Liane Balaban has a lot going on this week.
On Friday (May 30), Don McKellar's remake of The Grand Seduction opens. Balaban plays Taylor Kitsch's anti-love interest Kathleen, who refuses to play along with her town's attempt to trick Kitsch's Paul Lewis into signing on as the town doctor.
But the night before that, on Thursday (May 29), there's Menstravaganza, an evening of menstrual-awareness cinema at the Revue. And we have enough time, during the Grand Seduction press day, to discuss both.
So before we get to your role in The Grand Seduction, let's talk about Menstravaganza.
It's a fundraiser for non-profit Femme International, run by three local MBA students, which provides sustainable period products and menstrual health education to schoolgirls in Kenya. We're screening the film Menstrual Man [2013 Hot Docs], about the Indian inventor of a pad machine for rural women. We're also screening the winners of the Crankyfest audience choice award and jury prize - and then a panel will talk about periods and the media and international development.
You've been tweeting about Crankyfest for years, and I still feel vaguely awkward asking you about it.
No, go for it! [laughing] It's really good to feel awkward. We'll move through it.
Okay, then: tell me about the mission statement behind the project.
Well, it's awkward to talk about periods, just as you mentioned. So it doesn't come up in conversation, and we don't really talk about the way it affects women's lives for better or for worse. There's a huge problem in developing nations with women not having access to affordable equipment for their periods, and when they don't have pads or tampons or menstrual cups, they stay home from school. The main reason why girls in Africa miss school - about one-quarter of their schooling - is their period. And in Bangladesh, where women drive the textile industry, they miss five or six days on average per month because of vaginal infections from using unsanitary stuff. Nobody talks about it, and it costs the Bangladesh economy millions of dollars every year in missed work days, and the women lose pay. So it's a big issue: it's political, economic, a human rights issue.
So it's an educational project? Are people open to having that conversation? Can you, say, offer advice about mitigating the symptoms?
There's so many different ways that you can deal with period symptoms. We made a video a few years ago for International Women's Day that talked about masturbation as a great way to deal with menstrual cramps. There's another taboo topic. [laughing]
Yeah, that's never gonna get talked about in North America, let alone developing nations.
Yeah! Because it's free, it's effective, and there you go. But so many different areas around menstruation need to be addressed. Lack of information, about even what a period is - many women in India have no idea what happens to them when they get their first period. And in Africa as well. In some parts of India and half of Iran, women actually believe that menstruation is a disease. There's no health education, so women don't know what their period means or when they're fertile or how to manage their cycle if they're sexually active, and they also don't have access to hygienic materials to manage their period. So you can imagine how it directly impacts a woman's ability to get an education and work.
But the other side of it is that periods are empowering and wonderful; they're your passage to womanhood. Women are really lucky in a way, because we have this outwardly expressed journey to adulthood. Men don't really have a coming-of-age ritual. That's why you see young men enacting their own coming of age, sometimes in very unhealthy ways. But it happens to women, rather than their having to go and seek it out. And there's so many wonderful stories about periods out there, which is the impetus for Crankyfest.
A great many of your Twitter followers are fans of your character on Supernatural, so the message is clearly reaching some people outside the target demographic. How are they responding to it?
It's so cool! I feel really lucky that I'm able to use whatever small platform I have for the causes I believe in, and it's great that I can raise menstruation awareness to these sci-fi fans. I did a video game, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, so I have instant cred with a lot of teenage boys. I go to high schools sometimes when they screen Canadian films, and I can use that credibility to be like, "Hey, guys!"
I just did this at a school in Vancouver: "I want you guys to get together in a team and make a movie for Crankyfest." And these teenage boys - and some girls - made a film for Crankyfest. It was about a teenage boy getting his period. It was submitted to the festival - it's not a finalist, so it's not on our reel, but just the fact that they made it was amazing.
So, from fantasy television and video games to the grubbier reality of The Grand Seduction. Is it jarring when you shuttle back and forth between the two?
That summer I shot The Grand Seduction was so nice for me as an actor, going from the genre-based Supernatural and to this heartwarming art film.
Hearing "heartwarming" usually makes me cringe, but it kind of does work here, doesn't it?
There's some element of magic when you pull off a great film or a great story - something unknown. But if I had to take a stab? From my point of view, Don [McKellar] wants truth - in the performances, in the story. And he gets it by exploration, by delving in a kinda relaxed way with the actors. We just really worked through everything on set. We would rehearse and then see what felt false or real, tweak it and go again. It was always clear that it was just about finding the truth in the moment and in the scene.
And speaking of truth, you get to play one of the only honest characters, someone who's not playing along with the ruse to dupe Dr. Lewis and even kind of pissed about being involved. That must have been fun.
I was upset that I kept slamming the door in Taylor Kitsch's face. Like, honestly, "Why did you make me do that, screenplay? Why?" At the time, on the set, it made perfect sense to me, but watching it in the audience [at TIFF], I was really mad at Kathleen. But the more mad you are at Kathleen, and the colder she is, the funnier it becomes.
The character gets a little more to do in this movie than she did in the original film. Similarly, I was struck by the way this version doesn't shy away from the economic reality of the situation. This town is slowly dying, and we see it.
It's played with dignity. I mean, it's played truthfully. If this film was wallowing in despair because everyone is unemployed, it wouldn't ring true; it'd just be too melodramatic. I learned this in acting class. If you play a character who's going through a hard time and you want to just wallow through the whole scene, it's not real. People who are struggling are trying to get out of that position - they're the most active people you will meet. This film is buoyed by the desire of everyone in town to come through their struggle.
But it doesn't play down the struggle either.
Yeah, absolutely. It's nice to see a film about issues that really affect people's lives - and this is an issue-driven film that's not didactic, that's totally entertaining. That's why it's so touching, why it resonates. Everyone can relate to being unemployed or the struggle to find work in this economy - whether in a rural community or the city - and the lack of dignity that comes with long-term unemployment and not having a reason to get up in the morning. It's a good story: a hero with a problem - in this case, a group of little heroes - trying to overcome an impossible obstacle.
Was there anything specific you used to find your way into Kathleen?
I felt like we all did a good job of achieving an authentic look and feeling for the characters, especially Kathleen. An actress in a film can sometimes look a little too styled, a little too actressy. I got to wear, like, really comfortable clothes every day, didn't spend hours doing my hair - those are my favourite kind of parts.
It sounds like they don't come along that often.
You know, I've been asked today what are the main differences for me between Canadian and American film, and I'll say, "The budgets are usually different." But now that I think about it, I've noticed - maybe it's more of a difference between TV and film - but on TV, network TV especially, all the women kind of look the same, the way they're styled. I guess you could say that about the guys, too, but all the women have, like, blown-out hair with the two swirls at the bottom, and they wear, like, the tight jeans and the fitted tank top and the boots.
It's that CSI fashion sense.
Yeah, CSI fashion has kinda permeated all television, drama or comedy. All the women really have a similar look. But I've been lucky to play characters who act and look different in Canadian film. I grew up on Canadian film. It was tough for me, coming to L.A. for the first few times, to try to fit into this TV mould. It just felt weird to me. [laughing] "What? I can't wear an oversized ratty sweater to my audition?"