Personality Complex is a regular feature of Complex's Pop Culture channel, where you'll be introduced to rising stars of film and television.
A small downtown Manhattan theater buzzes with energy on a Friday night. A bright-eyed girl in a floral dress, plastic wine glass in hand, stands in the middle of the crowd of critics, crew, and friends, thanking them for attending. Her name is Sophia Takal, and she's a little nervous. It's understandable, considering her guests were just treated to an early screening of her latest film, Wild Canaries, which would begin its festival circuit—first SXSW, then the Sarasota Film Fest, then Boston's Independent Film Festival—later that March.
Wild Canaries, a screwball comedy that recalls Clue, is a departure for Takal. The writer/director/actress has made her mark in the independent film industry starring in lo-fi genre fare and quiet and contemplative slice-of-life films with and by the same people. Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil, and Ti West, are all related names that appear if you search for her. On her filmography, you'll find The Zone (2011), Supporting Characters, V/H/S (2012), and 24 Exposures (2013). Not only does Wild Canaries, the hilarious maybe-murder mystery, have names recognizable to non-cinephiles, such as Jason Ritter, Kent Corrigan, and Alia Shawkat, but it showcases Takal's abilities like never before. She's a surprising comedic talent who's absolutely magnetic on screen.
That's partially thanks to her husband, Lawrence Michael Levine, the film's writer, director and co-star, whom the Montclair, NJ native met while he was her T.A. at Columbia University. Together, they've worked on Levine's first feature film, Gabi on the Roof of July, and Takal's own written/directed movie, Green.
With 25 acting credits to her name since 2009, Takal is a familiar name to those who frequent indie movie houses, but Hollywood's been tougher to crack. She's proven she's got everything it takes to her name on the Grauman theater marquee, but her phone isn't ringing off the hook. It's time for casting directors to throw out the old Rolodex and give Takal a call.
Interview by Tara Aquino ( @t_akino)
No Days Off
So you’re a crazy prolific actress on this real indie grind who shows up to every film festival, but you don’t get hounded like, say, Sandra Bullock.
I mean, well, I don’t do that anymore because paparazzi just follows me all the time. [Laughs.]
When did you start working in the movies?
A year or so after I graduated college Lawrence and I shot this movie called Gabi on the Roof in July, which I acted in, produced, and edited. Lena Dunham had a part in the movie, and so did Amy Seimetz and Kate Lyn Sheil. We didn’t really know anyone in the movie beforehand.
On where Takal's ideas come from: "I usually start with a bad feeling and use that bad feeling to create something positive."
How’d you connect with Lena Dunham?
Through Amy Seimetz, who worked with her on a short called Round Town Girls. The character that I was developing went to Oberlin, where I didn’t go, and Lena did. So Amy put me in touch with her to talk about the school.
Where do you like to meet people to collaborate with?
Movies tend to end up in the same festivals, so you spend more time with your friends out of town than you would while you were home. It helps solidify friendships.
Is that something that you thrive on, being at a festival and being surrounded by filmmakers?
Yeah, I do. Sometimes it’s grueling and exhausting, and you just want to be home. With Green, by the end of the festival run I was thinking, “I never want to make movies again.” A week later you’re well rested and then you’re like, “Never mind, I do.”
Did you have second jobs when you were starting off?
I was a waitress for a while and worked at a coffee shop and babysat. I would go on Craigslist and look for jobs that would pay me a lot of money for a short amount of time. I was like a PA for some post-9/11 health initiative and I had no idea what it was and I was running around having no idea what I was doing a lot of the time, just trying to make money.
Nowadays are you able to just focus on film?
Yeah, now I'm just really focused on acting and helping Larry make his movies and trying to direct another movie as well. My everyday consists of writing, like working on scripts, maybe staring at the Internet. Larry and I try to be working on at least one movie a year. For the past couple of years, we've been going from one movie to the next. From pre-production through the festival run or like acting in movies and being out of town doing that—I haven’t had a normal day in a while.
How does your creative partnership with Larry work?
It's a lot of talking and then a lot of fighting and then a lot of talking again. [Laughs.] The difference between us is that he’s very focused and disciplined and he will write every day for a certain amount of hours. He'll write in the same place and can’t move around because he's so focused. I'm a little more flaky and I jump from idea to idea and I'm not sure if one is better than the other.
We alternate who’s directing, and the reason we do that rather than co-directing—even though we are both heavily involved in each other’s work—is because someone needs to have the final say. Otherwise, we would go around in circles forever arguing our points. [Laughs.]
Where do your ideas come from?
I usually start with a bad feeling and use that bad feeling to create something positive. [Laughs.] This new movie that I'm trying to make is about my feelings of frustration and inadequacy fitting in with my ideas of what an ideal woman is, or what femininity is.
You seem like you’re always thinking about the next thing. Do you have a list of projects you’d like to get started on?
Yeah. The thing is, those ideas are really specific to a period of time that I was going through in my life and sometimes it takes a while to get a script to a place where I feel comfortable showing it to people. To me, a movie is worth doing if two years later you’re still like, “Yeah I really want to say this.”
Do you have any other projects you're currently working on?
I don’t think that every work has to touch every person. It would be very vague and unspecific and would end up touching no one.
I have a project that my husband wrote that I'm directing called Always Shine, which we are shooting this year in California. It's a psychological thriller. That's another one where we're trying to make a bigger movie on a bigger scale and give it a chance to be seen by more people.
Does that make you miss your early processes?
Yeah. I mean, it’s exciting to have the resources to make a really awesome movie, but it’s also frustrating in a way because I'm used to just calling my friends and saying, “What are you doing next week? Let’s make an improvised movie in our apartment."
