In a tabloid-frenzy world, it is quite refreshing to see actors get publicity for working with non-profit organizations or support causes that are important to them. One such actress is Alexis Raben.
When she is not helping students at the Young Storytellers Foundation in Los Angeles, the Russian-born actress is making her comedic mark playing a sexy accented lesbian in the film, Miss March. Raben discusses her character, the hilarious script, and the one thing in common that she shares with The Whitest Kids U’ Know comedy troupe.
RG: Alright. So how did your upbringing in Russia influence your decision to pursue acting in America?
Alexis Raben: I was never really grown up there, so what I understood from my parents’ generation, it was more locked in. So when you’re, I don’t know, 16, let’s say, you’re going to be a doctor. When you’re 16 you take your premed admittance exam and if you get into medical school, then from age 16, literally you’re on that track. So at like, 20 or something, you emerge as a qualified physician. So at no point there, could you be like, “Oh, I’m going to do an acting class.”
AR: With that said, I always had this love for all things that have to do with storytelling and drama. At one point, I remember what they did was studios would often come to schools and look for kids that they thought might be right, it’s almost like they did outside casting because you really didn’t make that much money as an actor, especially a child actor. The parents wouldn’t really put their own lives on hold to take their kids to auditions and in one of those situations, I got pulled into a casting session for a movie- I don’t remember what it was, but I would have been playing a child version of like one of those current stars and it was a period piece. I LOVE period pieces. I’ve done something like eight or nine [of them]. It seemed like this, oh my god, dream come true and I remember I went into the audition and one of the things they asked me to do was they said, “Go out, find something that would upset you. Come back and we’re gonna improv a scene but you’re going to cry.” I came out and I remember telling my mom and she’s like, “Well that should be easy.” [Laughs] I don’t know what that was about but that was her attitude to my ease into falling into extreme emotions.
AR: So I went through this and I guess a couple of weeks later, I was told that I didn’t get it and I kind of didn’t think much more of it. But then the following year, I don’t remember how it came out, somebody at school told me that basically what turned out is that I had gotten [the role] but it was shooting over the summer. My parents thought it was important for me that I go on vacation and do all my school reading and stuff and not stay in the city and do essentially a job that they didn’t really, I don’t know, didn’t need to be doing. It was very disappointing.
AR: So I almost had that like childhood entry to it.
RG: I also read that literature influenced you growing up too, so did you have a favorite childhood book?
AR: I think I had a favorite book like every week and then it would change when I was reading the next one. I would go through specific writers and for a while I would be stuck. Like once, I would remember at some point, maybe age eight I would slowly read Sherlock Holmes and I would approach everything in life with deductive reasoning. But then the next week I’ve moved on to something else, so then I would get so immersed in the world that I would walk around the rest of my life living it. I remember there was a point where I was away somewhere, I think with my grandmother and I was reading a certain book and I would write my mom letters in the style of the letters that were written in the book. It was like an 18th century thing. So I would just get really immersed into things I was reading and fall into the world very willingly [laughs].
RG: Who would be your all-time favorite character in novel to play in a film?
AR: What an amazing question. I’m going crazy now, like “Oh my god, my one chance!”
AR: Who would be the one character? God, no one has ever asked that!
RG: You want me to get back to that?
AR: My problem often times, they’re men. Well it’s also because even in literature sometimes they’re an actor. The person who actually acts and does things in their life and affects change, they often are men.
RG: Even with Shakespeare…
AR: Even with Shakespeare you always want to play Richard III.
AR: Because I always wanted to play Richard III and I know that I’m not going to play Richard III unless it was a very like special production just for me. But that’s the one that always appealed so greatly; a delicious villain and everything goes out of his mind.
RG: What book would you like to see adapted to the screen? So many things are being adapted, but is there one that could make a really good movie?
AR: Well there’s something that just recently came out that actually is based on a true story that I’m very passionate about. I’m expecting it to be adapted, but it needs to be adapted in a very specific, very deep way so it doesn’t end up being just a life story; something that would carry the weight of like Shawshank Redemption and Dead Man Walking but with actually more social commentary and weight to it. [Laughs] I hope I’m not being really terrible by not saying the name because I’m investigating the rights to it [laughs.]
