next to us in line at the store has gone through, and we need to be more compassionate, more caring and more understanding. My character, Maggie, is an overwhelmed mother. What if somebody one day had just said, “Hey, are you having a bad day?” Would she still have exploded at everybody at the dry cleaners and the restaurant? I know a lot of people can relate to Maggie’s predicament of being overwhelmed. That’s why we decided that this was the right time to release the film.
The world needs to heal and we need to be kind to each other. [tears flow] Sorry, I was not expecting to cry, but it’s so overwhelming to see my kids having to grow up in this and wear a mask at the grocery store and not go to school. When are we going to hug each other again? Abby’s birthday party got cancelled, which is such a minute little thing, but it meant the world to me. Once we are able to gather again in groups, we are going to have to show that kindness. One question our movie raises is what if we all were striving to have five stars, and that’s all we cared about? Would that make us less authentic of a person because we’d do anything to earn those stars?
AF: They’d try to be perfect, and people are just not perfect. They have emotions!
JF: My work has always come from a personal place. I’ve written some plays and one-person shows about our life and having a baby. When I first heard about how the Uber app allows drivers and passengers to rate each another, I thought, ‘What if a husband and wife woke up one day and one was rated lower than the other?’ The stars really became more of an intervention in the background to what’s really going on within this character of Maggie.
CS: First John thought his character should have a lower star rating, and I said, “Honey, let the overwhelmed mother have the low stars.” People will relate to a mom of two going through somewhat of a midlife crisis. There are so many people who will say, “Wait a minute, that’s me on a good day!” [laughs]
JF: We’ve written a feature version based on the short, and having a lead female character who isn’t the kindest, fuzziest woman, and is on a path toward becoming more conscious of how she acts in the world, is harder for Hollywood to swallow than if a man was acting that way.
CS: In the feature, Maggie might come across as a little unlikable, but she learns a lesson and strives to be a better person. I want to be seen in that light and show people that it’s okay to be that way, just like Frances McDormand did.
I could extend that to Abby in “Tales from the Loop,” where her character is allowed to be real and assertive rather than strain to be likable.
AF: When you’re in a crisis or in a situation that’s really overwhelming, you don’t think about trying to be likable, you think about getting your job done.
Like Maggie developing a greater awareness of “her tone,” I’m finding myself being so much more careful about how I behave during my trips to the grocery store. I honestly can’t imagine a better time for this film to be released.
JF: Thank you for saying that! We all have seen the other side of things when this virus first happened and people began raiding the grocery stores. I was just trying to get a little bit of toilet paper and I had to go to the store at five in the morning when it opened. There were thirty other people outside, and I had this feeling inside that I didn’t want to be there, but I had to be there because I have a family. It makes you think of people in other countries fighting over water because it’s a matter of life or death. You try to act casual about it because you’re seeing other people who are the complete opposite of casual. It really was an odd environment to be in.
CS: If everyone in the world really were rated, we’d all be texting and tweeting on the people who were hoarding the groceries. I had a panic attack when this first started. I got a text from a very close doctor friend who basically said, “LA is shutting down, go to the grocery store.” I took the kids to the store and I was like, “There’s no beans, there’s no rice—who bought it all?” What kind of people would do that? Can we give them a zero-star rating?
AF: If we were really rated during this time, people who had five stars would be thinking that they were better than the people who had one star. They’d think they had more of a right to take and hoard that food just because they had a better rating. It becomes a social status.
JF: China has been developing a Social Credit System where 600 million cameras record everything that you do outside, even inside stores. You are given a certain number of points in accordance with who you are, and you lose and win points based on how you act in public. “Rated” has become more of a social platform to talk about what is considered good behavior. What is empathy and compassion, and why are they important? If they are, how do we use them in the world? At festival after festival, people would come up to me with tears in their eyes because they related to the vulnerable performance that Christie gave as Maggie. They could identify with her internal struggle to do the right thing.
CS: We all have one-star days, right? We all do—as a parent, as a wife, as a mom, as a daughter, as a friend…
AF: At school, we actually have this thing called “circles” where we go around and share how we’re feeling on a scale from one to five. When you’re at one, you’re at your worst, and at five, you’re at your best day ever.
JF: What would our society be like if people reached out to those who had one or two stars and asked, “Hey, how are you doing today?”
CS: People need to talk, that’s the problem.
AF: People are so invested in their own problems that they feel like it’s all about them, it’s all about their life.
CS: If they saw someone with one star, the majority of people would move away from them rather than go towards them and try to help. I hope this film will help inspire the latter. “Rated” also illustrates how our technology keeps us inundated with whatever is considered the hottest or newest things to watch or buy. Wouldn’t it be great to go back to the days where you would just come across a neighborhood restaurant on the side of the road and say, “I want to try that place,” rather than go on Yelp to see how many reviews it got? I’m guilty of that. We’re all searching for what is considered the best ramen place at a given location instead of finding and supporting new businesses, new artists, new movies…
JF: Which is what we all do when we go on vacation. We love trying out a restaurant on the side of the road because we’re in a more relaxed, fun mindset.
CS: Why can’t we live authentically in every single realm of our life? Hopefully people will say, “Let’s check out that new short film ‘Rated,’” instead of skipping it because it’s not on Rotten Tomatoes. The reason we didn’t release the film sooner is because it went to 60 film festivals where it won 21 awards. It took a little longer to write the feature version and to get it where we wanted it because we have two kids and we all travel for different projects.
