The Mary Sue Interview: Katharine Isabelle on 88, Hannibal, and Why She Likes Playing (and Working With!) Horror’s “Timeless Bitches”
“I mean badass motherf----rs!”
When you think of modern day scream queens—no, not the ones in that Ryan Murphy show—you gotta think of Katharine Isabelle. This is a woman who has been in a few of the most fearless female-driven horror films of the last decade (Ginger Snaps and American Mary!) not to mention a bunch of other notable genre entries (Freddy vs. Jason, the Carrie TV movie written by Bryan Fuller, a bunch of other indie flicks). She’s also a champion for changing female roles within horror, partnering with fellow genre gals (ahem, Jen and Sylvia Soska) to create parts that are more than just the hopeless victim or virginal final girl.
The Mary Sue got a chance to speak with Isabelle over the phone recently, as she’s promoting 88, a thriller directed by April Mullen (Dead Before Dawn 3D) and co-starring Doc Brown Christopher Lloyd. Read on to find out how she feels about playing “timeless bitches” like 88’s leading lady Gwen/Flamingo (memory loss leads to multiple timelines and multiple personalities!) and the projects—more Hannibal, a movie from a horror icon, maybe directing!—she’s taking a stab at next.
Emily Gagne (TMS): You called working on 88 one of the best experiences of your career. Can you elaborate?
Katharine Isabelle: Well, it’s one of those things where you’re thrown immediately into it. And we had such an amazing crew. I mean, I joke that they were about 15, but they were about twentysomething. So they were really young, really enthusiastic, really wanting to be there.
And I mean, what’s not to like? I got go around shooting guns and working with the amazing Christopher Lloyd and [writer and actor Tim Doiron] and April [Mullen]. It was just so much fun. We had a wrap party where our gun guy let us blast a couple of blank rounds into the sky! No one felt like it was work. It was just a big party with guns! [Laughs]
TMS: How do you balance staying within your token genre, horror, and doing different stuff like this?
Isabelle: I mean, I’ve been working for 28 years or whatever and I definitely have done quite a bit of horror, but I wouldn’t say it’s the majority of what I’ve done. I don’t seek out to horror, or non-horror. I seek out to work. As a working Canadian actor, I kinda want to work. [Laughs]
But I was more than excited to do 88 because it was such a strong, character-driven script with, well, two characters technically. It’s just less dried blood crusting on you. Anytime there’s not so much blood all over, [it’s great]. [Laughs]
TMS: I imagine fake blood’s a bitch to get out.
Isabelle: Oh, definitely.
TMS: You kinda do get to play two characters here, though, one who is this badass woman, Flamingo. And then you get to play Gwen who is more…
Isabelle: Of a normal person! More normal, anyway.
TMS: Which was more of a challenge to play? Or was it more of a challenge to go back and forth between both?
Isabelle: It was more of a challenge in terms of when you’re shooting a low-budget Canadian film, you don’t have the most time and I read the script about a day before we started shooting. I got brought on very last minute, so thankfully Tim and April were there going ‘Okay, this is next’ [and] ‘Okay, what scene are we doing?’
I had April do up two scripts—one that was Gwen’s and one that was Flamingo’s—just so I could keep them straight. They’d go ‘Next scene!’ and I’d have an immediate debrief of who I am and where I’m going.
TMS: In general, how was working with April as a director?
Isabelle: Oh, just the worst. [Laughs]
TMS: She’s done a few projects before, but she’s still pretty new to the industry. She’s made an impressive film for such a low budget.
Isabelle: Definitely. I was so excited to see it.
I think they did an amazing job and April really inspired the crew, inspired me. She’s just so on fire all the time, and that’s what you need to be around, that’s what you need to see, when you’re on that kind of schedule. I mean, I was so impressed with the script. It didn’t take me but half a second to throw myself into it.
TMS: Do you ever get the itch to try directing yourself?
Isabelle: Occasionally. But for me, it’s more of a ‘This is how we save time and money and get to go home and sleep at night.’ It’s not necessarily that I’m naturally inspired to direct. But if I ever had to, I would definitely surround myself with vastly more knowledgeable, more talented people than myself to make me look good. [Laughs]
TMS: How important do you think it is to have strong female characters in the genre and strong females directing these characters? Because as a horror fan, I know a lot of women love horror and for a long time, there was this mistreatment of women in the genre and a trend of making them victims first. Nowadays, with movies like American Mary, we have women just taking over and changing that completely.
Isabelle: Yeah. And thank God I’ve been given a few of them!
Even going back to Ginger Snaps days, to see women like us who are strong—who are independent, who are going to put up, you know, a real good fight and not just be victimized—reflected back to ourselves, I think it’s important. I’m not sure if growing up I saw women like myself, like April, like the [Twisted Twins, Jen and Sylvia Soska], reflected back. You know, women who had things worked out, who had more integrity, who had more strength of character.
I’m thrilled when I find one of those characters on paper. And [to have them] supported by women like that as well? Ain’t nothing wrong with that!
TMS: Is there a particular role that people come up to you and talk to you most about? Is Ginger? Is it Mary?
Isabelle: Yeah. Because those two characters are very classic, they will never be out of touch with time and reality. Those two characters I was gifted with, and Flamingo as well in 88, they are so much more than what you can usually find available for women. They’re multi-dimensional. They might not have the most redeeming qualities, but I’m a fully-fleshed out, multi-dimensional human being and I like to see that reflected back.
I mean, Ginger is a timeless character. Even today, I have kids who were not anywhere near born when we shot that who resonate with that character. And the same with Mary. They’re timeless bitches that I love that are very dear to my heart.
TMS: Timeless bitches! I love that!
Isabelle: And in no derogatory way do I mean that. I mean badass motherfuckers! [Laughs]
TMS: In addition to 88, what’s next for you?
Isabelle: I’m on the third season of Hannibal, which is the most amazing, fucked up show I’ve ever seen or been a part of. That will be starting to air, I think, in June. So, that’s amazing and I’m really looking forward to it.
Another Canadian film [I’m working on] is called How to Plan an Orgy in a Small Town with the beautiful Jewel Staite of many things, including Firefly. And I hope I’m allowed to talk about it—I don’t know, so if I suddenly disappear, you’ll know why [Laughs]—but Wes Craven is producing a film called the Girl in the Photograph starring the ever-amazing Kal Penn.
TMS: So that’s what you’re working on right now?
Isabelle: Currently, yes.
TMS: I saw you retweet a photo of the cast reading a script.
Isabelle: I figured if Wes Craven tweeted a picture of us, I won’t be whacked [for talking about it]. [Laughs]
88 is now in theatres across Canada. It is out on Blu-ray and DVD in the US.
This interview has been edited for length and content.
(images via WANGO Films, http://kaari1.tumblr.com/, NBC)
Emily Gagne (@emilygagne) is one of the founding members of Cinefilles, a site for wannabe female film and TV critics, as well as an admitted heroine addict. She may not have super strength, or be able to make a stake on command, but she can slay you with her rhetorical devices, endless knowledge of Final Girls, and passion for geek girl scoop.
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