Although we were set to talk about her new film “Stuff,” it was only seconds after picking up the phone that Karen Sillas turned the conversation around on me.
“How do you pronounce your last name?” she asked, with an enthusiasm I wasn’t expecting from someone so often cast for her air of authority. “My last name, nobody can pronounce it.”
This, best as she can surmise, can be attributed to her Grecian heritage, her family softening the “Syllas” surname for American consumption when they came over generations ago. It was both a relief and, in some ways, a validation to hear this, for all the years I’ve been properly calling her an acting god. (For the record, it’s “Sy-las,” rather than “Sill-us” or “See-las.”) But it’s understandable why she might be having a little more trouble these days.
After seducing audiences as a regular in Hal Hartley’s dramedies or her spellbinding turn in Tom Noonan’s “What Happened Was,” Silas walked away from the movie and TV business around 2005, leaving behind a gaping hole where her specific mix of fortitude and vulnerability has been sorely missed. It was no wonder when TV shows came calling, it was often for attorneys or cops, such as the detective she played on the underrated procedural “Under Suspicion,” almost always intimidating at first before exposing all the little costs of having such conviction, her subtlety at playing these emotional purges particularly affecting over time.
When our call was briefly interrupted by a smashed keypad at the hands of her young daughter, it was no longer necessary to ask why she took a hiatus, though she was happy to offer one up anyway.
“I didn’t feel I could be a good mom and be a good actress at the same time,” Sillas said of her tim away. “I went MIA, but not really because I’m still an Actor’s Studio member — east coast, west coast. I still do plays and theater, and my husband is a writer. Our whole home is artistic, so it’s not like I ever left.”
Still, absence makes the heart grow fonder, which is why her appearance in “Stuff,” making its Los Angeles debut as part of Outfest this week, is a cause for celebration. In writer/director Suzanne Gucci’s second feature, Sillas plays Trish, a dentist who has slowly but surely prioritized her career over her family, due in part to her inability to accept the death of her father five years earlier and the decision by her wife Deb (Yvonne Jung) to stay at home to raise their kids. Forced to confront a spouse she no longer seems to have anything in common with and a mother (Phyllis Somerville) who she may share grief with, but little else, Trish either must find a way to forge ahead or remain stuck buried in the proverbial “Stuff” of the title that’s only bound to get worse as Deb’s eye begins to wander towards the mother of one of her daughter’s classmates (Traci Dinwiddie).
Naturally, Sillas makes playing a difficult character look effortless, giving the tough-minded Trish considerable empathy and even showing off her comic chops, perhaps as much a welcome byproduct of how excited the actress seems at the thought of getting back to work as it is of skill. With high spirits that were infectious following a recent successful bow at Frameline in San Francisco, Sillas spoke of getting back into movies, her personal connection to the material and why we won’t likely have to wait as long to see her in something new.
I don’t think I’ve been happier to see anyone onscreen as when you made a short appearance in “Ned Rifle.” Since you’ve worked with Hal Hartley quite a bit, was that a favor or were you ready to get back into movies?
Hal called me. I’ve done six of his films. I did his first senior thesis called “Kid,” which I just saw because I’ve been going through all of my old VHS [tapes] and digitally transferring them, which is crazy. I’m getting all of my “Under Suspicion” [episodes] — my kids have never seen them, and my friends have never seen it — some of them, but not most of them. That’s what’s inspired me. I’m going through everything and realizing there is so much work that I’ve done and I want to be working again. I’m ready. I said, “God, please, can a director that I’ve worked with before, like Hal, just give me a call?” And what do you know? Within three days, Hal called me and said, “Karen, it’s not a big part — it’s six scenes — but would you please be in my next film?”
Then Suzanne e-mailed me — she said she had been a fan of mine from the ‘80s — and said, “Would you read ‘Stuff’?” Literally, within literally three days of me talking to my God, my higher power or whatever you want to call it, it was beautiful. I went, “Okay, well yes, and yes.” It’s been a wonderful ride ever since.
What was it that got you interested in “Stuff”?
I loved the simplicity of the script. It’s a story that crosses over all genders, all sexualities — any kind of marriage or relationship that needs to be addressed and taken care of. That’s what really inspired me and interests me. The relationship with the mother [played by Phyllis Somerville] were so rich and full and I could use sense memory. We all have relationships with our parents and our siblings and family members that always bring in so much information that hopefully can read into the story, so that’s what really got me in reading this. I never met Suzanne before, and now we’re very, very close friends, but I said, “Yes, this is a great story. It needs to be told.”