RG: Okay [laughs.]
AR: [Laughs] Oh, I don’t want to broadcast it if that’s okay. I’m sure that way bigger people have already gotten their hands all over it. I would be very surprised if they didn’t and on a completely other side of things, one book that I’ve always been so intrigued by being adapted and I think it has been once in some like weird German expressionist film way back like early 20th century. There’s a book by an early 20th century Russian writer. The book is called The Master and Margarita.
AR: It’s this amazing, kind of surreal, very whimsical book but it’s also got a lot of philosophical thought of pondering life and existence in a very light, spirited way. It’s got a lot of satire all to it and these amazing characters, and I think visually it would be arresting. I’ve often talked to people and when I mention it, they’re like, “Oh god! Yeah, that would be great!” But I don’t think anyone is really brave enough, especially in the sobering economics and money being virtually impossible to get back. But I think that would be a fascinating project and it would such a visual and sensory feast.
RG: As a high school student in New York, you made a film at the School of Visual Arts. Do you remember what the name of the film was and what was it about?
AR: Hah! It was a fun project. It was primarily influenced or definitely framed by The Who’s “Who Are You?,” which played along most of it. It was mostly fantasies on what different people in the crowds might really be. A lot of crowd shots, walking through New York City, zeroing in on a person here and there and then often doing like a comical, sometimes like really serious but then a few times quite dark image or like a little scene of what’s really behind that face in the crowd.
RG: That’s a pretty heavy subject for somebody in high school to take on. What did you learn from doing all that? I mean, you basically ran the whole show.
AR: I ran it but I had a very wonderful and nurturing team of instructors there. I think the main thing I learned was that I loved that medium. I was just so deeply in love with filmmaking at that time and it was the first time that I’ve gotten to touch it and I became completely obsessed with seeing everything there was and feeling like I needed to catch up with like the 100 years of film history. It was just a huge infatuation, romance and start of a lifetime commitment.
RG: Oh okay.
AR: It was funny because after that I remember arriving at college which was obviously a much more serious step and the school that I went to had a very serious, well-respected film program. Walking in sort of the department’s office as a freshman, where the freshman were not even allowed anywhere near the more serious film classes or equipment and saying, “I’ve already made some shorts, so you should just let me into your freshmen class.” It’s like, “Okay sweetheart, why don’t you go across the hall, across the stage to the lecture hall and sit into a lecture class.”
RG: When you double-majored, how did psychology help you as an actress?
AR: It’s funny because I didn’t expect it to help me when I was doing it originally; it was supposed to be my back-up. Well as long as you’re getting this solid, great education, make sure there’s something in it that you could have as a back-up career. What it ended up giving me was more an educated way of looking at human behavior and human nature. Sometimes I’m a big believer in letting your human instincts guide your character development but at the same time, sometimes it’s nice to kind of know certain things about how people function even when you’re analyzing a script. You have a better understanding and also just being trained in that gives you I think, a higher sensitivity to kind of this cause and effect of human emotion, human behavior and a way of being particularly a tuned to it, kind of all the time. It’s not something you that you turn on but it’s something that you find endlessly fascinating. Like somebody who’s obsessed with food, you’re kind of always extra aware where there’s food, who’s cooking it and the smell.
RG: Yeah, that’s definitely true. So does method acting work into it?
AR: They often kind of work, not together, but you often find confirmation of one in the other. Method acting isn’t literally built on human psychology but I think it’s built on the finding of human behavior, and psychology is built on finding the human behavior, so obviously there is a crossover. But I don’t if you want me to continue… [Laughs]
RG: I think it’s really fascinating because I don’t think a lot of people actually ask actors how they get involved besides like James Lipton or something [laughs.]
AR: Oh totally. It’s funny you mention James Lipton, I got involved in acting originally, not by accident but I was trying to become a better director and then I ended up becoming an actress through that. First I was just trying to see what it was like on the other side. But when I did that then I decided that I needed to have proper training. I lived in New York and being a part of that culture, you think, okay you have to be trained in the method. So I went in and I did two-year intense, heavy, very-involved program that was based on Meisner and Meisner is representative of the three American schools, each of which came out of Stanislavski, who was the head of the method. He was the person that first brought method to this country.
