Certain Women is an ensemble piece that features Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kristen Stewart in prominent roles, and so it’s a surprise when the runaway success may be Lily Gladstone, a relative newcomer most prominently seen in Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P. and this year’s Buster’s Mal Heart — the latter of which has yet to even receive a theatrical release. While one can ascertain certain things about her character, Jamie, from the moment her face enters the frame, the actress imbues numerous instances of silence and, in the case of interactions with Stewart’s Beth, romantic longing with something that’s hard to pin down precisely because of evident authenticity. If those feeling really are so complicated, why should a cinematic representation be any less?
I was fortunate enough to speak with her about the making of this, one of 2016’s finest pictures, and came to know a great deal about how Kelly Reichardt (interviewed here) operates — a further confirmation of the writer-director’s brilliance, it turns out. For that and an idea of just what Kristen Stewart is really like (or something along those lines), read on.
The Film Stage: It’s a standard aspect of preparation to look up previous interviews with the subject. You don’t have many, and only found some sort of Squarespace site.
Lily Gladstone: Yeah. [Laughs] That was the website I started for myself about three years ago and marginally maintain. I have press on there from earlier this year, from Sundance, but the rest of this year is kind of realizing that Twitter is a more effective means of getting that stuff out.
I have to wonder if you’ve developed ways of talking about acting, especially with those who aren’t themselves actors.
You know, I’m pretty, pretty… I absorb a lot from a first read of a piece. My process is fairly organic. The only thing I really kept from my training and really, really love to implement is always starting with the physicality of a character; that’s usually my “in” into it. I definitely do have a very clear read, especially after seeing the film twice. You get a much deeper sense, and you see choices, maybe, that you made, or little micro-expressions or thoughts. Even if it’s just a color of an emotion that you’re sitting in. People don’t always have totally articulated, clear thoughts about themselves, anyway. [Laughs] During the performance, I’m obviously not going through that. After watching the edit a couple of times and seeing the takes that Kelly chose, it surfaced some choices that were definitely in there when I was performing and looking for who this woman is. There’s always a sense. You have a deep intuition if something’s working or not, and seeing it when all of the pieces are put together, and seeing your choices live on screen.
I can see where my preparation and my process is really effective, because sometimes it’s not. Some characters are really, really evasive for a really long time, and because this was such a big deal for me walking into it, I told myself, initially, “Don’t over prepare.” That tends to be a mistake I made when I was a younger actor. First big role in a school play, for example. [Laughs] There’s being prepared and then there’s being so over prepared that you’re in your head chronically, and this wasn’t a piece at all that you could do living in your head. The camera notices it; Kelly notices it. That was maybe one choice that I made on the front end. I bought my character’s shoes — what I guessed to be her shoes. I sunk into her physicality for a few days before I was able to submit my first audition, which was lucky; you don’t always get that luxury. Everybody on this project is fine with people really diving into it, and Kelly really appreciated it.
So I built a physical life for the character before I started making any deep, internal choices, and the trick is, once you do, you have to forget them, because we don’t sit around and think about all of the things that define us and who we are every second of every day — especially not in a film like Kelly Reichardt’s. A lot of films do strive for that kind of constant catharsis and hyper self-awareness where the character shares their exact agenda. [Laughs] But Kelly’s… I wanted to allow my character what the original literature informs. Even on the onset, I didn’t want to read it. I knew that Maile’s stories had inspired the screenplay. I read Kelly’s treatment of Maile’s work before I read Maile’s work, and I chose not to read Maile’s work until I was told to. Kelly basically shoved it into my hands on set and told me to read it, which was great. I remember the first time I read it, I was so excited because a lot of the choices I made… just from Kelly’s treatment and, also, the things I knew about characters like the rancher that I know from being a Montanan, because a lot of us know the silent types. But there’s a very specific Montana feel to this project that I’m sure lends itself well to my performance and my understanding of the character.
But a lot of the choices that I made from Kelly’s adaptation were pretty spot-on and exposed in Maile’s work, but because it’s an internal story told from the rancher’s perspective, in Maile’s adaptation, it was a young boy named Chet rather than my character, which became a female for this film. It’s such an internal sort of narrative that there’s a lot of subtext within that story that you don’t hear on film, and it doesn’t make it to dialogue in the film — but it was there, and it supported a lot of the things that Kelly noticed and that resonated with her. So I wanted to try to match my end of the character with what worked with my training and process. I’m personally more of a fan of biomechanics. So there’s all of that boring stuff. [Laughs] But, ultimately, I decided that I wanted to try to match my process with this character with the way I perceived Kelly’s films and Maile’s writings, because, when I read Travis, B., I went and got her other works.
