In retrospect, there was no better introduction to Anna Margaret Hollyman than the one I had, seeing her at the start of nearly every film I saw at SXSW in 2011 as the star of one of the festival’s bumpers. With a warm, inviting smile, she welcomed audiences into the theater as one-half of a couple that meets in line and goes through every significant personal milestone together within their 5’x5’ slice of sidewalk before they’re finally let into their screening. The short coincided with her first leading role in the feature “Small, Beautifully Moving Parts,” and between the two, you could see Hollyman handle every curveball life could throw her way with the dignity, anxiety, elation, anger or sense of humor it deserves.
“We handed her a difficult role — she is the person observing another character’s unraveling,” said Samantha Buck, whose bewitching drama “The Mink Catcher,” about a gossip columnist in 1980s Dallas who gets more than she bargained for when she attempts to land a scoop on the mysterious new first lady of the city, premiered at the Telluride Film Festival this past weekend (and can be watched here now). “She fills every moment and every beat with specificity and made the act of observing active and exciting. I think I didn’t really understand how good she was until we were in the edit room. Every take brought something new and subtle to the character.”
Adds another recent beneficiary, “Pit Stop” writer/director Yen Tan, who cast Hollyman as a foil to a Texas politician (AJ Bowen) who fears being identified as gay after a flamboyant wardrobe choice in the bitingly funny short film “The Outfit,” “She’s someone I can count on to convey wit and snark, but she’s also capable of being incredibly vulnerable…I always look forward to her work, even in films where she only appears in one scene.”
As it happens, Hollyman only has one scene in Leslye Headland’s brutal, hysterical “Sleeping with Other People,” which finally hits theaters this week after a celebrated festival run, but she just about walks off with the film as one of the many women that has soured Jason Sudeikis’ Jake on the idea of a committed relationship, engaging in what starts out innocently enough as a text message followup about a one-night stand that turns into an all-out flame war with unspeakably nasty emojis. Within a minute-and-a-half, Hollyman is asked to run the gamut of emotions to accompany increasingly ridiculous insults her character dishes out via texts. In a film full of killer scenes, it’s a showstopper.
However, it’s just one of many showcases this past year of Hollyman’s ability to make an immediate impression. In addition to “Sleeping with Other People,” she has been a most welcome presence in the short film sections at festivals far and wide, whether it’s been in “The Mink Catcher,” “The Outfit,” which premiered at the Dallas Film Festival, or Allison Cook’s “Woman of the World,” which saw Hollyman make a triumph return to SXSW as a young mother whose parenting skills come in handy when she ventures out to Los Angeles for a party attended by showbiz types. All are wildly different from each other, yet share in common an instant depth and gravitas that Hollyman embodies in her performances. In the midst of writing a short to actually direct herself, we caught up with Hollyman to talk about making the most of her limited on-screen appearances, her Texas ties and how her smoky voice has led to a mean streak of roles in any number of ways.
First and foremost, I always look at who the filmmaker is. The majority of the time, I want to have the privilege and the experience of working with those collaborators. Generally speaking, I have some [other] criteria, which is there has to be a female lead and protagonist. Just because of my own personal politics about women and filmmaking right now, if there is a female director attached, I will always, always, always work with them. In turn, I end up learning a lot on short film sets as well, because it’s a concentrated amount of time.
But the real reason I am attracted to shorts is I genuinely love a short story. I always have. Lorrie Moore is my favorite writer. I love Mary Gaitskill. There’s this amazing writer Laura van den Berg, who wrote “The Isle of Youth.” All of these stories share a similar theme of women going through absurd or especially painful or hilarious experiences. I’ve always loved the efficiency and the cogency of the short story. I want to find that little glimmer of truth, and I want to somehow figure out a way to capture that as a short film.
You really have to be economical with your time with a short in expressing who this character is, where they’re coming from, what they’re going through, what they’re trying to achieve, what they’re trying to battle, that characters usually in short films are a little bit wilder a little bit more daring in terms of the roles you get to play.
When you get to play an up-and-coming, green Dallas socialite journalist in 1980 [in “The Mink Catcher”], and then you also get to be, in this other short, “Social Butterfly” that I did with Lauren Wolkstein, this more and more intriguing American cat burglar, thrown into the south of France, the opportunity to play these extreme characters is very rare, at least for me and for most women I think, in feature form.
