If you’re ever in the mood to seek out an independent film written or directed by some of the best filmmakers of this new generation, be sure to look for Canadian actress Deragh Campbell’s name in the credits. Over the course of less than a decade since she started acting, Campbell has had the opportunity to work with some of the best emerging artists in cinema. At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Campbell is in two projects – one high profile feature and one short – but look beyond the immediate and one will see that Campbell’s varied, versatile, and still blossoming career reads like someone who’s worked with a who’s who of fellow emerging talents.
This year, Campbell stars in writer-director Kazik Radwanski’s Anne at 13,000 ft., which is only the second Canadian film ever selected for the festival’s prestigious juried Platform prize, where she plays a Toronto daycare worker whose mental stability is slowly unravelling, thanks in no small part to the stresses and expectations of the world around her. She can also be seen as the lead in the latest short from Brandon Cronenberg, Please Speak Continuously and Describe Your Experiences as They Come to You, as a woman who has a specialized implant in her brain that allows her to recall her nightmares in vivid detail.
Viewers might be familiar with Radwanski and his previous features – Tower and How Heavy This Hammer – or the many short films he has produced over the years. Similarly, festival goers and those well versed in Canadian cinema might remember the short film work of Cronenberg or his award winning 2012 first feature, Antiviral. Both are prominent names when discussing some of the best young talent making films in Canada and abroad, but a look beyond these two projects shows Campbell’s ability to align herself with some of the most exciting writers and directors working today.
Campbell started her career in America in 2013 by appearing in in Matthew Porterfield’s third feature I Used to Be Darker, playing the lead for the first time without having any formal training or acting experience. Although it’s her first credit, Campbell still thinks that a lot of her experiences since then tie into what she learned on that project. Even when she first agreed to appear in Porterfield’s film under the most unique of circumstances, being a leading actress wasn’t something Campbell envisioned for herself.
“Everything goes back to I Used to be Darker,” Campbell says during a phone interview conducted shortly before the start of TIFF. “My best friend, Hannah Gross, and I were living in New York, and I just literally looked at a newspaper and decided to go see Matt Porterfield’s film Putty Hill, which was having its theatrical premiere at Cinema Village. We saw the film, and we were both stunned by its vulnerability and sincerity. We met Matt after the screening. He invited us to the afterparty and hung out with him for a bit, and then down the road he cast us as the two leads in I Used to Be Darker, and neither of us had any on camera experience. That was my introduction to acting on camera, but it was also my introduction to cinephilia. I was a big reader, and I grew up in a theatre family. I watched all the films that everyone would pretty much go out and see, but I wouldn’t say I was an avid film watcher. Matt Porterfield introduced me to all of these filmmakers that I would immediately grow to love: Cassavetes, Maurice Pialat, Rossellini, Pasolini, all these filmmakers I never previously watched or thought about. That completely changed my trajectory because I had never considered acting before that. I Used to Be Darker played Sundance and Berlin, and from there I was introduced to this larger community of people who were making films. Logistically, the next projects I did – Person to Person with Dustin Guy Defa and Stinking Heaven with Nathan Silver – were made by people that I met on the festival circuit.”
That spark and surprisingly natural ability to be vulnerable and dramatic on camera ignited Campbell’s passion for performing; one that continued when the actress moved back to Toronto from New York several years ago. In those years since, not only did Campbell work with Porterfield, Defa, and Silver – three names from the American independent scene that carry considerable amounts of notoriety in certain circles and among film critics – but she has also found time to show up in films directed by Sophy Romvari (even acting as a co-writer and director on their memorable and moving Christmas themed short, Let Your Heart Be Light), actor-slash-filmmaker Joey Klein (who’s latest effort behind the camera, Castle in the Ground, also premieres at TIFF this year), and Lev Lewis (who’s probably best known as an editor and composer, and whose work can bee seen at TIFF this year in frequent collaborators Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis’ outstanding White Lie). In addition to being a brilliant performer capable of sometimes frighteningly raw and naturalistic performances – most recently and memorably in Antoine Bourges’ deeply moving and criminally slept on drama Fail to Appear, which the actress glowingly cites as a major highlight of her career thus far – Campbell has also proven to be an exceptional judge of artistic talent, proving that she has her finger on the pulse of new and exciting cinema.