RG: Oh cool.
AR: So my training in Meisner was very painful. As much as college was just like a joyful exploration, training in method was just heavy and painful and I felt like I was breaking bones in my body. I wasn’t sure it was good for me, but I felt like I needed to know that I did not leave a road unexplored, and I’ve taken acting as seriously as I could. And then I was watching James [Lipton], and then some point when I was working more after that, I found that I wasn’t really using my method training. I never did the exercises we were told to do in preparation, I never followed the steps but I was aware that somewhere, on some level it must have been working in me anyway, and then I saw James Lipton in an interview with [pauses] oh my god, I have this terrible memory with names. It will come to me.
AR: This actress was asked about her method training and whether she uses method and she said that having a background in method acting makes her a much more secure actress. She knew that if she’s ever in a situation where her instincts or anything else was not coming up, wasn’t working, she had the tools. She also knew that she’s done everything and she could rest back on it, just in case. It was the most accurate reflection, how I feel about having a method background.
RG: Before you made the transition into acting, what were some of the frustrations that you had as a director and how did you deal with those?
AR: I found this cycle of finding a way to become involved so mysterious and daunting because the only way you can learn to direct is by directing. The only way you can direct is having somebody hire you, which they will not do if you haven’t done it before or doing it on your own, which means you either need to have your own money or get somebody to invest money but I never felt I had strength in convincing somebody to give me money.
AR: So I kind of kept getting stuck there and what I would do is I would get various jobs in the industry like I’d script supervise and I’d get some stuff in development, but then each of those things seems to take you down deeper in the rabbit hole at that particular job. They don’t connect. They try to level where, you know, “Great. Congratulations, you’ve gotten all this experience, you know more now and now here’s your directing opportunity.” I think everybody who comes out with a directing career has in one way or another been completely self-made, self-propelled, sort of, maverick. Oh god, that word just sounds terrible now.
AR: [Laughs] Sorry.
AR: They made their own journey, it’s almost like no other journey can be of instructive and you can’t follow another one and I didn’t know how to get out it and I felt like the way to get out it primarily by raising money for something, kind of hustling, writing.
RG: That sounds more painful than actually acting [laughs.]
AR: What people always find really surprising and what I find is people that started out as actors complain about not having enough control and having started out directing, I had the opposite complaint is that when I’m in control and responsible for absolutely everything, it brings out such a control freak in me, sometimes. I felt that once I’ve tried acting, I felt like it would allow me to be a healthier person if I could just focus on my one art and one responsibility to the character and to my job in a film rather than being in charge of absolutely everything because like I said, being the person in charge of getting the financing, money and making sure that somebody invests in your film, especially since you have to do it early on for sure, and you know as I found myself also going through the sound effects, doing sound levels and like doing every job imaginable including catering. [Laughs] After a while, I felt like I’d go crazy.
RG: What genre, if you had the chance to try directing again, would you do?
AR: If I got to direct again, I think I would direct drama. I think I have an innate understanding of drama that is deep enough and stable enough that I could trust enough. Where comedy is such a complex animal, especially the directing, that I think in acting in comedy, you could fall into that state of play and do really well with it. But I feel like directing comedy is such a complicated thing and I don’t know if that I have enough experience or knowledge of it, be able to attempt that really. You know, come back to me a in a couple of years and see if I’ve done a comedy as an actor and learned from the directors I’ve worked with, I may feel very differently.
RG: After undergoing such extensive training, what advice would you give actors starting out, fresh out of university or people that consider doing this for a career?
AR: Try to work as much as you can. It’s about the work more than anything else. I think you learn doing each job such a tremendous amount and when you do your training, make sure you put the training up against the work and see if it’s actually helping you. Remember that it’s about the work ultimately because the amount of work you’re able to get, the career you have, that sort of comes and goes, ebbs and flows for sure. It’s the work that nobody can take away from you and the work is your biggest reward, the actual experience of doing it.
RG: In your career, you were in The Invasion. How did you land that job and what did you learn from those two big names in that movie?