How do you find funding for your films?
We have producers who are better at that than us, who help us either through production companies or a private equity.
How do you feel about the people who react against “mumblecore” movies?
I don’t know why people react strongly towards a movement. If a certain movie is considered mumblecore, that's fine. I don’t understand the hostility towards what I think is a very genuine approach to creativity. In a world that is increasingly less supportive of that creativity, it’s really important that that exists. It’s inspired a lot of my friends and I to pursue something we care about and reflect a certain person’s life or a group of peoples lives. I don’t understand being totally anti-that, like as a thing or a concept or a notion.
The criticism I hear most about mumblecore is the same criticism people give to Girls, that it’s inaccessible to the general public.
I don’t think that every work has to touch every person. It would be very vague and unspecific and would end up touching no one. I understand the idea of, "This didn’t reflect my life, so I don’t like it,” but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. I’ll watch a movie that doesn’t reflect my life and I’ll either be happy that I saw it because it brought me into a world that I didn’t know much about before, or it just wasn’t for me.
Taking Advice From Her Jiminy Cricket, Jay Z
Have you ever seen the dark side of Hollywood that everyone always talks about?
No, but I have seen the dark side of independent film.
There's a dark side of independent film?
Yeah, now you know. Any sort of world that you're in, people can be pretty competitive and that can be very disruptive to relationships.
What would you say is the hardest part about independent film?
The day-to-day is kind of brutal. You don’t have much money or support, which is what I love about it. Everyone is wearing multiple hats and working together to create something. If I ever make bigger movies, I would love to hold onto that impulse of camaraderie.
Do you think about breaking into “Hollywood”?
For me, it's hard to not want to be a part of the Hollywood system, to not look at how glamorous it is and feel like I am failing for not being a part of that world.
For me, it's hard to not want to be a part of the Hollywood system, to not look at how glamorous it is and feel like I'm failing for not being a part of that world. I'm not against big budget Hollywood movies, but it's very important for independent film to exist. It’s very important for there to be an alternative to this sort of shallow, glamorous, beautiful-people films. But I guess it’s hard for me to not get a little frustrated or swept up and feel like I am a less valuable person because I don’t succeed in that way.
On a good day, when I am feeling into my higher self, I feel really happy that I'm not a part of that and I feel happy that I am outside of a system that's run by capitalists and is all about making money. But on a bad day, when I am being really greedy and small, I wish that I had millions of dollars and had all these really nice clothes and was making this dumb movie that everyone is going to go see, and that I don’t care about all this other stuff.
But at the end of the day, I feel lucky that that side of me hasn’t taken over.
There's this whole thing now where everybody wants to be best friends with a celebrity they see on screen. Would you want to be famous in that sense, where everyone wants to be your friend?
Honestly, I’m really uncomfortable with that thing in myself that thinks that celebrities are better than regular people. In our culture, there’s an obsession with celebrity as a concept, and this idea of being famous. Like just because you’re famous you’re famous.
Celebrity is very personality driven.
Right, and some of those celebrities are very talented, but there’s a whole other group of people who literally don’t do anything or contribute anything, and are still revered. I’m not that in touch with what teenagers are into these days, but it’s so hard for me as an adult to feel centered and valuable as a person with all this stuff going on. I could only imagine what a 12-year-old girl is feeling when she looks around trying figure out what she wants to grow up to be.
Who do you idolize?
I look up to people who carve out a stance for themselves and don’t compromise that. I can’t think of anyone right now, but I’m always struck when it seems like, whether it’s a filmmaker or an actor, his or her vision is for themselves is uncompromised. As I work more and more, it seems like it’s so easy to give in because it’s so exhausting if you don’t. It becomes even more admirable in another person the more I find myself wanting to take the easy way.
What do you think about movies that seem to get done just for a paycheck?
Sometimes people doing things just for a paycheck opens them to be able to do something even more daring after.
Do you go on auditions?
I do. I actually hate auditions, and I think they're terrible. I hate them. I wonder if I'll ever get used to them. I feel really vulnerable and maybe one day I'll be good at them, but maybe I don’t go on enough to be good. [Laughs.]
Have you ever experienced rejection from a big role that you wanted?
I don’t think so. I'm always really embarrassed if I have a bad audition. My ego gets into it, so no matter what I am auditioning for, even if it’s not something I care about, I really want to get that part because I'm competitive.
Sometimes people doing things just for a paycheck opens them to be able to do something even more daring after.
Has there ever been a movie or a TV show that you did audition for that made you think like, “Oh my god, I am actually here auditioning for this!”?
I kind of feel that way about every audition that I go on.
What's the most common critique that you get from a casting director?
A lot of times people tell me to slow down. I tend to speed up because I am nervous. [Laughs.]
Is it a goal for you to be in a big blockbuster?
It would be cool. It would be cool to have my choice on what I want to do and never have to audition for anything. But I like the freedom and creativity that comes with independent film and working with my friends and working on what we believe in. I don’t want to have to give that up.
Has moving to L.A. crossed your mind?
Yeah, my husband and I are actually going out there in the spring for a little while, trying to see if it’s a place where we would want to live for more than a couple months.
Do you have that mentality that everyone in L.A. is so fake and New York is better?
I always had that in my brain, but what I've come to realize is that there are really shallow, competitive people in New York and really shallow, competitive people in L.A. and really shallow, competitive people in Montana.
If you could give advice to someone who is trying to grind the way you are what would you tell them?
I always think of a Jay Z lyric, “He who does not feel me is not real to me, therefore he doesn’t exist, so poof, vamoose, son of a bitch!”