It would be a naive mistake to associate nepotism with the talented and humble Dree Hemingway. Proving her own, she took the lead in the small film Starlet, which won SXSW’s Special Jury Prize this year. The breakout performer went on to gain Variety‘s recognition as one of 2012’s ten actors to watch – this past accolade was also bestowed on Jennifer Lawrence and Rooney Mara, before their Academy Award nominations.
Hemingway plays the role of Jane, a 21 year-old adult film star wandering through her disaffected life in sunny San Fernando Valley. She and her chihuahua, Starlet, lazily stumble upon a yard sale hosted by the elderly and surly Sadie (Besedka Johnson – a remarkable non-actor). Jane’s morality comes into question when she later discovers $10,000 dollars stowed away in the bottleneck vase she purchased. Guilt and confusion bring Jane to foster an unlikely relationship with the 85 year-old recluse. Starlet is the consequential character study of these two arguably lost people.
IF sat down with Hemingway to discuss her entrance into film and her experience on this project.
Director: Sean Baker
Cast: Dree Hemingway, Besedka Johnson, Stella Maeve, James Ransone
Inflatable Ferret: How did Sean cast you for the role of Jane?
Dree Hemingway: My manager sent me the script and said, “You have to read this, it’s so right for you. They’re interested in you and want to meet you.” I was unable to go to LA because I live in New York. I had a Skype meeting with Sean while I was in the middle of packing before getting on a plane to Paris for a photo shoot. We were talking about the character, and Sean asked me what I thought about her. I broke down everything because I was so passionate about this script. We Skyped for two hours while he watched me pack. I showed him around my apartment. We became friends in a way. It all fell into place. Just by talking to me, he said that I got the role.
IF: What was taking on the lead of his film like?
DH: It’s something that just felt right, to be honest. It was such a small crew. Working with Sean Baker was amazing because he really was interested in my opinion. We would discuss everything that went on throughout the film. It felt like we were making a movie together in a way, even though it was his baby. He was very collaborative. There would be things that I wouldn’t understand, and I never felt intimidated to just come up and ask him. It’s obviously very scary as a new actress to lead a film and have that weight on your shoulders, but it didn’t feel like weight at the time. You’re just being a character. I was living as Jane. In everyday life you don’t go around thinking, “Oh my god, I’m the lead of my own life.”
IF: Before acting, you spent a significant time studying ballet?
DH: It’s amazing. Ballet taught me discipline and how to know myself. It’s long, long hours, but the nice thing about acting is the freedom. It’s not about perfection. It’s about imperfection I think.
IF: What about direction in the arts is most important to you?
DH: For anybody, whether it be a ballet teacher or a director or anybody in my life, I like opinions. I also want to be able to have a collaboration. That being said, I also need somebody to speak up if they don’t think something is right.
IF: For Starlet, did you follow a strict script?
DH: The script was seventy pages long, roughly. A lot of it was improvised.
IF: How did you like the improv aspect?
DH: It was the most thrilling experience ever. We were so thrown in to these real life experiences. We had the basis of what the scene was, but it’s not a “thousand takes” situation. In some scenes you have to go in there and know what’s going on because it would be the only chance you have to get it right. It’s an adrenaline rush.
IF: Did you rehearse the scenes and practice the improv?
DH: We had a couple days of rehearsal for some of the situations and to meet the actors we were working with. For some of the bigger scenes there were some rehearsals. There’s a couple bingo scenes in there, which we shot in a live bingo hall.
IF: And your co-star, Besedka Johnson. What was it like working with her?
DH: She’s really 85 years old. She never acted a day in her life. A lot of that was improvised. We had real people come to play bingo. They were like “What is going on?”
IF: Were the bingo scenes staged?
DH: Oh no! All senior citizens. Someone would get bingo and Sean would whisper, “Action!” Then we would wait for the next bingo to come around.
IF: Did you actually have to wait until you got bingo to call it out?
DH: No. Trust me, I wouldn’t have gotten bingo. These people are professionals. This is a very serious game. I’m so into it, but I’m so bad at it. I thought bingo was one sheet of paper, but no, there are thousands of sheets. They have their markers. They’re very serious about their markers. They have their snacks. This is a very serious game.
IF: You live in Manhattan now, do you feel like you need to be living in LA for this business?
DH: I don’t. I’m actually really against living in LA right now. I think there’s so much competition. I lived in LA for a bit, and I felt like I was getting lost in the mix. I love walking and the inspiration I get from the city [Manhattan]. I don’t think there’s one way of doing it. It’s a cliché that you have to live in Los Angeles to be an actress. The nice thing about acting is it’s not just set there. You need confidence that you can do something anywhere you are.
I had a chance to see Starlet after the interview. It is a perfect example of independent filmmaking that does so much with so little – a testament to the characters and the actors portraying them on the screen. As the year winds down, it currently stands as one of my favorites from 2012.
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