I recently got the chance to sit down with Sally Jackson to talk to her about her role as Ellie in ‘Red, White & Blue’. Here, Sally talks about the film’s violent and moral nature and about her background in film as a casting director…
Hey Sally. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me. ‘Red, White & Blue’ is in cinemas right now, and I’ve had the chance to go and see it. Seriously, I thought ‘Saw’ was bad, but this goes full-out on the old violence…for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, how would you sum up the plotline?
I saw immediately that this was a love story. In one night of reckless sex and irresponsible, youthful excess, one young man sets off a series of cause and effects that results in the destruction of everything he knows and loves. In the midst of this disaster, two lost souls fall in love. A fallen dove and a tortured soul find the love that has so eluded their lonely lives up to now. The wedding picture Nate holds in the last scene just broke my heart. I also thought it was great that he turned out to be exactly who he told her he was, and obviously, you don’t want to piss someone like that off. In my mind the spine of the story is that there is innocence and pain in all of us….and we all need love. Whew! What a story, I was gobsmacked by the script.
Tell us a bit about your character, Ellie. In my view, she was the only innocent character in the film…
It was hard to make a good personality choice for Ellie because all good characters are flawed and based in pain. Emotionally flawed people are the best to play. I chose ‘doomed’ and asked Simon if that choice would be good enough to wrap itself around the spine of the story, and help to fulfill his concept of the world of the story. For my ‘life object’ I kept seeing a big clock on the wall that just kept ticking and ticking. I wanted the clock to stop ticking. I wanted time to stop for Ellie so that she could be free and finally be happy. She almost made it. She had a moment of freedom from the clock, but the life she brought into the world…took her out.
What made you go ’Yes, I want to be a part of this project’? Given your character and the violent nature of the film – I’m surprised….
That’s a really good question because I am very wary of projects filming around here. I moved here from Hollywood to take care of my aging mother. I kept hearing about Austin being ‘the third coast’ and a hub for independent filmmakers. Although I didn’t want to move here, I decided to make the best of it and see if I could get an agent and get cast in some of these movies. The first thing I did was to go to many, many screenings of movies written and directed by local, Texas filmmakers. I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, but I am an industry professional and I have never seen such crap that calls itself art. Really, really bad stuff, tantamount to the movies being made by first-year film students at UCLA or perhaps fucking Lubbock Community College. Sorry, please excuse my potty mouth, but it’s still not as bad as Julie Andrews’ (she has a mouth like a sailor). I was so depressed. Every day I checked our local breakdown service that posts movie projects coming to film in the Austin area. Ninety-nine percent of them announced proudly that the pay would be ‘copy, meals and credit’ and that the film would be submitted to all film festivals on the ‘circuit.’ First of all, my students tell me that they never get a copy of the movie, the meals consist of catering by the likes of ‘Bubba’s Bar-B-Q & Pool Hall’, and the credit is meaningless because the movie is never seen by anyone but the 12-man cast and crew at the screening party at a backyard taco stand. Then, one day, I was doing my requisite perusal of the breakdowns and there appeared an interesting one that seemed professional, paid actual money for actors, and seemed to have a character breakdown that showed depth. I didn’t know about the violent content when I submitted my picture and resume online for this movie. But who am I to look down on that? Not only did I do ‘Location Casting’ for ‘Natural Born Killers,’ I also played ‘Mickey’s Mom’ in it. AND, I did the Texas casting for ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre/The Beginning’, No, I am not afraid or turned away by violence in storytelling. I mean, come on, I’m an actor. We find the darkness enticing. I researched Simon Rumley on Google, IMDB, and any other online info sites I could find. I thought, wow, this guy is good. And he’s being watched by the powers that be. Hmmmm, I wanted to be in this movie after watching a couple of his shorts and renting, through Netflix, a feature he did. I got to where I really wanted to work with Simon. I thought it would be fun, challenging, and give me some money for drinks and aps at Happy Hour at ‘The Four Seasons’ bar. I really wanted the part of Ellie. Thank you, Simon.
Come to mention it, the film also tackles the subject of HIV in a very moral, yet sensitive way – do you think that more films need to focus on these sorts of taboo issues?
