Sometimes you don’t want to step out your front door and be 'on.' You just want to step out and be you.
Jaime King is hard to miss, and not just in the movie-star, tabloid sense. The model-turned-actress is stunning and, as we pointed out in Anthem’s print feature on King so many years ago, “There’s more going on here besides a pretty face.” At the time, King was promoting Frank Miller’s The Spirit (2008). “It’s like working with my brother,” she had said. “Frank and me are like family.” The same could be said about her new collaboration with Marianna Palka on the filmmaker’s Bitch.
Bitch is a simple, yet no less curious, concept that sells itself. Undoubtedly a statement—and partly inspired by a case study by Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing—Palka writes, directs, and plays distressed housewife and mother Jill, who attempts suicide in the film’s opening moments. After the failed hanging in the upstairs dining room, she undergoes a Kafkaesque transformation into a ravenous canine, barking and prowling in her basement. Jill’s absentee, philandering husband Bill (Jason Ritter), their four rambunctious kids, and sister Beth (Jaime King) are in dire straits to get her mental faculties back: the obedient wife, the dutiful mother, and the sister who puts family first. True to his gaslighting tendencies, Bill is unable to claim responsibility, blames Jill for her deteriorating condition, and rejects expert advice that she requires round-the-clock psychiatric care. As Jill grows more and more unlike herself, the family unit is thrust closer to the brink of no return.
Anthem caught up with King in West Hollywood to discuss the draws of working with close friends in film, Jennifer Clary’s upcoming How to Cook Your Daughter, and the industry’s many abuses.
Bitch opens in select theaters on November 10.
[Editor’s Note: This is a companion piece to our Q&A with King’s director Marianna Palka.]
I went back to look at your Anthem issue. I think Abbey Drucker photographed that.
Oh yeah! Abbey is one of my oldest, best friends.
Those images came out great.
She’s the best.
Congratulations on Bitch. I first saw it at a festival over the summer.
I’m so glad that you saw it in a theater. That’s the way to see it. What did you think?
I obviously loved it. I’ve watched it several times now.
I was just with this journalist who said he was confused. What are you confused about? [Laughs] He said, “Because it’s a comedy, but—” I’m like, “Well yeah, it’s genre-less.” It’s like seven genres blended into one, which is a nearly impossible feat. That’s what makes it so intriguing.
What did all of this look like to you on paper when you first read it?
When I first got the offer, I didn’t even read it. My team was like, “You don’t want to read it?” and I was like, “No. It’s Marianna [Palka] and Jason [Ritter]. I’m doing it.” Then my muse came in the minute I started to read it. When I heard the first “Action!” it felt so good because it felt like my character Beth was already so deep in there. We all did a lot of dream work for the film. In breaking down the script, a lot of things came forward for me. A big part of it was the relationship to my sisters. I always wanted their magic to rub off on me somehow because I was never as popular. I was the weird, artsy, strange kid in the Midwest. I thought a lot about my mother and what it would be like to raise four children, and be completely self-sacrificing when you have so many gifts with the light being sucked out. Then with Marianna and Jason, I immediately connect because they have been dear friends of mine for over a decade. I wore a lot of Nikki Lane shirts in the film because she’s my girlfriend who’s a singer, and I wanted a piece of me on the film. As Beth starts to break down in the house, I start wearing Marianna’s clothing to be close to her.
What other stuff do you hold onto from the shoot?
When I’m walking down the stairs and I’m singing that song, that was completely improv. I had a dream about singing something to [Jill]. I called Marianna to ask, “Is there a song from your childhood that you really love?” and I didn’t tell her why I wanted to know. “Could you just hum me the melody?” So she sent me a voice note of her humming and I just came up with the lyrics as I was going down the stairs. I wanted to do something in the scene that would trigger her—to connect back to her childhood. Marianna started crying. It was really emotional because it was an old Polish song and the lyrics I improv’d were the actual words to the song in Polish! It was one of those divine, alchemy type things that occur when you’re really connected and really listening.
You share most of your scenes with Jason. What was it like working together?
