At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, one of the most talked-about young actresses, Kate Lyn Sheil, arrived with the narrative Kate Plays Christine, a docudrama about the making of a movie about Christine Chubbuck, the Florida newswoman who shot herself live on television during a report. The gruesome event made headlines and Chubbuck’s story served as inspiration for Network (although with a notable change of gender to the main character) and is still discussed today in connection to gun violence and reality TV.
Kate Lyn plays Chubbuck in the non-existent movie, and Kate Plays Christine focuses on her research, which sends her down a rabbit hole while “getting into character.” Filmmaker Robert Greene used a similar approach with the docudrama Actress (2014), asking real-life subjects to fictionalize their story for the camera.
Sheil has become a familiar face in films (You’re Next, Equals) and television (House of Cards, The Girlfriend Experience, Outcast). But it’s in the collaborative, micro-budget film world is where she’s a rising star as both an actress and creative force. Last year she starred in and produced the well-received romantic comedy A Wonderful Cloud. And this year marked her debut as a writer with the Civil War comedy Men Go to Battle (co-written with director Zachary Treitz) which she also starred in. Along with Kate Plays Christine, which earned her comparisons to Meryl Streep in Rolling Stone, she stars in Buster’s Mal Heart, which will premiere at TIFF next month. We spoke about playing herself in a film and why Christine Chubbuck’s story is still being told.
How was the premise for this movie initially presented to you?
It was all Robert. I had known that he wanted to make a movie about Christine for many years. We’ve know each other for many years and he’d mentioned the project over many years. But I didn’t know the approach he would take, and then after Actress he approached me and said, “I’ve figured out how to make a movie about Christine Chubbuck, and I want you to be in it, and I want it to be about you preparing to play her in a fictional narrative film that will never exist.” Personally, I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of being documented, but once he explained the concept and stressed that I would be acting the entire time, just playing myself, I thought about it as a new avenue for me.
Did the idea that you were “acting” but playing a character as yourself, as a version of yourself, make you concerned that audiences would have a misconception about who you are?
Certainly, it puts you in a very vulnerable position, and had anyone else asked me to play the part, I would have said no. But I’ve known Robert for so long, I really love and respect him and his work, so I felt like I was in safe hands. And it was complicated by the fact that the subject matter felt so important and we all took it so seriously. I’m playing a version of myself, but not the most well rounded version, because I’m playing a person investigating the life of a woman who committed suicide. The subject is so dark, we felt we had to take it very seriously. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have lived with ourselves. And I do share some real thoughts in the film, personal thoughts I had at the moment. But all of those were included and spoken with the intention of adding to larger story.
When you’re talking to the camera, are those words written by Robert or you?
I’m not sure of everything, but most of those scenes are pretty much things I came up with, but with prompting. But the reason for that is, there was always this idea that I’m getting lost in the subject. Lost in the preparation or character. So all those confessionals were geared towards exposing something about myself and my thoughts or connections to Christine.
Are you that type of actress that tends to develop a strong personal connection with your characters?
Yeah, but I think most actors do. But certainly not to the degree that my “character” does. I remember being in acting school and we’d be doing these sense memory exercises, and a student would get so lost in the emotion that they had to be taken out of it, and they’d say something like “oh, sorry. I just had to a get out of the emotion of the scene.” And I’d just think they were talking a bunch of BS.
When you were doing research on Christine Chubbuck, both onscreen and off, what stood out to you about Christine that has been overlooked because of the tragic and extreme way she took her life.
That was the crisis we had going into this and while making it. It was something called out by one of Christine’s colleagues, the weatherman with footage of her, said something along the lines that I wouldn’t have been interested in Christine’s life if she hadn’t killed herself. And that is an unfortunate truth. I wouldn’t know about a local Florida newswoman had she not killed herself on the air. A filmmaker wouldn’t have been interested in making a film about her life if she hadn’t killed herself. If she had lived a happy life and died of old age, or still been alive as we speak, I doubt we would know about her. It’s possible that she would have gone onto bigger things, but we know she’s infamous because of what she did. The act of exploring what her life was like is linked to how she died. So that complicates my answer. But reading about her, the more I could relate to and share her frustrations. Her frustrations with being a woman in the news industry are similar to some of the frustrations I’ve had being a woman in film. At the end of the day, there’s just not much out there about her, but what I pieced together gave me a closeness to her. Or maybe I needed to find a closeness, because she left this huge hole. I certainly found her to be relatable.
Did it start to feel like you were telling the story backwards? Because in biopics about people who took their own lives or simply died young, there’s a risk of making everything about their life feel like it’s leading up to their death.
I think that’s part of the reason Robert made the movie like this, to point that fact out. The article in the Washington Post that came out, which is the most comprehensive article we have about Christine, is full of all these assumptions trying to point to the “cause.” There are a few things from that which have been taken as fact…having found out that she couldn’t have children, being a virgin at the age of 29, frustrated at work. All these things which reduced her life to this one tragic event. When I interviewed some people about her, particularly men, they would make comments that made it seem as if they had figured out the reason she did it. But that’s also a human instinct to try to explain the why, but I don’t think that’s the way my mind works. I’m very, very slow to reach conclusions about things. The world is too slippery for things to make sense. But in a way, the film is leading us up to this event, but I hope it will invert that typical biopic trope.
© Lesley Coffin FF2 Media (9/01/16)
Photos: Kate Lyn Sheil in Kate Plays Christine
Photo Credits: Grasshopper Film