Meet the one-to-watch star of James Westby's indie gem, Rid of Me (TFF 2011), opening November 18. We'd eat candy with her any day of the week.
Note: This interview originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. Rid of Me opens on Friday, November 18, at Cinema Village in New York. Katie O'Grady and director James Westby will do Q&As at select screenings throughout the weekend.
Tribeca: Tell us about Rid of Me in your own words.
Katie O’Grady:Rid of Me follows Meris Canfield, a simple, sweet girl who loves taking care of her husband. When their relationship begins to crumble, her life turns upside down, and she’s forced to take a job in a candy shop—where she makes new friends who help her find out who she really is, while finding out who she’s not. I feel like Rid of Me is a story we can all relate to—we are all trying to fit in, to figure out who we are, and to be loved for who we are. Everyone can relate to that journey.
Tribeca: What attracted you to Meris?
Katie O’Grady: I read the script while on vacation in Hawaii, and when I finished, I put it down and said, “This movie has got to be made.” James [James Westby, the director] wasn’t even scheduled to make this movie next, but I became aggressive about playing the part and producing the movie. I believed it in like nothing else I’d come across.
I just felt like Meris was someone who is shouting inside. Her voice is so big, and it can’t find its way out. I was really drawn to playing someone who wants to be seen, who wants to exist and matter to other people. I could not wait to know her better. It was definitely there in the character James wrote, and I knew that I couldn’t wait to be her, for a little bit.
Tribeca: Are you like her at all?
Katie O’Grady: Not in the slightest! We’re total opposites. I had to lose 20 pounds and dye my hair brown to play her, and I’m a very outgoing, spontaneous person—I think I give my opinion too many times. She hides in every way—she has a voice, but she doesn’t know how to formulate a response.
James is actually a lot like her—I’ve seen him struggle with social anxiety. It’s not something I relate to, though I do relate to the idea of trying to figure out the next step, and how to be myself completely. Meris finds that out for herself, and I wanted to find that out with her, for sure.
I just want to say I love her. I feel for her, and I’m protective of her. And I love her.
Tribeca: It’s hard to talk about this movie without mentioning the graphic opening scene, which has certainly caused quite a stir around the TFF offices. Without giving too much away, can you talk about how you approached such an arresting scene?
Katie O’Grady: I don’t want to give anything away either, because it’s fun to discover that moment as an audience member. I love to watch the movie with an audience—we’ve had some test screenings—and just watch them watching the movie, because of that first part: they cringe or scream or laugh, depending on what they are feeling at that moment.
[Editor’s note: How’s that for a tease?]
I was really having a heart attack about that first scene, but mostly because my mother read the script and was adamantly opposed to it; she thought it was unnecessary, and she didn’t quite see the humor in it. I talked to James: was there anything else Meris could do instead? But he felt really strongly about the fact that my character was in deep trauma, and that we do things when we’re in trauma that we might not normally do.
Also, [what she does] is something neither of us have seen on film before. And James is always pushing the envelope—if you saw The Auteur, you know that. He’s also kind of a little bit obsessed with bodily fluids. [laughs]
Tribeca: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production?
Katie O’Grady: One thing that strikes me is that I got to make out with Art Alexakis from the band Everclear, who plays my date in the movie. Making out with my first rock star was awesome—he walks in the room and he’s just electric! So sitting on the couch in one scene, and watching him try to take off my pantyhose (and fumble doing it)—it was pretty hard to stay in character. [laughs] So that’s the only time I’ve ever made out with a rock star, and it was fantastic.
Another thing was the first time I got dressed in Meris’ clothes. The first scene we filmed was Meris coming to her new home and walking into a surprise party for her husband—not for her, for her husband—with all the pretty people. Even though some of them were my friends, people I’d known for years, I was so frightened when they shouted, “Surprise!” [laughs] One of them was my best friend, and there she was glaring at me like she was literally going to kill me. I was horrified by them, and that’s when I realized that James and I had put together a great cast—they felt like they had all been friends since first grade [which is who their characters are in the movie].
You could feel in the room the small cast and crew of good, professional people who came together to make a film. There was something in that room that no one could take away from us, no matter what happens with the movie.
Tribeca: You’ve worked with James before, and you both make Portland your home. What’s the artistic community like there? Did you grow up in Portland?
Katie O’Grady: I’m a 5th-generation Oregonian, but I grew up in Medford. I’ve been in Portland for the last 10 years, acting for the last 6 or 7. The artistic community there—I don’t even know a big enough word to describe them, and the support… It’s a thriving community of originality and creativity, including Chelsea Cain, Gus Van Sant, incredible bands. Even if you aren’t an artist: the shows sell out, the bands are seen on a national level, people support First Thursday, when artists put their work out. I can’t even describe a word big enough. And it’s all incestuous—the artists all support each other’s work.
