Stephanie Ellis is a long way from home bouncing between New York and Los Angeles, but as long as she’s acting she’s happy with that. The Brisbane, Australia native grew up knowing she wanted to act, but it was just a matter of getting there. She packed up her things and traveled to New York in her early 20s to study at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute and, before long, had broken her way into the indie film and off-Broadway theater scene.
Now, Stephanie is looking forward to seeing her most recent film, The Sleepwalker, premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and couldn’t be more excited. Check out our interview with Stephanie below where we discuss the film’s intensity, what attracted her to the role and how she likes to spend her time off screen…
The Daily Quirk: First off, congratulations on The Sleepwalker being selected for the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. What was it like when you heard it was going to be screened at such a prestigious festival?
Stephanie Ellis: It was… honestly? It was really fantastic. The lead up to the whole announcement was pretty nerve-wracking, but Sundance was always the kind of hope for The Sleepwalker. Knowing how many great films don’t make it every year was just such an amazing feeling that we’re fortunate enough to be included. It’s such a brilliant line up, and we’re just honored and completely ecstatic really.
TDQ: The preview for The Sleepwalker is very intense. For those who may not have seen it yet, can you give us a brief synopsis of the film?
SE: Sure, I mean it is intense. It’s really a character driven, psychological drama with some thriller elements in there. The film is essentially about two sisters, Kaia who is played by Gitte Witt, and Christine, which is me. We’ve been estranged for a while and Kaia is living in a home in rural Massachusetts with her boyfriend Andrew, who is played by Chris Abbott. My character turns up unannounced with my fiancé Ira, who is played by Brady Corbett. Basically the days that follow show the emotional demons from our past come out and wreak havoc, essentially. It’s a really haunting, seductive film.
TDQ: As you said, you play Christine, who is a little detached. Can you tell us a bit more about the character and and how you prepared yourself for this kind of role?
SE: I think from the outside world, Christine certainly is seen as very detached and those around her say she seems like her, you could say, lens on the world is cracked or morphed. She definitely has a different purpose of motivation. So I guess throughout the film, she does look a little mysterious to outsiders, and even to the people closest to her. Her problems are very visceral, but I guess the genesis of these problems are very deeply hidden on the inside, and that’s what’s always burning inside of her. The way she experiences the world- I had to get a really strong hold on where she was coming from and why, and what her justification is. The film is called The Sleepwalker and my character is a sleepwalker. For me, that’s the point of entry into her character-understanding it, looking at the reasons for why she does sleep walk. I did a lot of research on sleepwalking and what is going on with people when they do sleepwalk. You know, it’s not just a case of REM sleep disorder here; it’s kind of a manifestation of something deeper. So I looked at that, and then I really looked into the reasons for why she turns up in the story to see her sister, and how she reacts to her environment so strongly. I really looked at that, and where she’s at when she arrives in the story. She brings a lot of energy with her. She brings a lot with her energetically speaking. We also did some rehearsal, which was great because we got to do a little bit of bouncing off each other before we started filming which was nice.
TDQ: How did you first hear about The Sleepwalker, and what initially attracted you to the project?
SE: With this project, I had worked with Mona [Fastvold], the director, before and the other actress, Gitte, with a music video Mona directed. Also, Mona directed Gitte and I in a little short that we did all together, so I knew them. And then, Mona had this story she had been working on that she wanted to tell, and I guess she decided that she wanted to write the characters of Kaia and Christine within The Sleepwalker with Gitte and I in mind. So that was how I heard about it, and I felt very honored to have that chance. Then Brady wrote the script with Mona and then Chris came on board. I guess I was attracted to it because I just fell in love with the dynamic, the sister relationship and exploring the effects of the past on the present. I guess the whole production side was a bit more complicated, but for me the entire process was wonderfully organic, which was nice.
TDQ: The film had a very small cast – you, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbet, and Gitte Witt. What was it like, working with just four of you on set?
