photography by Manfred Bauman

Actress, writer, and producer Annika Marks, aka Natalie from the hit indie film “Killing Eleanor,” spoke to The Untitled Magazine about how she got into character for the role and her unique experience working on a female-led cast and crew. Marks has proven herself to be quite the steadfast performer, dedicating enormous precision to her role as Natalie, saying she let herself “go to a really dark, obsessive place” and started smoking to ease the transition into her role as an addict in the film. “Killing Eleanor” recently premiered at the 2020 Savannah Film Festival and won Best Narrative; it was released in the US via streaming on October 12th, 2021.

Prior to playing Natalie, Marks most notably played Amanda in the 2012 American romantic drama film, The Sessions. She can also be seen playing Monte in the ABC Family series, The Fosters, Mary Roman in (2016) Goliath and Kathy Schroeder in (2018) Waco. 

photographed by Manfred Bauman

Can you share a bit of your background in the film industry? You have been featured in quite a few notable projects over the years!
I started in theatre, and honestly, it took me a while to fall in love with film and TV. But when I realized that I could whisper or even just have a thought, and that was enough to communicate — I fell hard. I was so taken with the freedom in that. It still excites me. But all of my work on-camera can be traced back to theatre. Like “The Sessions”, which was the first movie a lot of people saw me in, that only happened because the casting director, Ronnie Yeskel, saw me in a play years earlier, and brought me in to meet the director. Or “The Last Tycoon”— Chris Keyser brought me in for that, and we’ve worked together a few times over the years, but it all started when Chris saw me in a play— and I was actually the understudy for the lead and just happened to be on the night he was in the audience.

And now with “Killing Eleanor”, when we were casting it, I reached out to so many of my favorite actors from past shows, like Jane Kaczmarek, who I met in the Deaf West production of “Our Town” at the Pasadena Playhouse. I wrote the role of Eleanor for Jenny O’Hara, who I met in Jennifer Maisel’s “The Last Seder” at Ensemble Studio Theatre-LA. It always goes back to theatre. I just love theatre rats. We can spot each other across a room. Always there to play. Not motivated by ego. Willing to get our hands dirty. Storytelling is a team sport, and I think movie sets are at their best when the talent remembers that. One way to guarantee that culture on set is to cast theatre actors in your movies!

You are originally from Sweden? When did you move to the US? How did you get into acting?
My parents were living abroad when I was born because my Dad was getting his PhD at Lund University, but we moved back to the states when I was a toddler. Then we moved from Michigan to Chicago to Connecticut to Seattle, and eventually I moved to New York right out of high school. I attended the Circle in the Square Theatre School, and that’s when I really began the journey of becoming an actor. I’d wanted to be a professional ballerina as a kid, and I’d put ALL of my energy into that dream, and I didn’t realize it wasn’t going to happen until I was about 14. It really broke my heart. And it was an incredible gift to discover that I could hold onto the thing I loved the most about ballet— the performance— if I turned my attention to acting.

With acting, your flaws and your differences— that’s what makes you special. So much of ballet, at least at the level that I was gunning for, was about fitting in. Acting is about standing out as uniquely human, which of course we all are. If you get out of your way as an actor— if you stop trying to be what you think they want you to be, that’s when you have a real shot. And that was really exciting to me after so many years of trying to conform to something that I wasn’t by nature. But when I started at Circle, I knew nothing about the craft. I was the youngest person in my class, so it was like being shot out of a cannon. Everything about those years for me was in hyperdrive. I was trying so hard to hang on and keep up. I was changing so much, learning so much. And then, I left theatre school and I wasn’t even 20-years-old yet, and I had all this skill and craft, but no experience. That was the next chapter. An equally, if not more, wild one!

photography by Manfred Bauman

Can you tell us about your role in the indie film “Killing Eleanor”?
I play a character named Natalie. She’s an addict of alcohol and pain-killers, and her life has really fallen apart. When we meet her she’s just out of rehab, again, and living back with her parents on the condition that she’s clean. Which she’s not. She’s twisted in knots, trying to keep all of her lies straight. She’s really a compulsive liar. I don’t think she even knows what the truth is anymore when we meet her. That’s at the core of her addiction. The thing that changes her life, and makes the movie a journey worth taking, is that this old woman, Eleanor, shows up carting around this ancient IOU that Natalie signed when she was caught stealing money from Eleanor. But Eleanor doesn’t want to be repaid. She’s snuck out of her nursing home, where she’s being kept alive, against her will. She’s terminally ill and wants to die on her own terms, and that’s what she asks Natalie for— help dying. So they make a deal: Natalie will help kill Eleanor if Eleanor supplies Natalie with clean urine.

I understand the film premiered at the Savannah Film Festival and won “Best Narrative” – that must have been an exciting experience – did you attend the premiere? Any highlights you can share?
It was amazing! I’d been to that festival years and years ago with a short. One of the first things I ever made as a producer, and I’d actually co-adapted the script as well. I was just dipping a toe as a content creator, and that’s where we premiered, and I thought it was the most amazing festival I’d ever been to. I still think it is. It’s so small, they only take about 5 movies in each category. It’s just such a special festival! Unfortunately, this past year when we premiered, it was virtual, so we weren’t able to be there in person. But we tuned in every day. We watched all of the other movies in our category (they were all fantastic!) and took part as much as we could.

