In the new drama Touched With Fire, Christine Lahti plays the mother of a bipolar daughter (Katie Holmes) who goes off her medication. Although no one was aware, Lahti had a personal connection to the material, which drew her to first time writer-director Paul Dalio’s film. On The Today Show, Lahti recently spoke of her late sister, who took her life after years of battling bipolar disorder.
Lahti has been a working actress since the 1970s, got her first break in film in And Justice for All, and has continued working on stage, film, and television. I spoke with her about her personal connection to the material, the value of improv, and she offers some valuable advice to younger actresses (that she got from her 22-year-old daughter).
Lesley Coffin (TMS): I saw your interview on The Today Show, discussing your sister’s battle with bipolar disorder. Did the director or casting director approach you knowing your own family connection?
Christine Lahti: No, I’ve never really talked about it before. They just offered me the part, and I was so drawn to the story because of my sister. But then I met Paul, who is bipolar but wrote this incredible story and so high functioning, I knew I had to be part of this film.
TMS: Playing Katie’s mother and having some of your own experiences in the caregiver role as both a mother and sister to someone with bipolar, did that aspect of the character and show what that life is like appeal to you?
Lahti: It did. I’m the mother of three, so I have that understanding. And then I have the understanding of what the struggle is like to have a family member with bipolar disorder. It was important to Paul that I flesh out the mother character. It was important to him that we understand what she’s really going through. And not just the details of what she does as a caregiver, but what this is costing her. What she’s giving up.
TMS: Paul has said that he worked with all the actors on building backstories for the characters. What history did you establish with Katie and Bruce (Altman)?
Lahti: Bruce and I worked on an aspect of our relationship, assuming the marriage had been strained. A lot of marriages fail because parents are polarized and can’t agree on how to deal with the situation. And it can be so complicated and challenging, that it ultimately drives a wedge between people. But in our case, we tried to find our commonality, our love for our daughter, but also the conflicts. And with Katie and I it was important to establish that this had been going on for a long time. So the ways my character dealt with her daughter had come with practice. She knows her daughter is an adult, so she can’t commit her daughter to a psych ward, her daughter needs to go on her own. And you see in that first scene, I’m just trying to say the right thing to keep her in the room. It’s like dealing with a skittish deer. I can’t say the wrong things, but I know her well enough to know the right things to say. But my objective is always to get her help, because I know she’s off her meds and about to go extremely manic. So for Katie and I did a lot of improv and acted out entirely new scenes. A lot of those scenes didn’t make it into the movie, but the work shows up on screen.
TMS: The physicality of your opening scene is so interesting to observe, the way you will only lightly touch her arm. Did you talk about that before hand, or did it come to you instinctually while performing the scene?
Lahti: It was probably a combination of both. Instinctually I knew that was how she would connect to her daughter. I know, being around my sister, where you can mess up. And that fear that at any minute you will do the wrong thing and scare them off. My character knew, because this had been going on for so many years that any wrong word, and she will be out the door and might not come back. And knowing she’s on the verge of mania means potential death. So my job was just to say the right thing, not scare her off. And get her to the hospital.
TMS: And it is so sad because you are doing all that, and she still leaves.
Lahti: Right. I lose. My objective isn’t achieved.
TMS: We’ve had a lot of films about characters being diagnosed with bipolar, but very few about living with bipolar. Why is it so important to make a film like this, about the challenges of living with bipolar disorder?
Lahti: Well, first of all, Paul walks the walk. I’ve never met anyone with bipolar disorder that is as high functioning. It was incredible and so inspiring to me. I feel like, if my sister had had the chance to meet him, who knows.
TMS: May I ask if your sister was affected by lithium overmedicating the mention in the film?
Lahti: That is a completely fair question and important one. Had she been able to stick it out, she might have found a medication that wasn’t so debilitating. She described lithium as making her brain dead, and she would rather be maniac. She would say, “Do you want me to be brain dead and lay in bed all day, or maniac and be creative?” And that is what this movie explores with these kids.
TMS: Do you feel like you can understand the appeal they find in the mania?
Lahti: Oh yes. My sister loved her hypomania. But her mania made her psychotic, which made her put herself in danger. But in the stage just after getting off the meds and before mania, is a stage called hypomania, and she loved that. She was doing so much creative stuff, but it was always short lived.
TMS: The movie addresses and brings up the topic of having kids that might inherit bipolar disorder. And it is such a controversial and difficult conversation to even address. How did you feel the film handled that topic?
Lahti: It doesn’t get into it that too much, because it could be its own movie. The reason she makes the choice she ultimately makes is because she knows the father of her child refuses to take his meds. And I don’t think you can parent with that illness and choose to be off your meds. Because it is a completely narcissistic, irrational, although fun, state of mind.
TMS: The family meetings feel almost like the conversations families of addicts have. When it comes to their refusal to take meds, do families have to treat loved ones the same way? Because your character is more nurturing with them, but Bruce and Griffin Dunne’s characters want to be stricter with them and take the tough love approach.
Lahti: I’m a big believer in tough love. I think it can be a powerful parenting tool. And that might have been one of the faults of my character. Maybe she would have stayed on the meds longer if there were repercussions for refusing to take them. But I honestly don’t know when it comes to mental illness is tough love works. Because they can end up homeless so quickly or crashing a car. I guess it is similar with substance abuse, people end up on the street due to heroine and alcohol. But it’s so complicated, and as a parent, the challenge was asking myself how I would deal with this. How do you treed that line between love and compassion but also tough love.
TMS: Were there any scene which were especially difficult to get through?
Lahti: They all pretty tough emotionally. But the toughest were the ones Katie and I did that ultimately were cut out. Paul shot so much footage and cut out hours.
TMS: I did want to ask you about something that doesn’t have to do with this film. I liked the film you directed a few years ago. Would you like to go back to directing at some point?
Lahti: Oh yeah. I love directing. I stopped for a while because I started getting really great acting gigs. But now the acting is slowing down, so I can get back to directing. I love directing though and want to do it again.
TMS: And you are also writing a little now. Paul did four things on this movie. Do you find having multiple creative outlets enriches your acting?
Lahti: Absolutely. I teach a lot of master classes and tell my students, especially young women, if you want to act you need to also write and direct and produce. You need to create your own stuff, because you can’t be dependent on others hiring you. And I learned that from my daughter, who is 22 and such a feminist and empowered. She wants to be a singer-songwriter, so she’s going to do it all herself. She’s producing the whole thing. And I’m inspired by her and the other young women who are just doing it. And the internet is such a help. It allows them to self-promote and be creative.
TMS: When did you learn that lesson?
Lahti: I just came from this women’s filmmakers’ brunch at Sundance, and everyone talked about writing-producing-directing their work. I got into directing by default because I’d just given birth to twins, so there were no acting roles coming my way. So I just thought, I can direct this, and won an Oscar for best short film. And my feature wasn’t something I aggressively pursued either, because I still thought of myself as just an actress. I would answer to people, “I’m just an actress.” But now I could kick myself for talking like that because it’s like, why not pursue more and create your own projects. As “just an actress,” I felt a kind of powerlessness. I’m an artist who wants to work, but is dependent on other people hiring me to do it. I loved and still love acting, but there is something powerless about it, unless you also write and direct. And I didn’t get that until my daughter asked me, “Why aren’t you directing and writing? Why aren’t you creating your own projects?” So right now, I’m writing a book that might turn into a one-woman show.
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