Most people know Toni Kalem for her work on the HBO mob drama The Sopranos, on which she plays Angie Bompensiero, the long-suffering wife of the late Big Pussy. The petite actor will be the first to tell you she frequently gets cast as "tough Italian girls," despite relating more to her role as the fragile Laura in The Glass Menagerie. Perhaps this is why she felt a strong connection with the character of Evie Decker in Anne Tyler's novel A Slipping Down Life. Kalem originally optioned Tyler's book with the intention of playing the isolated character. "I kind of thought this was my investment in myself," explains Kalem. "Over time, it sort of morphed. I wrote the screenplay, and it never occurred to me to direct."
A lucky choice, considering her sure-handed touch has translated the quirky novel seamlessly to screen. Kalem perfectly captures the melancholy feel of small-town Americana and two ordinary people trying to escape it. According to Kalem, one of the things that changed her mind was working with a director who seemed less than self-assured. "He didn't seem to have a clue what he was doing," recalls Kalem. "And I thought, 'Gee whiz, I can direct this movie.' Some light went off in my head, and I realized, 'This is what I was meant to do.'" Another encouragement came from Tyler, who sent Kalem a note after reading her screenplay. "She said she could tell I really understood her characters. That gave me great encouragement as I tried to get the movie set up," says Kalem. "There was other competition for the option from studios and people way bigger and more established than myself. And I think Anne, having given her approval to the script, helped me tremendously."
There was only one deterrent to making the film: Kalem knew nothing about the mechanics of directing. "As an actress, I had never paid attention to the technical aspects of filmmaking," she admits. "I didn't even know what the word telecine meant, I'm ashamed to say." With $250,000 worth of donated equipment and actors Kathy Najimy and Adam Arkin starring, Kalem set out to try her hand at directing by making a short film based on the book. "I felt like I had to be able to sit in a room with people and believe that I could stand on my feet and direct," she says. "When I finally had this epiphany about directing it, it wasn't so much that I had to sell the idea to other people as I had to sell it to myself."
After successfully completing the short, Kalem worked with casting director John Papsidera, who helped get the script out to the caliber of actors required to get the movie made. When Guy Pearce and Lili Taylor signed on, the film was greenlit for a six-week shoot in Texas. "Actors are always looking for parts that have a lot of layers; they want multidimensional characters that you haven't seen before," says Kalem of the script's appeal. "I guess it's the script that attracts actors, because they certainly didn't know me."
It's been five years since A Slipping Down Life premiered at Sundance, and asked if it's strange to be talking about the film all this time later, Kalem is philosophical. "It isn't so weird," she observes. "What's weirder is that it's actually going to happen. That the world knows about our little secret now." During the years when the film's release was in limbo while studios toyed with different cuts, Kalem was uncertain her version would ever be released. "I never knew. I always hoped and prayed. But it was so difficult then. There were a lot of incredibly dark days, but we never gave up. You can't."
Kalem, who still appears on The Sopranos, hopes to direct again soon. She has optioned a number of other books, and her next project is directing an adaptation of the Lorna Landvik novel Patty Jane's House of Curl, with Laura Linney set to star. Asked if she'll continue to pursue acting, Kalem pauses. "I think, at this point in my life, I love to act and I will definitely do it if it fits in with my schedule," she notes. "But my priority now is different. There are so many stories I want to tell." BSW