AR: Well the landing of the job was really a very standard, mass audition. I was lucky enough to fit and then they brought me back and back, again and again to make sure that I could actually do it again and again. As far as learning, you could definitely say that both Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig and I keep mentioning the name of Jeffrey Wright because I felt that working with him was just as important as of an experience. But I guess he’s not as quite the A-list name.
AR: They’ve all done more complex and demanding roles, but I feel like the focus and the presence that they gave on the set was just as anything else, just as in any other role. It was reassuring to see that kind of presence and that kind of respect for the work and respect for your co-workers as well. It was interesting because we started shooting this thing just before Daniel Craig was announced as the new Bond, and then he was announced and then we came back for some re-shoots when he had already shot it and it came out and it was very successful. The presence on-set, the focus, the dedication to the work was exactly the same. The niceness, the attentiveness, kind of warmth to everybody around him was exactly the same. I find that to be hugely reassuring and encouraging as far as the state of the people working at succeeding in the industry.
RG: I think you do have the classic look of a Bond girl. What do you think?
RG: I don’t know. I’m thinking of From Russia with Love, like a remake or something like that. Would you want to take the role of a Bond girl?
AR: Well first of all, they just had like a half-Russian girl, so there’s totally not going to be another one…
RG: [Laughs] AR: …Until like I’m 50.
RG: They’ll give you a different European… [Laughs]
AR: But then, I can do all kinds of other European accents. There was a time when I was doing method training in New York City, when I would have said, “Oh no! I want to do a serious role.” The more I worked and the more I learned, the more I [said] “Fantastic! Who wouldn’t want to go through that adventure, who wouldn’t want to do a Bond girl, you know?” The more you work, the more you experience, you become so much more down-to-earth and kind of get what it’s about, and then you drop all like air and weird pretensions.
RG: Did you do anything to prepare for this role [in Miss March]?
AR: Well I watched more The Whitest Kids, U’ Know and I had a sit-down dinner with two of my closest friends [who] are a lesbian couple, or lesbians I would say and I had a sit-down dinner with them, discussed the role and saw how they felt about it. I felt that was an important part of my preparation. Other than that, the main part of it was kind of letting go of the ego, letting go of the need or the tendency to take myself too seriously. I think those are the main things. It’s not about you, it’s about the work.
RG: How would you describe your character, Katja?
AR: Katja is a maniacal lesbian.
RG: [Laughs] Maniacal lesbian.
AR: You know?
RG: [Laughs] that’s funny. Did you sympathize at all with Zach [Cregger] and Trevor [Moore’s] plight? They’re first time directors with this movie and you were a director, did you kind of understand what they’re going through?
AR: I think I have a lot of empathy with what their job entails because they’re co-writers, co-directors, first time everything. What they had on their side was that they adapt so much co-directing on their TV show, so at least they have that working like a well-oiled machine. But something that I learned on Outlanders, actually was to put away my behind-the-camera experience when I act because especially having directed, even more, having been a script supervisor, you’re constantly aware of all the goings-on on-set. You want to point out when something’s gonna be problematic and that’s a bad thing to do as an actor. So having not that long ago gotten over that hump and broken that bad tendency, I really made sure to step back and just be an actor. I definitely sympathize with the huge job they had on their hands.
RG: Would you want to work with these guys again if you had the opportunity to?
AR: Oh God, yeah.
RG: [Laughs] In the movie, what was your reaction when you read the script?
AR: Well I first read the sides for my character and I kind of, I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what that was about. It wasn’t enough for me to play her but I was kind of like, “Oh, I don’t know about this,” and then I read the whole script and there were parts of it that had me laughing out loud, which granted I mostly do dramas, but it’s like rare to laugh out loud at a script. It was funny that it went a long way in putting me in the right film and [by] not taking myself too seriously. This is a comedy.
RG: Did you get a chance to meet Hugh Hefner and visit the Playboy mansion?
AR: No, well you know, actually the movie was originally shot with Robert Wagner.
RG: Yeah, I heard about that.
