I recently got the chance to talk to Gayland Williams about her role in ‘Natural Selection’. Here, Gayland talks about what it was like working with the cast and crew on-set and which three guests she would invite to dinner…
Hey Gayland. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me about your new film, ‘Natural Selection‘.
What’s the general plotline surrounding the film?
The film is about a very sheltered conservative Christian barren housewife, Linda, who’s older husband, Abe, has refused to have sex with her because it won’t produce a child. She has been controlled her whole adult life by her older sister, Sheila, and her pastor brother in law, Peter, as well as Abe. Abe proceeds to have a stroke during his secret weekly visits to a sperm clinic and a shocked but loyal Linda takes off to fulfill what she thinks is his last wish to see his oldest child. When Linda tracks down Raymond, the man she thinks is her husband’s offspring, she finds a burned out convict escapee junkie who plays along in order to make a quick get away.
Tell us a bit about the character you play in the movie…
I play Sheila, Linda’s older controlling sister who’s preacher husband lusts after her younger and sweeter sister. Sheila is described as “frustrated and frustrating” and Robbie Pickering told me it was my job to make the audience hate me. Sheila and Peter have four children, one of which is a baby and she always has a “bazillion” responsibilities. I’m an oldest child of a large family, have two sons of my own as well as having taught school for many years so I could really connect with the being responsible part of the role. Sheila is always trying to gain power even though she can’t control the actions of her family.
How did you get involved in the project in the first place?
I got a call from my agent to go read for the part and I had to be out-of-town that day and missed it. The script was so funny and moving that I emailed the casting director to let me come in at a later date and she agreed. She later told me that they had read 40 actors for the part and everyone else had gone over the top with the role. They were looking for someone who had a little humanity and frailty and didn’t play the part as a total monster. I did feel some sympathy for Sheila. Everyone around her is screwing up and she’s trying to hold it all together and clean up everyone’s messes. The given in her character is that she does love all these people but she can’t make them do what she thinks they should.
How would you say this film is different and unique?
There just aren’t that many films out there centered around middle-aged women and certainly not about a sheltered, Christian one. The characters are all flawed but interesting and very human. There is a theme of redemption and self awakening that seems to resonate with the audience whatever their age or beliefs.
The film stars Jon Gries, Rachael Harris, Matt O‘Leary and John Diehl – with Robbie Pickering onboard as director – what was it like working with the cast and crew on-set?
Robbie wrote and directed the film and chose a small but dedicated crew of people he knew he could trust to give him their all. Everyone did. I was the only Texan principal actor hired among the others who had long and imposing resumes. I was feeling a bit nervous going into the film but they all treated me like an equal and were very supportive. We had a very tight schedule which didn’t allow me to rehearse with anyone ahead of time. It was all shot very quickly which I think helped keep everything fresh. My sons were so excited that I was working with Jon Gries, “Uncle Rico” from ‘Napoleon Dynamite’. They made me get autographed pictures from him which he gladly provided. Rachael Harris is very sweet and down to earth and is much more like this character than the bitchy ones she sometimes portrays. Matt O’Leary would share his dressing room with me because we never had any scenes together. He’d play his guitar and sing for us when he had down time. I loved working with all of them and watching what they each contributed to the film.
When we got to the scene where Sheila is talking on the phone to Linda and using a breast pump, I had to explain to Robbie that I needed wardrobe to get me a nursing bra. “What’s a nursing bra?” he asked. I went to wardrobe and told them what I needed and they asked me the same question. When we got ready to shoot the scene, they handed me a breast pump filled with about what would have been a week’s worth of milk. I had to tell them to go dump all of it out because the scene was about Sheila not being able to make any “mommy milk”. I began to realize that I was perhaps the only person on set who had actually nursed a baby. Not something you put on a resume but helpful none the less!
Let’s talk a bit about you Gayland. What made you want to get into acting in the first place?
While growing up in Texas, my Dad got transferred a lot with his job. I was always the new kid and soon realized that I could reinvent myself in each new location if I needed to do that. Being involved with plays in school helped me do that.
Later when I taught middle school, I used to joke that I did five shows a day to the toughest audience in the world! Texas began to have movies made here in the 80’s which gave me a chance to go out as an extra and eventually work my way up to commercials, print work, industrials, and films. Actors have to be able to do everything in Texas because the jobs are so sporadic. The answer when anyone calls is always “Yes!” even when it results in broken ribs, the loss of toenails or near drowning all of which have happened to me.
The University of Texas also has a great Radio Television Film department which I came to use as a great place to try my acting wings. I sort of audited a lot of film classes by volunteering as an actor in student film projects. Now I know what the sound guy needs from me and what the lighting person needs and all of that helps me be a better member of the team.
Film making is all about problem solving and I’m good at that!
You’ve had a number of roles in a variety of different shorts and films – who have been your favourite actors/actresses to work with so far and which project has been your favourite to be a part of?
I have done lots of projects that are on graduate film students’ reels that have never gotten much play. I’ve also been in scenes with Robert DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Shirley McLain, Sandra Bullock, and Michael Caine while working as an extra. My first speaking role was in a Merchant Ivory film called ‘Ballad Of The Sad Café’ with Vanessa Redgrave and Keith Carradine. I worked on it for 16 days with my two sons and in the end wound up not being credited but it’s all good! I just enjoy being a part of the process and watching the symphony unfold whether I’m playing a dancing zombie or a frustrated preacher’s wife. I love that ‘Natural Selection’ is getting so much good press and has gotten US distribution. Hopefully people will see my work and like what I did with the role. I try to learn something new with every project I take on. You can learn from everybody.
What is currently on your I-Pod right now?
I don’t use an I-Pod. My tunes are all in my head complete with my own videos.
If you could have dinner with three guests (living or dead), who would you choose and why?
I would have loved to have met my great great grandfather who was murdered by vigilantes because he was a Yankee sympathizer in Confederate Texas. I would also have liked to have met Mark Twain because I’m sure he would have some good stories to share at dinner.
Last but not least, I would like to have actor David McCallum there. I’ve had a huge crush on him for years and would love to ask him about his life and work.
If you were stranded on a desert island – what three things could you not live without?
I would want a desalinization kit to be able to have fresh water, a machete, and my husband.
What’s coming up for you in 2012?
At this point I’m waiting for a film project about Alzheimers called ‘Ruth’s Locket’ that I worked on for a friend to get picked up on the festival circuit. I am available to work! Send me scripts!
Thanks for the interview!