EMILY PERKINS: Part 1 of 5
Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
June 29, 2004
Actress Emily Perkins caught the attention of a good number of movie fans in 2000's Ginger Snaps, a clever, independent horror film that injected a typically formulaic genre with a jolt of creativity by using the notion of werewolves as a metaphor for emerging female sexuality. Part monster flick, part dark comedy, it has since become a critical and cult favorite thanks to a smartly written script and outstanding performances from its two young leads (Perkins, along with co-star Katharine Isabelle).
When the possibility of this interview was first being explored, what intrigued me most about the prospect was not merely the film itself, despite the fact that it was clearly a special entry that easily outranked most of its contemporaries. Moreso, it was Perkins' unusual insight into the subcontext of her work. In a profession not particularly renowned for saying anything interesting, she stood out as educated, astute, and thoughtful in prior dealings with the media. Anyone paying attention could easily hear it in her choice of words.
In particular, she had used the phrase "internalize the male gaze" on more than one occasion, a string of four little words that instantly reminded me of two things from my college days--the sociopsychological concept of female objectification under male voyeurism that permeates the foundation of generally accepted gender roles in society, and the short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by author Joyce Carol Oates, which, like Ginger Snaps, uses traditional horror elements as a framework for a young woman's coming of age, and even emphasizes the notion of the male psyche favoring its visual perception over the tactile as a means for control. Sure enough, further research revealed that Perkins' collegiate background is in psychology and women's studies.
The native resident of Vancouver, British Columbia possesses a versatility that is often masked by her ability to so convincingly immerse herself in a given role, and those who are only familiar with her work in Ginger Snaps might be surprised at just what a dynamic dramatic range she has. Also impressive is the dichotomy of her personality: her language effortlessly flows between insightful articulation and vernacular colloquialisms, reflective responses and pleasant humor; she conveys strong beliefs without coming across as haughty and opinionated; and she is modest to a fault, in spite of her remarkable talent, which, in itself, is more virtue than shortcoming.
But what is most striking, perhaps, is that she smiles with her eyes and has a wildly genuine enthusiasm in her voice when she speaks about her work. She was immensely forthright in her responses, occasionally finished my sentences, and sometimes even threw back a question of her own--and from an interviewer's standpoint, it was rewarding to have such productive interaction. Her sincere eagerness about the craft of acting makes one hope that she will find a steady stream of challenging roles for many years to come.
In part one of our exclusive five-part interview with Emily Perkins, Emily talks about her educational and professional background, her experiences growing up as an actress, and her first feature film.
RadioFree.com: Actors in the midst of their careers often skip the university experience altogether. What made you decide to put acting aside long enough to attend college?
Emily: I just thought it would be a good idea to get an education. Also, I'm really interested in the world generally, so I wanted to educate myself thoroughly. I'm interested in all kinds of things, so I took lots of different arts courses. I didn't just study psychology and women's studies.
Is your alma mater, the University of British Columbia, known for either of those two subjects?
The psychology department's pretty big, and yeah, it has a good reputation. But women's studies is very much a marginal department. When I was there, they just got their second phone line, and it was very exciting. [laughs] They're just really underfunded.
What types of arts courses have you taken?
I got a fine arts certificate at the Emily Carr school on Granville Island. I draw and paint, and I was sculpting for a while. I haven't done it recently though. I should get back to that...
What degree did you attain at UBC?
I graduated with a major in psychology and was just one course short of a major in women's studies. I shot the first Ginger Snaps that year, so I came out with a minor in women's studies.
I don't want to get slapped for asking this, but when is your birthday?
It's in May. I just turned 27 in May.
So the birthdate of May 4, 1977 listed on the internet is correct?
How old were you when you first started acting?
I was 10, but the first movie that I did was Small Sacrifices, and I was 12 when I did that.
How did you get into acting? Did you have parents in the profession?
No. I just saw plays that would tour schools when I was in elementary school, and then I just wanted to do children's theater. So I started at the Vancouver Youth Theatre, which is a theatre for kids, and they tour to schools. And the artistic director of the theatre at the time was also an agent for film and television, so she just asked me to join her agency, and I did, and I started auditioning.
So no horror stories about parents pressuring you into acting, dragging you to auditions, or psyching out other parents?
No, it was years of begging! [laughs]
In the past, you've frequently examined your roles from a feminist standpoint. At what age did your focus on this perspective emerge?
I guess when I started taking women's studies at university. I was interested in it in high school a little bit, but I didn't have the words. The feminist discourse has its own language that you really have to learn in order to be able to interpret your experiences, but I think I had this sort of critical mindset in high school that was just waiting to be translated. And when I was in women's studies, that's when I started to translate that.
So by high school, were you averse to roles that would have depicted you as, say, a stereotypical bimbo?
Well, I think when I was in high school, I just wanted to do everything. I was more open and embracing of anything. I didn't want to be just one thing. Like I wouldn't have minded acting like a bimbo--I wouldn't have seen anything wrong with that as long as it was understood as a performance by me, and by those around me. And that's the way I interpreted other people, too. Like the bimbo girls in school--that's just a performance, and they're just performing an aspect of society. I didn't necessarily judge the individual for that, I don't think.
But can't the line between persona and performance be pretty thin?
Yeah, but it's also a performance, right? I see that there's a division there between the person and the potential, I guess. [laughs]
As a teenager, was it difficult to reconcile filming schedules with your school schedule?
I always had a tutor on set as a kid, so there wasn't too much of a conflict, and the private school I went to was very accommodating.
Reflecting upon your entire acting career to date, what would you point out as the accomplishment of which you are most proud?
