Annie Clark isn’t as intense and intimidating in real life as the characters she’s best known for. Sitting across from me in a downtown Toronto coffee shop, she’s light years away from that troubled teens she’s best known for – Fiona Coyle (the character she played on the long running Degrassi: The Next Generation) and her first big screen starring role in the Canadian thriller Solo, in theatres this Friday. She’s actually quite friendly, warm, funny, and open, a personality that makes it easy to understand why she’s extra keen to take on new and challenging projects at this point in her post-Degrassi career.
In Isaac Cravit’s debut feature, Clark plays Gillian, a reluctant camp counsellor with a troubled past who takes a job offer to be a camp counsellor, ostensibly so she can have a job where she won’t be alone. Things quickly change once she gets to the camp and realizes that she has to perform a “solo” – two days alone on an island with only the most basic of supplies so parents will know their little ones are in the hands of people capable of surviving under less than ideal conditions. Gillian agrees, but once she’s left to her own devices it becomes clear that she definitely isn’t alone on the island and she might be in the presence of a potentially deadly and deranged stalker.
Despite a pair of characters on the island with Gillian, Solo is a largely one woman show for Clark who gets to play a dramatic heroine, a bit of a sleuth, and has a chance to show off a wide range of physicality. We talked to Clark about why she wanted to make Solo her first starring role, her thoughts on modern thrillers, why she chose filming over a vacation, why she never became a camp counsellor herself, and the freedom of being able to get a little down and dirty for the sake of the character.
Dork Shelf: This is an interesting kind of film to choose as your first starring role because so much of the film rides on you and your character. There are other characters around you, but in the end it’s all about you and for some stretches of the film, you’re the only person on screen. What made you want to take on a project like this with such a degree of difficulty?
Annie Clark: It was such a great thing for something like this to be my first starring role because you just have to jump into something like this with both feet, you know? It was such a great experience to just be a part of a film where I was on set every single day and to be there every step of the way and every step of the process, so that was just so much better than having a smaller part in a bigger movie. I’d much rather have a bigger part in a smaller, awesome movie. I read the script and I loved it, and then I met with Isaac and I loved him and it just worked so well.
DS: You’re playing a 17 year old camp counsellor, which is kind of a horror movie mainstay, but in this film pretty much every other counsellor with the exception of one is gone. It doesn’t even really take place at the camp. It’s really interesting how it takes place just sort of removed from where I think audiences would expect a film like this to take place. Have you ever been offered any genre films like this in the past that maybe you would have passed on?
AC: Yeah. I’ve definitely read other horror scripts that were definitely more conventional, and basically in all of the ones that I had read my character pretty much would have died right away. (laughs) And, I mean, that can be kind of fun, but what I loved about this movie was that she prevails and is a really strong character. There’s no nudity or gratuitous gore or anything like that. That stuff just wasn’t necessary. It’s all about the character and the story. There are all of these other horror movie elements to it, but the story could have been told with a guy or with a girl. It’s a very simple and kind of universal hook for one of these kinds of movies.
DS: There’s also a lot more tension that I think you can get from one of these films with only two or three people around instead of about 15 or 20.
AC: Totally. We really built on that sense of isolation. It was also really cool that for long parts of the film I’m not even speaking. That was awesome for me, too, as an actor, not because it was necessarily easier for me, but because in some ways that was harder and more of a challenge to try and convey what I’m feeling without actually saying any lines.
DS: It seems like you guys filmed in a really, really nice location, and that seems like it might be hard to get really terrified or make a scary movie there.
AC: (laughs) Yeah, we shot for three weeks, and for the last week we shot in Muskoka and Algonquin, and it’s so beautiful there. I have a cottage up there, so I was already pretty familiar with the area.
But for the first two weeks, we actually shot in Scarborough, out in the Rouge Valley, so it looks like I’m out on this beautiful lake somewhere far away, but really we were only half an hour or so from where we are right now. It’s such a beautiful park. I know when I see the movie now because I was there for all of the shooting which was which, but when you watch the movie as an outsider, you can’t really tell. Anything in the film where you don’t see water is probably Scarborough, with a couple of exceptions.
It was awesome to be up North and on the water. And we shot this in the summertime, too. We actually shot the film up there during the week when I normally would have gone up to the cottage with my parents. So they were a little sad, but I actually got to go to relatively the same place and have this awesome, really cool experience outside. It worked out well. (laughs)
DS: Have you ever had any sort of camping experience yourself, either by yourself or with friends or family?
AC: I did actually go to camp in Orillia for about five years, and I was actually really close to becoming a counsellor. I actually love telling this story, but I quit the year before I was supposed to go and do a solo because I absolutely didn’t want to do it. (laughs) Cut to a few years later and all of a sudden I’m cool with doing it. (laughs) I was a camper right up to the point where I was going to be counsellor, but that would have actually only taken one night out by myself somewhere. It wasn’t going to be on an island, and hopefully there wasn’t a murderer hanging around, but at the time I still didn’t want to do it. I like going to camp, but I’m really more of a city girl.
