Not just a face in the crowd: a talk with Canadian actress Grace Lynn Kung about Miss Sloane

Eagle eyed Canadians might be able to discern that the high profile drama Miss Sloane (now in theatres) was shot predominantly in and around Toronto. Although the film features Jessica Chastain as a high profile, distinctly amoral Washington D.C. lobbyist working on a vital gun control campaign (amid a stacked supporting cast that includes Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark Strong, Alison Pill, John Lithgow, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw), some of the Toronto landmarks passing for American locations could make local viewers smile with immediate recognition.

It’s a good film, though; easily able to overcome something that only those living in two cities in North America would probably be able to figure out with any degree of ease. But on top of shooting in the more economically minded Toronto, award winning filmmaker John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) also decided to make use of a lot of Canadian talent in high profile supporting roles. Torontonians might not recognize only some of the shooting locations, but plenty of Canadian actors who have graced screens both big and small in the past.

One such actor is Grace Lynn Kung, an Ottawa native who plays the role of Lauren, a member of Chastain’s dream team of lobbyists working to convert senators over to supporting a bill that would make mandatory background checks for purchasing firearms the law of the land. Kung has quite the extensive performing background, but is probably best known for her work on Canadian television shows like Slings and Arrows, Being Erica, and most notably InSecurity, for which she scored a Gemini nomination.

We caught up with Kung last week over the phone to talk about the experience of shooting Miss Sloane and the preparations the cast had to go through to portray such hot button, culturally relevant material.

Let’s talk about how this project came to you. This is a film that’s very American in terms of its story and tone, but very Canadian in terms of where it was shot and a lot of the people who worked on it. It’s very cool seeing so many familiar faces pop up here in the middle of what’s already a bit of an all star cast.

Grace Lynn Kung: It’s interesting because yesterday I was looking at Facebook, and they have those things that remind you of what you were doing one year ago on this date, and I had posted a photo a year ago on Instagram where I said “This week I auditioned for John Madden, and I left thoroughly impressed and inspired by his dedication; an Oscar winning director sitting in on a first round audition far from home and making sure every part is overseen with his own eyes.” I was reminded about how much I loved British film and what had inspired me in the past to want to live in the UK. In the waiting room for the audition, a fellow said to me that, to the British, there really are no small parts, and that was great to hear and to remember. This was what I felt right after the audition, and this was something that came to me pretty much through what I thought was going to be a fairly routine, everyday audition, but it was a really great experience. I hadn’t even been cast yet. I think I was cast a lot closer to Christmas, or possibly even in early January, but I think it was still December. The point is that Facebook reminded me of the on that day that Jessica got her Golden Globe nomination, which I thought was just perfect timing. (laughs)

It’s fun to look back on everything that happened in the last year with this film. It really has been one of those things that have really changed my life and how I look at my profession, both for the better. I feel like not only on the professional side, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot from all of these people as human beings just about life.

When you auditioned, you knew about John Madden since he was there, but did you know about Jessica Chastain or the rest of the high profile cast that he assembled around her? And what were your experiences with getting to know how they worked?

Grace Lynn Kung

Grace Lynn Kung: I’m not actually certain if I did. We really get so few details when we’re auditioning, and I feel like the bigger the project, like this one kind of was, the less information you have. I think we knew from the start that it was going to be John, and I think that a lot of us knew that it was Jessica, but I can’t honestly remember if I knew that going in or not. At any rate, I knew that I had to go in and be 100% on my game.

And Jessica, I think, is one of those people who is recognized as a celebrity, but she’s an actor’s actor. For some people, there’s a celebrity status that sort of precedes them, and sometimes that’s what they can feel like to you, primarily because of how the machine positions them. But Jessica has such an enviable career as a performer. She came from theatre. She always spends time there. The pieces and characters that she gets involved with are all so rich, and I feel like she’s so choosey and meticulous about what she takes on, and she’ll only do something that she knows in her heart is going to work. I had envied her work for some time, but after having seen her close up I understand a lot more about how much work she puts into a performance and how much passion she has.

And a lot of what’s been great about this whole experience is that you get to spend time with people like this. The best thing about the long process of making a film and now doing the film festival circuit over the past couple months is that I’ve had the privilege of spending a lot of time with John, and I think anyone who has ever worked with him would easily sing his praises. He’s such a beautiful human being, and he’s the rare example of a director that doesn’t have an ounce of ego on him. He’s so inspiring as an artist, and yet he just conducts himself totally like a regular, everyday human being, which is amazing and refreshing to see someone at the top of their game like he is being able to interact with people in such a warm way. In a business like this, that isn’t always the truth of the matter. This is a business that sometimes, for better and worse, allows a certain group of personalities to succeed, but John uses his full heart through and through. He has such a great vision from the start, but once he casts his actors, he trusts them through and through. He will always trust you to do what he chose you to do. That’s why he’s part of the casting process from the very start. I think that kind of gentle nurturing and trust has created the movie that we see. It’s a reflection of who John is.

And with the rest of the cast, I had no idea going in just how expertly cast it was all going to be. Have you ever seen the film Clue? It was actually my favourite board game while I was growing up, and I honestly didn’t even know they had made it into a film. In school, I honestly didn’t pay attention to a lot of movies because I was always focused on my work. (laughs) I don’t know what happened, but I somehow missed knowing about this thing for the longest time until a friend of mine several years ago told me about it. I heard about it and I needed to watch it immediately and I wasn’t going to come out until I saw it. (laughs) That film is so beautiful as an ensemble piece. Every actor is a star at what they do. These are comedic legends playing together, and no one acts like they’re above the ensemble, and yet they play so well together. That film is a gem, and every line feels like a punchline. Everyone is at the top of their game and playing so well together. You want to cheer any time any of them says or does anything.

