Through the Road Darkly
Actress Shannyn Sossamon referred to her photo shoot with Elliot Lee Hazel as: “Batty, like nutty, but not the word nutty cause its overused.” Batty seems to be a constant unconscious reflection of Sossamon’s aura graved on celluloid and snapshots. Her next film is Monte Hellman’s uber-enigmatic “Road to Nowhere,” recently presented at the Venice Film Festival. You surely remember her effortless smile from films like: “A Knights Tale,” “40 days and 40 nights,” “The Rules of Attraction” (cast down smiles?) and “Wristcutters” (even if her character couldn’t smile in this one). We had a nice chat on a Sunday afternoon, where I inadvertently caught her in the process of cleaning up the mess left by her seven-year-old son and his friend.
Even though you’re a mom, you’ve still had a pretty steady workflow throughout the years.
Yeah, but it’s not the same with people that are super busy doing four or five huge studio films a year; it’s time consuming. I think with me it’s been like I’ve done a lot of smaller parts in things, and I’ve done appearances in two different TV shows, so that’s kinda light. Last year I did a major lead again, and I guess “Wristcutters” was a pretty major lead too. For the Monte Hellman film, I actually had to leave my kid with his dad to spend the whole summer in North Carolina, Italy and London. So I have had work in spurts, that’s correct but it still feels like I’ve been home a lot as well.
You just came back from Venice having been at the film festival promoting Monte Hellman’s film. Can you give me a small recap of what the festival was like for you?
It was incredible, I’d only been to Sundance once with “Wristcutters” a couple of years ago. I’d never been to a festival like that one, it was incredible. They love film so much there, so it felt romantic, how they put everything on; they just do it right. It felt like this big spectacle in a great way, like there was magic in the air, even when you had to do press photo kinda things. It didn’t feel grueling, it felt magical. One, it’s Venice, and two, Marco, who puts the festival on, takes pride in it. He would stand on every single red carpet with his hands proudly clasped. As the director of the festival, you can see how much passion he puts into it. It was a wonderful experience.
How were the parties in Venice? Where they anything like the Martini commercial you shot with George Clooney?
(Laughs) You’re funny. No, not really. You know, I was not at that many parties, but there were a lot of wonderful dinners. I liked that. I didn’t go to many parties. I don’t think there are that many in Venice, I don’t think it’s quite like that.
Tell me about the Monte Hellman film, cause I consider myself a pretty good Googler and I still haven’t found much info on it, other than the synopsis and a really short trailer. It seems like the project has been kept a little “hush, hush.”
It is being kept like that because Monte is so passionate about the film being an experience from the beginning to end, and that’s the only way it can be watched. It’s not really plot driven, although there is a complex plot in there. It is an experience, it’s an atmospheric film. But it is also a strange experience and it’s best for people to just dive in and that’s it. [Monte’s] really adhering to that. There are many things going on, but I think the atmosphere completely outshines the plot. So, I can tell you the plot, but it almost seems silly because it is just words that don’t mean anything.
It seems to me that it has this sort of David Lynch quality to it.
Yeah, people have been saying that, and I think that’s true because they’re operating from the same place. It’s kind of about letting the film reveal itself to you. And you feel comfortable in that unknown space ‘cause you know that you are one hundred percent trusting your imagination, your subconscious mind, your instincts, and sometimes when you trust those there is an unknown. It does become quite mysterious and atmospheric, so in that way there are similarities for sure, I think they have different subconscious minds, though not much, much, much different.
How did you prepare yourself for this film?
I had one thing I needed to do. Monte felt it was very important for my character to remain still, and by still I mean, still. I’m naturally very expressive with my hands—got a bit of a neurotic personality. My hands fly all over the place when I talk and I’m looking in all kinds of directions… It’s not even that that wouldn’t have worked for her… When I read the script, I didn’t think, “oh, I’m gonna have to [be still.]” But when I saw the film, I understood why he wanted me to be that way. I had to prepare for that, I had to do a lot of yoga and have a really clean diet. I didn’t drink any alcohol while we were shooting, not even a glass of wine at night because I knew that anything that altered my nervous system would fuck it up. That was the only thing I had to prepare for, and the rest was just my instincts. He was fine with my instincts with the day-to-day scenes. I gave him a lot of options too, it’s kinda like those films where you trust the director so much—you shouldn’t always do this as an actor—but if you trust the director, you can open yourself up and give them so many different kinds of takes, be in the moment and really expose yourself, within the frame of the movie of course. And then you walk away and go “well, he’s gonna choose what he chooses”, rather than controlling the performance by only giving the director and the editor exact choices that you are approving of as an actor, which I’m never that good at anyway. But I think some really trained great actors have one performance and that’s it, they give what they give.
And what can you tell me about the character that you play?
Not much. She is very mysterious. It was important to Monte that she was incredibly mysterious, so I didn’t ever try to play any one color too much. He doesn’t want you to know what’s going on in her mind cause that kinda would just ruin the film in a way. And then the other lead character, which is a film director, he kinda has the same thing going on a little bit, the two leads are both very mysterious, which is what makes it interesting. She is an actress in the film, but sometimes you even question that; she is dangerous in a quiet way.
Were you familiar with Monte’s work?
