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The Mary Sue at TIFF: An Interview with Kayla Lorette

Actress-Writer of She Stoops to Conquer

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She Stoops to Conquer, one of the short films playing at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, is a Canadian film by first time director Zack Russell, co-written by comedian Kayla Lorette. After having the somewhat bizarre experience of playing (and excelling) at playing old men, the two decided to write a film about the a performer who finds her character’s doppelgänger. Loretta spoke with me during the festival to discuss the origins of this odd premise for a movie and the fine line between impression and interpretation when performing.

The Mary Sue (Lesley Coffin): How did you come up with the idea for the film initially?

Kayla Lorette: Well, Zack and I, who co-wrote it with me and directed it, we’ve worked on a couple of live performances together. And there has been this reoccurring theme of me being cast as an old men in all these shows in a row. And I thought “is this going to be my thing now?” Am I just going to keep being a woman in her 30s playing old men? And we were riffing on that idea, and that is how it came about, and we thought, “what is a short film we can make where I play some sort of man.” But it quickly spun out into a piece which was really about the nature of identity and performance.

TMS: What was the reason that you had been cast as men initially in those plays?

Lorette: It all started when I was in a performance group, and we did a series of shows where I played this old general. And that really was one of my favorite characters to play. And I guess, there is something good about my shape playing an old man, because there was eventually a web series and then another play. And eventually, people started to think of it as some kind of thing I did, maybe it is just because it is some kind of gimmick. But there aren’t always fun and crazy roles for women, so sometimes you do have to play a crazy old man to do that kind of performance.

TMS: When you’ve played men, are they always old men, or have you played younger men as well?

Lorette: There have been a lot of men. I played a male space villain. My agent finally put it on my resume. And it was weird, because I had to go to a commercial audition with all these other male comedians, and I had to go dressed as a man. So now I’m in competition with other men too.

TMS: Is there any difference in you approach when you play a character that physically different from yourself?

Lorette: I think the approach is always pretty much the same. I take characters serious, and I think it is always important to find some kind of inner sadness or conflict in the character. I think it is always important that they feel vulnerable, have a sense of humor, and real philosophy on life. It just makes a character more fun to play. So when I have all those elements and something physical, like a huge prosthetic or costume, it really helps you to disappear into the character.

TMS: Narratively, where does the character in this film come from?

Lorette: We wanted to looked at a performer who felt like an outsider, and touch on the relief you feel when, you see someone who really is like the person you are playing. And just the excitement you feel when you know you hit on something real. And in this case, he quite literally looks like her in the make-up. And I think that is kind of what Zack and I found in each other. We like the same things and there is a short-hand with each other. Which is probably why we keep working together. It’s so wonderful when you find your twin at work or just through friendship.

TMS: What made you want to add the sexual element to the story?

Lorette: For us, there were a couple of things that made us take the film in that direction. We wanted my character to sense an aloneness in this man. Because she still has her youth and it is still just fun to perform this old man character. And he’s a bit more isolated than her. So we talked about sexuality as a sense of compassion or loneliness. To have them share a moment of intimacy and galvanize this moment they shared.

TMS: When you wrote the monologues, both of which are surprisingly long for a short film, did you change them at all during the production?

Lorette: The first one we do is a written monologue done on stage and is supposed to be unfunny. But the last monologue was improvised, so none of it was written in advance. Along with this thing of me playing a lot of old men, I am also an improv artist and comedian. And improv can be so terrible, especially when you try to capture it on film, so Zach wanted the challenge of capturing something about my performances he really likes. We created a set and context for the scene, which is that he’s saying good-bye to dinner guests, and then invited an audience in, about 25 or 30 people. And then I just improvised for about 45 minutes, which is complete nonsense, and we just pulled and edited moments we really liked for the movie.

TMS: The premise could be very funny, but the film ultimately feels a bit more serious at the end. Did you feel like this was a comedy when you were making?

Lorette: We started out wanting to make a funny film, but quickly realized we really weren’t. We were just idiots thinking “yeah, let’s make a comedy” and then we said “this isn’t every funny.” There is a sadness to his character, and there is also a darkness to the ending. Because she essentially just takes something from him in order to be better. She learns something intimate about him and then just uses it for a performance. So we ended up talking a lot about art and what is stealing things you’ve observed and using them in a fancy way, compared to generating something of your own. There is something sad about this girl being very flat until she sees someone really living this character, and then taking that to make herself a better performer.

TMS: When you perform a character who doesn’t look or feel or have similar life experiences like yourself, have you ever borrowed from another person’s life experiences the way the character does?

Lorette: I’m a real people watcher, and I love watching mannerisms. So as you absorb and have empathy for other people, you pick up little ticks about the way they move when they are sad or angry or happy. But fully borrowing another person can actually make a performance flat, because I ultimately don’t know how that person is feeling. So I always try to base the emotions of the character on myself.

TMS: There is also the difference between performing a character and impersonation.

Lorette: Yeah, it is usually the most obvious things being picked up on when someone does an impersonation. When I teach an improv class, I occasionally have then do impersonations of other students in the class. And it can be a good way to get into character, but it can be a dangerous fine line, because people start feeling like they are being picked on. But we also take things from friends and family subconsciously all the time, and it can be embarrassing, but it can also show a sense of intimacy towards that person.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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