Exclusive Interview with Actress, Screenwriter and Director Valerie Brandy
Actress, screenwriter and filmmaker Valerie Brandy has made quite a name for herself in the industry by virtue of her extraordinary talent and vision. In addition to graduating from UCLA with honors, features and shorts in which Brandy has performed have played in festivals across the U.S., including Tribeca, the Santa Barbara Int’l Film Fest, Starz Denver, NYIFF and many others. She wrote her first full-length feature Dying with Daisy in 2011, which ended up being a quarterfinalist in the Nicholl Fellowships that same year. Moreover, she has guest-starred on the shows Lie to Me and Sunday Brunch, and scored a memorable recurring role on the FX Emmy award-winning series Justified as the manipulative Trixie.
Now, she is preparing for the upcoming release of Lola’s Last Letter, a project that she wrote, directed and stars in as the lead character Lola, an ex-con who spends her time completing community service and searching for atonement. Brandy recently took the time to chat with me about her experience filming Lola’s Last Letter, what the film teaches about forgiveness and her love for Harry Potter. Check it out below!
What was the inspiration behind “Lola’s Last Letter”?
You know, I’d been thinking a lot about apologies and atonement and the question of “Why do we apologize?” Because I think it’s something that’s really difficult to do. Sometimes, we apologize because we are trying to make ourselves feel better and then sometimes we apologize because we want to bring the other person some kind of peace or restitution or solace. So, it started with me thinking about atonement.
Would you say that this is a story that developed all at once or did it develop over time?
I would say that it developed over time. As soon as I decided on the plot and what the ending was, it was actually an incredible experience because I got to be in the middle of the whole process. As we were shooting the film, I was able to watch the footage that day and start editing as we went, and look back and say, “Ok, what are we missing? What didn’t translate in that scene?” And then immediately write something which we would then shoot a couple of days later. In that way, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience because I got to be in the middle of everything and construct pieces of the film while we were shooting it. We had an original script but we were able to deviate from that, and in that way, it felt very spontaneous.
Is this the first project where you’ve been able to wear so many different hats—be the director, screenwriter and lead? If so, how did that challenge you?
This is the first one where I was able to do all of those things in tandem (laughs) and this is the first project that I’ve done as a director. I had worked as a screenwriter previously but never acted in anything that I’d written, and I’d acted previously but never wrote for any of those projects. So, it was a totally different experience because, as an actor, you want there to be a certain amount of spontaneity in your work but if you’ve written the material, then you already have a preconceived idea of how this character should be, so you have to kind of let that go as an actor so that you can bring the material to life. And as a director, you need to have an overview, which is hard to do when you’re acting in it. So, it was really challenging and it helped me grow. I had an amazing cast and crew to rely on; I wouldn’t have been able to do it if not for those incredible people working with me.
Did you find yourself changing your approach to acting because of your experience as a director and screenwriter?
I don’t know if I changed my approach, per se, but I’ll admit that I might have done slightly less preparation because by being the director and writer of a project, you kind of hope that you’ve done the acting preparation already and that you’ve already really thought about who this character is, what their role is in the story and what they want to achieve. So, as an actor, that was already done for me, which allowed me to find new interpretations of the material outside of what I already had. I improvised; I sort of lived as Lola, constructed her room and lived in it for the duration of shooting…it was very sparse (laughs). I let my hair grow out and didn’t do as many of the beauty things that I would normally do because I wanted to get in touch with the minimalist lifestyle of Lola while we were shooting. Those are things that I don’t normally do as an actor but, in this case, they just made sense.
In what ways would you say that you’re similar to Lola and how would you say that you’re different?
I think there’s a part of Lola that’s very child-like, and I can relate to that because I am very playful and kind of naïve at times, and maybe idealistic about the world (laughs). But the difference between Lola and I is that Lola got stuck at a certain point in her life and development. I think of it as Peter Pan Syndrome, where there is something specific keeping her from growing up. In contrast to that, I’ve always felt older than my age. I think there’s a difference between us maturity-wise. I’ve always felt older than my actual age and I think Lola has had trouble growing up.
I love the format of this film; It almost feels like a testimonial at times. How did the format both challenge and inspire you?
I’ve always believed that any kind of challenge that you encounter while making a project makes better art, so the format that we used was really conducive to making a low-budget film and it’s something that I felt really heightened that feeling of intimacy between Lola and the audience. It allows the audience to really get to know her as a person and love her as a friend. Probably the biggest challenge that we faced during filming was that the actors occasionally had to actually operate the cameras. Our incredible DP, Katie Walker, sometimes had to instruct us on how to hold them at the right angle and position in very tight spaces where we couldn’t get up close while maintaining the mockumentary style. The scene in the apartment where Sam is filming Lola? It looks that way because that’s exactly what happened (laughs). Altogether, it was this kind of orchestrated dance that we all had to participate in. During one scene, we really wanted to make it look like Lola had set the camera down on the desk and forgotten about it so Katie and I spent a lot of time arranging these markers on the desk and we made it so that Lola and Sam were out of focus in the background. I think the format gave us a lot of opportunities for coordinated spontaneity and organized chaos.