There are lots of TV shows, studio films, indie films and docs shooting there, and the community is one of the reasons why. An example of New York supporting what’s happening in Portland is the TV show Portlandia, which Lorne Michaels produces for Fred Armisen. (I’m in episode 2: Put a Bird On It.)
Tribeca: For the first time, you were also a producer on the film. What’s the biggest thing you learned in your new role? Did it make you look at the filmmaking process in a new light?
Katie O’Grady: Yes. I was really lucky in that James and I were the only producers, and the only crew on the film for months. The two of us were really responsible for every aspect of the film, which was great for me as a first-time producer. I did everything: got permits, did SAG paperwork, found a caterer, found a casting director to work with, hired PA’s—I set it all up. James guided me through, but I learned so much just figuring it all out. I learned that if you have passion and enough time in the day, you can make anything happen.
There was something really special about being the only two people for several months, believing in the film so much. We let a lot of balls drop, for sure, that shouldn’t have been dropped: like, did anyone order a pizza for the scene? I’m trying to play the lead character, and get ready for the scene, but also I’m turning the wine bottles around so you can’t see the labels, and cleaning toilets, and taping up the stairs with plastic. Things I never realized as an actor—who picks up the garbage and the recycling? All while I’m trying to study my lines!
I learned a lot, and I have a lot of respect for producers. And also for actors. It was a family of friends we brought together, over food and drinks—they were all pitching in with location ideas, and ideas about wardrobe; everyone chipped into each other’s workload to make it happen. It’s amazing what a case of beer and a bag of chips can get you.
Tribeca: What do you want audiences to take away from Rid of Me?
Katie O’Grady:Rid of Me is not just one thing, one idea, or one genre. It’s a mixture of several pieces of a woman who is trying to become whole. I want audiences to take away that they are not alone—not one is—and that candy is fun to eat.
Can you sense a theme? Actually, I just produced a movie about bullying—about teens who bully. Everyone just wants to be heard.
Katie O’Grady: I know! I’ve heard! And I’ve talked to Lee Hirsch [the director]. Ours is more of a narrative—one for teens, rather than a general audience. But I can’t wait to see that film—the trailer is fantastic.
Tribeca: What are your hopes for Rid of Me at Tribeca?
Katie O’Grady: I was watching the Indy 500 with my dad, and the young kid who won—I think he was only 20!—he said, “We have big dreams, but realistic hopes.” He said out loud how I feel about this movie. Tribeca is a great launching pad—it’s a true gift for anyone who has a film they want to get out there. Tribeca is seen and heard on a national level, in a city that embraces real art. Our hope is to be able to take our film from Tribeca and get it in front of as many people as possible.
We feel really lucky, and we want to celebrate that moment, while also seeing what more can come of it. A lot of the cast and crew from Portland will be at Tribeca. They are showing up. Everyone loves New York, so they couldn’t be happier.
Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?
Katie O’Grady: That is so easy; I don’t even have to dig deep: Kathryn Bigelow. I grew up with Point Break, and was recently blown away by her amazing work on The Hurt Locker. I got to see her at a Q&A after a screening, and now I want to look like her too.
Although I don’t have any ambition to direct, her ability to get her voice out there has been incredible. So I would love to have dinner and drinks—it would have to be a nice, intelligent dinner, and then I’d get her a little drunk to get the inside skinny on what her life is like.
Tribeca: What piece of art (book/film/music/tv show) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?
Katie O’Grady:The Glass Castle [by Jeannette Walls]. I just think everyone has to read that, whether it speaks to you or not. I’m excited that Paramount is making it into a film now. And I’m actually reading some short stories by Alice Munro right now, called Too Much Happiness.
Tribeca: What would your biopic be called?
Katie O’Grady:She Lives Out Loud. That’s what it would be called—and that has been something that hasn’t always served me well, but it describes what I am trying to do, and that includes loving people out loud too.
Tribeca: What makes Rid of Me a must-see?
Katie O’Grady: It’s the feeling you have when the movie ends. It’s a feeling that can’t be put into words, but it’s a movie that forces you to ask questions about your own life, and it’s loaded with not only depth, but wine and candy, friendship and joy. It’s a movie that makes you want to put on your rocker sunglasses and your Cambodian rock music, pour yourself a glass of pinot noir, and be okay for a minute. That’s the kind of movie I want to see, don’t you?
Rid of Me opens on Friday, November 18, at Cinema Village in New York. Katie O'Grady and director James Westby will do Q&As at select screenings throughout the weekend.