Was “Social Butterfly” a breakthrough in terms of what could be accomplished? At least from my vantage point, it seemed like that gained some real traction.
Yeah. My first movie that I really went out on the festival circuit with was “Adelaide,” which was a dark, romantic comedy short about a very odd, repressed girl with Munchausen’s syndrome, so I always understood the power you could harness with a short, but I do think that “Social Butterfly” was a great launching pad for a conversation with a lot of different actors, writers, directors about what you can achieve in a short through really good storytelling and really great directing. It focused on behavior rather than plot, letting the character breathe a little bit and allowing a little bit of ambiguity.
I’ve spoken to many actresses and directors about how “Social Butterfly” opened up a dialogue about the opportunity of the types of women we can play on screen. It also started the idea of, “Well, maybe we could actually let this story percolate a little bit and actually make a feature out of it eventually. There seems to be a lot of stuff hidden within it that we could really develop in an interesting way.” I feel like a short in the south of France with a beautiful 18-year-old French girl … who isn’t going to love that?
“Woman of the World” has a similar character-driven feel. How did that one come about?
Allison Cook [the film’s director] actually went to Columbia with Lauren Wolkstein, who directed “Social Butterfly.” We were standing in line together at South By Southwest and she said, “I have a script. I would really like for you to read it.” It had this darkly comedic undertone that I really am drawn to and it also was a short that I haven’t seen. In a lot of the [films I see], I’m missing the complicated feelings of what it means to be a mother, which is something that I only scratched the surface with my first [feature] “Small, Beautifully Moving Parts,” so I loved Allison’s idea of showing this woman’s public surface and private persona and the inner struggle that she has that doesn’t go away when you check off some marks of being a grown-up in your life. Being a mother and married with a kid, you’re still going to be you and you have to grapple with the constant identity of being a mother, even when you’re not around your child or husband. It’s this integrated part of you that you have such little control over.
Allison is a really cool woman and I read the script and it really fell into the category for me of that Lorrie Moore short story where there’s sadness and hilarity within it, and the two co-exist. [Allison] achieved both of those things and I was just like, “Great, let’s tell this story.”
Your character goes to this party that seems like it wouldn’t be unlike some industry soirees you’ve probably been invited to as a rising young actress. Was this an interesting point to be playing something like that onscreen?
I just got engaged in December, and it’s funny, particularly in a creative field, when you’re starting something, you just push forward. You can’t really think about anything else. You just have to do it and hope that it works out. It’s called your twenties, I guess, and it’s an exciting and exhilarating time. It’s also an exhausting time, and [often] disorienting and terrible. It’s funny when one day you look around you and everyone around you is suddenly married with kids.
I’ve been on the opposite end of that, where I’m usually the person at that Hollywood party hanging out and talking, so it was an interesting perspective for me because I’m always thinking about the people who have done the responsible thing and moved forward in adulthood by virtue of choosing a more sensible job or getting engaged, getting married, having children, and buying a house. I’ve always felt like I’m looking at that through the looking glass. It was fun to be on that side of it. Also probably, I might be getting to the point where I would like to be on the other side of it as well.
While one shouldn’t confuse you for the parts you play, you’ve been on roll lately as bitter ex or likely soon-to-be ex-girlfriends, whether it’s in Yen Tan’s “The Outfit” or Alison Bagnall’s feature “Funny Bunny.” Is it coincidence or something you think directors see in you? Heck, your character in “7 Chinese Brothers” is named “Angry Audrey.”
I did it in “Summer of Blood” too! [laughs] It’s a funny thing. I may have interacted and dated a couple of difficult characters in my twenties, so maybe it’s this cathartic experience that they’re giving me, where I can finally act the way I want to act around difficult men. I was always such a good sport and then finally go, “Hey, wait a minute! You’re a jerk!”
Yeah, it should be said the men are highly culpable, if not in fact fully.
I also feel like there is a lack of deep-voiced actresses right now. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but it harkens back to the old Hollywood – the grande dame days of Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, or even Kathleen Turner – and I feel like it’s way more effective in a scene to have a deep-voiced woman being mean to you than not. I feel like [directors] just hear my voice, which I never actually hear as being deep, and they think, “Oh, she can pack a punch! You can’t mess with her!” If I deliver the line just so, I sound incredibly mean.
