Exclusive Interview: Anna Schafer on Elizabeth Blue

When I saw Elizabeth Blue, I not only felt the experience of writer/director Vincent Sabella (who I also interviewed), but I felt Anna Schafer nailed the portrayal of harrowing type of schizophrenia. Schaefer plays Elizabeth, a woman released from an institution trying to plan her wedding with hallucinations interrupting her life.

After planning just to speak with Sabella, I sought out Schafer too. I’ve actually never seen her in a movie before so this was quite an introduction. You can see her in Elizabeth Blue this Friday, September 22 and come back for my interview with Sabella.

WLE: Elizabeth Blue is my introduction to you. I see you’ve done a few other movies but have you been a working actor for some time?

Anna Schafer: Well, I moved to L.A. in 2009 and my first film was in 2010, so seven years. I’ve always wanted to do it but my family pushed me into business school and working for this real estate company. I went to HB Studio and Stella Adler in New York and then finally one day I woke up and I was like, “I’m moving to L.A. There’s nothing you can do about it and I just need your support.” Which I did not get at first but they came around.

WLE: Is Elizabeth Blue your first lead role?

AS: Yes, it was my first true lead. It was so exciting and I was so honored that Vinny chose me but it was stressful. It is such an important role and the topic was so near and dear to Vinnie that I wanted to make sure that I did right by him and by the character. So it was definitely a big challenge.

WLE: How much research did you do on the way schizophrenia manifests in different people?

AS: Well, Vinny did give me a 600 page book on schizophrenia which I did read. More so I spent a lot of time with Vinny before we started filming and I got to have four sessions with the real Dr. Bowman, Vinny’s doctor. I think that’s where I really understand how to make it relatable to me. Just those four sessions with the actual Dr. Bowman really helped me figure the character out and see the scenes come to life. When I first read the script, first I cried for like two hours after. Then when I spoke to Vinny, I said I could kind of see every scene in my mind but there’s one scene that I just could not, I couldn’t get. That was the train scene because it wasn’t anything that I could relate to or envision. I didn’t know how that looked. That was probably the most challenging thing for me.

WLE: Was Dr. Bowman really like Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje?

AS: He was. Just so pleasant and patient, soft spoken and just made you want to completely open up and be vulnerable. I know Adewale had a few sessions with him as well.

WLE: There’s such a difference between clinical descriptions and how schizophrenia relates to people. How did you figure out how Elizabeth would be day to day?

AS: The book definitely just gave the medical terms and explanations. It was spending time with Vinny and having these sessions with Dr. Bowman. I’ve never seen schizophrenia in action, let’s call it. When I was with Vinny, I got to witness firsthand some of his episodes. So seeing him live through it and getting to really know him, he was my inspiration.

WLE: Were the moments of stillness and silence important?

AS: Yeah, for sure. I think with spending so much time with him, in conversations we had, there are so many things that come with it like his OCD and the depression and the constant anxiety. So there is so much stillness to mental illness because there are so many things going on in your mind. You may seem still but there’s so much happening inside of your mind.

WLE: When she’s sitting in the bathtub, is that peaceful for her? Is it respite from some of the hostile hallucinations?

AS: I think that scene in particular, I don’t necessarily think it’s peaceful because I think she’s really struggling with depression. It’s more so trying to disconnect from the world and just be still in the bathtub, and when she submerges under, trying to block out all the noise. But at the end of the day, even in that bathtub, there was still so much happening and so much anxiety and is this even real? Constantly questioning what’s reality versus what’s a hallucination.

WLE: When it’s noisy, did you have noise on the set to react to?

AS: The only time I had noise was for the train scene. They actually blasted the train noise in the room as high as it would go. People had to leave the room because it was so loud. They blasted it before we started filming just so I could hear it and then they shut it off and it was action. By the way, the way I got to understand the train scene, because it was the only scene I had a really hard time with, but during the chemistry reads, it was a long day. We were about five guys in. Vinny was sitting on the couch from me, we were talking and he turns around and he goes, “Do you hear that?” I was like, “Yeah, I think it’s the water.” He kind of ignores everything I said and he goes, “Did you hear that?” So he gets up and he starts pacing the room. “Do you hear it? Do you hear it? Guys, do you hear it? It gets louder and louder and louder.” Joe Dain, the producer was in the room along with the casting director and Joe instantly knew what was happening. He got up, he’s like, “Vin, Vin, look at me.” So Vinny’s pacing the room trying to look for this noise. Joe tries to grab him and he says, “Get off of me!” pushes him off, Joe grabs the medication, puts it under his tongue and I would say within a minute, he just was really still and had this glazed look over his face. Joe took him out of the room and 10 minutes later they came back. He was like, “Did I scare you?” I was like, “A bit, but I completely get the train scene now. It’s that but even more so.” He started laughing and said, “Well, I’m so happy that one of my episodes can inspire the train scene.” It was interesting because he remembered the noise he was hearing but he didn’t remember what he did. He didn’t remember his actions at all. He just remembered what he was hearing.

WLE: A lot of the scenes really take their time and run long. Were there a lot of long takes?

AS: I mean, yes. There was a lot of empty space and he really almost had this way of making you feel a bit uncomfortable in how long he would make the scene go on. But I think that’s where he captured some really beautiful moments. Before, there were times where he would talk to me through some of the scenes and make it somehow personal to me, talking about my daughter and taking me to really awful places emotionally, which I fully gave him permission to do because I know my weaknesses.

WLE: How did you work with Kathleen Quinlan on your intense scene together ?

