Kelly Reichardt’s 2 Requirements for Actors in Close-Up

Photo Source: Courtesy IFC Films

“A scene does have a life of its own,” says writer-director Kelly Reichardt. Especially, she adds, when it features multitalented, multifaceted actors.

“If you’re working with actors that are tuned in and thoughtful, everybody’s bringing a lot to it,” she explains. “I have something in my brain of how it’s going to be, then somebody starts speaking the words, and responding to how someone else is speaking the words. It’s obviously not going to be the same, precisely, as what you [thought]—which is part of the excitement.”

Take a scene in IFC Films’ “Certain Women,” Reichardt’s latest feature-length drama inspired by a selection of short stories from Maile Meloy. Fuller (Jared Harris) is being driven by his attorney Laura (Laura Dern) and reveals he wants revenge on his former employers for the disability his workplace injury caused. “The way I had thought about that scene, it’s hard to even remember now,” admits Reichardt. “I expected him to be shouting and her playing it quieter. And when they started doing the scene, she was way more amped up and he was playing it inward. It felt like, Oh, a film has its own life. And it feels wrong to completely impose something that is not the way either person involved is responding to the situation.”

That flexibility applies to weather and geography, something Reichardt takes into account in all her indie work, including “Wendy and Lucy” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” stories specific to their Oregon surroundings. “Certain Women,” which is set in Montana and features characters swallowed whole by desolate, sweeping vistas, often puts its drama at the mercy of the elements. The last act in the film’s three-act structure features a lonely rancher (Lily Gladstone) tracking down a woman (Kristen Stewart) she has befriended. It’s a scene so windy, both characters can barely communicate.

“You could hardly stand up,” remembers Reichardt. “Kristen was just trying to keep her dress from blowing up over her head. That scene would be completely different on a calmer day. The performances would have been so different.”

Reichardt even thinks about physical surroundings while structuring her projects. The movie’s second act, featuring Michelle Williams and James Le Gros as a married couple trying to buy sandstone off an elderly man (René Auberjonois), became what Reichardt calls “a little reprieve between these two other sections, both of which were so brutally cold. The weather was a little kinder to us during Michelle’s section!

“I got in touch with Maile and she was very generous about letting me try different stories to see how they would work together,” she says of the film’s conception. Although at first they were intended as short films, Reichardt began thinking about three isolated narratives that gel to create a quietly dramatic build-up, “where the impact of the emotion of the first two stories would happen in the third act, as it were.” Stewart, who was attached to the project early on, wisely cedes dramatic territory to the lesser-known Gladstone, whose spellbinding composure cracks ever so subtly in their characters’ tantalizing interactions. “She was so willing to let it be Lily’s story, the rancher’s story,” says Reichardt.

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Gladstone earned the filmmaker’s attention because of a self-taped audition, taking tiny character details from the script and incorporating them into her portrayal. During her in-person audition, the actor took direction well, one of two qualities Reichardt seeks in auditioners. “When an actor comes completely locked in to what a character should be, that’s the hardest thing to undo.” Ideally, an actor and director work in tandem to discover a character.

The second, more elusive quality, is the ability to go small in close-up. “I want to know people are willing to do nothing, to be still and quiet,” explains Reichardt. “Not frozen, by any means—but actors who are OK with just letting a moment pass. It’s just, the wind is blowing and the horse is doing something.... It makes you so vulnerable.”

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