You know, I wasn’t. I actually discovered him when I was approached to do this film. This is a funny story actually, the producer and the writer of the film Steven Gaydos approached me. I was taking a break from acting class and was having lunch, reading some material by myself in this cafe and Steven was having lunch a couple tables nearby, and I guess he was just watching me and came up to the table and gave me his card. And he said he didn’t know I was a working actress, which I actually believe. It’s easy for me to not be recognized. Especially if someone hasn’t seen a movie of mine or been a hardcore fan. He said “I’m doing this movie with my dear friend Monte Hellman, I wrote his name on the back of the card, I think you’d be perfect for the lead, I’m not a creepy guy, I just have a feeling.” I got the script, read it and then I went to Monte’s house and met with him. Then I discovered his work, I watched “The Shooting” with Monte. Then I watched “Two-Lane Blacktop” by myself.
How was it to be with him in Venice when he got the Special Lion Career Award?
Oh, it was great. It was so great! It felt so good! That man is precious in every way. Your heart explodes when you see him up there.
You have a tendency to play darker roles in dramas, thrillers and horror movies. Is there any particular appeal or comfort that you find in those roles?
No. My first film was “A Knights Tale,” that’s what so strange about it, and then “40 days and 40 nights.” They weren’t slapstick or anything but they were lighter. And then, it just kinda took this turn. I’m not surprised, I understand it because I know myself well enough now; I’m aware of the more intense colors within me. It doesn’t surprise me at all, but it wasn’t something that I was consciously attracted to, I think it’s just where it went. At that time in my life I went through darker things, maybe that’s why that kind of work was coming to me. [In the future,] I would love to do comedy, it just has to be the right topic, the right film. And it’ll happen. I mean, most of my friends and family that know me, they don’t understand my work. They just don’t think that I’ve ever done anything close to the me they know in real life. So they think I’m watering myself down in a lot of the work and I agree with them. Probably it was just that people were seeing or sensing an intensity in me and so that’s why that material came my way.
Any particular brand of comedy that you would like to do?
Obviously, Woody Allen. It’s that kind of character comedy, subtle. That’s what I like. I don’t like “Legally Blonde,” and such… If it doesn’t make me laugh, I’m not gonna be able to do it.
I read an interview you did a few years ago where they ask you to choose between being a Bond girl and doing a really great indie film, and you said you’d chose the Bond girl because of the exposure. Do you still feel the same way?
Oh, that’s awesome. I wonder what interview that was and I wonder how I really, really said it. Well it depends on the role, if it was an independent film that I feel like I had seen before, then I might make the business decision with Bond. And Bond girls are a pretty crappy example. I think that interviewer was referring to something with more visibility, something more commercial and mainstream, a little more vanilla. But you don’t have to make a Bond girl so vanilla, you can do something interesting, which I’d try to do if I were to play a Bond girl. Yeah, I might still even make that business decision now, but sometimes the better business is the independent film with a meaty role that you’ve never done, where the script is incredible, the director is incredible… But you know I get a lot of independent film offers and I turn them down because there’s no money, and it costs me to be away from my son. And I don’t feel like there’s anything original about it, independent film just does not equal original. It’s like deep down it really wants to be a big budget romantic comedy, or it really wants to be like Se7en, you can just smell it in them. You’re trying to make this because it wasn’t able to get sold in a bigger way. And I’ve done a couple of those too, and I learned the hard way.
You are immersed in other art forms as well, where are you with your art projects?
I just directed a music video, and I made a lot of art videos for myself, so it was very interesting to do something that I knew was going to be seen a lot, and had to present it proudly, and it kinda kicked my ass a little bit, like “hurry up with this.” I think in between films I’m gonna start directing music videos and commercials. One, for my enjoyment, and it’s kinda like film school, I get to learn. It will also pay the bills we all need to pay, and then I won’t have to do jobs that I don’t like, cause it just hurts my heart too much when I do. And [sometimes] it’s nothing I would ever watch. I just don’t wanna do that anymore.
I’ve seen your videos on Vimeo and you seem to have a very keen sense of aesthetics and some of them involve dance…
I love dance. I want to incorporate it somehow into my life, so it does not go away. At that time in my life [when I made those videos] I kept having these dreams, and these feelings of this weird world, these little characters blipped in this little black box. You don’t really know what time or place it is, and it doesn’t matter. I was able to shoot those on super16 and explore the format. I never really presented them out there, they’ve been sitting on Vimeo. There’s nothing to promote. There’s no story. They’re just art videos. They’re just there and sometimes people discover them. Nobody really knows that “MaudeGone” is this other thing I got. I feel very happy on set when I’m behind the camera because I get to just be sloppy and wear my own clothes, and I don’t have to doll up, and be in that goddamn mode when I don’t feel like it. I don’t mind that mode once in a while, it’s charming and it’s fun to be a beautiful girl but I don’t like to be there all the time, no way. So I love to direct cause I get to be my nutty self, wearing whatever I’m wearing.
Where did “MaudeGone” come from?
I liked those two words how they looked put together. There’s actually not a huge, huge meaning behind it.
Who did you do the music video for?
My sister’s band and my old band that I was in, it’s called Warpaint.
Are you still involved with them musically?
No, but it’s not a bad thing. They had to focus in a way that I couldn’t do at that time, and they deserve to bring it somewhere. And I was a drummer there, I just couldn’t imagine spending the bulk of my life on a drum stool, even though I had a lot of fun doing it. I feel drumming is like dancing. I had a blast, and musically I still feel very attached to them. The video has been a blessing, it’s a way in which we can still be in each other’s lives, in a weird way it feels like I’m still in the band when I get to do something like that.