DS: As the film goes on, your performance has to get a lot more physical with the things your character is required to do in order to escape. It’s quite demanding the things you have to do, and the audience can actually see that it’s you doing them and not someone else. What was it like to push yourself in that respect?
AC: Well, as an actor I think I need that kind of realism, like there’s a scene in the film where I am getting almost buried alive and people always ask “Did you actually do that?” Well, yeah, I have to. I don’t think I would have been able to really covey that emotion WITHOUT dirt actually being shovelled on top of me. I can’t exactly think back to a time in my life that I could ever relate that to as an actor without actually really doing it.
For me it was amazing to be able to be doing all these fights and making it look like I was drowning, and it helps that [our villain] is so frightening and so great, and he was so in the zone. For the fight scenes I was actually pretty scared. (laughs) That was easy.
But even when it came to the make-up and look of the character, too, if it said I was supposed to look dirty, I would actually just roll around in the dirt because it was the easiest way to achieve that look. “Well, we have dirt all around here, so I might as well just use it!” (laughs) I would just put dirt all over myself. It was actually kind of fun in some ways. When you get to do stuff like that it started to feel like I was getting paid just to act like a kid.
DS: Had you previously been a fan of scary movies like this before you decided to make one yourself?
AC: Yeah, but I guess I would say that I’m more of a fan of suspenseful thrillers more than like gory, jumpy scary movies. That’s why when I read this script I wanted to do it because these are exactly the things that I would want personally from a scary movie. Something more character driven, wondering what’s happening, wondering who’s bad and who’s good. I find that so much more interesting than, like, supernatural or bloody kinds of movies.
DS: Getting back to your character here and how sometimes she doesn’t really say much, what was it like working with Isaac trying to create that character and how it should feel rather than just how it’s written on the page? We know a bit about your character from the beginning of the film and then a little bit later, but what’s it like trying to create that back story that we don’t necessarily get spelled out for us?
AC: We met up a lot and talked it though, and he was so amazing and he just wanted my input on everything and every detail of the character. He would always say things like, “Do you think you would say that line? If you don’t think you would, don’t say it.” He would always want me to do right by the character. I would see all of these similarities between Gillian and myself, so it wasn’t super difficult for me. I just kind of acted how I would act in any give situation.
As for the back story of the character, the first draft of the script actually had a lot more. It started with what happened with her sister, and when it was omitted in the other subsequent drafts, I asked Isaac if he still wanted some part of that to still be the story and in how I approached the character, and he just told me to go with it and to build this whole thing from it. I just kind of took this idea that he had and this history of what happened the previous summer. I don’t know if that came across or not, but either way for me it was nice to have something to hang my hat on and go forward with in the movie even if it’s not something that you see played out entirely word for word on screen.
Isaac is one of those writers who’s totally collaborative and wants that kind of input. He never thinks that his words need to be said exactly as they are written. He was really open to improv and ideas.
DS: What’s it like going from working on a TV show where you are part of a bigger ensemble to a film where the cast and crew combined almost don’t equal the number of actors on the TV show? Was that sort of freedom appealing to you after working on TV for so long? I can imagine there are a different set of expectations.
AC: Totally. It was drastically different from Degrassi, but in the best way, though. I felt so lucky that for my first film I am able to have an experience that I’ve never had before. That was awesome.
But, honestly, I was pretty sheltered working on Degrassi, so it was kind of a shock to be shooting on a super low budget film. There weren’t any trailers. I was changing in this little tarp that was put up around a field of grass. And there was definitely a lot less waiting around, and that was awesome even when you’re working constantly long days because you’re in every scene of the film. It made the process so much better, and it really got me in the camping mood. If I had a dressing room or something like that, it would have been mo much harder to get into that outdoorsy vibe. It was super different, but I loved it. I loved being the lead and working with a super small crew. I mean, I obviously love the crew on Degrassi, too, but this crew was made up of a bunch of people with whom we all went camping with together. We got to know each other so well. Some of them are still really close friends that I hang out with or still keep in touch with. It was really cool. I want to just try as many different types of things and ways of shooting as possible.
DS: You’ve actually just completed a few projects that are also different from both Degrassi and Solo, so what would you like to try and take on in the future if you want to keep trying different things as an actor?
AC: I guess I always consider myself more of a dramatic actor. Even on something like Degrassi, which you might say is a bit of a lighter show, I still played a character that could get super intense and dramatic. And there’s also a lot of that drama and intensity in Solo. So I just did a comedy recently that I just finished, and I loved doing that because no one has really seen that side of me yet. That’s something I would love to keep doing. I’ve also never done anything for the stage. I’ve actually never done a play in my life, so I would love to try that. But if I had any kind of a dream job, I would want to be on a show on HBO or AMC or something like that.
DS: I think it would be a dream of mine to write for one of those shows.
AC: (laughs) It’s everyone’s dream job these days, really.
DS: If I ever find a way to make that happen, I’ll be sure you give you a call.
AC: (laughs) Likewise.