In her latest onscreen appearance, Canadian actress Gabrielle Miller is not only playing an actress for what might be the first time in her career, but she’s also marking the first time she’s playing a character has been written with her in mind and in a story based on someone who was very close to her heart. Sitting down in the lobby of a Toronto hotel over coffee, she still seems taken aback and humbled by her involvement in Benjamin Ratner’s drama Down River (which recently opened in Vancouver and opens in Toronto this weekend).
Ratner has assembled something rare: a cast with four female leads written and directed by a man. In the film, Ratner loosely recalls his relationship to late Canadian actress Babz Chula, a woman who mentored Ratner and several of the film’s cast members throughout their careers. Though by no means a bio-pic, the spirit of Babz lives on through the character of Pearl, played by veteran actress in her own right Helen Shaver. Pearl, who has personal and health issues of her own to deal with, helps to mentor three creative types that have all reached almost impassable crossroads in their lives. Artist Aki (Jennifer Spence) realizes that the time is now or never when it comes to selling her paintings. Singer-songwriter Harper (Colleen Rennison) has to stop using people to get what she wants and is torn between her current boyfriend or the girl she used to love that has resurfaced in town. Fawn (Miller) is a struggling actress with deep Christian beliefs who is unsure about her talents, her profession, and the current state of her extremely prolonged engagement.
Miller (who has amassed quite a career for herself over her 20 years in acting) chatted with us about the film’s real life inspiration, her character, and why it was sometimes challenging for her to play an actress in a movie.
Dork Shelf: It must be rare as an actress to get material like this that has four main female characters that drive the story. It’s even more of a rarity that the script was created by a man. What’s it like getting material like this when I’m sure it’s undoubtedly very different from almost anything else you must get offered or you try to pursue as an actress?
Gabrielle Miller: That is an unfortunate rarity, isn’t it? That we kind of refer to any film with female leads as kind of a female driven film when we don’t look at every other film in that same respect that might be traditionally male.
DS: Movies like this with this kind of story could just as easily have been made with an all male cast.
GM: You can just say a film with women has women in it! (laughs) That’s a possibility, too. But that’s not the case a lot of the time because sometimes there’s this drive to just not call people “people” in general. And this was really exciting to me because Ben Ratner did a really beautiful job writing all of these character. I’ve known Ben for many years and I had worked with him before in the past. He wrote this film, I think, with each of the lead actresses in mind, so that was really cool. That was something I had never done before where the character was kind of written for me. That’s pretty amazing and rare, as well.
DS: It seems like an interesting jump for Ben, as well, since if you look at his career it’s different from anything he has attempted, too. What’s it like going back to work with someone you have worked with previously on something that’s new to both of you in many respect?
GM: It’s interesting because it looks that way, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt really organic because the film was inspired by our dear friend Babz Chula, so there was already an intimate kind of familial feeling for me when I approached the project and the crew was really small and a lot of them all knew each other, too, so that makes everything come a lot more naturally.
DS: With Babz as the inspiration that sort of drove the project, when did you first become aware that Ben was putting this project together?
GM: You know what? I can’t exactly remember the first time that Ben chatted with me about it, but it was a long while before we started production on the film. He hadn’t written it yet, so it was before that, and it was before he started organizing and getting stuff together to make the film. I’m sure it was well over a year before I got the script, though.
DS: Were you surprised that a film could be made that’s this universally relevant to people from someone you were as close to as Babz?
GM: Well, I think that because it isn’t a biopic at all and it’s inspired by Ben’s friendship and closeness to Babz and the connection they had sort of brings all of that out for the audience. She had a big impact on people. She said things brilliantly, and loudly, and truthfully, and she was just a huge inspiration and mentor to a lot of people as a result of that. That kind of spirit that she possessed in such a grand, wonderful way translates really well in this film, and the story itself really does relate to anybody. Each of those women are struggling in their own different way. They’re all unique and individual and there are lots of different ways for people to connect to the film in their own equal way, whether it’s through one or more of the characters.
DS: I think that everyone has that sort of surrogate mother or father in their lives that knows exactly how to talk to a friend with brutal honestly without hurting them and without asking for anything in return.
GM: That was one of the most amazing things about Babz, which is that she connected with people on such an amazing human level. Her approach to people was to always approach them as individuals. I don’t think there was ever a single type of person who gravitated towards her or vice versa. She just really knew how to connect. She kept things real.
DS: It comes across in the film that the Pearl character is someone who has definitely lived life and has a lot of different areas of expertise.
