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March 16, 2017
Interview: Tatiana Maslany and Tom Cullen on Working Together in ‘The Other Half’ and Why Art Matters More Than Ever

Screen romances are rarely as insightful as Joey Klein’s The Other Half, a film in which a boy and a girl fall in love, but fully understand that getting together isn’t the end-all, and that love never arrives without a modicum of pain. Emily (Tatiana Maslany) and Nickie (Tom Cullen) meet at the restaurant where he works, and from which he is subsequently fired for his bad temper. She makes eyes at him and soon after, as if by inertia, he finds himself going on a double date with their friends. Little does he know that beneath her confident, vibrant facade, Emily suffers from severe bipolar disorder, and she doesn’t know that Nickie’s temper is rooted in the profound depression he has been dealing with since the mysterious disappearance of his brother years before. The beauty in Klein’s film is that neither of the characters’ issues are the center of the story, but rather the elements that enrich it, the film isn’t about how they fall in love “despite” their problems, but how love can co-exist with them.

As the lead in the cult TV series Orphan Black, Maslany has dazzled audiences and critics with her chameleonic abilities, and yet what she does in The Other Half reveals a completely new layer in her work, as she becomes a sensuous creature who seems to have been created from passion and earthiness. Cullen likewise sinks himself into Nickie’s broodiness, but allows him to become a being of joy who often remembers all that life has to offer. Watching the two play off each other in scenes that can be both sweet and harrowing feels like we’re given access into the very notion of intimacy. I sat down with Cullen and Maslany to discuss their work in the film, why making art matters now more than ever, and some of the projects that might have them working together again.

You’re both executive producers on this film, what does that mean? What was your role in bringing the story to the screen?

Tom Cullen: It means that we helped financially...

Tatiana Maslany: ...because we really wanted to make it. With these kinds of films you have to put more than just yourself into it.

Tom Cullen: It was a collaborative experience, we talked to Joey about the characters and helped shaped them. We weren’t just actors showing up on the first day of shooting. It was a process of about four years of all of us working on this screenplay together.

What drew you to want to work with him initially? He’s a first time director so there wasn’t much of his work to see beforehand.

Tatiana Maslany: I met Joey on a film where we both acted, we got to talk about art and life and he said he’d been working on a script for about 5 years by then. I read it and I had never read anything like it, or read a character like Emily. We’d meet for brunch every two weeks and talk about the script for hours. We made a short with DP Bobby Shore, to play with the dreamscape of what the movie was about. Emily was such an exciting character to me, Joey mentioned A Woman Under the Influence as his reference and inspiration, and when I saw that film I was like “yes, I need to do something like this”. Tom came into the picture because Joey had seen Weekend and loved his work in it, he found out we were dating and starting writing Nickie for Tom.

Tom Cullen: I love working with first time directors, there’s a real joy and fear that comes into the work that makes very interesting things come out. Joey has a very clear voice, one that I was very happy to get behind and support.

At an interview he did at SXSW last year Joey mentioned also using Shoot the Piano Player as a reference, which also has this very impressionistic mood to it.

Tom Cullen: He really likes that stuff, he’s very interested in experimenting with that.

Did he give you any more homework besides the Cassavetes?

Tatiana Maslany: Yeah, he made me watch that and Splendor in the Grass. Natalie Wood was great in that.

Tom Cullen: He didn’t give me any references which I’m grateful for, because I think he wanted an honest film, which is our film. I didn’t feel we were replicating anything, we were diving into the deep end and seeing if we could swim, sometimes it was molasses, sometimes it was beautiful still water. I watch the film and feel it’s so raw.

Emily is suffering from bipolar disorder and Nickie is experiencing crippling grief. By themselves these two issues could warrant their own individual films, and yet when you put them together in your film, rather than having it implode in all the wrong ways, we get to see a completely unromanticized portrait. How did you avoid romanticizing the characters’ problems?

Tom Cullen: What they’re going through doesn’t define them, they’re two people who have great, big holes in their stomach they want to fill. They recognize each other and see each other’s pain, and they’re able to help each other and act as catalysts.

Tatiana Maslany: It’s about acceptance. Emily comes off a certain way because that’s her defense, there’s nothing in her that’s dark, but Nickie sees those things in her. It’s the truth of who she is, she suffers from this disorder, but she doesn’t want to be defined by it, which is the way others have always seen her. We didn’t want this to be the “cute” thing about her. This is a mood disorder that doesn’t make her life easier, it has stopped her from connecting to people.

