In What If It Works?, Anna Samson give a very impressive, very award-worthy performance as scattered DID sufferer, Grace. In this interview, Anna speaks about preparing to play such a complex character, her admiration for her director and her upcoming performance in Kriv Stenders’ Wake In Fright.
Interview by Matthew Eeles
I spoke with Luke Ford yesterday who told me he hasn’t seen What If It Works? yet. Have you had time to catch it?
I caught a screening which was for cast and crew a little while ago and my knowledge is that the film has been re-cut since for its Australian premiere. So I’ve seen a bit, but I haven’t seen the final product yet. I can’t wait to see it at the same time as the audience sees it at this premiere.
What do you hope audiences get out of the film?
I hope that audiences take away a sense of joy. I think the film explores mental illness with kindness and colour and lightness. I think that’s quite rare and quite an achievement. I hope audiences see real human beings and real heart and I hope that it inspires more young Australian female directors to express their unique vision onto the screen and make audiences smile. I also hope that people take away the message that if your love story is a little different to the norm, that’s a wonderful thing.
You mentioned colour. The use of colour in this film is phenomenal. You wore some of that colour too in certain scenes.
[Laughs]. I did. I had an amazing costume designer and a costume assistant, both of whom became quite close friends because we were a small independent film and you get to bond with people. Because the conditions are quite rough, and everyone is roughing it, I became good friends with all of the people who worked on that film. I got these fabulous outfits which had these amazing colour stories going through them which were specific to the multiple identities of Grace.
Tell us about Grace.
Grace is a young street artist who suffers from DID, Dissociative Identity Order, which most people know as Multiple Personality Disorder. Grace is her main identity and that’s her birth name. She was great fun to play. Grace herself is quite shy and unsure of her place in the world and had a lot of defence mechanisms and puts up a lot of walls when it comes to love. The one place she is sure of herself is in her art and I think that’s very relatable to a lot of artists. I think that’s where the exploration of DID comes into it because I believe that all of us go through life with survival mechanisms and putting on different masks and personas is an incredibly common way to adapt to our environment. Even though I’m not a sufferer of DID I completely relate to Grace on that level that you need different faces for different circumstances to get through this whacky old life.
This is your first major feature film role. How did you prepare going into a role where you have to play so many personalities?
I prepared the same way I prepare for all my roles which is trying to understand where that person is coming from and in terms of playing Grace it also included trying to figure out why she needed each of these personas at different times. It’s kind of like a small psychoanalysis of each of the characters that had been given to me. What I had to do with Grace was play her more physically because I had to differentiate how the different bodies move because Little is a little girl and Spike is much more masculine and G is much more overtly sexual. How that works in the body became part of my research.
As serious as this disorder is, I imagine you would have had a lot of fun playing these characters. Which one was your favourite.
I always loved playing Little because you don’t always get the opportunity to play such a young child. The abandonment and the sense of play and that there are no rules and no boundaries with children is something you’re always trying to achieve as a performer. When you’re given the opportunity to play a child that freedom becomes easy to access.
When Little’s past is revealed it’s the one time in the film that the story takes a very dark turn. Would you agree?
Little is the age of when Grace experiences the trauma which her DID stems from. In a way that part of herself is stuck at that age and hasn’t moved on and she’s stuck in that trauma which is common for people who have suffered abuse or trauma at an early stage of life. It’s hard to move on from that age. Playing the child I didn’t feel that darkness because a child doesn’t cognitively understand the way an adult does. I had great fun playing Little but I’m sure that watching it as an audience her story is very dark and very confronting within a film that is very light. I hope that that moment comes across as impactful and I hope people see it as being dealt with sensitively.
When was the first time you met Romi?
