Red State Of Mind - Part Six
Posted on Sunday January 9, 2011, 19:24 by James White in Empire States
Empire attends Kevin Smith’s filmmaking Q&A series - Part Six: Kerry Bishé
Actress Kerry Bishe plays Cheyenne in Red State, a seemingly friendly, honest sort who turns out to be anything but.
Bishe is a native of New Jersey, and kicked off the Q&A (after recalling first meeting a bathrobe-clad Kevin Smith on set) with her idea on why people from the state – such as her Red State director – move into acting/filmmaking. "I actually have a theory about why people from New Jersey tend to be successful, like Meryl Streep,” she said. “I think we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder - New York is this big, beautiful, cultural city on a hill. A grew up in Montclair, and from my high school dining room you can see the city, but it's just out of reach and I think that gives people ambition."
After one of Kevin's typically filthy metaphors that had Kerry giggling and blushing at the same time, they got back to her upbringing. Bishé attended a small, relatively exclusive private school in the town, but not because of money or connections - she had an in thanks to her father, who was a history teacher there. "Everybody's favourite 7th grade history teacher," is how Bishé put it. "He'd dress up in colonial garb for classes." Bishé was occasionally embarrassed by her dad, who would help out with the school's lost and found policy by dressing up in strange clothes, touring classes to encourage the kids to pick up their lost items. The 12-year-old Bishé was mortified to be driven home from school by her father, with him still sporting the tricorn hat and outfit. She's apparently a product of both her parents equally - her father is gregarious whereas her mother is a quiet, sensitive veterinary technician.
Bishé originally harboured ballet dancer dreams, but when she was 12, she did Macbeth with an amazing teacher who started the fire of acting in her brain. She did community theatre in the summers and upon graduation went to Northwestern University, where she majored in theatre. Out of college, her first job was a one-woman show that Alan Rickman directed, called My Name is Rachel Corrie, which she credits as helping her learn a lot. Smith, who worked with Rickman on Dogma, recalls being asked by the actor if he'd come to see the play, but scheduling issues prevented him from making it. "Three actresses did it in New York," said Bishé. "One who originated it in London and then the other two of us took over. It's 90 minutes about this girl from Oregon who went to Palestine to protest for Palestinian rights and ended being run over by an Israeli bulldozer. She died." "Spoiler," quipped Smith. "The Guardian found her journal entries and emails," continued Bishé, "and they turned it into this play." As her first real, professional job, it was unbelievable for Bishé to get such as start. "I think it was around $900 a week, which was amazing. But I'd have done it for free. And you don't need money when you get out of college, you can eat ramen noodles!" Bishé credits Rickman with one big piece of advice, which helps her if she gets nervous. "'It's not about you,' is what he told me," recalled the actress. "And that's something I always remember - I'm there to do a job, and my feelings can just get in the way of doing that."
From there, Bishé made the move to TV, noting that that spring, future Red State casting director Deborah Aquila cast her in a medical TV series pilot that Zach Braff was shooting, written by his brother. While the show didn't get picked up, Bishé and Braff would work together again on the final series of the show Scrubs, which saw the actress cast as "the new Zach Braff."
"It changed to Scrubs: Med School," said Bishé, "So we were all med students. Zach became a professor at the school and they phased his narrator character out and phased me in as the new narrator." Asked what it was like taking over the lead of the show, Bishé admitted it was initially tough. "I actually didn't know I was the lead when I auditioned. It was just a role. I knew a couple of the people on the crew from working with Zach on his pilot and after I got the job, they explained what it was and I was, like, 'Oh? Oh! Okay...' There are some things that were great about it and some things that were really hard. But I learned a whole lot. I was there 12-16 hours a day, five days a week, that's a lot of work and it's an intensive acting training experience and comedy style. I think about Scrubs as modern-day vaudeville, with the little fantasy sequences and you get to do a lot of fun things. One day you're running from real Doberman Pinchers and jumping across desks and stuff and another day you're dressed up in 1970s roller staking gear... who knows!"
The show's eventual cancellation came after it petered out, which Bishé compared to a relationship going bad. "It's not you, it's the network that's changing!"