The Ginger Snaps movies, definitely. Because it was a lot of work for me, it was really an intense effort. And I think that the movies turned out well, and I like the subject matter a lot, and the character is very near and dear to my heart. So I'd say those movies for sure.
And on the flip side, what is the token embarrassing moment? The clip they would play on a talk show to make you cringe, "I can't believe I did that, that's so bad!"
Oh, I don't know. [laughs] Something that I did when I was a little kid.
A commercial, maybe?
Well, I did one commercial that was kind of embarrassing, where I was like oo-ing and ah-ing over this boy who was building a model car. And I was like, "Oo, he's so cool!" And that kind of conflicts with my women's studies training since then. [laughs]
As you mentioned, your first feature film was Small Sacrifices, a drama about a mother who tries to murder her three little children. Even though you were quite young, did you have opinions about the story at that time, or were you just more interested in being in a movie?
I was a pretty precocious kid. I read the book by Ann Rule, so I knew that it was a true story. I guess when I was auditioning for it, I didn't think too much about the story. But I knew this girl was shot by her mother, and I was just like, "Wow, that's so awful." And I was a really sensitive kid, so I guess I was more interested in portraying an emotion or feeling something that was not my experience. You know, playing pretend. When you're a kid, it's just all about playing pretend, which is fun.
Did you have a hard time being an actress at such an early age, or did you assimilate to the scenario fairly easily?
It was definitely a lot of pressure. I do remember feeling very stressed out, especially in Small Sacrifices. I could cry on cue pretty easily, but then suddenly there's all this pressure to do that, especially for that big courtroom scene. It was like, "Ok, well, you're going to have to cry tomorrow, can you do it?!" I remember being very stressed out about that. But on the day, it all seemed to come together because the director was a really great guy and he was very sensitive and everything. That definitely wasn't always my experience as a child actor. There were definitely directors who would be too critical or too rough.
You've had to cry on cue on many occasions in your career. Is turning on the waterworks something that comes easily for you?
Not always. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't. It's really a psychological game that you have to play with yourself. [laughs]
So you psyche yourself out and then just switch it on?
Yeah, but sometimes it doesn't happen. And especially since you have to keep doing it repeatedly from different angles, eventually you just kind of go numb. You just lose the reality of the moment, and then they just spray your eyes with fake tears.
Some actors just use the drops, but you don't, generally?
It depends. There are certain times when you want to start off with dry eyes and then have the tears, in which case it's better if you can do it on your own. But in some cases, it really doesn't matter.
You have a brilliant skill for emoting. Does that come from extensive formal training or does it just come naturally to you?
I don't know. I was really into playing imaginary games with my sister. We were very close in age--she's a year younger than me. We'd play very elaborate pretend games where we'd make up characters for ourselves. And it'd go on for weeks or months even, of just being these characters, and no one else would know. It was like the secret world that we'd inhabit. So I think that's probably where I learned to do that, I guess. [laughs]
You earned a YTV award after Small Sacrifices. Could you explain what that is?
YTV is a Canadian TV station, and it's geared toward youth. They give it out in different categories, like musical achievement, or a kid who's done something that shows a social consciousness like environmental achievement, or something like that. And mine was for acting. And it was not only for Small Sacrifices, but just for the cumulative acting things that I had done.
At one point in Small Sacrifices, your character isn't speaking, and communicates by drawing. You counted drawing and painting among your interests, so did you do all of the drawings in that film yourself?
I remember that clearly. The props people came to me beforehand and they said, "Ok, Emily, this is what she's supposed to draw, can you draw that for us?" And then I drew a car, and they were like, "Oh, that doesn't look realistic, it looks too good" because she was only supposed to be 8 and I was 12, right? So then they just took the paper and traced a really bad outline over the top. So it was kind of like a collaboration between me and the props guy.
[laughs] So the props guy was an adult having to draw like an 8 year old?
You were a voice in a cartoon called Little Golden Bookland. Do you typically do voice work?
No. I would like to, but I don't get called in for that.
Do you sing?
I was in a children's choir and I did a cappella vocal jazz in high school, but I haven't done any singing since then.
Do you play any musical instruments?
I play the piano a little.
And what about stage work? Is that something you've done?
Only as a kid.
Even though you haven't done it in a while, did you enjoy it?
I did. I really did.
Given the choice between a good stage play and a good film, what would your preference be?
I guess probably film, because that's what I'm used to. I haven't done stage as an adult, but I would like to try that. I like live theatre.
Los Angeles has long been the de facto mecca for actors and actresses. Have you done work in our polluted, congested City of Angels?
I spent a pilot season down there when I was 13 or 14, and I didn't really enjoy it.
Did the pilot ever become a series?
I actually ended up being cast in a pilot, but I didn't end up doing it because a Canadian series that I was doing conflicted. So I decided that I would do the Canadian series that I had versus doing a pilot that you never know is going to go or not.
So you had some bad experiences in our cutthroat, concrete jungle?
I wouldn't say all of my experiences were bad, but the casting directors were quite harsh sometimes. Like I remember one time going into an audition and I was, I guess, underdeveloped for what they wanted, and she got on the phone right in front of me: "I told you only to send gorgeous girls!" And I was like, [said sadly] "Is she talking about me?"
See, you don't want to hear nonsense like that at any age, but especially when you're that young.
Yeah. So I think down there it's very business oriented.
For lack of a more colorful term, right? I have to admit people in Canada, in general, seem more cordial than their American counterparts.
I think politeness or courtesy is a point of pride with people here. Like you don't want people to think of you as being rude. That's something that is a really bad thing here. [laughs]
This concludes part one of our interview with Emily Perkins. In part two, Emily discusses her work in a variety of feature films, has some comments on the late, great John Ritter, and talks about her connection with her inner child.