After taking time to be a parent, was it interesting to play one criticized for being absent?
One of my biggest issues that I shared with Suzanne from the beginning was that my character’s not very likable. She’s just not present. She’s in her own world and still grieving [over her father’s death], five years later. Wouldn’t you just get over it already? [Suzanne and I] kept talking about that. She said, “Some people, it takes a long time.” So my biggest challenge was how do I not be concerned about being likable [because] I’m like wait a minute, that’s not how a mother behaves. That’s not how I behave.
[So I had to tell myself] you don’t have to be likable in every thing you do. You might actually be part of a story that needs to be told of a very real person that is having a hard time letting go and moving through grieving. Through the course of filming, I accepted that this is my role. I’m not the character that necessarily falls in love. I’m the character who is holding on with white knuckles to try to figure out years of family and emotional stuff that hasn’t been resolved. At the end, when I read the script, I went, “Ah, there is a payoff – I do deal with my stuff. Everybody’s dealing with their stuff,” which is why I love the title. It ended up being a joy to work on and I loved working with Suzanne. She’s a wonderful director and I’ve become best friends with Yvonne.
Those scenes with Phyllis Somerville looked like they must’ve been a lot of fun.
A lot of fun and lot of work. She’s a trip to work with. These mom and daughter scenes were what got me interested [in the film in the first place] because they were so rich in history. And you can’t put a word to it, [but when we got on set], all the sudden, we’re mirroring each other. I’m acting like her and she’s acting like me. I’m realizing, “oh my God, I’m like my mother.” It was not planned. We had no rehearsal. That was the beauty, too. There was this trusting and this allowing in the 18 days of shooting on Long Island, which was amazing [for me personally] because I was able to live at my mother’s house. She just passed away in February and I’m still mourning. But I was living there and I would just be driven to the locations because we shot it all on Long Island and it’s very close to my heart.
One of the things I’ve always admired you for over the years is the way you’ll project this cool exterior but your performances are always so well modulated to expose the cracks and let people in. Is there sort of a trick for you in doing that, particularly when on a film you’re probably shooting out of sequence?
Hal [Hartley] always used to say, “Karen, you’ve got a jawbone. You’ve got cheekbones. You have a body. You have broad shoulders. You’re a strong woman. You don’t have to act strong. You just walk in, say your line and turn around.” Suzanne chose me as Trisha to be the breadwinner, the doctor, out of the house, whatever, and I’m just going, wow, that is how I am viewed.
I’ve learned a lot about [my onscreen persona], especially getting older now. There is an understanding of working with what I’m working with – what God has given me on my face, my body, my bone structure, my emotional history. Everything is there. My challenge and my joy in what I do is how do I merge and twist and show it in a way that’s really human and really neat. I think that’s what we all do as actors. As people, you know, you could look and act a certain way, but I want to know the real you. You want to know the real me on screen. There’s no trick. It’s just human desire to connect and show who I really am in my character in whatever I’m embodying as an actor.
Did you ever see “Female Perversions”? It was the only other that I played a gay woman on film and I remember hanging with Tilda [Swinton] before she became really famous and I remember her saying, “I’m not really an actress. I’m a performing artist.” I thought that was very interesting.
Was the fact that this was a gay couple ever discussed? It seems like it wouldn’t have to actually be.
It never had to be discussed. There were some scenes that Suzanne had written and chose not to film or edited out that were a little bit more literal talking about gay marriage and what does that mean, but it wasn’t needed. We all actually said, [we hope] it doesn’t get lost at Outfest because it’s not this a sensational, fantastical or sexual piece in that way. It is whatever you make it to be.
After a break, is being on a shoot like this any different than it was, say, a decade ago?
Not at all. It’s the same guerrilla filmmaking — I love it to death. I love collaboration. I love the process. We’ll see what happens in the next few months and year, but it’s all about the process. Yeah, nothing. The only thing that I feel has changed is social media. I didn’t have that in the ‘80s, ‘90s. You could just post anything. Did you see that new movie that was shot on the iPhone? [Sean Baker’s “Tangerine”] My husband and I were just looking at it yesterday and it’s amazing what you can do… what everybody can do. On one level, there’s more competition, but there’s also more energy, so I feel like it’s harder, but it’s also easier for anybody who really has a story to tell and who really wants to put it out there. It’s interesting getting back in at this time. It’s exciting.