I wish they would. Everybody around here just wants to do zombie movies. Oh, please, give me a break….and don’t get me started again on the movies around here. I grew up on movies with stories that mattered, that said something good and strong. I was deeply affected as a child by films like ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement,’ ‘The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit,’ ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ etc. If you were to see ‘A Place In The Sun’ again you would be amazed at how we have changed as people in this country. At the end of that movie, Montgomery Cliff’s character goes to the gas chamber for killing his pathetic, lower-class girlfriend. He didn’t kill her. It was an accident. But here’s the thing….he believes that he should be executed because he wanted to kill her and he actually thought about it. He feels he deserves to die for his thoughts. Wow. Look at ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ about the secret banning of Jews from high-class gentlemens’ clubs and hotels, and a reporter who decides to do a story by pretending to be a Jew and then attempting to join one of these clubs. Wow. In ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ Atticus Finch is a white, southern male who risks his livelihood and reputation to save an innocent black man accused of raping a white girl who is lying about everything. He cannot win against the bigotry and racism that was rampant at that time. I will never forget the scene where Atticus leaves the courtroom in despair and sadness. Of course all the black people must sit in the balcony, and his daughter is up there with them. One of them says to her, “Stand up, Scout, your daddy’s passin.’ (or something like that) And they all stand in honor of this man as he walks out. Wow. I would like to see more movies like the ones I mentioned, but, like I said before, we have changed so much. Nobody makes movies about integrity anymore. People don’t seem to have integrity any more. Don’t get me wrong, I love the flashy trash. I loved ‘Transformers,’ ‘Die Hard,’ and ‘Titanic.’ But I prefer the deeper stuff, like ‘Million Dollar Baby’ for instance. The last scene between Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank was a killer. Wow. I always tell my students, ‘don’t be afraid of the schmaltz, it wins Academy Awards.’ To me, the only taboo subjects are hard-core pornos that hurt people or involve children. Everything else is fair game.
The film stars Noah Taylor, Amanda Fuller and Marc Senter – what was it like working on-set with them?
I have to tell you, I just fell in love with that darling Marc Senter. I had some scenes with him and enjoyed working with him very much. We had some wonderful talks about our characters with Simon, and just between ourselves. He is a great young man, and I would love it if he were to become rich and famous. I only met Noah and Amanda on the set briefly. I don’t really know them but I was so surprised when Noah started talking with an English accent! Damn, he’s good with accents, I had always thought he was a Texican. Seems like a really nice guy though. I loved every conversation I had with Simon Rumley and wanted to do anything I could to add something worthy to his movie. I even shaved my head for god sake.
Let’s talk about you Sally. What made you want to get into acting in the first place?
Being an actor was never a decision I made. It’s a compulsion I’ve had since I was old enough to breathe. My mom even enrolled me in an acting class for children once, but I was too shy and the thought of being in a play terrified me to the point of physical illness. I majored in art in college for four years and then moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico to become a full-fledged painter. A friend of mine invited me to come to a rehearsal for a play he was in downtown. An actor was to throw a key offstage in one scene and they asked me to hold a blanket and catch the key with it so it wouldn’t clank or get lost backstage. I was so excited to be given something to do. It was fun. They all went to a dressing room to get director’s notes and I sat down in a theatre seat. Sixth-row-center. I had to shake my head and laugh, because I felt I had just wasted four years of art classes at four different universities. I knew as I sat in that chair that I was where I belonged. I was in a theatre. I was home. I was still too shy to be an actor and figured I would never be good enough at it, so, I became a stage manager. I studied the actors from behind the curtains, their mannerisms, processes, and methods. I envied them. I wanted so much to be an actor. I stage-managed in seven different theatres for seven years in Santa Fe, and was sought after for all plays going up in the town. I stage-managed shows for Cather McCallum, a legendary theatre director who was brilliant on Chekov, Tennessee Williams and other classic plays. In 1980 a friend of mine who was an acting coach came to town to direct a play. Of course he asked me to stage-manage it. We got drunk in a bar on Canyon Road one night and he told me he wanted me to be the ‘Maid’ in the play, a one-line character. I let it out that I was too shy to ever get up on a stage, and voiced all my fears. He convinced me to go to his classes to see if I might get over my fears. He said he would make it a safe place for me, and I might find out that indeed, I could be an actor. I was 30 years old in my first acting class. It was like a drug. I’ve never been able to get enough of this drug. And now, thirty years later, I can say it proudly and truthfully…yes, I am an actor.
We should mention you’re a casting director and you’ve been doing it since 1984. Given your 17 year experience within the industry doing this sort of thing – what would you say casting directors are looking for in terms of acting abilities and on-screen presence?
