Helena Howard (‘Madeline’s Madeline’): The stigma against mental health is ‘just absurd’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Helena Howard is breaking out in a major way with her unconventional new film “Madeline’s Madeline,” in which she plays a member of an experimental improv group. Her feature film debut, Howard’s performance in “Madeline’s Madeline” has earned her nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards and the Gotham Awards.

Howard recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Sam Eckmann about the unique way she was cast in “Madeline’s Madeline,” working with director Josephine Decker and why she was surprised when she saw the final cut of the film. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Helena Howard, this film “Madeline’s Madeline” is such an incredible, fascinating experimental film about a young teenager involved in this physical theater troupe and this your actual film debut. How did you get to become involved in this?

Helena Howard: Well, I’m glad you thought so, ‘cause there are some mixed feelings about the film. Thank you for watching it and thinking that. It means a lot, I think, for everyone who was part of it. I became involved with the film in a very obscure way, I guess you could say. I was a sophomore in high school just doing my thing and I was performing a monologue at a teen arts festival in New Jersey and for some reason, Josephine was in the same room adjudicating these little performances that everyone was doing, not necessarily as a competition in the competitive field but just for feedback. It’s something that my school would partake in every year to showcase what we working on or something that we were very interested in. So I did a piece from “Blackbird” by David Harrower and I didn’t know who Josephine was. I didn’t know that she was a director or writer. I just thought she was some strange lady at the time. We both ended up crying at the end and staying in contact and she was going into her third feature and she wanted me to be part of it.

GD: There was no real audition process, then? She just trusted you with her film?

HH: Yeah, there was no audition (laughs). It was very unconventional. I guess that was the audition, in a sense.

GD: It is a very unconventional film in a way and like the theater troupe that’s depicted in it, I heard that you all created the script in a collaborative rehearsal process. Can you describe what that was like?

HH: The script and the thematic elements included in the film came about in the workshopping. In the beginning, there was a premise to the film. We were just meeting together in odd spaces like different apartments and dance rehearsal rooms, contriving improvisational pieces and meeting with the artistic director of Pig Iron in Philadelphia and just giving Josephine this platform so that she could see what she wanted to paint for herself. There was a broad spectrum and a lot of range that she could derive and take from. The script, when she did start working on it, changed a lot. Even from when we began going into getting close to production status, she would change it just like that. It shows that the mind is constantly working and she is a pure artistic, ingenious being. It was interesting.

GD: For me, there’s a lot in this that anyone who’s studied acting or is an actor will recognize. There’s lots of flashbacks to acting school for me when there’s all the group breathing exercises and the physical improvisations and even down to a director that people put on this pedestal and treat like a god. Was there ever the desire in that rehearsal process to incorporate real-life aspects of your own lives in there or was it something totally different?

HH: I think with everything in art especially, there are aspects of your life that you include and I think is one that definitely was derived specifically a lot from real life, because we’re actors acting like we’re an acting troupe, acting like we’re creating something, when we are actually creating a piece for the world to see. It was very interesting because there’s a lot of art imitating life, which imitates art, that is also imitating life. That is a big metaphor itself, right there. I was a theater student at the time who was transitioning into going into a conservatory, and when I started doing workshops with the other actors and Josephine, I was still in high school, and for me, that was a big outlet. I felt safe there and I felt like I could really explore and be an artist and take risks that I didn’t necessarily feel I could in high school because we’re all the same age and it felt very competitive. That’s the nature of being an actor amongst people your age. People feel like they have to compete when you really don’t. You can lift each other up because you’re not always gonna go out for the same roles, but in high school, you are going out for the same roles. That was a lot going into the headspace of “Madeline’s Madeline,” taking that on. Especially the bond that a lot of the actors who are in the film in the troupe and I built over the course of those years. There was that familial and companionship nature that we had, and I think it helped throughout the process.

GD: Two of those performers who you worked with who are older than you are are Molly Parker, who plays the director, Evangeline, and Miranda July. Molly is really an established actress. Miranda is really known as being a performance artist first and foremost, and there’s this push and pull between these two maternal figures for Madeline. What was it like working with those two people who are so solidified in their careers?

HH: It was an excellent experience and also one that was interesting in the best of ways because we had never met, so we were building our relationship off of this experience diving headfirst into it. The first day that we met, we started filming and rehearsing briefly. I kind of like that as well because I didn’t have any attached feelings to them, nor did they with me, so we could kind of sculpt the volatile nature and the push and pull aspects of, “I love you but I hate you but I really don’t but you’re playing a game with me,” around not really having any attachments for one another. It was really great to watch them because they are so skillful and they have their own processes as artists and seeing how they dove in and sculpted Evangeline and sculpted Regina, it was a bit intimidating. I say this all the time. They both have beautiful eyes, especially Miranda. Her eyes are this blue that pierce your soul and she has this sort of humor that you’re not sure if she’s being serious or sarcastic. It’s very deadpan sometimes, so I’d just be like, “Okay. I don’t know if I offended you but I’m gonna go not talk for a little bit and hold it in and cry myself to sleep now.” (Laughs.) But yeah, it was fuel to ignite a lot of those moments.

