The busy stars of Orphan Black and Downton Abbey were in Austin to celebrate their starring roles in the new drama The Other Half, the opening night competition film at SXSW—a truly collaborative production with friend (and actor) Joey Klein, making his feature debut as a writer-director, which happened to be 10 years in the making. Tatiana Maslany has been attached to the project since before her star-making role in Orphan Black and ended up playing matchmaker between Klein and boyfriend Tom Cullen, who had two films at SXSW: The Other Half and the comedy Black Mountain Poets.
The Other Half focuses on the romance of two lonely people, grief-stricken Nickie and bipolar Emily. While the film is dark and dramatic, the quick-witted, real-life couple were all smiles at the premiere and the next day, when we spoke over tacos about their new film and working together again.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): Were you two a couple when you were cast?
Tom Cullen: Joey wrote the script about 10 years ago and took part in the Sundance Film Lab. And he and Tat worked together on a film, and obviously, he was enamored with Tat and rewrote it with her in mind. And that was 5 years ago. And Joey happened to see a film I did, really the first one I ever did. And Tat and I were working on a film together (World Without End) and fell in love. And Joey found out about us being together and rewrote the script for me.
Tatiana Maslany: He used me to get to Tom.
Cullen: And that happened 5 years ago.
TMS: During the Q&A, you mentioned acting with someone you know and happen to be in a relationship while film can be helpful because you come in with that shorthand. But what is it like to watch yourselves on screen and know others are watching you act out a pretend relationship and show such intimacy.
Maslany: It’s surreal. Totally bizarre. I don’t even know how to process it yet.
Cullen: It feels very naked and exposing, because the characters are totally different from ourselves—worlds apart and our relationship is worlds apart—but there is a certain honesty which feels exposing. But watching it, I managed to see two actors just working together. And that was what working together on the film was like. I respect Tat so much as an actress; I was just thrilled to work with someone of her caliber.
Maslany: I felt the same way. I was just so happy to get to work with a great actor whose work I admire, who happens to be my friend and know intimately, but whose work I respect so much. But it was scary to make the movie because we share the life stuff together but we were sharing another large part of our lives. This is our work, our passion, our creativity. Everyday felt like I was getting to know another side of you.
TMS: Do you share a similar process as actors?
Maslany: I think I’ve taken a lot of what Tom talks about and applied it to my work. For me, I don’t really have a certain process. I find it depends on the film and who I’m working with. I like to consider the specific demands of that project, to create a communal process. On this film, Joey’s process was so open to whatever we needed, he and our DP Bobby Shore made the whole film feel like a very communal process. It felt like we were discovering it along the way.
Cullen: And we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare. I had been shooting a show in the UK and had a two and half week hiatus, so we shot the film in 16 days. And I went from filming in the UK one day, flew to Canada that night, did a costume fitting and read through the next day, and started shooting on the following day. So in a lot of ways, any process went out the window and the process just had to be the work. The process was working together on the set every day, and it was ultimately the most enjoyable and thrilling working experience I’ve ever had, and I met Tat just as I was starting to act; we worked together on my second job ever, so I’m still a real newbie and learn a lot from Tat, and we do talk about our work together a lot and keep discovering new things. So our process is inspired by each other.
TMS: Did you think about what initially attracted the characters to one another?
Maslany: We talked a lot about the idea of recognizing each other’s stink, which sounds so gross, but I mean animals sniff and recognize a familiar smell. There is something about them, and it isn’t an intellectual attraction, but some visceral, animal smell of recognizing something familiar in one another. They recognize the damage and the scars and the grief and pain. Something about Nickie resonates in Emily on this primal level. It’s like, “We’ve been through something. We both can understand,” so we pretty much worked on that animal kind of connection, because we never see them talking about life. They never sit down to just talk about that grief and pain in a big way. There are only little moments. They are just two little moles butting heads saying, “Oh, I know you.”
TMS: And the most intimate thing you ever say to him is, “I remember today is the day.”
Maslany: Because they would struggle with talking about things because they are so frustrated by being defined by their pain. So what Emily and Nickie offer each other is the knowledge that you are more than your pain. He is not just your grief and she is not just her illness … (at this point Tatiana spills her drink and runs to get napkins) your turn to talk!
Cullen: The only way to describe it is there are certain people who have these holes inside them that they need to fill, and it can be a dangerous journey to try to fill them. It can lead them to drugs, alcohol, and sex, anything used to escape, and Nicky is someone running away constantly, but what they recognize about each other are these holes. And when they find each other, they are able to escape and run away together. They have acceptance of each other’s stink and love of each other’s stink and a fear of each other’s stink, and that makes it a very explosive, intimate relationship. They are very similar people who have gone through similar things but operate in very different ways.
TMS: Did you consider about what stage the characters were in when they initially fell in love? What stage of grief he was going through and which cycle of bipolar was she in? Did you think about how their relationship would change and evolve?
Maslany: I feel like their relationship is going to constantly be changing.
Cullen: Nickie says to Em’s dad, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” and I feel like they are just constantly crossing bridges.
Maslany: And navigating a new chemistry between each other.
Cullen: Because it seems to change every single day. They are volatile, different people every single day. So every day is a challenge to overcome, but also a new reason to love each other.
TMS: It’s interesting because the only time your character seems to laugh is when she’s around.
Cullen: She completely makes him come alive again. She’s the catalyst because she allows him to be alive again. He is so consumed by guilt and he is afraid of being happy because it feels like a betrayal of his brother. But Emily just gets inside him and plants a seed of life and allows that to bloom, which is why he’s so addicted to her.
TMS: You composed the score with the director, and it is a beautiful and very unusual score. Did the music and performance go hand in hand?
Cullen: The music came about very organically during filming. Joey shot this 15 minute single shot of me in my home, and Joey had always wanted to have me play. So I knew that part of the character, the fact that he was a man so beaten and dark, but could play such beautiful and soulful music. So I thought it would be an interesting character trait that added complexity.
Maslany: And it’s beautiful.
Cullen: But Joey encouraged me to play in that scene, so we had this tune that just existed, this little improved song. And it ended up becoming this very dark outpouring of my character’s emotions, and ultimately just became the score. And then there is scene in the morning where my character plays piano, because after watching Tat do such extraordinary work, I was so inspired I just sat down and improvised a song that kind of became her theme. But the whole thing happened completely organically, which is what is so wonderful about Joey. He allowed us such freedom to grow inside the piece, so everything we did on one day influenced the next.