Austin Film Festival Q&A: Claudia Black on Time Now
When picking people and places is as important as the script
By Richard Whittaker,
1:00PM, Fri. Oct. 22, 2021
There are a lot of reasons why an actor takes a part. It builds their reputation, it pays well, it'll get award buzz. But Claudia Black has started taking a different line of thinking. When she looks at films like Detroit-set indie tragedy Time Now, she said, "It's not about the size of the project, or the budget. It's about the people."
Best known for her genre work in Pitch Black and Stargate: SG1, and especially as the sardonic Aeryn Sun in cult favorite series Farscape, in the Detroit-set Time Now Black plays Joan, aunt to Jenny (Eleanor Lambert), the oldest and now sole survivor of triplets returning to a broken household. The debut feature of writer/director Spencer King, it receives its world premiere at Austin Film Festival this Saturday, Oct. 23.
Black described Joan as "the crusty heart of the film," but the heart nonetheless. In a family wracked by violent tragedy and loss, she tries to be the shining light, tending to her alcoholic sister and despairing niece, and guarding her grand-nephew. Black said, "We're watching someone filling in the spaces where they can be useful, and have an opportunity to be a better version of themselves."
The same can be said of Black, who talked with the Chronicle about the latest stage of her career, in which where she works, and with whom, is as important as the script.
Austin Chronicle: For the past few years, you've been doing a lot of TV and game VO work, and now you have a slate of indie features in the works. What changed?
Claudia Black: It's literally market forces. I was poised to be helming some kind of long-term TV show, and that would have been the predictable trajectory, then the recession hit in 2011 [and] with hedge funding being the primary funding for film, the film industry died [and] all of the film actors moved into television. I knew that the reverse would start happening eventually, and there would be some interesting opportunities peeking up in that space.
So we had to wait for the playing field to level out, with technology and the internet, and filmmakers being more inventive and having more technology more cheaply available. In this increasingly, sadly, less analog and more digital space, more is possible, and I'm interested in these emerging filmmakers.
I've gone on to work on films where it's been a really horrible experience, and there's a complete lack of understanding of how to communicate with people on a basic level. I think I'm getting too old and ugly to be working in those spaces any more, and I ask different questions and have different meetings. I'm always happy to audition because it's an opportunity for me to see if I can really embody the role, but I'm in a space where I do get a lot of offers for things and I do turn them down. If I can't bring something new then I'm not going to do it. ... I get lovely comments saying, maybe I've cast a smaller net but I'm trying to work on original pieces where, even where I am typecast, I can make my work original, or at least unique.
AC: It's the peril of being typecast, and it doesn't just happen to actors, but to directors too.
CB: It's the phenomenon that Steven Soderbergh addressed in a speech he gave about why he was so despondent about the state of film. He was talking about giving up at that point, and what he said he would do would be to get a fund where he could find 10 of the most exciting filmmakers around, give them a million dollars, and say, "Surprise me." Give them that space to experiment.
The problem now is that it's so loaded, financially, that we have to somehow give proof-of-concept and be able to predict with some confidence that this is going to make money. But you can't do that with art, and it's a gamble, and it's a big ask of a director to expect people to put a lot of money into a film, and we're hoping that people will show up because they respect our work. ... People will say, 'Oh, if I see your name, I'm going to go and see it,' because there's some level of discernment for why I would be in a thing. But it's tough to fail, and to be paid to fail.
AC: Jason Blum's model at Blumhouse is to work out how much he can presell a project for internationally because of the stars attached, and then he goes to the director and goes, 'I can get three million, you can have two million, go do what you want.' So he retroengineers the budget.
CB: A film I did in the UK was possible because it's a smaller pond there, and I'm better known there, and my name somehow brings some value. It's then trying to convince someone that I should be doing comedy, that's another game altogether.
AC: You talked about bringing something new to a role, and in that there's also something new for you. So what was new about this film, and playing Joan?
CB: I'm interested in emerging artists, because a lot of them come unencumbered by those ego structures where there's a lot of overcompensation and no follow-through. I knew it would hinge on how my Zoom meeting with the director went, and I really enjoyed talking with Spencer. My manager was the one that made the introduction, and my manager knows and works with the producer, and they're all these emerging Hollywood kids. It's great for PR, but in terms of whether they're storytellers or not, that remains to be seen, and I was absolutely 100% willing to make that gamble.
It also hinged on who was playing Jenny, and Eleanor and I now have a friendship that goes beyond a working one. ... If you're going to be in the trenches, you want to be in the trenches with people you like. You want to be telling a story that matters to you somehow, and supporting art to return to Detroit is really important and relevant. So if someone's doing a project that's going to help turn the lights on in that city, then I'm for it. I thought the local artists in the film were way more interesting. I loved seeing their work in the final edit, I thought they were absolutely captivating, and I think it shows in the cinematography. I think, once a lot of the local artists hit the screen, the cinematography got more rich and beautiful, and the film found itself. That was Spencer's original intention: to bring part of Detroit that's in his heart to screen.
AC: And characters like Joan are often written and played like they're innocent, and all the edges have been chamfered off them, making them unreal. Joan is very much aware that the world is a harsh place, yet she's tried to keep a degree of optimism, and trying to be good, which are best expressed in her scenes with her great-nephew.
CB: The structure was there, and we knew what was necessary, and we knew how to improvise with him. He was so receptive and alive. I think kids are amazing to work with, as long as you know their language of play. They're not designed to be a serious. You can see kids in airports where they insist on having their Disney rolly thing, and they decide to chuck everything, and the parent's say, 'We had an agreement that, if you were to bring a rolly, you were in charge of it.' And the kid goes, 'I'm a damn kid, and screw agreements.' That's not their language, that's not how the operate. So if you have a doorway into play, which was very remote for me for many years - I really am sad that I wasn't able to be the fun mum - and so playing Joan was a very corrective for me. I got to be the mum that I wish I'd always had the chance to be.
Sat. Oct. 23, 5pm, Paramount Theatre
Austin Film Festival, Oct. 21-28. Find all our news, reviews, and interviews at austinchronicle.com/austin-film-festival.