Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Actors Laura Ramadei and Robbie Collier Sublett on Drugs, Babies and American River

Pre-interview:

Robbie Collier Sublett:  I didn't realize like how much...
Laura Ramadei: Can we just stick the mic somewhere?
Robbie: Why don't we snort it?

M: How is it to inhabit the world of American River?

L: It makes Robbie want to do drugs.

R: It does make me - I don't know why - but I go home every night and I like, just want to-

L: (laughing) get fucked up.

R: I haven't really done any recreational drugs, so I was lamenting the fact that I haven't done more because I feel like I've needed them for this play. Like, what would somebody who's actually done drugs do right now, becuase I hadn't done 'em so maybe I should do some real quick.

L:  I did some.

R: Yeah.

L: The week- the week before we opened.

Laura Ramadei
M: Was that helpful?

L: It was really helpful. It's always helpful to do drugs. Especially meth and heroin.

M: Maybe we should clarify that that's not what you did though.

L: No, I did not do meth and heroin. I have not done those drugs.

R: I was saying that to Stephen Brackett (the director) at the beginning, the drugs are like a fifth character. My girlfriend, Jenny, who came to see the play, said Conner's two loves are Liz and drugs, and Meth in particular, so the thing that's sad is that they both keep disappointing him. They both have that effect on him.

That's one of those interesting things too, because it's not only about being an addict, like what it's like when the drugs are in your system, because that's something you have to think about as an actor, but when you're in recovery, it's not like me or you being, 'oh, I can stop when I want to stop. I don't need to have another drink, I don't need to whatever'. In the addict, that mechanism doesn't exist for them, or it's been totally eroded, and not been around and functional for a long long time.

Robbie Collier Sublett
So that's one of the things I've been trying to layer back in, so as soon as it's introduced into the room or the conversation, his antenna pops up and he tries really hard, and he convinces himself that he's not into it, and doesn't need it, but then as soon as it pops up, it's too much. It's been another fun thing to play with.

L: I was talking to Kelsey last night about this, this factoid about Meth, that we'll assume is accurate, that it's the only drug that the first time you take it, it rewires your nerves. I don't know if I'm even saying it correctly, but it's splinters them off into various directions so to follow an impulse takes that much more connection than it normally would.

We've talked about focus and possibility and ideas and boredom slipping away when you're high, and that because these are kids that are sorta trapped, and don't believe in their futures, and they don't believe in their own potential, that meth puts them in a head space that they wouldn't experience otherwise.

For Liz, it's about, I mean it's obviously deluded, but it's about the possibility of what she could actually achieve and what could happen; what the world could be if she makes it so. Because then it's not a question of- as an actor - how do I play when I'm high and what tics and what physical attributes or what sort of actorly bullshit can I do to pull this off. It's about what this drug provides for someone, for their heart and their feelings. and what they want for their own life, which is much more interesting to play.

R: You've written these great, sort of like little fractured scenelets, when everybody is really starting to roll and buzz, and they jump so quickly from this thing to the next thing, and the impulse follow-through deteriorates upon using the drug makes a lot of sense, because what you've also scripted is people who have a lot of focus and a lot of drive, and active will to do something, but that something keeps changing, like this fly that keeps buzzing around them, that as soon as they get it, it turns into something else.

Brendan Spieth, Laura Ramadei and Robbie Collier Sublett
 That's kind of the fun thing to go after as an actor is to locate the thing that we're doing right now. It may be something totally different from what we were saying we were going to do five seconds ago, and what we do five seconds from now is going to be totally different from that. You don't have to actually think about drug behavior, you just think about how these are people who like to feel they can actually get things done in their life because they can't.

L: And they want to feel like they can. And I think this is more universal outside of Meth, but a drug experience is that when the inhibitions go, so do barriers between people. Like the ability to reach across a room and connect with someone is much more powerful when you're high because the fear and the rules about how you should behave as a human sort of melt away, which has a really interesting dynamic in act two that's really fun and natural to play, but I think what is interesting too about Liz and Conner's relationship is how it's been deepened by their experience with the drugs. I think they've found a depth to their relationship that I think is not always accessible when they're not high.

R: They're the most honest with each other when they're high because they're able to speak most candidly. I mean, that's when he apologized to Liz for the way he was treating her.

L: He is also apologizing for things that happened as a result of drug use.

R: Right, he's candid about the baby - we should leave the baby behind - I mean that's the real fifth character in the play, even though it has no lines. I mean, when we added the sound of the baby, and brought that element to play, it totally transformed how you get into it, and Laura, you said this before in rehearsal, 'I don't get it, I don't get it...'

L: Yeah, I kept struggling to get out the door and I even thought the baby was an obstacle, that the baby was the reason that she can't get to the end of the play, because she's a mother. There's something genius about adding sound cues and putting the baby in the baby carrier.

