Semi Chellas makes her directorial debut with the release of AMERICAN WOMAN (2020). The Canadian-made film is an adaptation of Susan Choi’s 2003 novel, which is inspired by the events of the Patty Hearst kidnapping. Chellas brings viewers into the tense and curious relationship of radicals-on the-run, Jenny (Hong Chau) and Pauline (Sarah Gadon). With captivating cinematography and sound editing that emphasizes the film’s tone, Gadon and Chau’s talents perfectly complement Chellas’ vision. CineFlix Daily had the opportunity to discuss the film with lead actor, Sarah Gadon and here’s what she had to say:
CineFlix Daily: With the characters’ relationships being so tense, what was the atmosphere on set like between you and your co- stars?
Sarah Gadon: I had a natural curiosity in Hong from the moment I met her. She’s a very compelling woman. Often when you are acting in a close relationship with an actor you spend a significant amount of time trying to get to know them. Since we basically had no prep time before we started shooting, I brought that curiosity into the process of shooting the film.
CFD: The film brings up the subject of autonomy and what that really means, do you think Pauline was in a position of actual autonomy with Jenny?
SG: … I know for certain Pauline was attracted [to] Jenny’s rebellious spirit and I think they get caught up in each other. I think they found a kind of freedom in each other.
CFD: Pauline is a complex character and there’s few instances when we feel like we actually know what she’s thinking. Can you speak a little as to what you read in her psychology and in what ways you prepared for that?
SG: I read a lot about Patty Hearst- although the book and film are a work of fiction. Like Susan Choi and Semi Chellas, I was influenced by the actual story of the SLA and Hearst’s kidnaping. I don’t know why, but I end up playing a lot of women who have experienced extreme trauma in their lives, so I’ve also spent a good deal of time over the years immersing myself in an understanding of how trauma impacts a person. Often people who have experienced trauma exhibit behaviours that don’t seem clear or rational to people on the outside looking in. Often the characters whom I’ve portrayed experience trauma but don’t have the opportunity to process it, instead they suppress it, and it then permeates their lives in unhealthy ways. When I’m playing a character who appears to be confusing, or elusive, the beginning of the process is firmly grounding her in a place of trauma and being very clear about what that trauma was.
CFD: What do you like or dislike about Pauline?
SG: I don’t think I could play a character that I disliked. However, there are characters who have to go to emotional places that make me feel uncomfortable. Generally, I would say I’m a pretty happy person, so sometimes the hardest part of the process of playing emotional characters is acknowledging that I will have to go to emotional places that scare me or that I wouldn’t have to go to in my normal life.
CFD: What does the title mean to you? Or Pauline?
SG: I always thought the title of the book and the film referred to Jenny. I know the story of Patty Hearst was one of the most famous kidnapping’s of all time and it’s easy to think of the title in reference to her. What I love so much about the book and the film is that in this famous story at the heart of those sensational events, was the story of another woman, Jenny, or in real life, Wendy Yoshimura. Her story was marginalized because she wasn’t the prototypical American woman. What I love about the potential of mediums like books and film is that it gives us the opportunity to look back at the stories that were never told.
CFD: What do you want audiences to take away from the film?
SG: I want them to go on a steamy summer ride. I want them to think about how misguided and messed up movements can get when people hijack them for their own narcissistic pursuits. I want them to fall in love with Semi as a badass filmmaker[…] I want them to watch the film and think.
CFD: Any final thoughts you have about the film that I might have not have touched on? Moments of the film that were particularly meaningful?
SG: It’s summer and I’ve been spending a lot of time at home missing making movies, missing working with people. I miss throwing myself into a crazy gang of strangers and working towards something that you care so much about you’d mortgage your house for it. I say this because I usually work a lot in the summertime. It tends to be the winters that I have off. We shot this movie during a hot Canadian summer in a fury that you only shoot independent films in. We spent several weeks up at that farm outside Oshawa and it was beautiful. I’m always very grateful when I drive in to work. I know that being a working actor is a privilege. I’m really missing that today as I answer these questions but it’s nice to reflect and celebrate the work that has been done. Thank you.
AMERICAN WOMAN is beautifully shot and edited, and Gadon and Chau share a magnetic relationship on-screen that’s as alluring to watch as the frames. Despite a sombre tone at times, their performances naturally propel the mood transformations; intensely frightening moments are often followed by “the steamy summer ride.” After viewing AMERCIAN WOMAN, Sarah Gadon is completely correct in saying that Semi Chellas truly is “a badass filmmaker.”