Tom Cullen: I think films in similar territory always have people like Emily and Nickie try to save each other, but in this film that’s not the case, they’re surrounded by people who want to save them, but they just need to be seen, understood and accepted. We’re all fucked up, we all have shit to deal with, we all just want to be seen. This film is hopeful because these two people recognize pain in each other and they don’t mind it, they celebrate it. It’s not romantic because it will always be a struggle, but I find great hope in the idea of human beings trying to constantly recover.

Can you think of any really good romantic movies that have happy endings though?

Tatiana Maslany: Even with A Woman Under the Influence we go under all this stuff, and then the ending is just them taking down their table, setting up their bed, and this music comes in that’s like light, and you realize they’ll survive another day. It won’t be easy, but they will get through.

Emily is an artist, you are an artist. I probably wouldn’t have asked you this last year, but now have you found that making art keeps you sane?

Tatiana Maslany: Yes. No question. The day after Trump was elected I was on set, we were all grieving massively, even in Canada we’re with you guys. The only way I could deal with it was by putting everything into the work and talking about that through the work, not that the scenes were about the election, but the expression of frustration, fear, sadness, grief and anger could only go through the work. That’s the only thing I can do actively to do something about it, to tell stories about people on the periphery, people who don’t fit in, but who deserve a space and a voice. I’ve always been interested in those stories but now they’re vital.

Do you ask yourselves if it’s worth making art and seeing art?

Tatiana Maslany: For sure, we were talking about this last night, about how people are so quick to judge art nowadays, for not being this or that. The point of it is that it’s a perspective, it says something and it should provide a discussion. What we’re sorely lacking right now is discussion that’s multifaceted and isn’t merely “you’re wrong because a, b, c”, but rather “this is my perspective, what’s yours?”

Tom Cullen: We live in a world of 140 characters, headlines and hyperbole. That’s why we have to make art. I don’t think that as actors we should tell people what to think, but I feel that everyone has stopped listening and understanding. We need to be a lot kinder to each other and really listen. I feel lucky and privileged to tell stories, and to shine lights on people who are under represented, whoever they are, whatever their beliefs. What art does at its best is help people to reflect and empathize. Stories have helped forward us and history has proved itself cyclical, so the only way we can break the pattern is by reminding ourselves of the mistakes we’ve made, and the ones we’re making. Right now whoever shouts the loudest is who is heard, and I’m tired of it, I’m tired of people shouting and not listening. I read articles from the right, left, center that tell me how to think, there is no discussion or breaking down of anything, so I wanna make stories that do that. I hope this film breaks down the argument of mental illness and relationships and asks people what do they think.

I like that you brought up hope because as a gay man, Weekend is one of the only gay films that come to mind where no one dies, there’s no tragedy whatsoever.

Tom Cullen: They’re not defined by their sexuality, when I first read it I thought it was a nice little love story. It’s not about them being gay, it’s a real portrayal of two really mundane people. My character Russell is a normal bloke, he’s a lifeguard, who in the microscopic world of his apartment goes through the biggest life change on the planet cause everything is relative. It was great to go into this film knowing this was an ordinary man going through something extraordinary. For that weekend they have something extraordinary and those are the stories I want to tell, those about ordinary men and women working hard to make their lives better.

So let me ask you, now that you’ve worked together if you had the chance to go onstage and play one of the great theatre couples like George and Martha, or Stanley and Stella, who would you want to play?

Tom Cullen: I’d love to play George and Martha! When we’re a bit older...

Tatiana Maslany: I want to do Constellations with you.

Nick Payne is so good!

Tatiana Maslany: Yeah!

Tom Cullen: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is sick.

Tatiana Maslany: I’ve never read it.

Tom Cullen: You need to see Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton do it. I’d love to do…

Tatiana Maslany: Streetcar!

Tom Cullen: Yeah, but the problem is Brando.

Tatiana Maslany: So what? Do it! We’re doing it, it’s gonna happen.

Tom Cullen: As long as there’s a feather going through the air…

Tatiana Maslany: ...that you can pluck out.

Tom Cullen: Every night!

The Other Half opens in theaters on March 10th.

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Written by: Jose Solis
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