Upstream Color made more sense to me than any movie where a woman is three times a bridesmaid, but never the bride.
The life of an actor can be feast or famine. If you don’t take well to the repellent nature of the business, you get squeezed out. But Amy Seimetz, a tried and true veteran of American independent cinema, is a foregone survivor. She has appeared in over 20 films in the past 3 years alone. To her credit, Seimetz is also radioactively individual and, as a result, has continued to skirt the edges with aggressively eccentric roles, while giving equal weight to personal projects as a viable writer and director in her own right. Having established herself as a festival mainstay with such films as Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Megan Griffiths’ The Off Hours, Seimetz has since scored a recurring role on Christopher Guest’s HBO series Family Tree and 2013 sees the actress on the big screen in a handful of increasingly high-profile feature films.
Amy Seimetz is nominated in three categories at the upcoming Gotham Awards: Best Feature (Upstream Color), Best Actress (Upstream Color) and Breakthrough Director (Sun Don’t Shine). Check out the full list of nominees here.
Where did you meet Shane [Carruth] and how did Upstream Color come together?
I met David Lowery and Toby Halbrook, the director and producer behind Ain’t Them Bodies Saints respectively, years ago through working with Joe Swanberg in this New York community of people and through film festivals. Anyhow, David and Toby helped Shane with the casting of Upstream Color and they recommended me. When Shane and I started talking about the film, I was in the middle of editing my own feature Sun Don’t Shine. It was a funny thing because I don’t think Shane was calling expecting to talk about filmmaking because he just wanted to cast a part for his film and move on. [Laughs] When he called, I think he thought I was an actress trying to become a filmmaker for fun or something.
I think it really helps the director when an actor understands the ins and outs of filmmaking themselves. It creates a kind of shorthand.
It’s really important to me as an actor that whomever I’m working with knows that I’m also a writer, a director and all of these other things. The way I approach acting is through my understanding of filmmaking as a whole. I knew that if Shane saw a cut of Sun Don’t Shine, he would get a better sense of my aesthetic, my approach, and how my brain works. When he saw it, he loved it. I got cast and he had never seen anything that I had acted in previously.
Since your process as an actor is deeply rooted in collaboration and tackle it from a filmmaker’s point-of-view, it was interesting to see that Shane is heavily involved as a writer, director, producer, composer and editor as well.
We clicked immediately while talking on the phone. There was a sense that we shared in the kind of films we like making and the way we see ourselves working in the industry in the long run. We like to make our own rules and have our hands on every single area of the filmmaking process. And when I say industry, I don’t mean that in a bad way because it’s not a bad thing. I think it breeds a specific kind of cinema where there’s an assembly line with one person doing one thing and another person doing another thing. For instance, it’s unappealing to me to write something and then hand it off to somebody else. When you put so much of your heart and so many of your ideas into something, you want to see it all the way through.
Upstream Color doesn’t seem like a movie that concerns itself with being one thing or another. What were your impressions of the project going into it?
I actually identified with the script much more than I do with most straightforward narrative movies. I’m extremely abstract in the way I respond to material on an emotional level. Upstream Color made more sense to me than any movie where a woman is three times a bridesmaid, but never the bride. [Laughs] Something like that doesn’t really ring emotionally for me. The idea of a woman getting kidnapped and having her entire life somehow erased is incredibly emotionally interesting to me. I knew that Shane was confident and he was working with an ambitious script. In talking to him, I knew that he was meticulous and brilliant as well. I trusted that he would be the only person who would be able to execute something like this. Immediately, I knew he would see it into what it should be, even more so than what I had imagined it could be.
Would it be fair to say that you’re most attracted to characters that are somehow damaged and challenge the norms?
I’m attracted to women that have an existential crisis going on or maybe they don’t know how to be “good” women. I realize that no one, male or female, knows how to be good at everything. So the idea that there might be someone out there who might somehow have everything together is not very interesting to me. I don’t think any one of us feel like we have it all together.
Since your acting career grew out of the process of becoming a filmmaker, could you describe the first time you put yourself in front of the camera and what that felt like?