AS: She was incredible. Before we shot, her and I stayed in the trailer for a good hour just running the scene. No emotion, just getting the lines down. Then when it was time to shoot, it really just came to life. She was such an amazing actress to work with. She gave me so much and it was interesting. I think Vinny was really worried about that scene because it was so long and there was so much movement. It surprisingly went really smooth and we just got into it. I, of course, used some of my personal life there and I think she did as well. It was emotional.

WLE: Has this process changed the way you might approach future roles?

AS: I think my process in general I think is just really trying to use as much of my personal life and that’s what I did for this film. I think I’m going to continue to do that because I think if you cry or are emotional for something that’s really true and real to you, that’s how you’re going to get the best performance and how it’s going to be authentic. But what I do hope is that every director is like Vinny because the way he spoke to his actors and the way he made you really see the scene before you even shot it, not everyone works like that. So I guess I just hope that there are more directors like that.

WLE: Did Elizabeth stay with you?

AS: For a while, it was hard to distance myself from her. But I do have at the time a two-year-old at home. I think the day we wrapped, my husband saw the state that I was in, so he took me and her out to a farm for a week, no technology, no phones, no computers, nothing. We stayed on a farm with all these animals and an apple tree. It really helped me come back from it. Every time I see the film, it definitely is super emotional for me and I didn’t think it would be. It was a very real experience for me. It didn’t feel like acting, not for a second.

WLE: Have you ever had a role feel like that before?

AS: No, never. Mm-mm.

WLE: Do you get now when other actors talk about that?

AS: I do. I really do.

WLE: Have you had any experience screening Elizabeth Blue and having people share their own experience after the film?

AS: Yeah, one of our first screenings, right after the screening we came out and this woman came up to me and gave me a hug and started crying and told me how her brother is schizophrenic. She said, “Thank you so much for making this movie and making it real.” I started crying right away. It’s really amazing that you can touch so many people through a film like this and share that story so people feel like they can share their story with you. Even after I did the film, people that I’ve known for a while that I never knew had schizophrenia came out and told me about it. I just feel honored to be that person and be able to share this story with people because I do think it’s something people need to talk about more.

WLE: Tim is a hallucination she wants to get rid of but was it heartbreaking when she has to say goodbye to the raccoon?

AS: It was so heartbreaking because it was a really nice hallucination. It was like having a pet. When I was doing that scene, I was looking basically at an empty toilet because the actual raccoon couldn’t be in the room with me. So I had a little bit of a hard time saying goodbye to basically an empty space. That’s where Joe Dain, the producer, stepped in. After the first take he came over and he said, “So I kind of want to help you out here. I know you’re alone in the bathroom. You’re saying this heartfelt goodbye to a raccoon but right now no one’s there. I know you have a dog. When I say action, I’m going to talk to you about your dog. Is that okay?” I was like, “Yeah, sure.” So they called action and he basically starts talking about my dog and how she’s 12 years old and somewhere in the near future I’m going to have to put her down maybe if she gets sick. It was really sad. Basically that whole speech was to my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. What I understood after that is that for Elizabeth to say goodbye to that raccoon is the same thing as if you or I had to put our dog down because we knew we would never see that dog again, we would never pet that dog again, we would never hold that dog again. So it just made sense for that scene and that’s how we made it personal to me. Then everyone on set cried because everyone had a pet.

WLE: What’s your dog’s name?

AS: Honey.

WLE: Is she okay for now?

AS: She’s okay for now, yes. She’s 13 now so she’s old but she’s a trooper.

WLE: So you never actually worked with the raccoon?

AS: I was in the room next door when the raccoon was doing his takes, so I got to see him sitting on the toilet and how that was shot. They were so careful about having people around because they didn’t want the raccoon to get spooked and bite someone or claw someone. I did get to see him in action which is really cool.

WLE: What are you doing next?

AS: I don’t know yet. Hopefully something good soon. There are a few things maybe in the works but nothing concrete yet.

WLE: Did you have anything approaching the process for Elizabeth Blue on any of your previous movies?

AS: For Trials of Cate it was a very emotional character you could say. I definitely used a similar technique where I just made it really personal to me, because I couldn’t relate to the character. She was just evil. She was in jail for killing someone but I tried to use my own life somehow to relate to the emotional aspect of her. The director was also great to work with on that as well.

WLE: Sounds like Trials of Cate is the next movie I should see.

AS: Yeah, Joe was a producer on that as well. When he offered Vinny to see me, he was like, “I worked with this girl on Trials of Cate and I think you should read her.” I remember walking into the audition being terrified.

WLE: What was the audition for Elizabeth?

AS: It was three scenes. It was the Christmas tree lot scene. It was the Tim scene and then it was one of the Dr. Bowman scenes. It was great and again Vinny was great to work with. Nicholas Lanier the casting director read with me and he was a great partner for those scenes but it was nerve wracking because I knew this was partly based on Vinny’s story. I was definitely nervous but it went really well I guess.

WLE: The casting director read Tim?

AS: Yeah, he read Grant for the Christmas tree lot scene. He read Tim which he was great at and then he also read for Dr. Bowman.

WLE: Since you’ve lived in L.A. have you enjoyed the life being an actor in Hollywood?

AS: I think the first couple of years I found it really difficult because you have to have tough skin for this business. So it took me a second to deal with all the rejection and just the constant criticism. Once I just accepted it for what it is and started to enjoy the process and treat every audition and every meeting just as an opportunity, then I really started to enjoy it and I’m at a really good place right now. Also this was my first film after I had my daughter. I took a bunch of time off to have my baby so this was a good way to dive back in. But it was hard also because I had to leave her for the first time ever. At the same time, I spoke about this to Vinny and Joe, I think that really helped me, having to leave my baby every single day, not see her. I left before she woke up and I came home after she was sleeping so essentially I didn’t see her the entire time I was filming. It was so hard on me but I think it really helped me for the character.

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