The festival did an incredible job, making us all feel like we were part of an experience together, even though we were all tuning in from home. And when we won— I thought someone would have called and given us a heads up, so I’d stopped even thinking about it, but then this Variety article popped up on my computer with Jenny’s face on the cover, and my heart actually skipped a beat. I ran downstairs to where my husband, Rich Newey (who directed and edited the film), was working in the wood-shop to tell him, and we were both just ecstatic. It takes so long to make a movie. We were shooting this one 3 years ago. It’s exhausting. Moments like that one are like these big warm hugs from the movie-gods. It puts a little more gas in the engine, and helps you keep going. I mean, that was a year ago. We still had a long road ahead of us.

How did you end up being cast for the film?
Well, I wrote it and produced it, and I always knew I wanted to play Natalie. I wrote this for Jenny and myself, to be able to play these roles opposite each other. I always say this, but it’s true— this movie was my love letter to Jenny. To her massive talent. And I wanted to be in the sandbox with her. If we’d needed to replace one of us, I would have replaced myself. Because no one else can do what Jenny does. We needed her. But, I’m very grateful that we were able to get it made with the two of us as the leads. And a lot of that has to do with the extraordinary talent that signed on to play supporting roles like Jane Kaczmarek, Betsy Brandt, Thomas Sadoski, Camryn Manheim, David Eigenberg. The list goes on. Theatre rats. All of them!

photography by Manfred Bauman

Your character in the film (Natalie) has a pain killer habit – how did you get into character for the role?
I went to a bunch of open meetings and I talked to a lot of people, including people in my own family who helped inspire the character before they got sober. Then I just let myself go to a really dark, obsessive place. I smoked. And I don’t smoke. That helped. It’s gross, but I needed to feel gross.

The film’s main character Eleanor (played by Jenny O’Hara) wants Natalie to assist to end her life – can you share some of the biggest challenges of filming such a controversial topic?
I didn’t think of it as controversial. I didn’t want to be scared of it or tip-toe around it, so I tried to treat it like the fact of life that it is— we are all going to die. The reality that we don’t want to talk about that or deal with it before it happens is a problem, I think. We make the end harder than it has to be, and it’s really hard no matter what. But I think we’d be better off if we could talk about how we die. We want agency and autonomy over our life. Why wouldn’t we want it over our death? Obviously there are a lot of different ways that people’s lives come to an end, and this is a specific one we’re dealing with— terminal illness. At a certain point, if someone is alive, but not truly living, and they’re ready to go— why do we insist on keeping their heart beating? I think that’s about us, not them. So, we approached it like that— with dignity and humanity and fearlessness.

There was strong female representation in the film’s cast and crew with over half of the cast female, as well as many of the producers, and all the music is by female artists – how did it feel to work on such a female led cast and crew?
It was wonderful. We had the warmest set I’ve ever been on. And I think a lot of that energy came from the percentage of women on it, especially women in positions of power. We were telling a very female story. It wouldn’t have felt right to have an all-male crew. But the men that were there, they were awesome as well. Like I said, my husband directed it, but his favorite DP shot it— Jessica Young, and his favorite AD was our First— Jennifer Wilkinson. We need more men in positions of power who can recognize and appreciate the contributions of women, and we need WAY more women in positions of power, because they just inherently do.

photography by Manfred Bauman

 I understand aside from acting you are also a writer and producer?
I am! This was my first feature, but I’ve also made a bunch of short-form stuff, and I have a lot of projects in development now. “Killing Eleanor” was sort of my coming out party as a writer.

Do you have any words of wisdom you live by that you can share with our readers to stay inspired?
You have to practice your craft. You can’t sit around waiting. If you’re an artist— be an artist. Live as one every day. It’s how we observe the world around us, the daydreaming we do, the workshops and readings and endless development… Sometimes you get paid to do it, and that’s awesome. But that can’t be the thing that’s motivating you. If this life is for you, don’t let a day go by where you’re not becoming a better artist.

Any other upcoming projects you have that you can share with us?
I’m mostly writing these days, which has been amazing, especially because we have a baby and I’ve gotten to be home with him. I’ve been developing a couple series, and that’s been a blast. I hope to have some exciting news to share on that front soon! And in the meantime, I’ve got a few feature projects that I’m working on— several that Rich and I are trying to make together, like we did “Killing Eleanor”, because that was the best creative experience of both of our lives. I never want to stop making independent projects. When I give myself the pep-talk I just gave you, that’s the conclusion I come to. I have to keep writing and creating for myself, and telling the stories I feel I need to tell, without becoming preoccupied with whether or not they’re what people want. Or think they want. Because tastes are constantly changing. The climate is constantly changing. What remains true is us. Our experiences. Our truth.

You can follow Annika on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter 

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