JF: When you have a short that you intend on making into a feature, the first thing people say when they see it is, “What else do you have?” If you don’t say, “I’ve got the script for the feature,” you’ve missed that opportunity right there. You’ve got to be prepared to have that feature script ready to give out. When this crisis happened, we realized that this would be a really great time to share what the film brings to the surface.
Will you all be reprising your roles from the short?
CS: Could you imagine a better family doing it? I hate to say it, but I may be a little bit of Maggie. [laughs]
We’re all a bit of Maggie.
AF: We all are!
CS: There may be a little bit of Maggie in all of us asking for thin-sliced pickles on their sandwich. I’m not saying that really happened, but I’m saying it could’ve happened.
Hannah’s school looks just like the one where “Big Little Lies” was filmed. In both cases, the school’s narrow walkways force parents to confront each other.
CS: Oh yeah, because there are only a couple entrances. The scene at the school gets expanded in the feature, and there are some confrontations, let’s just say. Right before the crisis hit, we had sent the feature out to a couple of producers that we really love, but everything is on hold, so we’ve kind of put everything on the back burner, which is understandable. We just hope that the word gets out about the short, and maybe that wonderful producer who falls in love with “Rated” will say, “You know what? I want to read the feature script and I’d love to get onboard to make this a reality because I think this is the story that we all need right now.” We need uplifting movies that can inspire us to be better people.
None of the characters are reduced to stereotypes, which is part of what makes them so relatable.
JF: It’s super-important for me, as the director, to show that fine grey area of the vulnerability, the frustration, the controlling aspect of Maggie’s current ways and then the letting go and surrendering of those ways to be more aware of herself as a complete human. It’s challenging, but a lot of fun to bring that to light.
How are you, as artists, able to deal with ratings, whether they’re from critics, audiences or studio heads, while remaining true to yourselves?
JF: I wrote and performed my own one-person show that was wildly popular, but at the same time, every single night is completely different. You get one reviewer who is over the moon about it, and another one who didn’t even get it. You find out later that the guy was getting a divorce and didn’t want to see a story about marriage, so ultimately you have to come to a place where you go, “This is my art, I’m sharing it, and I’m being truthful to the idea and the vision that I have for it.” You have to be okay with your work going out into the world where people will look at it and go, “It’s like a Jackson Pollock painting!” or, “My kindergartener could’ve done that. Give me a break!” Some people will stand there for a long time, soaking in what you’ve created, and walk away truly being touched. It’s all subjective and you just have to approach it from a thick-skinned place where you’re happy to share your work. You just have to keep going, and that’s something that Abby has really taught us.
AF: Not all people will get your art. You have to just take your art and be proud of it no matter what other people say. It’s not about what they say, it’s about if you’re proud of yourself for your work that you’ve done.
CS: I think it’s just about doing your best. I work really hard on my projects and give every cell of my soul to them. I play a lot of emotional roles usually—
AF: Cries a lot on TV, laughs a lot in real life!
JF: [laughs] That’s a great way to sell her, Abby.
CS: I actually had that on one of my profiles. [laughs] I feel like I give my heart and soul in everything I create, and then after I do that, I hope it touches who it needs to touch. I just have to know that I did my best, and the rest is up to how it is edited and put together. I’m not in charge of the final cut, so it may not be exactly what I had hoped to see in some projects, but I know that I gave everything that I could give, and that is the most important thing. I am so proud of this film. I know it’s a family affair, but when I watch it, I am connected to it in a different way than when I’ve seen myself in other characters or roles. Maybe it’s because Maggie lives in me.
JF: When you create something that is true and honest in its story and performances, it becomes a timeless piece that you can always find relatable.
CS: We’re the small guys. We’re not a big studio, we are a family of actors and indie filmmakers who are just trying to make something meaningful and hopefully have the world see it.
JF: Big popcorn blockbuster movies are ruling the movie theaters and taking away the opportunity for the smaller, more human stories to exist. Indie filmmakers are struggling to find a way to tell their stories and have them exist out there. Every time it comes around to awards season, the movies that are most treasured are always the smaller-scale human stories.
CS: Like “Parasite”!
AF: Some people have a hard time with films that make them think about who they are as a person. It’s easier for them to see movies that will just give them a laugh or show them a big star.
CS: We’re all guilty of that to a degree. Sometimes we just want to escape. There are some weeks where we’ll have our Friday night movie night, and we’ll decide to watch “Elf” again…
AF: For the 500th time!
JF: Or a Marvel movie! [laughs]
CS: But we all have what we need at the right time, and hopefully “Rated” will be that movie for the people who find it. We had the film subtitled in 12 different languages in order to make it accessible for everyone in the world.
It’s sort of like “Tales from the Loop” in that it’s entertaining but it also makes you think about how we’re all interconnected.
JF: In both cases, technology is just the backdrop for the human stories.
And thank god that we are equipped with the best technology to help us get through this isolating period.
CS: When I went to the grocery store yesterday, I knew that Abby really needed to get out.
AF: I had to!
CS: And I said, “You have to wear a mask, fake glasses—so that nothing would get in her eyes— and you cannot touch anything.” I cannot take my younger child.
JF: He touches everything no matter what.
CS: But Abby understood, and it ended up being our mommy daughter date going to Whole Foods. We got sugar and some flour so that we could do some baking. This crisis is going to make people appreciate the little things. Can I tell you how excited I am that Magpies ice cream is going to open here in two weeks?
AF: They are the best soft serve in the world!