There's a moment offstage when I can't get it to stop crying, and it's like a peripheral sound cue, but I go offstage and listen to it and the sound cue is structured in such a way that it stops crying and then starts again, so I have this great opportunity to be like 'ohhhh, I got it. Ah, fuck.' which is totally like what dealing with the baby is - you're always trying to get it to stop and chill...(she laughs) oh babies.... so when we added that sound cue and started working with a very live prop, it became real for me in the playing of it.

The baby is actually the thing that drives her out the door. It's actually her failure to engage with that thing, and her sort of self-loathing in not being able to, and she just knows that she's a bad mother. That became real once there was that baby sound. I was like, 'oh my god, it's not because she's a mother. It's that she's a bad one, and she knows it, and she hates herself for it, and she can't actually interact with this thing and she can't be charming to it.'

M: You've had a lot of different responses about Liz. How has that been?

L: It's been tough. I've had a lot of conversations about it after the show and I try not to get to into it with them because I don't want it to impact what I'm doing, but I think the first conversation that I had that stuck out was when you and I were talking about Lesser America producing the show, and you said something about playing Liz and what did that challenge look like to me, that she's not that likeable, and she's done some things, and I hadn't really thought about that. I just kind of got who she was without having to be inside of it. It made sense to me because the character was still at a distance, but then getting inside of it was sort of like making an ill-fitting suit be my skin.

There was a little bit of adjusting and struggles with myself to justify it - my fear was that people wouldn't buy it, or that they would just write off the character as malicious and horrible, and that was sort of the risk to me because I get her, and I like her, and I don't think her actions are good or right, but I've been close to things as despicable as anything she does and I get it, and I want people to, too.

A lot of people, especially women, are 'you're doing a great job because I hate her, because she's horrible and I hate her and that means you're doing it right' and I'm like, 'oh, ok uh thank you' but there are other people who - like I had a conversation with my friend Emma last night who was like ' yeah, she does some fucked up stuff, but the thing about the character is that she's actually so buoyant and endearing. She's always driving the train in a way that you totally understand why she can't make certain decisions in the play. She can't be bound to certain things, like she just operates on a level that doesn't cooperate with some life choices some people make' and so I appreciate that.

M: Do you think she's held at a different standard than Conner is? That the expectations are different?


L: I think the assumption that this play challenges is that the maternal instinct is all powerful. There a lot of beautiful stories in the real world and fiction, or on stage or film about women finding themselves when they have their child, or the baby evolving someone because they rise to the occasion of having someone else that they're responsible for, but I don't think that's real or true. I think that humans are a complicated, ugly, little species who can defy principle or instincts like that, and I do think there there's a judgement on Liz because she's a woman.


R: and also the interesting thing is that, as a person, she understands her limitations. She understands what she is and is not capable of, and at this moment in her life, she's not capable of being a mom. Here's the thing, you can argue that it's a really terrible thing that she does in the end, and I guess to some extent it is, but the flipside is if she sticks around against what is maybe her own flawed better judgment at that time and tries to raise that kid in the situation that she's in with the limitations that she has, that kid's life is going to be infinitesimally worse

L: Yeah

R: Because she doesn't want to be there and I think people don't - I mean culturally people are like 'how could you do that?!' I was just reading this New Yorker article about how America, in particular, is such a child-centric culture, so it doesn't surprise me that we are having these conversations, and that people are having these responses like that, but in other countries the kids are important but they don't run the show.

L: Or they exist inside the community in a different way than in the nuclear family structure.

M: The funny thing is that if this is a kid-centric culture or we think of ourselves that way, where are the social systems to support families and to support children?

R: Yeah

M: I mean out of all the industrialized countries, we have the least.

R: Yeah. I feel like you could argue her decision in the play, even though the option is to leave it with an equally ill-equipped parent in Conner, at least she knows and sees in him a person who is trying to better himself, who is trying to leave behind this part of himself that was not helping and was dysfunctional, and in some ways - I don't think he knows it at the time, but Johnny kind of illuminates that at the end of the play - in some ways, it could be a weird blessing for Conner because the thing that he wants to be his new love is his sobriety. I mean that's the-

L: new relationship he's trying to foster.

R: That's the new love he's trying to woo. He's trying to woo his sobriety, and in the closing moments of the play he's totally devastated, but here's this really real thing, this living, breathing, crying, pooping thing that really needs him, and I'm not sure he totally can do it, but I think he can. This is his path and whether that is shitty of her, or a blessing for him, or some kind of amalgam of all those things, he realizes that his sobriety and his love for her cannot coexist, and I think that's what he discovers over the course of the play. There's a lot of self-loathing there, but he's finally piecing together that those things can't co-exist in the same place, or in the same time.

American River, produced by Lesser America, directed by Stephen Brackett runs Thursday - Sunday July 22nd at Theater for the New City. For more information, or to get tix, put it here.

Photo Credit: Melissa Gomez

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