Following her time spent in New York and her return to Canada, one of the first people who connected Campbell with the blossoming Toronto film scene was Radwanski, and while she has a brief appearance in his previous feature, How Heavy This Hammer, Anne at 13,000 ft. is the first major collaboration between the actress and the filmmaker.
“When I moved back to Toronto six year ago, Kazik Radwanski, who directed Anne, was hosting this screening series at the [TIFF Bell] Lightbox called MDFF, and as a young, blossoming cinephile, I just started attending these screenings. They kind of already knew me because they had been watching some of the movies I had been in. So I was pretty easily embraced by the Toronto film community, and it was through the work I had already done, but also because of my participation within the Toronto film community that I met and started working with Sofia [Bohdanowicz], Kaz, and Antoine Bourges.”
A common thread between her work with Radwanski, Bourges, and Bohdanowicz (the latter of whom we’ll get back to in a moment), is that all three filmmakers have a tendency to blur the lines between fiction and reality. All three filmmakers like to incorporate verite experiences into their process, which is something that can be hard for classically trained performers to acclimatize to, but is a style of drama that Campbell has become well versed in.
“It’s interesting for me to think about that,” Campbell says when asked if such a style of acting and filmmaking without much of an emotional safety net is daunting. “I know some actors who’ve been formally trained who think it sometimes inhibits their ability to act somewhat naturally, but I do think there’s some definite merit to training. But the way that my life went, I didn’t have the foresight to even know what I wanted. I was just this young person who was just looking for experiences and kept themselves open. It was much less of me thinking, ‘oh, I know how to behave naturally,’ and more like my wanting to do these movies comes from wanting to have this openness to feeling that I’m never going to know what’s going to happen. I’m always put in these positions where I don’t know how these characters are going to look, present themselves, or what’s going to be revealed, and when I watch these movies and see what I’ve done, I don’t see myself at all. And I think that’s just the coolest thing about the film’s I’ve done.”
This desire to remain open to the possibilities of cinema is most apparent in her work with Sofia Bohdanowicz, who has become not just Campbell’s most frequent collaborator, but also a dear friend. Bohdanowicz and Campbell have made three films together, including the director’s first feature, Never Eat Alone, the short subject Veslemøy’s Song, and their most recent partnership on MS Slavic 7 (which, in a moment of everything coming full circle, will screen as a part of Radwanski’s aforementioned MDFF series in the fall at TIFF Bell Lightbox). For MS Slavic 7, Campbell not only plays the leading role, but also serves as Bohdanowicz’s co-writer, director, and producer.
“It’s a beautiful relationship, and it started only after I had been back in Toronto for about six or eight months,” Campbell says about the fruitful friendship and creative endeavours she’s embarked on with Bohdanowicz over the years. “Sofia asked me to be in her first feature, Never Eat Alone, and she was one of the smartest people I had ever met. She had accumulated all this footage, and she wasn’t completely sure how it was going to come together, and her way of tying it all together was to put herself into the movie, and she did that by having me act as her on screen stand-in. It started with me basically acting as Sofia in different scenarios, but we became so curious about this character, so we made other movies involving her and we used it to explore other subjects that Sofia was interested in. In Veslemøy’s Song, it was her grandfather’s violin teacher, and in MS Slavic 7 it’s these letters in an archive that were written between her great grandmother and the poet Józef Wittlin. We could take this character we’ve invented, put them in these situations, and use them to learn more about Audrey. She has become this character that’s amalgamation of the both of us. It’s kind of strange, but really cool. There’s a moment in Veslemøy’s Song where we need to see Audrey’s passport, and it’s actually a combination of both of our identities. That was the point where we pretty much fused together. And we’re going to keep working together. We’re going to be working on another feature together with the same character, and she’ll be directing, and I’ll be acting, but we trust each other so much that we’ll defer to each other really easily. With MS Slavic 7, we kind of realized that both of our ideas were represented pretty much 50/50, and it wasn’t until after shooting and editing that we decided to say it was a co-direction, and I think that just speaks to who Sofia is and her sense of integrity. Working with her is empowering for me as an actor.”