GM: And, I mean, that’s also Helen Shaver, too. Her performance in this and her connection to the character and how she created Pearl is just so beautiful. She’s just stunning. For me, I enjoyed watching all of the performances in the movie and I loved working with everyone, but Helen is really the one who has to blow people away and I think she does it. She’s wonderful to watch in the movie and how she works.
DS: You all have great scenes together where all of these characters are together in one room, and there’s an energy to those scenes where because Pearl is in the room, your differences don’t seem to matter as much to her. The opening scene is kind of an exception, but when you guys are around Pearl, this sort of self-consciousness just slips away.
GM: Yeah! I think more than the differences between us, the film is really about that connection that each of us have with Pearl. The intimacy that they feel with her – where they can just let everything go and just be themselves – makes up a deep and important friendship between them. They all gravitate towards her for very different reasons at this point in each of their lives.
DS: And Pearl is also the only character in the film that no one pushes back against. She always earns the respect of anyone she talks to almost immediately. You get a glimpse into the lives of these people and there is always something holding them back from within or something from outside themselves that they keep resisting. Pearl is just such a commanding presence that I can see why people wouldn’t want to push back against her. She’s never mean, but she’s very kind, honest, and matter of fact, which is something I think everyone probably wishes they could be.
GM: She’s truthful in the way that people need to hear the truth, but she’s really grounded. I said to Ben that each of the women in this film were loved. He really loved and respected them and all of their flaws, and pains, and loves, and each of the trials they were going through in their lives, and that really extends to the Pearl character, as well. I think it’s beautiful what he did with these characters. There’s so much care and that’s a lot of what makes the movie really special.
DS: It’s interesting because these characters are all at different points in their careers and personal lives, but they all seem to have stalled all at once. It’s not like they aren’t still keeping at what they’re doing, but they aren’t progressing either.
GM: There’s something inside them that make them kind of still stuck in their adolescence emotionally. I don’t know if that’s correct or not, but I certainly felt like that was the case.
DS: I can see that. To a certain degree they are all afraid of growing up in some way, which is a big hurdle that most artists kind of struggle with.
GM: I think it ties into that ability and desire to stay true to wonder. That’s not so much about playing characters that are always younger than you, but that ability to have a deep sense of empathy and to always tap into your imagination. I lived in my imagination so fully as a child that there is a connection there, for sure. I need to hold onto that myself because even in my adult life that’s how I stay connected to the characters I play. That’s how I get to that space where I can have that emotional connection to what’s on the page and get that sense of empathy and wonder in creating another person or another character as it were. Does that make sense? (laughs)
DS: Makes sense to me. But it’s also interesting that you are playing someone who is also an actress in the film. On the surface you’re playing the one of these three women who is almost inarguably the most grounded and mature of them in Pearl’s life, and yet her biggest things holding her back are a lot less visible than with the other characters.
GM: It’s faith in herself where she has this disconnect. She’s living such a faith based existence, and lot of that comes tied to her spiritual faith, but she’s missing the personal faith that should come tied to that. I think to live that kind of life you need to have that faith within yourself, so there’s a huge disconnect there.
DS: There’s also a strange disconnect that seeps into her professional life since she’s an actress who has a fairly low self-esteem. We see in the film how poorly she handles overhear people talking shit about her in the washroom during an audition. It’s strange because on paper and if you didn’t really know Fawn, you would think she has a pretty decent life. She’s grounded, has a system that she believes in, she’s kind, she has a job she loves, and it looks like she has a strong relationship at first. She seems to know what she wants, but she seems deathly afraid to tell anyone what that is.
GM: Or guilty for wanting it or something like that. That’s what I love about these characters and this writing. Being a human is really complicated emotionally and psychologically. We’re all really quite vast inside of ourselves. The things that we connect to or that we don’t connect to are always very different. Every human being struggles in one way or another.
That’s one of the funny things about working in media or being seen as a star or anything like that. Someone who looks outwardly happy and successful and that have this skill to create characters like these will always have their own shit that they’re dealing with. And playing an actress was kind of difficult for me. (laughs)
DS: Because at this point in Wren’s career you don’t know if she’s a good actress or a bad actress. All you really know is that she generally only plays the same kind of character in everything she auditions for.
GM: Yeah! It’s about trying to understand those abilities and those strengths coupled with the kind of passion and dedication that all artists need to keep things together. They all have different sets of skills and different sets of reasons, and that’s an interesting thing to play with. I can’t remember if I’ve ever played an actress before in my career, but it was fun while I had the chance. (laughs) It’s interesting to create a character like that and explore the things that she as a character needs to work on, which is something that as an actress you kind of want to fight, but it’s also what makes the character work on the audience. If your personal life isn’t being served, neither is your professional life, and that’s definitely the case with Fawn.