Three of the stars of ‘American Woman’ joined writer/director Semi Chellas to talk to The Knocturnal about the Patty Hearst story and about feminism at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of the new drama.
The story of Patty Hearst is one that has been told and retold a number of times in the past 40 years, but few have been told like that of Semi Chellas’s American Woman, adapted by Chellas from the novel of the same name by Susan Choi. A fictionalized retelling of the Hearst story, American Woman focuses on Jenny, played by Hong Chau, as she gets involved in the kidnapping of heiress Pauline, played by Sarah Gadon.
Chellas, Gadon, Chau and co-star Lola Kirke all spoke to The Knockturnal prior to the film’s world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The Knockturnal: I know that Susan Choi wrote the book that inspired the film. How did you process through writing based on adaptation and also around a true story?
Semi Chellas (Writer/Director): That’s a great question. I really wanted to be faithful to the book and not the true story in that the book is an imagination of unknown parts of that story. So I feel like my allegiance is to the book. But it’s a process. I think my first version of the script was, like, 400 pages long because the book is, like, 400 pages long! So I had to say, “ooh, some of this might have to go.” So it was a constant process of bringing it alive and trying to find the spirit of the book even when I was condensing and changing and shifting things.
The Knockturnal: How did you put together the cast. Not just Hong Chau and Sarah Gadon, but the co-stars like Lola Kirke and John Gallagher Jr.?
Semi Chellas: It’s a great cast, and they had such amazing chemistry. They felt to me like they were all the right colors in the pallet. So I met Lola for coffee in New York, and she was like “I really feel like I should play Yvonne,” and I was like “I agree!” I was her servant right away, whatever she says I’ll do. And she’s so… she has such a glamorous, rock-and-roll vibe and it was perfect for that character. And John Gallagher is such a delight. I had seen him in a lot of things and he had a quality I really wanted for the character, which you’ll see in the movie. The character is, on some level, a giant asshole who really wants to be liked. And I wanted someone who brought a sweetness and vulnerability to that, coming with the sweetness and not the asshole. And John made it so real.
The Knockturnal: Your movie is loosely inspired by the Patty Hearst saga, and there are also movies at Tribeca right now inspired by Charles Manson and Ted Bundy—
Semi Chellas: And there is Apocalypse Now! The fact that the story of American Woman unfolds in the aftermath of the Vietnam War is really important current underneath the story, so it was amazing to see those other movies.
The Knockturnal: Do you think that there is a reason that movies like yours and Charlie Says are so important right now?
Semi Chellas: I think that you’ll really see in the movie that the mid-70s and this moment that we are in right now really have a lot in common. I felt like my movie, which was in development for a long time, got more timely as we got closer to now.
The Knockturnal: Can you tell me a little about your character in American Woman?
Hong Chau (‘Jenny’): I play Jenny, and the story is a fictionalization of the events that really happened. The scion of a very wealthy family is kidnapped, and there was an actual Japanese-American woman who was arrested with Patty Hearst when the FBI busted the ring up, and history never really acknowledged her. The story is from my character’s perspective, even though people expect it to be a “Patty Hearst story”.
The Knockturnal: This is one of your two movies at the festival, along with the film Driveways. Can you tell me a little about playing two very different characters?
Hong Chau: It was kind of crazy, I’ve never worked on two projects back to back as close as I did with American Woman and Driveways, because I started Driveways literally less than a week after I wrapped American Woman. So it was intense.
The Knockturnal: You’ve worked with a lot of great female directors, including here with Semi Chellas. Do projects directed by women draw you in more or is it something you just stumble into?
Sarah Gadon (‘Pauline’): Yeah, I think that I have always been a very director-driven actor, and I think that there is just so much content out there, so much material and so I think that if you’re going to tell a story then I want it told from a unique perspective. So often, women tend to be holding those unique perspectives. If you look at a story like this that is inspired by true events, the story of Patricia Hearst has often been told by male perspectives. And I think what is important about this film that has never really been considered is that it is not even told from Patty’s perspective, but from Jenny’s perspective as a character in history.
The Knockturnal: I don’t think that anyone would really call Patty Hearst a damsel in distress. What was it like playing a character based on someone that everyone knows a little bit about but no one knows everything about.
Sarah Gadon: In this film, we meet Pauline after the kidnapping and after she has been in the closet for a number of months, and it is after a lot of the other SLA members have been murdered. So you are meeting her at a time that no one really knows about. Which is really exciting as an actor, because when you’re playing a real person you feel very bubbled into everyone else’s opinion of them, and so nobody else really knows anything of what happened then, so it was very liberating.
The Knockturnal: How did you personally approach the setting historically of the film.
Sarah Gadon: Well I like research, and I like rehearsals. So I read the script and I read the book a number of times, and I read a lot of other different books [including] Patty Hearst’s biography that she co-wrote, and I read Anyone’s Daughter. And then Semi and I read through the script a bunch. I did a lot of work to find my way in.
The Knockturnal: Can you tell me a little bit about your character in the film?
Lola Kirke (‘Yvonne’): My character is one of the strange militia that has kidnapped Sarah’s character, and I think that she has kind of confused… She is a complicated lady, and I think that you see as the movie goes on how much of the politics are really masking her own insecurities.
The Knockturnal: Between American Woman and your movie Gemini from last year, you’ve played a lot of characters who are unknowable on the surface. Is there something that attracts you to those kinds of stories?
Lola Kirke: I think it is much more fun to play a complicated character than it is to play a not complicated character, you know [laughter]
American Woman premiered April 28th at the Tribeca Film Festival.