Zeke Farrow, a writer/producer friend of mine who worked on “Gayby” recommended me for the part of Kathleen, [that was ultimately] played by my good friend Kristin Slaysman. The [original] lead of “The Mink Catcher” ended up dropping out, so I replaced her and it was fortuitous because I have Texas roots that I can’t seem to escape. I didn’t grow up there, but my mother’s from Texas and have a lot of relatives in Texas, particularly in East Texas. I also grew up very familiar with the Texas drawl, which is something that I can very easily slide into. It’s the closest I’ll probably ever get to being fluent in another language, and I have this deep admiration and fascination for all things Dallas. So do Sam [Buck, the co-writer/director] and Marie [Schlingmann, the co-writer/producer], so it was a meeting of the minds.
I loved what they were trying to accomplish and while the short is wonderful and can stand on its own, it’s also a precursor to a feature version of a movie they’re working on about Dallas in 1980 with a predominately female ensemble cast, which was really exciting for me as well.
“The Outfit” is also a Texas-specific story to a certain degree. Is it fun to keep going back?
Overall, if I look back, the majority of my life’s career was spent in New York, but I’ve always had this really strong tie to Texas filmmaking, and to Austin specifically for a variety of reasons. One, my family lives here. I actually met my fiancé in Los Angeles, and I knew going into the date that he was opening a restaurant in Austin, so it’s like a force field that keeps pulling me back. Even Sam and Marie, who are New York City filmmakers [of “The Mink Catcher”] and they were filming in Dallas, which was something of a coincidence.
I got to work with some crew members [on “The Mink Catcher”] who I’ve worked with before on productions in Texas, and the scope of work that’s being created in terms of the roles and the types of stories Texas filmmakers tell are so varied, I think it’s a little bit more wide open than other places I’ve encountered. I’ve been drawn to that, and feel lucky and grateful to have had that. I like to count it as my touchstone in terms of the work that I get to do.
So how does “Sleeping with Other People” happen? It’s the film’s showstopping scene.
I auditioned for that the good, old-fashioned way in New York for Leslie [Headland]. I went into that super nervous, just because I was such a fan of “Bachelorette,” which I thought was beyond hysterical. I love Leslie’s plays and just her writing in general and she’s obviously a super smart, cool director. We stuck to the script, and we all just had a lot of fun. They would just throw me lines to improv.
I started out really nervous because I went through it a couple of times and then eventually, everything kind of built upon itself. A couple of the women on set would be like, “Oh, say this line!” I left set, because I thought we were done and we were all laughing. But then Leslie called me back, and was like, “We’re not done yet. We’ve got some more ideas.” So I went back in and they threw me some more lines on the spot. I think the panda bear dancing [emoji] was thrown in, and then I think there was a corgi wearing a Nazi hat or something crazy that they threw at me.
It was also like a group therapy session. Aziz Ansari just wrote about this in his book, “Modern Romance,” talking about how there’s still no guidebook for text etiquette, and I think it’s something that we’ve all struggled with at some point in our lives since the iPhone came out. It’s the most infuriating thing for modern society, but it’s also the most amazing group bonding experience because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sitting with a girlfriend who is analyzing the most asinine text from a member of the opposite sex, and we’re sitting there trying to craft the most laid-back, laissez-faire, “I don’t care if you don’t text me back anyway, but I’m smart and witty and you’re going to want to text me back” [reply]. I’ve done that a million times, and for every time I’ve done it, every one of us would say that we were above it. Yet we do it anyway, though we would never admit to actually doing it.
So I love that whole bit in the movie. It’s very unexpected, and I think that movie’s such a great answer to the outdated romantic comedy. It’s what a modern romantic comedy can be now, and it was really fun to be involved in this great New York love story with a modern twist for the 2015 crowd.
“Sleeping With Other People” opens on September 11th. “Woman of the World” will next appear at Raindance in London on Sept. 25th and at the Marfa Film Festival in October. “The Outfit” and “The Mink Catcher” are currently on the festival circuit.