AR: So when I was shooting it, Robert Wagner was standing in essentially for Hugh Hefner and I heard that he did a great job, but don’t know whether Hugh Hefner heard about it or if they approached him. I don’t know how that worked, but that all happened well after the main chunk of the film was shot. So no Hugh Hefner, no Playboy mansion for me.
RG: Aw. I know this is kind of personal and you don’t have to answer, but I would love an answer, but would you pose for Playboy?
AR: I think it would depend on what point of view, like literally.
AR: Like what point in my career and kind of from like what, I don’t know.
AR: I think the only thing I could really like consummately say is I have no idea. It’s like nobody has approached me with that question, oddly enough, being in this movie. But I just, I don’t know.
RG: What magazine would you love to grace the cover of?
AR: I would always love to do the cover of Vanity Fair. Well that’s not very interesting but you know if we’re being honest…
RG: You’re involved with a lot of charities. How did you get involved with the Young Storytellers Foundation?
AR: It’s not really a charity.
RG: A non-profit.
AR: It’s a volunteer, non-profit group. It goes a long with a lot of things I’ve always done- which is use storytelling, and part of the filmmaking process- to help encourage self-expression and self-confidence. There’s a wonderful program in New York City, in the lower income neighborhoods and public schools where I would teach them courses on kind of photojournalism about their community and writing plays for each other, for their peers. When I moved to L.A., eventually I found this program which is very similar and it’s great. It’s run by wonderful people and what they do is they essentially bring in professionals from the film industry and they put each of them as mentor- almost like a secretary to a middle-school child, who then runs the show and develops a story with characters, with a script and we are not allowed to give them ideas. We are not allowed to write for them but we are really there to guide, protect, mentor, help them find their expressions and feel confident about it. Often times what would happen is these kids in these programs, they mix the very bright kids that are doing well and perhaps particularly gifted in this with kids that really don’t get much encouragement in anything sometimes. Once we get their scripts together and we take them up and type them up for them in the proper format, and then we bring a whole other group of professional actors- which I’ve never been involved in that side, I don’t know why. I have more experience working directly with kids then some people may, so that seemed like a good place for me to apply myself. Then they are given a professional cast, so they get like a group of ten actors and the kids could be like, “Okay, you could be my Mary, and you could be my dog and you could be my dad.”
RG: [Laughs] that’s cool.
AR: That whole thing is performed in an auditorium in front of all their friends and parents. It’s such a huge boast to their self-confidence and they feel so special and it opens up channels to future creativity. It gives often times a kid who thought, “Oh I really can’t do anything.” Suddenly they’re like, “Oh my god, I did that!”
AR: They’re kind of like this superstar, but not in a gross way that sometimes a popularity contest with kids could be.
AR: But for something that they’ve created. It’s a great program.
RG: How can people get involved and find out more information about this?
AR: Well that’s a very good question.
AR: You can go online to youngstorytellers.com and anyone can get involved on some level I think. But if you don’t want do any of that, you could always donate money. Also if I can like plug the issue even more, there was a similar program I was involved with before this, which differed in that the program went into suffering high schools and specifically involved students in danger of dropping out.
AR: So [students] really not doing well, but it was high school and then there was a different format in how it worked, but it was the same in that eventually the whole school sat in the auditorium and watched professional actors perform this thing. But I think that maybe they collaborated on a full play or something, I’m having trouble remembering the difference, but the reason why I wanted to mention that because they lost their funding.
RG: Oh no.
AR: [It was] funded by public schools and it isn’t any longer. I actually feel that it’s such an important last opportunity to grab for a kid [that] may go through from having all their potential and still being in high school, to potentially dropping out. I really wish that had stuck around to see if there is any way to raise awareness.
RG: What projects are you working on right now?
AR: Right now, I have a couple of projects that I’m still writing or developing with a writer that are in that stage where I don’t know how much I can really talk about them. As far as acting projects, there are two independent, well starting out as independent; I think they are headed for more support. Until it’s for certain, I feel weird naming them really.
RG: So you’re working on two projects?
AR: There are two that I’m co-writing and developing with a writer. It’s a fine detail. There’s a distinction in that. There’re existing projects that I’m hoping to be acting in but it’s not a certainty.