Besedka Johnson (left) as Sadie and Dree Hemingway as Jane in a scene from Starlet.

Sean Baker, Besedka Johnson and Dree Hemingway

The Talent of Starlet

Nov 09, 2012 Web Exclusive
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Sadie, the surly and reclusive octogenarian widow played by Besedka Johnson in the indie drama, Starlet, doesn't know what to make of Jane (Dree Hemingway) when the inquisitive young blonde begins to entrench herself in Sadie's life. After purchasing a thermos from Sadie at a yard sale, Jane suddenly begins to impose companionship upon her elder, turning up again at her home, at her grocery store, and at her bingo hall to offer car rides and other favors. Unbeknownst to Sadie, Jane is an adult film actress and has found thousands of dollars in the thermos that she bought for a bargain. As Jane attempts to navigate an ethical course of action, Sadie wonders if Jane might be a con artist.

Johnson, who had never acted before, had similar misgivings when Starlet executive producer Shih-Ching Tsou approached her about a part in the film and asked to photograph her. Johnson was minding her own business at the time of the encounter, excercising at her local YMCA gym.

"She was very nice and very kind," Johnson recounts, " but my inner voice was like, 'C'mon, I'm 86 years old. Who the hell wants somebody at this period?'"

Tsou texted Starlet director and co-writer Sean Baker from the YMCA, alerting him that they might have found their elusive Sadie.

"And then I texted her back, 'OK, approach her but don't scare her,'" Baker remembers with a laugh. 

Johnson continues: "So, she took the picture and then I walked away, and then she came back and she said, 'Oh, they want your name and phone number.' So then I said, 'OK.'  I'm still thinking this is"—

—"A hoax," Hemingway interjects.

"Totally," Johnson concurs. "And then I get a phone call from his office saying, 'We have a script to bring to you. We'd like you to read it.' And I think, 'What?' And so I did that, and then a few days later, I went down to the place. He was taking pictures, walking around all the time, and asking questions and doing things. I was there about an hour-and-a-half. We did a scene, then he said, 'Let's improvise and do something else.' And all the while I'm still in this daze, 'cause I've never done anything like this. I know nothing about it. That's what happened. Then, two days later, they said, 'We'd like to give you the part. And I was like, 'What?! I guess it's real.'"

Seven months later, Johnson, who in her 30s briefly took acting lessons to "clear up psychological stuff" after a divorce, was one of three actors to receive Special Jury Recognition for Performance at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival. It was a fantastic postscript to Johnson's journey with Starlet and a triumph befitting of a film that, through both comedic and dramatic exchanges, builds a convincing friendship from an improbable pairing of women.

The evolving relationship between Sadie and Jane is the driving force of the film and, set against the San Fernando Valley's hazy sunshine, gives it a wistful splendor. But Baker doesn't gloss over Jane's occupation. Midway through the film, there's a graphic sex scene on a porn set between Jane and a male co-star. Hemingway, daughter of actress Mariel and great-granddaughter of author Earnest, had extensive discussions with Baker about what was expected from her in playing an adult film actress, particularly with regard to the sex scene.

"It's a big decision," she says. "I have a body double, which most people don't know."

Adult film actress Zoe Voss was Hemingway's stand-in and served as a consultant on the film.

"Even though I'm not somebody who likes pornI think that sex is a really intimate thing between two peopleit does exist, and I definitely had judgments about it.... Meeting a lot of these girls, they're so normal; they go to ballet class, and they're taking courses, and they're really sweet people, and I was talking to Zoe before doing the scene, and I hung out with her a couple of times after 'cause I consider her a friend. She's really amazing. She's like, 'It's work. I go to work every day. As unorthodox as it is, this is my job, to have sex with people. But it is work.' It's like any model who goes to a photo shoot and takes their top off, and I've been there. And you're never forced to do something. You're not thrown in. It's all by choice. Everybody has a choice."

Once scene, which takes place at an adult film convention, was shot during an actual expo in downtown Los Angeles. During the filming, Hemingway was mistaken for a real-life adult film star by performers in the business.

"I had male porn stars coming up to me, like, 'I really want to work with you. I love your movies."

Starlet is Baker's fourth feature directorial effort. He also co-created the TV show Greg the Bunny and its MTV spinoff, Warren the Ape.  Starlet co-writer Chris Bergoch contributed to those shows and has collaborated with Baker since their film school days at NYU, but this is his first feature writing credit. The story for Starlet came from two separate ideas.   

"I had this story called Bric-a-Brac," Baker explains, "which was about this unlikely friendship that comes from finding money at a yard sale. That was this one idea. And then Chris and I worked on [Warren the Ape] for MTV, and we got to know a lot of adult film performers because they were doing cameos and part of stunt casting on an MTV show. So, I think hanging out with themyou know, you have a lot of down time during production, so we were socializing with themboth of us saw the same thing as what Dree just said: they viewed their careers as jobs.... We didn't want to be judgmental. We didn't want the career to define Jane. And we do hint that she does come from possibly a broken family, to a certain extent. We hint at these little things, but our goal was to perhaps question why you judge people or how you judge people, those preconceived notions that you may have about a person or industry or something. You should think about how or why you are doing that."

Starlet was shot in August of 2011 during a heat wave in the Valley. Budget limitations created challenges for the cast and crew, who were working on a tight schedule. The actors had no trailers and turned to cars for air conditioning.

"We had credit cards sometimes melting in the cars," Baker recalls, "and we were like, 'This is the perfect metaphor for this kind of movie.'"

Also, scheduling didn't allow for Johnson and Hemingway to become familiar with each other before filming. But because so many of the scenes included improvisation from the actors, Hemingway didn't find that problematic.

"I came in five days before shooting," she says. "I found out in middle of July that I had gotten this role, and then August 10th we started filming, and I got in there August 5th. I met Besedka probably once beforehand. But the thing is, I think for improv, you can't rehearse.  And I instantly fell in love with Besedka."

"Vice versa," Johnson replies.

Hemingway concludes: "She is unreal and amazing."

Starlet opens today in New York and Southern California. Sean Baker, Besedka Johnson and other members of the creative team are scheduled to appear at separate select screenings tonight and this weekend. Check with the theaters to confirm appearances.

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fran
January 6th 2013
11:09pm

My husband and I just saw the film at plimouth plantation
in mass. Wonderful film. Will let everyone know about it
We are 70 plus and so were many others in the audience.All were impressed.
Thank you