She’s such an immersive writer and so good at writing at something and letting the audience fill in the other shades themselves; she points you directly at the thing without spelling it out. So I tried to adopt that with the rancher. Maybe the first time I can say I was successful in that. I did develop an incredibly deep like, and one reason I feel successful is because Kelly’s such a wonderful director. I would make a more transparent choice, and she’d confirm the impulse but then push it down a little bit farther. She has a really remarkable way of helping you pick out little inauthenticities that you were aware of but you’re not even sure how to work out of your performance at all. I mean, she does it in the edit, but definitely in the frame and on set, too.
What might she say, regarding inauthenticity, to pinpoint?
[Laughs] You know, there was really only once, and it wasn’t even an inauthenticity. It would’ve felt inauthentic if that were the only take I’d given her and that was the only thing she had to cut to in the room, because that would’ve been out-of-pace with the rest of the story. The thing that helped me the most is that she kept it so much in scope for me. Like, there was one instance where I made a pretty strong choice, because it’s a pretty small film with a lot of minimal shots where big choices aren’t being made in the moment, but are kind of churning under the surface. So there was once where I made a strong choice, and she was sitting behind camera with me in the front of the truck. We did one take, and then she just reached out and touched my arm and said, “That’s really good, and that’s definitely what you’re feeling, but where we’re at in the story, it’s going to be too much too soon. You’ll get this moment, but you don’t get it quite yet.” “Oh! Okay! Great.” So that was basically it.
She’s also just funny and kind of a smart ass. [Laughs] Which she needs to be. We developed pretty quickly our director-actor language, and usually it just kind of would be in-the-air gestures — like tweaking knobs, taking a shade down a little bit or bringing it up — but most of the time she would be like, “All right, we got it. Let’s move on.” So, like any process, Kelly and I took a couple of day to settle into each other and find the language, but it was pretty effortless once we both saw that we were kind of coming from the same place with the character. She was happy with the footage that we were picking up as we were going. Basically, her style is very much… she’ll affirm it or just throw something completely different at you. I felt super-incredibly validated when there was one take where she asked for “this perspective” and I gave it to her and said, “No, that’s not it.” I got the first take, she got the second take, and she said, “All right. You were right, Lily.” She gave me the first take. That was fun.
I think that’s what the greats do. You can’t be a totally commandeering creative unless you have to be. Some shots, you just have to give your director the shot that they want. But, as far as choices with character and everything, she was very, very respectful, and she expects that. She wants you to come in with a strong idea to try out, and then she’ll tweak it or just completely say no if she doesn’t like it. She’s a very smart director. She’s very driven. She knows what she wants, but, when she doesn’t, she is completely collaborative and just trusts the piece. There are a lot of things that we found through that collaboration.
There’s such a sense between you and Kristen Stewart’s character when you’re not around. The absence is felt, which makes the interactions so much more understandable — that experience of thinking about someone who you like and then seeing them, getting this fulfillment just from that. Did you make a point of staying separate while on set so as to create the feeling?
No. Kristen and I, when we shot together, we hung out together as much as we could. It’s really busy, and this was my first time being a lead in a film, so I wasn’t used to so many set hours. But when we had time to hang out, we did. We played pool. We just chilled and talked about art. It’s funny: she had a good friend with her from Ireland, and she was awesome and we just nerded-out about Beckett for a while. God, I’d love to see Kristen jump into that someday. I think she would have so much fun doing a piece like Beckett. It’s kind of her sensibility: she’s really hyperactive in her mind, and she stays in a scene remarkably well. Anyway, that’s how Kristen and I bonded — just hanging out when we could. But we were on set together for a couple of weeks. A lot of the time we spent together was in between takes, just kind of playing sugar-packet football and running lines and commiserating over all the stuff that you do when you’re getting to know somebody.
But going back to the whole idea of separation and everything. [Laughs] Those segments are so incredibly rich, like you said, because you feel somebody’s presence almost more in their absence, like you said, when you have feelings for them. It’s the air that allows the flames to stoke. So while we were filming all that stuff, I actually hadn’t even met Kristen yet. Just the way the schedule worked out, all the stuff we shot on the ranch was before she even got there, and the space in between that was just me. They shot that before Kristen even got to set. I was definitely pulling from pining for somebody I’d had a romance with just the summer before. [Laughs] That’s what started it. There were a lot of little things that we’re all familiar with, but I hadn’t really experienced being in that situation where you respect the boundary somebody else draws, even though it sucks — basically, being told “no.”
