The 2016 SXSW Film Festival boasted an incredibly strong lineup of narrative features, but one of the true standouts this year was Miss Stevens. Written and directed by Julia Hart, it follows a teacher struggling through personal issues as she accompanies three students to a drama competition.
Prior to the film’s premiere screening, we sat down to speak with Julia, as well as stars Anthony Quintal and Lily Rabe – the latter of whom would later be given the Special Jury Recognition for Best Actress award for her performance in the title role.
I really enjoyed the film – it reminded me a little bit of things like Dead Poets Society, but rather than Miss Stevens being this huge source of inspiration, she’s someone the kids can connect with on a more personal, human level.
Julia Hart: I was a high school teacher before I started screenwriting and directing, and I loved movies like Dead Poets Society or like To Sir, With Love – movies that show this really inspirational, amazing teacher. But the thing that was so surprising for me, when I became a teacher, was like “it’s super important that I teach them how to construct a sentence, but it’s more important that I be a part of there formative years, and teach them about what it means to be a good person.
And so I wanted to show them that side of the experience, that what you’re teaching them between the lines and outside the classroom is ultimately – I don’t want to say “more important,” but maybe I do want to say that.
Miss Stevens is very steeped in the world of drama – the character’s mother was an actress, and she’s taking these kids to a drama competition. Was that taken from your own experiences while you were teaching?
Julia Hart: I was a total theater geek in high school – I did every play, and did some theater in college. I was a high school English teacher, but I also choreographed the spring musical every year while I was teaching, and I also directed a couple of plays, too. I grew up with my mom always taking me to the theater. I really hope the theater community sees this as a love letter to them, because I think ultimately it’s about the power of live performance. And there’s something kind of fun about putting that into a film.
Lily and Anthony, when you first read the script, what were your initial reactions? Did you just fall in love with it right away?
Anthony Quintal: Instantly. How could you not? The story is so though-provoking and it really spoke to me.
Lily Rabe: I felt like this was the thing I had been waiting for, without knowing that I was waiting. I loved it very much. I had read another script of Julia’s, so I had fallen in love with her writing, and this one I loved even more.
Most people will probably recognize you from American Horror Story, where you play all these crazy characters. Was it refreshing to portray someone that’s a little more toned-down, a little more grounded?
Lily Rabe: You know, American Horror Story is such a specific world, and I love being a part of it. It’s almost like doing [repertory] theater – there’s this big company of actors, and we all get to die and come back as these other characters.
Julia Hart: You get the juiciest roles. It’s really fun that my friend is usually my favorite character.
Lily Rabe: I’ve loved all of those parts, so it’s hard to compare. But what I can say is at this point in my life, as an actress, I’m really chomping at the bit to find stories where I get to carry the thing on my back. I want to be doing that, and I’ve gotten to do that in the theater so often – which has been an amazing privilege – but being able to do it in a film like this, a human story that is really relationship-based and is so beautifully articulated by Julia’s script… yes. The answer is yes [laughs].
But that’s not to say that I’m in any way weary of the alternative. But I loved being in this world, and the tone of this film is something that I would really like to do more of.
One thing I really enjoyed was that the film doesn’t frontload all of the emotional baggage. You can sort of sense that something might be wrong here, but you have to spend time peeling the layers back and getting invested in these characters, and that makes the emotional beats hit a lot harder.
Julia Hart: I feel like audiences are so used to getting all that information [up front] and then having to sit with it – but that’s not how life works, so we were excited to experiment with narrative structure. And I’m so happy to know that experiment worked, because it is a risk – audiences are used to having everything put on the table for them, and it’s exciting to think that audiences will respond to that.
Lily and Anthony, did you base your performances on anyone specifically, or draw from any particular influence?
Lily Rabe: [looks at Julia and laughs] Remember that time our director said she used to be a teacher?
Julia Hart: [laughs]
Lily Rabe: You know, we had an amazing costume designer, and she would come in with a lot of options, and then I would be like “what did you wear in that lecture?”
Julia Hart: Yeah, [Lily] had watched a lecture of mine from when I was a teacher?
Lily Rabe: And I would be like, “can we get a vest like this”? And Julia would just walk to her closet and be like “you mean this one?”
Julia Hart: She’s literally wearing a vest in the movie that I used to wear when I was teaching. Miss Stevens definitely isn’t me, but there are parts of who I was when I was a teacher. And also, my vest.
Anthony Quintal: For Sam, I definitely think that I kind of looked back at myself in high school – what that was like, and who I was then, and I tried to bring that into my performance.
Do you have the same passion for theater that Sam does in the film?
Anthony Quintal: I have a passion for movies, so I guess we kind of both love entertainment, and I took that and used it in front of the camera.
There’s a moment in the film where Billy does a monologue from Death of a Salesman, and it gave me goosebumps. What inspired you to choose that particular piece and include it in the film?
Julia Hart: I had a student who performed that monolgue in a drama competition, and I was so blown away that a 17-year-old could do that. One of my favorite things about high school theater is that you have kids playing these hefty adult roles, and they do it so beautifully. It’s like no other theatrical experience – there’s something really special about that, and so I wanted to capture that feeling.
And it’s such a beautiful scene, because as Miss Stevens is watching him perform, it feels like the first moment where she really understands who Billy is.
Julia Hart: I feel like people sort of forget that young people can make adult decisions and have adult feelings – but they do. And I hope that comes across in the film, because I feel like that moment in particular really drives that point home.