Describing her biggest challenge on the show as finding out what the characters wanted in each scene, Bishé praised Smith's writing on her Red State scenes, in which her character uses a number of different tactic to try to get what she wants. "There is a clear purpose to that scene," said Smith. "It's not just you and some dude sitting around, going, 'Do you think Princess Leia used to give blow jobs to Han Solo?' Normally, I write scripts like that, this time I got to write a script where the scenes are more powerful.” Sadly, neither could talk about the scene since the interview took place before Red State's bow at Sundance.
Talking about shooting the scene, Smith remembered getting a couple of takes of the scene on film and being ready to move on. But the actress had other ideas. "I remember this moment so clearly," said Bishé. "We were standing in the doorway and you were, like, 'we can do another one if you like.' 'I... uh...'" 'Kerry, this is the last time you ever get to do this monologue. Do you want to go again?' 'Okay.'"
"This was going to be more for her than me - I already had what I needed," laughed Smith. "And then we roll. And Kerry ratchets the performance up 75 percent from the previous take, which was already good enough for me. She pulled stuff I didn't even know was there in the scene!" I couldn't figure out how or why you did that and I held on to it for maybe half a day or more and I asked you at the end of the day what was it about the third take. You told me, 'I knew it was the last time I was ever going to do it.' It was a beautiful moment, a beautiful performance.'"
"That's a really rare moment to find with a director," said Bishé. "You don't always get a ton of respect for your job or even you as an actor. I'm blonde, I'm a girl, and I’m in Hollywood. But to have your director come and ask you what you did, really wanting to get an answer is a great moment."
And Bishé is also a trooper, with Smith recalling Bishé getting injured - twice - while working with actor Marc Blucas (Buffy/Knight & Day). The pair tangle and one of the guns that Blucas is carrying for the scene goes sailing through the air and lands on Kerry's hand, causing a nasty cut. "We were running up against it, time-wise and if it had been one of those movies with a budget, we'd have set the scene aside and finished it another day," said Smith. "But this was one of those movies where you needed to keep moving. We took care of her hand, but Kerry's such a trooper. Marc was mortified. He kept apologising. It was an accident! And then, two takes later, we were doing more of that scene and a rifle swings and hits Kerry right in the face. You were the second Red State cast member we had to send to the hospital!"
"Which is great," laughed the actress, "because I show up at the hospital and my knuckles are busted, I've got a thing on my head, but I'm also covered in other scrapes and dirt and make-up injuries. People thought I'd been in a car accident!" "She deserved hazard pay," said Smith.
Cheyenne is a member of the Cooper clan - one of Abin Cooper (Michael Parks)'s granddaughters, in fact. "We were talking about finding a voice for the Cooper family, a regional dialect. I told everyone to talk to Parks and keep an ear towards what he's doing," said Smith. "We all went out for lunch and Michael is simply amazing," raved Bishé. "We talked about the dialect for five minutes - it turned out well - and then he told me stories. He's lived a life and a half. He's hilarious too."
Bishé's other work includes a film with Edward Burns, Nice Guy Johnny, which was her first big role. The actress says how strange it is that Smith and Burns are from fairly similar backgrounds but such different backgrounds. Which somewhat naturally throws us into another round of Filmmakers Kevin Smith Has A Beef With. "I hated him in the '90s," he chuckled. "I saw his film The Brothers McMullen and said, 'this isn't an indie film, this is a Hollywood film with no budget to it. It plays like a standard rom com. It made $10 million, which was huge for an indie at the time. He was the guy against whom I would grade my career at that point. Clerks made $3 million, then Mallrats made $2, then Ed's movie made $10 million, and so that pushed me on Chasing Amy and we made $12. But then he fell off the face of the map and started making movies straight to iTunes."
Asking about Bishé's approach to her career, Smith questioned what she sees in parts and how she chooses what to audition for. "I see it as an experiment. I don't want to regret choosing something or not doing something else," she said. "I like roles where I can relate to it in some small way or the farther away the character is from who I am, the more I can learn about myself and the more other people can practice empathy. The more different people are from us, and the more human I can make them, the more work we're doing to not judge them. That's why I believe in acting - it's not just a job or my career."
For a chance to hear everything, point your browsers and your ears towards the Red State Of The Union podcast.