Jason is such a comedic genius. We’ve played lovers before. We’ve been through so much. Then to play someone who has this vitriol and hatred towards him… Every time I would look at [Jason], all I’d see is love. That’s what made all of these relationships work so well—that’s what family is. You have a history that you can try and create on film as an actor to the best of your ability, but we didn’t have to use a lot of tricks to get those layers because they were already there. So even though I’m looking at Bill, screaming and yelling at him or saying sorry to him, I’m so emotional because there’s that depth of love. We all know what it’s like to be in that family dynamic or relationship where they’re fucking driving you crazy and you hate them, but love them so much, too. Also, that relentless need to save my sister is something we can all relate to.
A lot of the things I thought about had to do with how I’ve been influenced by my sisters and my mother. When Jill asks to go to a painting retreat, I’m sure she and Beth spoke about it every single day. Beth knew what she was going through because Jill had been calling her and telling her she needed time to herself. I’ve known about this forever. That was, to me, the previous circumstances. I know. That’s why there’s this moment like, “Why are you calling me, Bill? Because you never call me. You probably barely remember my name.” Also, I do believe the reason Beth is an artist and runs an art gallery is because of Jill and her sister’s passion. So to see her sister’s light sucked out and to have my own light sucked out when I’m in the house, I’m seeing everything crumble. I’m taking on all of Jill’s duties, trying to get through to Bill. It’s heartbreaking, but also beautiful.
Bitch is pro-family, pro-marriage, and pro-being a parent. Beth comes across as the biggest advocate for all of those things. She hits pause on her own life to save the family. Have there been moments in your own career where you felt like your art had to take a backseat?
I feel like we all do that and I think we do it in such subtle ways sometimes that we’re not even conscious of it. We do it every single day. Now more than ever, we’re living in a world that demands so much of us. We always have to be available. We always have to text back. We always have to send that email. We always have to respond. We talk about wearing masks in acting, right? It’s not even an acting thing—it’s a life thing. The way that you and I are speaking heart-to-heart is beautiful, but if you were to then walk into a party of people you don’t know, it would be a different energy. We have thousands of masks to put on every single day and we get really used to those masks. We know when we’re wearing them, but sometimes we don’t. It’s a lot of weight to carry that, to try and be “on” all the time. We’re now living with social media and all of that stuff. We somehow think that our worth and value is the hours we put in and how many followers we have and how many likes we get—all of that bullshit. It’s not real. It’s not true. That has nothing to do with anything. Now people are hiring you based on that and saying that you’re great based on that, when in reality, we’re great because we’re alive and breathing.
In regards to putting my dreams on hold, there was definitely an eight-year period in my 20s. I was in a relationship where I basically listened to everything that the other person said. I turned down movies that I shouldn’t have. I was very submissive. I related to Jill a lot because this person was older than me and I thought they were so much smarter than me. I consistently did whatever they said, until one day, I woke up and realized that everything I worked for since I was 13 years old was being pushed away. I didn’t recognize who I was anymore because my sole purpose was to please another person. One thing I struggle with a lot is in saying “No” to things that I don’t want to do if I don’t respect the people and know they’re not going to be respectful towards me. Maybe I’ll do it because, let’s say they’re big people in the industry and it’s going to be a really big announcement and a great film to be a part of. But you also know that you’re going to have to put up with a bunch of sexist assholes and get paid 99 percent less than everybody else, even though you’re the female lead. So you take it. We take it, right? In a way, that’s putting my dreams on the backseat because that’s me relinquishing my self-worth. An industry and the world is telling me that we have to take less or I have to take less just to get to the next step. I know that my value and my worth is far greater than that. That’s why a film like Bitch, where we had no trailers and shot in two locations and shared a child’s room all together, was so miraculous. It didn’t have to involve these perks and things. It was just about making art with the people you love.
It sounds like you really turned a corner.
Oh yeah! As a mom, there’s a lot of guilt that I feel just by working. If I want to go out to lunch with a girlfriend, even that feels like a really big deal to me because I haven’t been away from my kids in four years. They’ve been raised on sets so there’s always been a parent with them. That’s how we always wanted to raise them. I raised my child on the set of Hart of Dixie. For the last couple of years, I’ve been working back-to-back-to-back-to-back. My husband’s [Kyle Newman] a filmmaker and he has been choosing to write because when James Knight [King’s first child] was born, he was on set the whole time and they wouldn’t let him be at home. He was only able to be with the kids for four days, and I had to be back at work six weeks after giving birth.
