Man, Camille Sullivan is too hard on herself. And all because of the word sunroof.
The local actor is talking to the Straight from her West Van home when she has the smallest of brain farts, describing how she was driving to Squamish and filmmaker Carl Bessai kept elbowing her in the head as he tried to poke a camera through that thing on the top of a car that she can’t remember the name of.
“Man, I can’t think of words today,” she says with a half giggle, “It’s on the roof of your car, it opens…”
Sullivan was playing Maggie at the time, her damaged but dangerously intelligent character in Bessai’s new ensemble piece, Sisters&Brothers. In a film full of genuinely brilliant performances, Sullivan’s is among the most indelible, with Maggie being instantly recognizable as the hard-living, underachieving type who’s basically—in Sullivan’s words—“too smart for her own good.”
“She’s a lot smarter than me,” she says, beating herself up over that sunroof synapse misfire, but you gotta be smart to play smart, right? Especially in a freewheeling improv situation like the one Sullivan was handed. “No, I think it makes me think I’m more intelligent, but it doesn’t actually,” she chuckles.
Alright, fine. There are still some basic characteristics that Sullivan shares with Maggie, including a gift for profanity and a similar familial situation. They both have half-sisters, although Sullivan’s real-life relationship is a lot healthier than Maggie’s. When we first meet them, Maggie is being collected from the ICU by her younger half-sister Nikki.
“I came up with a fairly elaborate backstory so I wouldn’t be stuck for something to say if I knew exactly what her history was,” Sullivan explains. “One thing that’s not really clear is that she’s in the hospital at the start of the movie after a suicide attempt.”
In Sullivan’s version of events, Maggie tried to off herself with pills. “It was kind of a real, but not real attempt,” she explains. “And part of the reason that she’s so fuckin’ dour, I think, is that her sister picks her up at the hospital after a suicide attempt and just doesn’t seem at all bothered about it.”
That’s probably because her sister, as played to no lesser effect by Amanda Crew, is a self-absorbed wannabe actor who spontaneously decides to drive to La La Land—like you do— with a motor-mouthed dipshit (Tom Scholte) she meets at Pat’s Pub. Naturally, Maggie invites herself along for the ride, largely so she can sit in the back of the car and argue with the two of them.
“We drove, man,” Sullivan says, sounding almost giddy. “We must have talked in that car driving up to Squamish for, like, I dunno how long that drive is, just straight, just acting, the whole time. Crazy shit. It was such a crazy drive.”
The road to Squamish, it should be noted, makes a surprisingly effective substitute for the road to California. Even more convincing is the relationship between the two sisters, despite the fact that Sullivan and Crew had a total of one quasi-rehearsal over Skype before shooting began. In the middle is Scholte’s wildly impressive turn as the goofball Henry.
“He’s nothing like that guy,” Sullivan says, of her co-star. “Tom’s wonderful. In an improvising situation, you can always depend on Tom. If somebody needs to pick up that ball, he’ll do it.”
Sullivan adds that when he wasn’t elbowing her in the head or instructing her to “Work that ass, Camille!” (you’ll have to catch the film to find out what that’s all about), director Bessai merely turned on the camera and encouraged his actors to “let fly.”
“It certainly is fun and a relief to just let loose,” says Sullivan, who’s done plenty of conventionally structured work on Intelligence, Rookie Blue, and Da Vinci’s Inquest, among many other things. “Carl really encourages you to just try anything, and if it doesn’t work, he won’t use it. Like, we were driving in the car and I tried to open the door to jump out, ‘cause I thought it would be cool, but they foiled me with those damn child-proof locks.”
Oh-oh, a formidable intellect like Maggie wouldn’t have had that problem.
“Well, that’s where the acting comes in,” Sullivan says with a sigh.