“Everything is so aspirational in the entertainment business,” says Anna Margaret Hollyman, the star of the winning new holiday indie White Reindeer. “I always said if I had a better idea I would totally start pursuing that. There are late nights where I wake up the next morning like, ‘What have I been Googling?’ And it’s not an online shopping binge, it’s a graduate program at Harvard for studies in women’s public health. Which I realize I can’t even get into because I would need two degrees, which would be totally realistic if I had been studying the past 10 years. I sit there going, ‘Dammit! I really signed up for this hard.’”
“I’m in it,” she adds with a laugh. “There’s no turning back.”
She shouldn’t, either. Though Hollyman still hasn’t gotten much attention from Hollywood (her sole mainstream credit remains a brief role as “Elevator Woman” in Neil Jordan’s The Brave One), she’s already established herself as one of American independent film’s most interesting young actresses. She’s had supporting roles in films like Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Color Wheel, and Gayby, but she really stood out as the star of the 2011 South By Southwest selection Small, Beautifully Moving Parts, about a newly pregnant woman who sets out across the country to reconnect with her estranged mother.
In the new White Reindeer, written and directed by Zach Clark, Hollyman plays Suzanne, whose blissful suburban life is thrown into chaos by her husband’s murder. His death leads to a discovery that makes her reconsider everything she thought she knew about her marriage, and sends her careening into a world of strippers, cocaine, and swinger parties.
It’s another impressive performance from Hollyman, equally heartbreaking and hilarious. The day before Thanksgiving, she told The Dissolve about what attracted her to the role, why she wanted to become an actress, and what prop cocaine is really made out of.
The Dissolve: It’s been a while since I saw The Brave One. Who was the “Elevator Woman?”
Anna Margaret Hollyman: It’s so funny. I, through the grace of Laura Rosenthal, the casting director, got that role, which was my first part in a big-budget movie. There’s a scene in the movie where Jodie Foster is going downstairs in an elevator to see Terrence Howard, and Mary Steenburgen is in the elevator as well. There were four extras cast—three men and one woman—and we each had a line.
It was like something out of Rosalind Russell film. There’s some banter going on with the men, and they’re like, “Did you hear? He killed another one last night!” Then they start making fun of the murder and I go, “You think that’s funny? I suppose you think lethal injection is funny too?” And one of the guys goes, “Funny strange or funny ha-ha?” And I go, “You’re sick, you know that? You’re all sick.” It’s the only movie where I still remember my lines. If you said, “Please give me a reading from Small, Beautifully Moving Parts or Gayby.” Nope. Totally can’t.
I’m the only character out of all four whose head is framed from my eyebrows down behind Jodie Foster. Everyone else was framed out of the scene. The hair and makeup girls gave me huge hair and said, “The higher the hair the closer to God.” I am actually still friends with one of the “Elevator Men” and had lunch with him the other day. [Laughs.]
That was also the scariest set I’d ever been on in my entire life. You’re in a small space with Jodie Foster and Mary Steenburgen, and Neil Jordan is mistakenly calling you “Ann” and you’re too afraid to correct him. Mary Steenburgen kept going, “Neil, that is not right. Her name is Anna! Now you should know that because your daughter’s name is Anna. So come on!” I was shaking.
The Dissolve: Was acting something you always wanted to do? When did you decide to pursue it?
Hollyman: I guess I stumbled upon it in high school, because my best friend Steven was quite the Broadway Baby. We had to do sports requirements, and I was terrible at sports. The one way out of it was to do the fall or spring play. I ended up taking drama class, and something clicked. I always liken it to the captain of the soccer team picking up a soccer ball one day and just naturally being good at it. Or the kids who were really great at chemistry, it just seemed effortless to them. The only time I ever felt that way was acting.
I ended up doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and getting the role of Puck, of all roles. When I went to college—I went to Sarah Lawrence—I took acting the first year and promptly dropped out of the program, because there was always this associated guilt with telling people that I wanted to be an actor. It’s such a loaded profession; it comes along with accusations of vanity, and frivolity, and also instability, which makes people feel insecure.
I kind of got back into the program my senior year, but it wasn’t until after I graduated that I knew I really want to be an actress. I never had any better ideas. I was always kind of waiting; I had friends who became doctors and lawyers. It’s the strangest thing when these people have fully realized professions, and you kind of still feel like you, on some level, are still struggling the same way you were when you were 22.
The Dissolve: What attracted you to Suzanne in White Reindeer?
Hollyman: It was definitely an extreme departure from Sarah Sparks in Small, Beautifully Moving Parts, but there was a correlation, for me, in terms of a woman going through a process to figure things out on her own. It was another quest story. Those can be pretty rare in the independent film world.
I was also attracted to the stylized nature of the script. It was a very traditional Christmas story mixed in with these absurdist situations. When I finished the script I found myself very moved by it, and I was trying to rectify the emotion I felt after reading it with the zany nature of swingers and cocaine and strippers. I realized that that was the very thing that Suzanne was trying to rectify: coming in contact with these worlds that she was probably very judgmental about. The journey for her was going into the fray and coming in contact with these worlds and realizing that these worlds aren’t scary. They’re just people living their lives in an untraditional way and that’s okay; there is still humanity there. That was a way for her to process her husband’s death, since he was in contact with these worlds that were very foreign to her.