During my audition. [Laughs]. I didn’t know Romi at all and obviously I have become very close with Romi over the time we took to make this film and getting the project up on its feet. I met her in a little room with a little camera and then I met her again when she called me back for a second audition. When I got the role, Romi and I began our research into DID quite extensively and she had done a lot of research herself during the writing of the script. We got quite involved in research long before we started shooting. We had a long shoot period where Romi hurt her back.
Romi told me in great detail about her back injury while making this film. What do her efforts to make this film during great distress say about her determination as a filmmaker?
We all learnt a great deal from making this film. I think it was an incredible experience to witness this determination from a first time feature filmmaker writer and director. My first feature film, her first feature film, two women learning together how the whole thing works. She was an incredibly strong woman and an incredibly strong woman and I think the challenges she faced on set only made her blossom even more.
How deeply did you delve into the research Romi gave you access to?
The more information I have the better. The more arsonal I have to bring a character to life accurately and sensitively the better. I think bringing the characters to like was a mix of a beautiful script, detailed research and my imagination. The three of those things brings the project to life.
Tell us about working with Luke.
He had such a beautiful body of work behind him with these really sensitive and kooky roles that it was very exciting to then be on screen with him with this role, especially considering my character has DID and his character has OCD. They’re big, colourful characters we’re playing so you have to have someone who is going to be brave, bold and someone who is going to make those kooky choices. It was great to work with Luke.
Did you get hit in the face at all considering his hands are in the air for most of his performance?
[Laughs]. I managed to dodge them. It was like a sport trying to dodge those hands. No wonder I kept fit. [Laughs].
When I spoke to Luke yesterday he told me to ask you about “lingerie in winter” and didn’t say much more than that.
[Laughs]. Thanks, Luke! It was freezing and it was cold. A typical cold melbourne winter. One of my characters, G, is scantily clad most of the shoot. [Laughs]. You know what it’s like. It takes a lot of time to film a scene, especially in a small warehouse in the middle of Melbourne. It was nippy in more than one sense of the word. [Laughs].
You’ve spent a lot of time acting across film, theatre and television. Was there ever a time when you wanted to do something other than acting?
I have such a boring answer for you. [Laughs]. I always wanted to be an actor. I love writing but that’s a thing I’ve developed as I’ve grown up and become an adult. Writing has become something I grew interested in and I continue to be interested in it. I love it. When I was young all of my focus was on becoming an actor and a stage actor was what I wanted to do. I had always dreamt of becoming a stage actor and that whole world intoxicated me and it still does. More recently, screen has become another great love because I’ve started to do more and I’ve started to understand what it takes to do a screen performance. My whole world is opening up in terms of the film and TV industry for me, so that’s really exciting.
You mentioned that you have just wrapped on a show. Was that Wake in Fright?
It was. [Laughs].
Please tell us about it. I’m a huge fan of the film and I’m dying to know more about this interpretation.
I can tell you that I had an absolute blast shooting it. It’s an incredible story. The novel is incredible. If you haven’t read it you must. It’s a quick read but it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I’ve studied classic Australian literature and in that canon it is one of the best, if not the best, in my mind. The film is also phenomenal and this version we’re filming is based on the book for the modern era. We were in Broken Hill which was incredible and sometimes rural Australia really does feel like another world to us when we live our privileged coastal existence. [Laughs].
Were you on set long? How big is your role?
My character features quite heavily. Obviously the story is about John Grant, who gets stuck out in ‘The Yabba’. It’s full of unsavoury characters and I’m one of those unsavoury characters. I was involved in the whole shoot and it was a real privilege and a great deal of fun. My character is more like Spike in What If It Works? than anyone else.
Your character’s name is Mick, right?
In the original film, Jack Thompson played a character called Dick and I’m playing the female version of that character called Mick. In the book there are two miners who are scary, physically dominant threats to the John Grant character for the entire time. They look very similar and they’re these very scary shadows who haunt his story and I play one of those. It’s shot so beautifully by Kriv Stenders who’s just kicking goals left, right and centre at the moment.
What If It Works? is current on the festival circuit.