Have you thought about doing a sequel of sorts for Ree? I love her character and throughout the movie, I kept thinking “I wonder what happens to Ree after this…”
I love Ree’s character and Annamarie is such a good friend of mind—I think she’s so talented—and I’ve also definitely thought about doing another feature in much the same way: micro-budget, spontaneous and intimate. I would love to do a follow-up with Ree’s character; as of right now, though, I’m working so much as a writer on different things that it would be pretty hard to do right this second. But I really loved her character and Annamarie brought so much life to her. There’s something so fiery and passionate about her, something always brewing underneath the surface, so I’d love to revisit that character, and of course work with Annamarie again.
What message do you hope that viewers take away from this film?
The first thing that I hope viewers take away from it regards accountability and learning to own your actions, and understanding that what you do impacts other people. The second thing is that, if you do make a mistake—and hopefully it’s not as serious as what Lola did—to not be afraid to own up to it and really try to atone and bring other people a sense of peace, because I think we all do things that we regret. With our “Anonymous Confessions” campaign, we get messages from fans on social media all the time like “I’m sorry I killed your cat” or “I’m sorry I cheated on you,” so I think that everyone can relate to that desire to fix past mistakes or make up for them in some way.
Very few people are courageous enough to own up to their mistakes and I think that comes from—not so much a fear of being rejected but more a fear of shame, maybe? I think maturity means being willing to own up to your mistakes and caring enough about the other person’s feelings that it’s worth it to you to try to atone for whatever you did. I hope this film helps people be more accepting of each other and treat apologies with love and acceptance.
Do you have any funny stories that you’d like to share from filming?
Oh my goodness, so many (laughs)! On average we only got a max of seven takes per scene based on limited coverage, and while we were filming, we would often do a take called “the fun one” where we can do whatever we want because we already know that we have something usable. There was always a sense of excitement on set when it came time to film “the fun one,” and it actually was really inspiring for me as an artist because, when it came time to edit the film, there were quite a few times where I ended up using the fun one. So that was a really good memory for me.
Another scene that I liked was—because our film was low-budget, I was responsible for all crafts services and such, and there was one scene where it was just me, Travis and our DP, Katie, and we were eating and I realized that I forgot to give them dessert; we had purchased this huge, beautiful chocolate cake. I realized that I deprived them of this delicious dessert but we ended up using it in a scene. The scene in the film where Lola and Sam are eating the cake together? That’s the chocolate cake that I forgot to give them (laughs). And we did one take of that and I went to Travis and I said, “Sam is going to want to use plates and Lola wants to eat right out of the container,” so we improvised that scene and only did it one time. And then afterwards—Travis and I are in the same acting class—we took it to class with us and showed it to them and it had bites taken out of it and it was melting and we were like “We brought this for everybody!” And our teacher was like “That is the creepiest cake I’ve ever seen.” And no one ate it! (laughs).
If you had to describe your dream project, what would it be?
Honestly, I feel like every day I get to live my dream and I’m always thankful for anything sent my way. Most of the projects that I have sent to me are things that I would want to work on anyway, so I think that there’s sort of a synergy there, especially as a writer. I think that once you’ve found your voice as a writer that it’s only natural that things come your way that match your voice. But as for my dream project…I like dynamic female characters. A lot of people use the phrase “strong female characters” but, for me, the word “dynamic” better describes what I’m interested in. I love strong women but no person, no character is strong all the time. Even James Bond has his vulnerable moments. What’s more important to me is that they are dynamic and feel like real people. I also like characters that have contradictions. So, my dream project, honestly, is something that feels unique and that allows me to get into the roles of both actor and director; that’s really exciting for me.
What books, shows, movies, etc. bring out the nerd in you?
You probably get this answer all the time but for a while back I was obsessed with “The Big Bang Theory,” especially the first three seasons. And “Harry Potter”! Legitimately, I have a Pottermore account—and I’m a Gryffindor. I thought you should know that (laughs).
Have you read “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” yet?
I’m not allowed to read it—and this is even nerdier—because my friend, who is a Hufflepuff, by the way, is having a party where we are all going to read the play together, so I’m trying to wait for her but she better do it soon because I’m going to cave (laughs). And don’t tell her this, but I already looked up the plot summary in advance on Wikipedia, because I have no willpower and I can’t help myself.
Lola’s Last Letter will be released digitally (iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, etc.) on September 6th.