I think there’s such a bravery in that. That wasn’t unlike Sarah Sparks pulling herself up by her bootstraps and saying, “I’m doing this myself, and I’m driving across the country to find out what it means to be a mother and find my estranged mother, and try to bridge the two concepts which are so stratified right now and don’t really make sense. I need to actively pursue this.” I really responded to that idea of Suzanne taking control of her surroundings after suffering this great tragedy. It really forced me as an actor to face my assumptions about other people’s choices as well.
The Dissolve: White Reindeer and Small, Beautifully Moving Parts are very different movies, but in both cases your character spends a lot of time alone as the singular focus of many scenes. You mentioned earlier how intimidating it was on a set with Jodie Foster. It’s not intimidating to be the only person on set and have everything focused on you?
Hollyman: The camera and I have such a strange relationship, because on some level it’s there to expose my every flaw and detail. But I always feel that without the camera we don’t have a movie, right? So in a weird way I feel a freedom in the isolation in front of the camera. I know that sounds completely counterintuitive, but there’s a stillness that can happen and a way for you to fully immerse yourself into the character. I don’t know why, and it’s probably completely psychotic. [Laughs.] But there’s so much that can go wrong and so much happening on a set, and really at the end of the day the actor is just a small part it., The camera is there, you have a huge crew, you have shots that set up in a certain way to achieve the director’s vision. You’re just a part of that vision, you’re not the vision.
I think there’s just some cognitive dissonance that goes on there, and it’s probably a coping mechanism. It didn’t dawn on me until after I finished both films that I could’ve profoundly destroyed both movies, because I was in every shot. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: What’s tougher for you: breaking down emotionally in a room by yourself or keeping a straight face in the middle of a massive swinger party?
Hollyman: The isolated scenes of emotion are always challenging. You have to bring up the darkness of your own personal experience, and yet you have to attach those experiences to your character’s situation. The entire movie required a relationship with Suzanne and feeling complete sympathy for this woman. Most of those scenes where I’m breaking down is just me crying for her. I would sit there and feel this great sympathy for this woman who felt so alone. The human condition and someone feeling alone and sad just wrecks me.
I was really terrified to do that sex orgy scene for so many reasons, running the gamut from my parents possibly seeing it, to my boyfriend seeing it, to it maying showing up on MrSkin.com. It’s so much out of your control now. Someday maybe I’ll have a kid, and maybe it’ll be a boy, and maybe he’ll be 12, and maybe one day him and his friends will be online and I’m that mom. All these hypotheticals come to you, and then you just have to throw them all away.
Once you negotiate all that and go through it, then I think you should do it and take Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” While the individualized scenes with high emotion are hard, that was the most challenging scene I’ve ever done.
The Dissolve: There are familiar faces from the world of indie film throughout the movie. Watching it, I got the sense that you are part of a community of like-minded artists and filmmakers. Is that true?
Hollyman: I think it’s true. I don’t think it’s a conscious choice; it’s just kind of natural because everybody is operating in this community that is naturally formed over this style of filmmaking over the years. What’s so strange is that we’ve all been working in different forms of independent film and in different regions of the country, and yet there’s this natural crossover and connecting the dots starts to happen, kind of on its own will. Suddenly Zach would say “Do you know [White Reindeer co-star] Chris Doubek?” And I was like, “Of course I know Doubek. I’ve known him for years. He’s wonderful.” Zach knows him through Austin filmmakers and everyone kind of naturally magnetizes toward each other and it’s kind of lovely.
“The human condition and someone feeling alone and sad just wrecks me.”
Everyone struggles with finances in the independent film world and getting their films made, so when they are made, they’re made in the best possible way. As people move forward and their careers blossom, the rooting of all of their success comes from this really great independent film community that really unfolded naturally. And there’s something really important about that; whatever happens with everyone’s careers—and I hope that everyone is wildly successful—I think it’s nice to know that we have this community that will sustain us. At the end of the day, we know that we can create independently of any sort of business or structure.
So much of the entertainment world is being told yes or no and it all seems so arbitrary. But there’s this great community of people who will say, “You have a great vision. You have a great script. You have a great movie. Sure, I’ll do it. No problem.” I think that’s important and empowering.
The Dissolve: This is a random question, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to know: When you’re snorting cocaine in a movie, what are you actually snorting?
Hollyman: There’s a lot of misconceptions about what you can and cannot snort. Zach and Melodie [Sisk] being the great director-producing duo that they are actually experimented and did a lot of research. We used glucose, which is basically a form of sugar, and is actually totally safe. It has a light pink tint to it, but when done in lines you can’t really tell.
They ordered it from the U.K., and on the back of the box it said it was prescribed for listless children. So basically it’s what’s in Red Bull. If we had a night shoot or a dancing scene, we would put some of it in our mouth and get an instant sugar high.