I did that initially because I was having a hard time figuring out what to do. As gregarious as I can be, I’m quite shy. When I first started making movies, I was maybe around 18. I was making strange movies since very early on, so it was incredibly intimidating to tell somebody to do something really weird when I wasn’t even sure what my voice was yet. It was easier for me to just do it myself because I knew what I wanted and I wasn’t going to judge myself performing this strange thing. It was kind of liberating to execute it myself and not have the fear that somebody might say, “This is just really weird.” [Laughs] That, in turn, transitioned into me acting with other people and allowed me to trust the decision of the director, now knowing the fear of what it’s like to demand of other people these strange performances. For an actor, the vision of the director is the most important because you can’t be making a different movie than they are.
Some people mistakenly think that filmmakers who cast themselves in their own movies have this sort of ego trip or vanity issues. But who knows a character better than its creator, right?
Right. For instance, since I worked with Lena [Dunham] before and having watched her since her earlier movies, I couldn’t see anyone else saying those words or playing those parts. It’s just so incredibly her. It’s not that she’s trying to get her image out there. It’s just an extension of her and her voice. In all the roles that I’ve seen her in, she has a very specific sense of humor, approach, and a very specific cadence in the way she delivers everything. It’s not a vanity thing at all.
Could you talk about growing up in Florida and how those early years might have informed your creativity?
Florida is a very strange place. It’s this vacationland, but also a place where people go to escape in various forms of the meaning. People escape to Florida for a vacation, but there are also a lot of criminals that escape into the landscape. So you have this weird clash of people who move there to retire and people who are there to live second lives because maybe they have a record. Florida is a non-judgmental place in a way. If I was a criminal, I would totally move to Florida. [Laughs] It’s a clash of harsh reality—it can be a very crime-ridden place—and fantasy.
Disney World, essentially.
Yeah! Disney World, but even before that. They decided to build Disney World in Florida because there were already these roadside attractions there that were trying to promote tourism. Weeki Wachee, which is in Sun Don’t Shine, was one of the original roadside attractions in the 40s and it’s still open. These attractions are an interesting place where you’re allowed to dream and build a fantasy world like, this-is-what-life-could-be-like sort of thing. The harsh reality then comes with the heat and the crime. This clash of culture inspires me. I can be incredibly whimsical and dream about mythical things, but I also have this very dark side to me. They aren’t completely disassociated from one another.
You’ve shot on location in St. Petersburg before. What are some advantages to going outside of film centric cities like Los Angeles?
In Los Angeles, if you ever try to get a location, it’s a business and it’s about making money. That’s fine because that’s where the industry is, but if you’re making something for one or two hundred thousand dollars, you don’t have the budget to pay ten thousand dollars to shoot one scene in a bar or wherever. In Florida, people are excited that you’re making a movie there. Plus, I have the hometown advantage, so they’re incredibly willing to help you out. Also, around the time that I made my film and with me explaining to them that it’s a small no-budget movie, Florida had hit such an economic crisis that everybody sort of identified with the idea of making something very small and how we could help each other out. It felt like I had a community support behind me in that way. Having gone and acted in other films around the country, that seems to be the advantage where you have a community that wants you (the writer, director or whomever) to do well because you’re from that place or they’re simply excited to be a part of it.
It’s funny how nobody really cares what anyone’s shooting in New York. They just need to get places and a crew blocking their path is an aggravation.
New Yorkers are really indifferent to it. Whatever you’re going through, you just have to deal with your own shit. New York is going to be New York no matter what. In L.A., you’re actually able to create your own niche because it’s so sprawling. You can move to different sections of town and create the kind of L.A. experience you want. If you live in New York, you either accept New York or you don’t. That’s it.
What kind of movies did you grow up watching?
It kind of runs the gamut. In terms of the classics, I absolutely love Frank Capra. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my favorite movies. I watch a lot of old movies with my grandma. I also love 1970s cinema because it was an interesting time period for American independent and Hollywood as well. They were willing to take more chances. Then I watched a ton of horror movies when I was younger. It’s a very eclectic mix of stuff. When I was a teenager, I fell in love with John Waters and Todd Solondz. I like that their movies have an offbeat sense of everything. I come from a really strange cast of characters. My family is wonderful and loving, but they are incredibly flawed and totally crazy. Especially with John Waters’ work, the people in his movies are strange and out there, but they’re all incredibly loving and do the best they can with what they have in these crazy sort of situations. That seemed more akin to where I came from than any other family movie I watched like The Family Stone or something like that. Those were my early influences.
