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Alex Essoe

Dreams and Nightmares

Nov 14, 2014 Alex Essoe
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Alex Essoe uses the word ravenous to describe how much she wanted the part of Sarah Walker, the lead character of Starry Eyes, a horror film from co-writers/directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer that magnifies the dark side of the movie industry. Essoe knew that the role would allow her to employ a wide array of tools learned while training to be an actor. Sarah is a struggling Hollywood actress who by day works at a Hooters-like restaurant called Big Taters and, during off hours, keeps company with a small circle of industry wannabes that persistently cut her down. Increasing dissatisfaction with her personal and professional life heightens Sarah’s neurosisshe has a habit of pulling out her hairto the point where she considers compromising herself to land a part offered by a name production company with, at least in her case, creepy casting methods.

With a couple sides in hand, Essoe first auditioned for Starry Eyes in late 2012. About three months later, she got a call-back and the opportunity to read the full script. After another few months, she met with Widmyer for coffee and mentioned during their conversation that one of her favorite horror films is Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, starring Isabelle Adjani. As it happened, the Starry Eyes script partly was inspired by the 1981 film. Essoe sees Starry Eyes as belonging to the House of Psychotic Women subgenre of horror, in the same vein as Possession, Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, Rebecca, and Marnie. After a final meeting in early 2013, Essoe was cast as Sarah, her first lead role in a feature film. Starry Eyes premiered at SXSW this year.

Under the Radar spoke with Essoe by phone earlier this week to discuss Starry Eyes, her childhood in Saudi Arabia, her acting background, and music.

Chris Tinkham (Under the Radar): Like your character, have you ever had nightmares about auditions?

Alex Essoe: I’ve had nightmares about not being prepared. I’ve had dreams where I have a script and there’s nothing in it. Or I go out on stage, and I try to tell everyone, “No, I don’t have my lines. I haven’t rehearsed anything!” And they just push me out on opening night. That is the recurring nightmare.

With respect to the physicality of the part, you had to perform some intense fits. Are those at all cathartic or were they more exhausting?

A bit of both. It’s nice when you have permission to be completely unhinged. It’s almost like you let your body do whatever it’s gonna do. You take the reins off and don’t know exactly what’s gonna come out or what’s going to happen.

I read that your dad visited the set one of those days.

Yeah, he was really concerned about me. He’s a shy, gentle, academic type. He does not watch horror movies or like them. So to see his little girl thrashing about and looking in distress got him kind of misty. I had say, “Dad, it’s fine. We’re just shooting a movie. I’m OK.” It was really adorable.

What about for you? Was it unsettling at all to see yourself in transformative makeup?

To be honest, I really enjoyed it. I thought it was really cool. Our makeup department was so fantastic, so I loved it. I would be in makeup for five to seven hours at a time, depending on which incarnation it was, and I loved every minute of it. I loved dragging myself on the ground. The makeup department also became my confidants/nurses, ‘cause I spent so much time with them, and they were so gentle with me. Sometimes I would have to prepare in the makeup trailer. They were extremely respectful of my process and were an absolute joy to work with.

What was the dynamic like working with two directors?

Their working relationship is symbiotic. They’re usually on the same page, and if they’re not, they just talk about it like adults. Both of them were very open to my own input, because a movie is a constantly evolving animal. They’re extremely approachable. At the same time, if they didn’t think something would work, they would tell me in a very respectful way. I loved working with both of them.

I was curious about your input, given that this is a story about an actress, and you’ve lived that. Did you offer your perspective?

Totally. They wanted it to be as personal as possible, but there wasn’t a lot that had to be changed. They had a very good grasp of the process and raw truths of what it’s like for actors on a day-to-day basis.

Your mom was a theater actress?

Yeah, she was part of the Dhahran theater group. I grew up watching her. She would direct and she would choreograph. Her Lady Macbeth is what gave me the first stirrings of “I want to do that.” It was an odd experience to go and see your mother in a play and not recognize her on stage.

What do you remember about Saudi Arabia?

Everything, actually. I remember it very vividly. My whole childhood leading up to adolescence was there. I loved living there. We lived on a compound for expats, and it was kind of like growing up in the ‘50s. It was really safe. There were a ton of activities and fairs and events. If you were a kid, there was so much to do, and you spent so much time outside, biking around in our little gangs or having squirt gun fights or Nerf wars.

Was it tough leaving?

I was so young, and I think that my brother and I were more excited, because we all took for granted that we couldn’t go back ever. If we had known that, I think it would have been more difficult for us to leave. We thought it was just another adventure.