Ahem, son, make that 27 years. And I have had the extreme pleasure and honour of working with many legendary directors in the process of casting for major motion pictures that were filming on locations in states other than California (Location Casting). I learned something from each and every one of them. They all have different styles, but it’s like all the different religions….different styles but in the end, only one God. They want actors who are brave and truthful. They want actors who love what they do and are trained well. You must be a warrior to be a great actor. Going to those dark places in the soul, truthfully, deeply, and fearlessly.
You must get asked this a lot – what advice would you give to anyone wanting to become an actor?
What is that Betty Davis quote?…’Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.’ I think that’s the line. Do what your soul wants you to do. You will be compelled to do it. You will lose all sense of time when you are doing it and….you will feel like you don’t age when you do it. The amount of talent you have for it is directly proportional to how much you want to do it. If your desire to act is overwhelming…then so is your talent for it. It would be a tragedy for you to ignore something so beautiful for the sake of a dead-end job that pays the rent. Go to classes all the time, at least once a week and preferably twice – for the rest of your life. Do plays. Go to movies. Read books and have a healthy respect for the written word. Be brave. Enjoy the journey. Sometimes the landscape isn’t pretty and the ride is bumpy, but sometimes it will make your heart soar, and fill every cell of your body with awe. Becoming a star is a side effect of all this glorious madness. If you are only out to become a movie star, I suggest you walk away, and find out what it is that your soul really wants you to do.
What does a Sally Jackson day usually consist of?
My sister and I are labeled, branded, and marketed all over the internet as ‘The Midlife Gals.’ We are a comedy duo very much like Lucy and Ethel. I’m the Ethel. We’re The Smothers Brothers with bosoms. I really love The Midlife Gals. They are so clueless and such archetypal, indelible Texas women. Our path to this outcome at this point in our lives was a long and divergent one. In the mornings my sister and I talk about what The Midlife Gals will do next, and there is no end to the weird ideas we come up with. We have almost 100 videos on YouTube and about 45 on funnyordie. Comedy improv is what we love to do. Our only aim in life is to make you laugh. We write a lot, laugh a lot, and enjoy a big ass martini about every other evening. I have an audition I’m working on right now. Another young director that seems to be emerging out of the throng of wannabes, and attempting to do something original. I organize, write, and think up new exercises that I use to teach my classes at night. I transcribe scenes for my actors. I teach ‘Method for Film’ at two different and really good acting studios here in Austin. I taught ‘Advanced Film Acting’ for two years at the Theatre Of Arts in Hollywood. Years of teaching, casting, and studying with incredible coaches, have served to develop my ability to help actors progress swiftly into the artists they wish to become. The Midlife Gals write a blog every Tuesday and Friday. We may be making another zany video today, you never know when we might get another idea. And then we just do it. We have done two independent movies and a national commercial in the last year. We have written a pilot for a sitcom we want to produce here in Austin. I cook while my sister markets us everywhere. I keep our private paradise beautiful with flowering plants while my sister markets us everywhere. We have won some awards at film festivals and written comedy scenarios for More Magazine and other publications. I’m a member of The Alliance of Austin, a group of casting directors, coaches, and talent agents whose sole purpose is to educate and inspire actors. We held an actors’ fair last month that was a huge success and gave actors a chance to audition for the major casting directors and agents in the area. Sometimes I have students that come to my house once a week for private sessions. I think of it as a karmic thing. If someone ends up coming to my door, they are going to get the real goods. In my middle age I have become a muse. I have so much information for actors because of my background in casting and the acting teachers I’ve had the honor to study under, and I am so happy to inspire them and help them to be better actors. Sometimes I feel like, if I don’t continually give my knowledge to those who want it, I will explode. I see a movie every weekend. At night I like to cook, relax, and watch TV with my sister. Our favorite shows are ‘Dexter,’ ‘Nurse Jackie,’ ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘The Borgias,’ ‘Rescue Me,’ ‘Survivor,’ ‘American Idol,’ and ‘The Amazing Race.’ As you can see, we are reality-show sluts.
I’ve just read your IMDB biography – and it came up with a quote – ‘Onward through the fog’ ….
That’s an old Austin saying. Tantamount to ‘carry on regardless,’ or….’Remember The Alamo!!!’
What’s coming up for you in 2011?
Just like Tom Hanks’ character, ‘Jack’ in ‘Castaway’ said at the end of a lovely monologue: “And I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing, because tomorrow the sun will rise, and who knows what the tide could bring?’
Thanks very much for the interview! It was a pleasure speaking with you.