I love people. I find people really interesting, sometimes in their best moments, but especially in their worst moments.
When you think of Lindsay Burdge, certain descriptors spring to mind: masochistic, troubled, tragic, psycho… Make no mistake—this is high praise. The casually ballsy actress, a busy bee of the indie film world, is totally game when it comes to her craft. In her breakout role in Hannah Fidell’s A Teacher (2013), Burdge’s title character plunged into a dangerously single-minded affair with her high school student. In Karyn Kusama’s cult thriller The Invitation (2015), she played an aggressively unhinged woman at a sinister dinner party that slowly tilts into madness just like her.
In Nathan Silver’s Thirst Street, Burdge turns in another bruising performance. She is Gina, an American flight attendant still reeling from her fiancé’s suicide. On a layover in Paris, she hooks up with an insouciant barkeep, Jérôme (Damien Bonnard), to erase her deep-seated anguish. Lovestruck—and arguably insane—Gina opts to stay in France, abandons her job, moves in mere steps away from her new obsession, and continually plants herself in his life path. When Jérôme’s ex-girlfriend rolls into town, Gina raises the stakes and faces the threat of losing all grip on reality.
Thirst Street world premiered in the U.S. Narrative competition at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. The gonzo love story has yet to land a release date, but also on the horizon for Burdge is her fourth feature with Fidell, The Long Dumb Road, and Caleb Johnson’s The Carnivores.
[Editor's Note: The following interview has been condensed for length and clarity.]
Thirst Street appears to be Nathan Silver’s dream project. He admits to being obsessed with France. He also dreamt about becoming a French poet. That kind of thing must be infectious.
Definitely. It was actually cool and lucky that he somehow thought of me for this movie because—I don’t know that he and I ever discussed it—I had a very similar connection to Paris. I studied abroad there in college for a summer semester and I had considered staying. I even wrote to my family and said I thought maybe I wanted to stay. I was studying theater, but maybe I wanted to become a philosopher—and marry my professor. [Laughs] I remember my grandmother being like, “Just come home. You can always go back another time.” And definitely, Nathan’s enthusiasm is very infectious. It’s hard not to feel that much more excited about something when he’s so excited about it. I feel like everybody on the film sort of picked up on some of that energy.
I do hear from actors time to time about how they can feel the life being sucked out of a production when a director no longer seems to care anymore, for whatever reason.
Yeah, absolutely. Especially when you’re acting and you have to put yourself in those painful and uncomfortable, simulated situations. If there’s nobody there who really wants you to do it or if there’s nobody there who gets excited about doing it, why on earth would you do that? [Laughs]
You once told Interview magazine that you’re kind of an obsessive and intense person, in discussing your role in A Teacher specifically. Did you relate to Gina in a similar way?
Yeah, I guess that would be the thing that felt the most similar about those two characters. I think they’re really different women also, but definitely, I tapped into that quality in myself. I think I maybe calmed down a bit… Hopefully? [Laughs] But I still have access to that understanding of how you can just totally zero in on a thought or an idea, and get completely consumed by it.
What I found most interesting about Gina and Jérôme is that they’re not intentionally out to hurt one another. There’s no malice. I don’t think Gina realizes she’s being irrational.
Is it important that you like a character, even in the smallest of ways, when you play them?
I can’t imagine not liking the character. I mean, there were things about Gina that I didn’t like: She’s not very “cool” and she’s kind of embarrassing. But I had to love her and I did love her, in spite of her mistakes and “Howard Hughes” issues. She’s well-meaning, you know? She really falls for this guy and believes in something that’s not real. On top of that, it was so fun to play with the idea of them not understanding each other. They would actually attempt to communicate, but because of the language barrier, they literally didn’t understand what the other person was saying. It’s a great metaphor for, potentially, all romance. Sometimes, Jérôme wasn’t such a bad guy. He would try to tell her something and she just wouldn’t get it. She would hear what she wanted to hear, and she would hear whatever she needed to hear in order to keep pursuing her goal, which was to be with him. She was easy to love because, to me, she’s not crazy. I mean, obviously, she acts a little crazy, but all of those base emotions are things that, hopefully, we can all understand.
They’re totally themselves. It’s hard to hate on that. I can relate to some things that could be considered irrational on Gina’s part—without going into detail.
[Laughs] I feel like these characters are a funny way for me to figure other people out. Some people will just go, “She’s crazy!” or whatever. But other people are so clearly like, “Yeah, I’ve been there…” I know you better now, too, because you’re like, “Uh huh!”
I actually saw Staying Vertical so I was familiar with Damien Bonnard from that, but I had no idea Louis Garrel had a sister who’s also an actress. What did you find interesting, challenging, and rewarding about working with a French ensemble, and in France?
That was so amazing. That was honestly one of the most appealing things to me about the project from the start: “How am I going to work with these people who speak a different language?” It’s just so interesting from the start. Damien and I, neither of us can really speak the other person’s language. When you first get to set, you try to bond with the other actor—hang out and chitchat, and this and that—but he and I could barely hold a conversation. But we quickly developed a way of communicating that was enough and we could appreciate each other without having to understand every word the other person was saying, you know? I really loved working with Damien and Esther [Garrel]. I think they’re both amazing in the film. And Lola [Bessis], of course. They all brought so much to their characters. The energy that Damien brought to the whole production was really key. He really showed us all around Paris and kind of became this Jérôme type of character for us, taking us to all these private wine bars on the weekends or whatever.