I feel a bit like John assembled that for this drama, this political thriller. It was such a rich cast to be around, and a lot of being on set consisted of me just trying to keep myself together because in a way I felt like I was a part of a cast that was so talented and noteworthy that it reminds me now of that same kind of feeling. When we had the table read, that was the first moment where that feeling set in. John had this beautiful welcoming speech for everyone saying that even though Jessica drives the action and speaks in literally every scene of the film that everybody with a part equally holds the torch in every scene. Even in the way that John cut the film makes that pretty evident. I stayed in touch with some of the other actors playing lobbyists, and we were all texting with each other after we saw it and we saw that John had this massive sense of generosity in this film where any number of us could have gotten lost. I think the way lots of films are shot nowadays, the person speaking will remain the focus. We’re all driven that way. Whoever holds the conch in a film is who it follows. But in theatre, you can see all the people lying behind whoever is speaking. John really gives the film that theatrical sense in a visual way. We get slices of everyone’s life and we see how Sloane influences everyone around her and what they feel about that. That’s such a great way to show her machinations. It has such an interesting quality because when you cut something that way it’s a lot more immersive.

But going back a bit, I remember in the table read sitting next to Michael Stuhlbarg, and I am such a fan of his work, especially what he did with the Coen brothers on A Serious Man. I could look over from my script to his script, and his is just COVERED in notes and writing. You could barely see the white on his page, and I just thought, “Man, I am going to get along with you so well.” (laughs) And you have someone like Mark Strong, who I’m also a huge fan of, because he has such a diverse array of work. He always plays great characters, but he can really do anything he wants to do. A lot of the actors in here have that quality. They’re used to carving out their creativity. Like Gugu, who is such a down to earth gal, but her work here is the heart of the piece. She does it so effortlessly, and watching her was what I like to say were “the best acting lessons I never paid for.” (laughs) It’s such a cool cast, and everyone is just such a genuine person from top to bottom, and I think a lot of that comes from John assembling that himself. That feeling is definitely not always the case when you work on a film, or sometimes you might find yourself working with perfectly lovely people where you just don’t have that same sense of connection, which I think is what John really wants from his casts.

Do you think a lot of that might come from people like John and Jessica and many of your cast-mates having theatre backgrounds? In theatre there’s often a lot more intimacy among cast and crew than there might be on a film set where people float in and out all the time.

Grace Lynn Kung: Yeah! Even in our preparation it felt like that’s where everyone was kind of coming from. I live for research, and John actually arranged for us to all work together ahead of time to be in this “lobbyist boot camp.” We arranged to have this lobbyist who worked in Washington from a Boston firm to come down and show us how to operate. In the film, you’ll notice that Michael’s character has a Boston accent, and he even spent some extra time with her trying to get that right. But that kind of stuff really helps you to bond together, but it also roots you in the same world before you start shooting, which is something that theatre can do that sometimes filming can’t. Shooting happens so fast and so furious, and there’s never enough money or time, and sometimes you never even meet the person you’re supposed to be shooting with until moments before you have to film together. But here we really congealed as a group. It also allows for more time for us to explore what we might think are narrative hiccups for our characters, which is definitely more in line with the theatre process. You’re almost never afforded that in film, but here it really makes all the difference.

You mentioned going through “lobbyist boot camp.” What was it like trying to fully capture how these kinds of smooth operators talk, move, and carry themselves?

Grace Lynn Kung: There’s such a specific kind of confidence to it, but there are also levels as to where and how these people operate. They all have a different function, and it was great to realize the differences in that, especially in a story like this where it’s explicitly about how far someone is willing to go for a cause. The character that Jessica plays is on a whole other level from everyone else. We’re all coming from a different space, but we’re all doing the same job. The vocation of a lobbyist is really under the surface, and very “cloak and dagger,” and the majority of the population don’t know how much of a voice they have, and how lobbyists and lobby groups are puppet masters. The immense amount of money that flows through lobbyists and representatives is kind of crazy. In an idealist world we think, “We voted for these people and they make choices for us.” Then you see how it actually works and how hard the staggering number of lobbyists in Washington work. In 2011, there were about 535 congresspeople and 12,719 registered lobbyists. And that’s just registered lobbyists. It’s about a 1:23 ratio of congresspeople to lobbyists.

It’s an insane business, and we kind of ask if it’s a morally bankrupt profession, and those are the questions we had to ask ourselves while doing this and it’s what the audience will think about while watching the film. Does it matter what your choices are if you’re getting things done for the cause you choose to fight for? I think those are uncomfortable, but necessary questions to ask of the world we live in because nothing is ever black and white. There’s this really uncomfortable gray that we have to sit through for the duration of Miss Sloane. The way that we perceive Miss Sloane has a lot of different themes placed on top of it, which is what makes the scope and look of this film so interesting to me.

We take a look at women, and how we’re seen in society, and our roles and expectations of them. I’ve seen some critiques and reviews of the film, and some of them have said that it’s sort of redundant or a moot point after the election to look at issues like this, and in all the articles that took that approach that I read it seemed like it was always written by a male critic. I find that interesting because as a woman, I feel completely the opposite of that. I feel like now after the way the election has gone, this is the best time for a movie like this because it talks about all the things we don’t see on the surface. I feel like this story wouldn’t be the same if it were Mr. Sloane. Why would people dredge up someone’s personal life like this? We don’t sit in them and stew with them, but we touch on them and let the audience put their own thoughts on top of that. I think that this film is just as much about women in the world as it is about lobbying.

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.