Also, getting to know somebody in their absence, almost. So I’d had a romance earlier in the year that I definitely hadn’t worked out of my system, that I was definitely still processing as we were filming, and it only really came up a couple of times because it was a very different romance and connection than the rancher and Beth have, so I didn’t want to fully draw from my own experience — but I definitely know what you mean, missing them in their absence. It wouldn’t have come through without Kelly’s edit. [Laughs] A lot of those moments, Kelly would say, “This is a day where you just saw Beth last night and it’s gone well, and you’re thinking about her.” So it changes the pace at which you move and do your work. But my favorite one that I think really shows it is when the rancher is washing the dishes particularly — it’s just that anticipation, and it’s Kelly’s words. She said, “Anything can happen!” [Laughs] Long story short, all that stuff was shot before I met Kristen, we hung out as much as we could, and she’s great.
Looking at some previous film work, I notice that you often play Native Americans. What’s interesting is that, here, there isn’t much indication of the character’s background.
You just kind of are this person.
Thank God. [Laughs]
It’s funny you say that, because Native-American representation can be pretty limited. You seem to feel relief at not being cast on the basis of appearance and being pigeonholed.
Right. The role was just such an incredibly revolutionary role for a Native-American actor to get, period. I am mixed. I grew up on the Blackfeet reservation. That’s why I feel like I understood the character so well, in a lot of ways, especially when I read Maile’s work, which talks about family history and boarding schools and marginalization in the education system. That spoke to me so much, because the work that I have done with my career before, and in between getting roles, are social justice theater and a lot of advocacy — workshops with youth and such. But I’ve been in that position a lot, anyways. I work with a theater company called Living Voices on occasion, but it was pretty much what I did through all of my twenties: traveling through rural communities, talking about shared oppressions and historical trauma. The piece I did dealt with Native-American boarding schools and military veterans, and talked about PTSD from two different perspectives.
So I was in my own life. I’ve been in Beth’s position far more often where I’m coming into a small town where I’m a stranger, and, a lot of times, you’ll get the people who are on the margins or the periphery, the ones who sit quietly in the back that are very… what you’re doing speaks to them, but they’ve removed themselves and are shy about it. But I’ve had instances in my own life where audience members or people that are in the class will come up afterwards and just kind of linger and follow you to your car and want to just keep having conversation. [Laughs] Something in my performance or the show spoke to them so much and they just need to know a little more about it. It’s the same way that all of us get crushes on our teachers. [Laughs] It feels a lot like love, but it’s also learning something tremendous when it touches your own family’s origins with marginalization and sheds light on some of your own feelings of inadequacy. It gives you permission to maybe be angry about it, but also go, “Oh, maybe that’s why things happened the way they did. Maybe it wasn’t my fault.” That’s huge for people.
I’ve been on the other end of that a lot as a teacher and a performer, so when I got this script I was just really excited to play her. In Maile’s story, Chet’s ethnicity being mixed Crow and Scottish definitely plays with the dynamic of he and Beth in that story, and it definitely informed a lot of my choices — my dialect, the people in my own life that I’d based my character’s physicality on. But it wasn’t any kind of statement Kelly was trying to make. Having a role where a Native-American character just exists as a complex, nuanced person doesn’t happen that often. It’s kind of cool that that aspect isn’t… this isn’t a piece that’s just going to pique the curiosity of people who want to know more about Indian culture, and I’m really thankful for that. It’s going to speak to a lot of people on a lot of different levels, but there’s a beautiful representation in independent film that I haven’t really seen before in this way. A lot of audiences are going to watch this piece and completely miss that my character’s Native American — which is my reality. Most of my life, people don’t know that until I share it. Other Natives see it. [Laughs]
Kelly said it in talkbacks before at festivals: they were looking for the right actress for this role, and because the character’s Native American in Maile’s treatment, of course that was the first path in the screenplay, but Kelly wasn’t led to ethnicity. It had to be the right performer and the right person. So I would say that my previous “pigeonholing,” even though all of the projects that I’ve worked on have been really remarkable as well, they definitely play to audiences that have a piqued interest in Native American communities, and this one hasn’t caught on, really, with that whole vein. There hasn’t been that noise made about my role in this… yet. [Laughs] The movie’s not out yet. So I really like that. It’s not something that’s worked its way into any kind of marketing, which has been present for every other project where I’ve played an ethnically specific character.
So it’s exciting; it’s new. It’s kind of what you hoped for when you’re an actor and your culture is not really represented in mainstream film and media. I’m really thankful that Kelly cast me and kept true to that part of the story, because I get really annoyed when there’s westerns and they don’t have complex Native-American characters that just exist in the world, and Kelly’s done that. From what I can see, it’s the first time things have happened. And she’s done that with a native character in a lead role; she wasn’t championing or anything. Kelly’s just quietly revolutionary, whether she likes it or not.
Certain Women has begun its theatrical release and will expand in the coming weeks.