How long have you been living in Los Angeles?

I moved to L.A. four years ago. I lived in Albuquerque for about four months before I moved here. And I came to America from Vancouver, where I went to school?

Where did you go to school?

An acting school in Vancouver called Lyric, and then I joined the Beaumont Stage, which has now turned into something else. But it was headed by my Meisner teacher and mentor, an extremely talented actress named Lori Triolo. I learned so much from her.

What were you doing in Albuquerque?

A friend of our family was down there working as a script supervisor, and she came up to Vancouver to see me in a play [Women in Motion]. Afterward, she said that I should come down to Albuquerque and audition there because it’ll be a lot easier to book something and get my SAG eligibility, ‘cause there aren’t as many actors there. So that’s what I did, dropped everything, packed up my stuff, took a plane to Albuquerque, and I booked a tiny role on this show called Crash and got all the things I needed and bought a car and drove out to Los Angeles.

Your character in the film has assembled a wall collage of iconic actresses. Who were some of your heroes?

Gena Rowlands at the top of the list.

Even at a young age?

At a really young age, I was more movie-oriented than actor-oriented. One of my favorite actors was David Bowie from Labyrinth, ‘cause that was my favorite movie as a kid. [Laughs] But when I started getting into the process of acting and going to school for it, and learning about filmmakers and actors, Gena Rowlands was at the top of the list. I don’t want to say that A Woman Under the Influence is the reason that I’m an actor, because my mom is definitely the reason I’m an actor, but it showed me exactly what it means to be an actor, why acting means anything at all. She stepped into the abyss in that movie, and she explored a lot of uncharted territory. It was revelatory watching her work. But there are other actors I feel that way about: Isabella Adjani, Annette Benning. Jessica Chastain is a new generation of serious, ass-kicking actor. The list goes on: Frances McDormand, Deborah Kerr, Bette Davis.

I was looking at your IMDb page and saw Surviving Crooked Lake as a credit. I remember seeing that film at fest here years ago, I forget which one.

That’s my very first job ever. That was a rite of passage in a lot of ways because it was my first film role and also the first time my character had been cut out of anything. I had this whole backstory, and I was the girlfriend of the main guy, and we had this love scene, and then I end up the counselor at the campfire. Which is fine; I loved the movie so much.

I’ve seen photos of you with a guitar. Do you play?

I do. I started with piano as a kid. I played until I was 18, and then I started traveling, so I picked up guitar to take it with me. And my dad taught me a little harmonica as well.

On your Twitter, there’s a photo of you in a recording studio singing.

Yeah, when I moved here, I joined a band with an incredible artist, Vinnie Ferra, and I toured with him for about two years. We still record stuff together. I love collaborating with him.

Did you have a band name or did you go by your names?

He was the frontman; it was his project. We wanted to be called Easy Tiger, but there’s already a band called that, so we went with The Vinnie Ferra Project for a while.

What are some of you music obsessions at the moment?

Future Islands. Love them. I think he’s the ultimate frontman. Apart from their compositions being exquisite, their lyrics are next-level. I’m getting back into The Cramps, because I haven’t listened to them in a while. I would love to form a Cramps cover band if I ever have the time. I think that would be a rockin’ good time. One of my all-time obsessions is Frank Zappa. The Fiery Furnaces. Broadcast is one of my all-time favorite bands as well.

This being your first lead role, what was your SXSW experience like?

It was like walking on air. It was so wonderful. Some of my friends came out with me, including Vinnie. It was new for me because I wasn’t used to doing Q&As or giving interviews or seeing myself on a big screen. It was a whirlwind of activity but extremely rewarding. On top of that, I got to see a bunch of awesome movies.

Was there one in particular that stood out for you?

Yes. There are two, actually. Faults, which stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead. It’s fantastic. And The Raid 2 is one of the greatest action films I’ve ever seen. It was just so perfect. Gareth Evans is such a genius.

What’s on the horizon for you?

There’s a film that I’m in called The Divine Order that’s being released this year. It’s written and directed by Patrick O’Bell. It stars Andy Gates and Tamzin Brown, who’s a friend of mine and one of the most talented actresses that I know personally. I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more of her in the future. I have a smaller role in it. I’m kind of like the comic relief, I guess. And right now I’m shooting a film that I’m really excited about and I love the character I’m playing. It’s called Maternal Bond. I wish I could go into more detail but I’m not allowed.

Starry Eyes is in theaters today and available on iTunes and OnDemand. Alex Essoe will appear with the filmmakers and other cast members tonight at Cinefamily in Los Angeles.


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