Was your family very supportive of your decision to go into film?
On days where I’m like, I don’t know if I can do this, my mom still tries to persuade me to go back to medical school. I think I missed that boat. That’s a huge, 10-year commitment of just schooling. What I love about coming from a background that’s not film-orientated is that I can always go home and it doesn’t matter what I am or what I do. They just want me to be happy. But I did go through those phases in my 20s when I was making strange experimental films where I’m like, you don’t understand! You don’t understand art! [Laughs] Now I really appreciate that they don’t. I’m their entry into that world. They get to learn about all this stuff through me and I like the perspective I have. Movies are great and that’s where my heart is, but it’s not what defines me.
You had a brief stab at film school.
I did, at NYU.
At what point did you decide to give L.A. a try?
I had lived in San Francisco before I moved to L.A. I was up there doing experimental theater and some video stuff. There’s a huge experimental film community in Los Angeles because of CalArts and a lot of the film schools there. It’s not just industry stuff. I moved down there to be around friends that were making films and that was in my early, early 20s. I didn’t go there to be an actor. I didn’t go to Los Angeles to pound the ground for work. I was there to be around people who knew their craft so, if I wanted to go out and shoot something, I had this group of people around me that was willing and technically proficient.
You went through something quite personal that prompted you to write and direct Sun Don’t Shine. Does something like that hinder the creative process at all?
It’s hard to make movies, you know? It’s hard to get a movie off the ground, so you need to have some intellectual attachment to it in order to see it through. You need to have that something burning inside of you. It has to resonate on a very personal level. Like with every relationship, someone might look good on paper, but you won’t stick around unless you have fire in your belly.
I wonder if some directors might feel a bit intimated to work with an actor who might know more about the filmmaking process than they do.
I think part of the reason why they cast me on The Killing was because I had that bank of knowledge. Not only is there the performance aspect, but you also understand how they’re shooting it and what the tone is. That’s why I was cast in stuff even on the independent level. It only makes sense to me that even on projects of a bigger scale like The Killing, they respect that. My experience has been extremely collaborative and they’ve been really responsive to the suggestions I have for the character as I see her through in each episode. It’s incredibly important to me that everyone I work with understand that I’m there for the betterment of the entire piece as opposed to me just worrying about my own career.
You have a big presence in the indie film world. I wonder what your perception is when it comes to Hollywood.
These two television shows are my first experiences in that world. It’s still pretty new and I still feel pretty isolated from it. If you ask the filmmaker me who had just started, I still find that there are a lot of things wrong and incredibly annoying about the industry. My interest is still geared toward the more offbeat and auteur stuff. But it’s a business. If you ask questions of each script like, “Is this vague because it’s a business and part of the machine? Is this being made because these people really believe in their vision?” Then it’s a little bit easier to make decisions about stuff. It’s a love/hate relationship where I do like the giant fantasy spectacles because they’re fun to watch, but I also get extremely frustrated when people try to explain to me that if something has no heart, it’s extremely boring.
What movie have you seen recently that you thought was particularly great?
The most recent one that I saw that I liked was Killing Them Softly by Andrew Dominik. I get incredibly turned off when I watch something that’s filmed to get that shot/reverse shot. That stuff is sometimes necessary to get through some plot points and carry the story along, but I thought this particular movie was so beautifully filmed and there was a vision behind it that wasn’t aiming to just tell a crime story. Not only that, I felt so deeply for all the criminal characters, including Ray Liotta. How often do you get to feel sorry for Ray Liotta? [Laughs] He’s so scary all the time! He was so good here. Also, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in The Master was legendary. I don’t know what it was like for him personally, but it seemed like a difficult performance to pull off. It didn’t seem like he was acting. It felt like he was just vibrating with anxiety. When I feel something that genuine or something seems to come from a real life experience—that goes for the cinematography, direction and/or performance—I always respond to that. Even if it’s abstract, I can see something that comes from an honest place.