It’s a lot of wondering how I can be the best mother possible and, at the same time, have the opportunities to create art that I want to create. What I want to say is so huge. My need to not only create, but to hold a mirror up to humanity and connect intimately with audiences and other artists, is a longing that literally makes me want to cry. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I know I’m really lucky to have what I have, but it’s a tricky balance. Sometimes it’s hard knowing that I’ll do one thing because I live in Los Angeles and preschool is like $26,000 per child. You do as much as you can for the love of your craft, and like everybody else, we do what we do in order to pay the bills and support your family. Sometimes it feels like an endless hustle. I think it started feeling like that when I first got pregnant because with the workforce in America, maternity leave and paternity leave is so abysmal. In what we do, you can’t ever not be “on.” If you’re sick, you vomit in a bucket and keep going. That’s the way our work is. It’s not a complaint; it’s the truth. Sometimes you don’t want to step out your front door and be “on.” You just want to step out and be you.
This is very reminiscent of what Selma Blair said when we spoke after she had just come into motherhood. She came to mind because I know you once directed her in a short film.
She’s one of my best friends, you know.
I figured. Given our current landscape in politics and in Hollywood—in life— and from your many years of experience spent at the heart of the film industry, how much of what’s coming out right now is surprising to you? Is it safe to assume that it’s the tip of the iceberg?
It’s just the tip. I feel like I have a far more progressive point of view in the sense that what I want to address is not just the sexual abuse, which I had my entire life, even before I got my start in fashion. Specifically, it started in the fashion industry, and thankfully, I didn’t experience that when I started acting. But I’ve definitely experienced sexual harassment and emotional harassment. On my last film, I was screamed at and verbally harassed, and what I call financial abuse. That’s when you’re pressured into taking a deal because you’re a woman and they already gave all the money to the lead males. It’s extremely fucking low. There’s something really demeaning about that, knowing they got foreign financing and got the picture greenlit with your name along with the other names. And yet, you’re getting paid nothing and you’re having to fight for that nothing. Then if you want to bring your family [for the shoot], that’s considered a perk? Fuck you! That’s not a perk. That’s just what we do. When they say that women get paid 70 cents on the dollar, I call bullshit on that, too, because I know for a fact that we get paid far less than that. Minority women get paid way less than that. It’s time to start getting real. Selma is really honest about that as well.
You have a giant sitting at the top of the industry and that giant is just like Lucifer, filled with fear and bigotry and all of those things, and that weight trickles down to every single person. Every person is living in fear. Studio executives, agents, managers, this, that—everyone is so paralyzed with fear and so they do nothing. They can’t speak up or ask for something they want. It’s ridiculous. My other question about that is: Is this going to end up like The Handmaid’s Tale? Am I just gonna start reading scripts that are so shallow and baseless and pointless because everyone’s now so PC that they’re afraid to take this moment and really dig into the truth of things? It’s about addressing what’s going on, which is what these incredible people like Kathleen Kennedy and Laura Dern are doing. If the Academy makes clear and specific rules and institute it immediately, knowing that people do follow the entertainment industry, that will be a reflection and the rest of the country will take that model and start going in that direction. It’s not just about sexual abuse. It’s about all of the abuse. So how are we going to change it? It’s an interesting time and an important time and a long time in the making. People are really listening now and they only started listening because a bonfire was lit and they were terrified they will be the ones to get burned.
Seeing all of that, that makes your experiences on a film like Bitch that much richer.
Oh yeah! This was like heaven on earth! [Laughs] By the way, I think that’s all most artists want. Most artists just want to make films for the sake of making art because they really love the craft—I hope. Whether you’re a grip or craft services or a publicist or whatever, I really do believe, in our heart, that’s what we want to do. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be in this business. It’s ruthless and brutal and it makes you feel like shit a lot of the time. You’re rejected a lot. There’s no way to really do this unless there’s nothing else for you to do. It’s a service and a part of your being that cannot go away, you know? It’s what we really want that can get twisted. It gets twisted out of survival instincts. It gets twisted out of culture. You don’t need a lot of fancy things to make a great film. You just need great people who love each other, a camera, a location, and a script.
Is Jennifer Clary’s How to Cook Your Daughter your next film?
I’m actually doing two more films before that one, which we’re going to be announcing soon. But [How to Cook Your Daughter] is going to be awesome!