I’m sure you’ve been asked this: Had Gina been a man and the genders reversed, do you think the proceedings might’ve been way creepier? I mean, it’s already called Thirst Street.
[Laughs] Yeah, I think that would be really creepy. I think it’s already creepy. Gina is creepy. If it were a man, I think it would feel predatory, in a way it doesn’t with Gina. But that’s kind of the only difference. I feel like what happens in this scenario is every man’s worst nightmare.
I keep coming back to the same word in thinking about your body of work: game. You just seem totally down to really go there, whereas a lot of actors would run away from it.
Oh, thank you. I am really game. I’m always down. I love people. I find people really interesting, sometimes in their best moments, but especially in their worst moments. It’s endlessly fascinating to me. I always want to hear those kinds of stories more. We think we know ourselves. We think we’re one way and we exist in the world in a respectable way, then suddenly, you catch yourself: “What am I doing? Who is this person?” If Gina weren’t creepy—if it didn’t go to such lengths where people go “Jeez!”—I’m not sure that it would’ve been interesting to me.
After you accept a challenging role, is it then difficult to get to that uninhibited place?
I’m slow to start. I’m a bit shy at first, so it sometimes takes me a second to ease into it. Sometimes, I even have resistance at the beginning because I know it’s going to be painful or uncomfortable. But once I’m in it, it’s my favorite thing. I just kind of go, especially when the characters are unhinged. The lid is off the pot. Whatever demons you let loose is there. There’s the process of coming back to a regular person, which is its own thing. [Laughs] But yeah, it definitely takes me a second to get into it. Some actors that I know are really good about turning things on and off like a switch, and I don’t feel that way. It feels to me like a slower entry into something and then I’m there for however long the thing goes on for. Then I need to lay in bed for two weeks.
How did you rid yourself of Gina after Thirst Street? What did you find worked for you?
It took me a while. Sometimes after a movie, I’m a bit of a different person. I came back to L.A. and tried to take really good care of myself. I tried to eat really well and get tons of sleep. I would just sleep and sleep and sleep. I let myself watch TV and go on lots of hikes. I mean, it’s really basic stuff: It’s whatever people would call self-care. And maybe I don’t socialize for a little while. It’s just a process of going back to being myself. And it’s sad! Once a project ends, it feels sad.
Sad that it’s over?
Yeah! The experience is over. Nearly always by the end of the movie, I don’t want to leave. I had so much fun. You form a family with these people. You know that you’re never going to see all of them again in the same way. And this was a different case because it was also Paris. I love Paris. I could just stay there. All of this sounds so cheesy, but you have to let the character go, too. You’ve been living with them for a while. But Gina’s not somebody you want to live with for too long.
If Gina teaches us anything, you can totally stay. Move in next door to your co-stars.
[Laughs] I guess that’s kind of what I wanted to do. I asked Margot [Gallimard], who was the first AD on Thirst Street, and Claire [Charles-Gervais], one of the producers who I was living with: “Maybe I can just stay!” It’s understandable. Paris is a really special city.
Circling back to what you were saying before about feeling different coming out of each movie, that has to be weird for your family and friends, too, right?
I think they know it by now. I have really amazing friends and a lot of them are actors also. We all kind of get it with each other. If I go do a movie, my mom won’t hear from me for like a month because it’s just not necessarily conducive to my, for a lack of a better word, process to be engaging with my own kin. I guess I’m a bit method, in spite of how people make fun of method. My friends and I try to take care of each other when we’re working or coming down from working.
XX was so much about lifting female filmmakers up. From an actor’s POV, do you see discrepancies in the way they’re afforded work, as compared to their male counterparts?
I couldn’t speak for them. But I hear them talk about it and we certainly talk about it. I hear women talk about it in general: “I went in for this movie and they said, ‘She can’t do that because she’s never done this.” And it’s like, what about all those male directors who make these giant leaps in their careers? And I know some female filmmakers don’t want to talk about it because they just want to be seen as filmmakers, not as female filmmakers. As for my experience—because I have been lucky and I’ve gotten to work with a lot of female filmmakers, which I don’t think is an accident—I feel like each director is completely different. I can’t really make a comparison.
What was it like working with Karyn Kusama on The Invitation?
Karyn is one of the most precise filmmakers that I’ve ever worked with. She was incredibly precise about all aspects of filmmaking. She was brilliant with the emotional stuff. And with Annie Clark, who did XX, I think she was coming at filmmaking from this excellent stylistic point of view, thinking about the visuals and the images, which I sometimes think is a more male directing trait.
Did Annie have filmmaking aspirations before XX? I don’t know much outside St. Vincent.
That was the first thing she directed, as far as I know. I don’t think she was necessarily like, “I hope I can do this one day!” She’s primarily, obviously, a musician. When they asked her, she said, “I didn’t think this would be something I would do, but I’m down,” basically. I think she’s going to start directing more of her own stuff now. She tried it and found it enjoyable. And she’s good at it.
You have a film coming up called The Carnivores directed by Caleb Johnson. Is it done?
We shot a portion of it. We shot the movie for two weeks in Austin with Tallie Medel, who’s also one of Nathan’s actresses. Adam Minnick is the DP, who also shot Actor Martinez. I think we’re going to shoot some more of it maybe in August. I’m not 100% sure when we’re going to finish it yet, but we will soon. Caleb is a very nice guy. It’s a relationship story, for the most part. I also just shot an episode of Joe Swanberg’s show Easy. That was super fun.