GD: A lot of your moments for Madeline’s character, she spends a lot of the film saying “I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy.” It never really spells out what she’s going through mentally. Was it useful for you to do research around that topic or did you leave it up to the mystery? How did you craft her mental state?

HH: Josephine and I spoke about it and we used elements in our lives. We know people who have gone through mental difficulties and also just the stigmatization that our country and people in the world put on mental health. It’s just absurd. At first, Josephine mentioned dissociative disorder to me, so that was very interesting. She said she wanted to leave it up to myself to decide what Madeline was experiencing, but in doing so, and with the camera being so close and intimate and this being such an intimate look into what Madeline is experiencing through her eyes and the people in her life, I wanted to keep it very objective rather than putting a subjective view on it, so that when you are watching, whoever is watching, if you’re dealing with a mental health issue or if you know someone who’s going through something similar, you can fill in the blank yourself, rather than me telling you this is what this person is going through.

That’s why I think it’s so brilliant that it’s never discussed in the film. There’s been lots of speculation as to what Madeline is experiencing. It’s reflected on Regina, that she may be experiencing something, and then you look at Evangeline. Maybe she has something in her life that she’s experiencing, but we all know that these three central characters, these women, all have something not quite right in their lives, whether it’s manipulation and vindictiveness or it’s neurosis with Regina and then Madeline, who’s just this blank. Maybe it’s the fact that she’s growing up and she just doesn’t want to be coddled as much and she just wants to be free, or it is something deeper than that. It may be a chemical imbalance, that a lot of people do face in their lives. I just wanted to leave that open-ended. I did craft stuff in my head, but not to the point where it’s like, “Here, let me shove this down your throat and have it be a caricature and a label rather than a person who’s experiencing emotions.”

GD: In terms of things that are speculated on in your film, there’s a lot between her mental state and the way the cinematography is presented in the film and the vindictiveness between your two mother figures. There’s a lot where it balances the line between real or surreal and I think there’s been speculation on what is really happening and what’s not. Did you ever sit down in the script and delineate for yourself what was real and not?

HH: The script is different than how it’s edited. That’s what is so interesting about production and post-production. You do something completely different than what you see onscreen. Of course, there were fragments where I thought, “No, this is definitely part of not her imagination, but it’s not actually taking place. Maybe it’s a dream or a memory or it’s a recurring thought that one has, like with the iron.” But it’s like, with the end. It’s very open-ended, as a lot of things are. That’s where the surrealist nature comes in and I think that’s one of the things I like about the film, is nowadays, people are so used to watching films that explain everything to them and with this, there is an arc but the arc doesn’t follow the normal guidelines that are expected in 2018. It has you think for yourself while you’re watching. It doesn’t have you go to a different part of your brain where you could just munch on popcorn and be like, “Oh okay.” You have to watch. It’s very analytical and if you miss something, well then, “Darn. Now she’s throwing soda at someone. Where’s the jigsaw to that?” I do remember the first time I saw the actual finished edit, the final cut at Sundance, I walked out and I said, “I don’t know what I just saw.” Honestly, I think it’s one of those things where, if you don’t understand it the first time, you might have to watch it another time to actually understand it if you’re not prepared. Amongst the cinematography, the sound is also very jarring and it just attacks your senses. I’m sorry, that was a rant (laughs).

GD: No, that was great. As we finish up, I just wanna point out for everyone, you said the film has been divisive or people haven’t liked it but I do think it’s something that works on repeat viewings and people have taken note. You’re now an Independent Spirit nominee and a Gotham Award nominee. What is it like going from having this experience together with your ensemble all that time ago and then to have people recognize this really experimental film?

HH: It’s honestly amazing, because when you’re working on something that you love to do, ‘cause this is honestly my life, a few years ago we didn’t know what we were making, to be honest. We were just meeting and creating and crying together and talking and when we were filming it was a great experience. It was one of the best experiences I ever had in my life and it was the first film I had ever done. People actually taking the time to watch it, it doesn’t matter if they like it or not. Just the fact that people have seen it, it really means something because, without art, I think the world would be a dull place. It would be really depressing because Trump is president (laughs). We need a little bit of color. It’s also a great honor that it is getting the recognition that it is because it is so different. I’m just so grateful. It’s really humbling, honestly, and thank you to everyone who’s seen it and has enjoyed it, and if you haven’t, then that’s okay, too. It’s really great. It is.

GD: Thank you so much for sitting here and talking with me. Congrats on all your success with the film and I can’t wait to see what you do next.

HH: Thanks, Sam, and I’m so sorry it took so long for this to happen.

GD: That’s okay, it was worth having a great discussion.

HH: Yes. You’re wonderful (laughs).

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