SE: That’s an interesting question. We spent a month all together up in Massachusetts, like rural Massachusetts. I think just having the four of us is such a nice gift to be able to work so closely and so intimately with just those three other people. I knew all of them to different degrees before we started, but I think having such a small cast brought a level of complexity and then more possibility to the work, if that makes sense. There’s sort of an element of risk taking that we were all comfortable with each other from being around each other all the time and there’s a certain readiness that really made it special.
TDQ: Without spoiling too much of the movie, what was one of your favorite scenes to film?
SE: Okay so, I really like a simple moment in this movie between two characters and that it can reveal so much very quickly. But I guess there was a bathroom scene, which, when I think about it I remember it as my favorite. It was early on; it was actually the first day of filming and it’s also early on in the movie. It’s where you really get to see the sisters in an intimate, simple moment that really reveals all the weight and depth of their relationship. So it’s a bathroom scene… [laughing]. I know I say that, but I can’t tell you exactly but that’d be my favorite. I mean there was also a crazy scene when we were filming in a lake with Gitte and it was so cold, but that was not my favorite.
TDQ: With The Sleepwalker getting so much attention in relation to Sundance, how do you think this will impact your acting career?
SE: That’s a question I’m not too sure about. I don’t have too many expectations. I know that Sundance can have a really strong impact on actors and actresses acting career, but for now I just think I’m really focused on Sundance and that the movie is received well. I think I’m a little nervous and excited to see what people’s reactions to the movie are, but I know in some capacity it’s going to impact my career. Also, based on how people respond to the movie… I guess I’m not sure is the answer [laughing]. I’m hoping to continue to work on really complex, female roles and work with interesting filmmakers. I guess I’ll know after Sundance how it will impact it.
TDQ: Other than The Sleepwalker just wrapping up, do you have any upcoming projects that you’re currently working on that you can share a little bit about?
SE: I’m still in the process of figuring this out. I have the next couple of weeks with Sundance, but I’m working on something I’m writing with another actress, and I’m planning to do a short with an actress who has a film premiering at Sundance as well. I guess I’m just excited to see what the next months hold, I have some things brewing but we’ll see what happens in the next couple of months.
TDQ: I know that acting was your childhood dream. You came to the states to act, but if you weren’t acting, what do you think your life would be like? What would you see yourself doing?
SE: I think I would explore charity work to some capacity. There’s certain issues I’m passionate about, or a travel writer maybe? [Laughing] Or traveling of some kind? I’m a bit of a gypsy soul. I did once dabble in design, but hopefully and thankfully I don’t have to do that. But I guess that’s something I would look at doing if I weren’t acting.
TDQ: When you’re not working, how do you like to spend your time?
SE: I like to spend it with my husband – I’m married to a New Yorker – and my close friends and family. And I have a dog. I go back to Australia at least once a year, usually during winter, when it’s winter here. I do like yoga, and I go to dinner parties with my friends, and they make sure I go to the beach enough. I’m also writing that project I told you about, but yeah.
TDQ: Here at The Daily Quirk, we like to end our interviews with something fun. What’s something you miss about Australia that you wish the states had? And how about something that Australia doesn’t have that you wish you could bring back with you from the states?
SE: These are completely instinctual responses that I am giving. This is totally what came straight to my mind. What I’d like to take back from Australia is the chocolate sprinkles that they put on the cappuccinos. I drink cappuccinos, and they put like, all this chocolate onto the cappuccinos. And I miss it, and I crave it and it’s something that I wish the Americans did [laughing]. But that’s my answer to that. It’s the one thing I’m like, ‘Oh I want it!’and it’s like raw chocolate sprinkles. The one thing I would want to bring back to Australia is… I would want to bring back some seasons to Australia. It’s really nice to have proper seasons, and in Australia we don’t really have seasons, we just have hot. I guess I would like to bring back at least fall and spring so that we could have proper seasons. I know those are ridiculous answers [laughing] but it’s what I want.
The Daily Quirk would like to give a big thank you to Stephanie Ellis for taking the time to chat with us!