For her part, Bohdanowicz, in a separate conversation, echoes a lot of what Campbell has to say, and in the process points out some of the specific reasons why the actress has been so sought after by independent filmmakers.
“When I work with Deragh, there is a certain fluidity in our communication that I have never experienced with other actors,” Bohdanowicz explains when asked to comment on her artistic relationship with Campbell. “She is a force, who cares very much about the life of each project she works on and is always beyond generous with her time and presence on set. In working with her for MS Slavic 7, she became an architect for the project and eventually a co-director. Right from the project’s humble beginnings she was concerned with building the film from the ground up. She wanted the film to have a sound structure and had a clear idea as to how it should be executed and assembled. She comes from a family of great theatre actors and directors, and this is apparent to me in the inherited, but also well-developed skillset she brings to every film she becomes involved with. It is not uncommon that most low-budget filmmakers, like myself, are so busy wearing many hats during production that they are not thinking thoroughly about costume and how a character might present itself. However, when working with Deragh, she is always taking on extra responsibility to fill out the rest of the equation without complaint. Her characters are three dimensional. Whenever I see her begin to craft a new role, I see her constantly thinking about what this individual she is portraying might wear right down to their shoelaces and hair colour. Her energy and eye for detail is something that shouldn’t go uncredited or unnoticed. In every film she embarks upon, I see her in bring something new to the table, whether it’s a need to challenge herself with heavy text or to improvise 10-minute monologues spontaneously on camera. Whenever I see her on-screen, I don’t see Deragh acting, I see a full person she has worked hard to meticulously shape and craft and that is something I feel so privileged to witness.”
Everything Bohdanowicz praises about Campbell’s abilities to perform and prepare for a role is shared by Radwanski, who wrote the main character in Anne at 13,000 ft. specifically for her.
“She jumped out of a plane for this film,” Radwanski says when asked for comment, speaking within the context of his latest film itself and the arduous, lengthy process of making it. “We were in production for almost two years on this project, and her commitment never wavered. This was a true artistic collaboration, and she brought a nuance to the character I couldn’t have achieved without her. Working closely with Deragh forced us to push our ideas and with it, the film and the character, further than we had imagined we could, and shaped the film in a deep and profound way.”
Anne at 13,000 ft., much like many of Campbell’s other starring roles, is a slow building character piece. In Radwanski’s film, Anne is clearly missing something in her life that’s causing her to lose focus and to sometimes act out. It’s never spelled out exactly what’s bothering Anne (which is a commonality across all of Radwanski’s films about maladjusted people looking for love and acceptance), but Campbell throws herself into the character’s overwhelming sense of social anxiety completely and fully, delivering a performance that many critics are citing as one of the best in the entire festival.
“We spent an extraordinary amount of time together,” Campbell says about the long and intimate process of making Anne at 13,000 ft. “We shot the film on and off over twenty months. Kaz, the cinematographer Nikolay [Michaylov], and producer Dan Montgomery spent so much time together working things out. The way that Kaz works, he doesn’t exactly direct me so much as he directs the scenario. He wants to make something happen that he needs to happen. If one character needs to get mad at another character, he’ll try to encourage tension in certain ways to make sure it can get to that point. He’ll direct the feeling, and then I’ll have to act within it. It’s a cool experience working with him because it’s both raw and sometimes really literal, which is a really freeing way to work.”
“Freeing” seems like the best way to describe what it’s like to watch one of Campbell’s performances. Not only has she aligned herself with some of the best filmmakers in Canada today, but every time she appears on screen audience will see a performance they’ve never seen before: one that not only opens the eyes of the viewer to the rawest of human emotions in the subtlest of ways, but it’s delivered by someone who makes such insightful choices without making it seem like they’re acting at all.