A Conversation with Karen Young
fter years of working steadily as an actor in feature films and such TV programs as Law and Order and HBO’s The Sopranos, New York City-based Karen Young now co-stars with Charlotte Rampling in Laurent Cantet’s new high profile film, set in 1970’s Duvalier-era Haiti, Heading South. As Brenda, Young holds her own in a performance that anchors the entire film. Here she talks about how the film works, shooting with Cantet in Haiti, living as an actor in New York, selling the film, and Charlotte Rampling’s embouchure.
In many ways, you really are more of a major character in the film than we might think to begin with. I think sometimes people see Heading South as “Charlotte Rampling’s latest film” but in many ways it really is your film.
I do think that. I mean, it starts with Brenda, just like that famous book about the whale, you know? [laughs] “Call me Ishmael” is the first line, and the last line is, “And I alone survived to tell thee.” But everyone thinks the book is about Captain Ahab. It’s not. It’s really Brenda’s intrusion into the resort that propels the action.
What attracted you to the script to begin with?
Laurent Cantet, the director! Before I met him I read the script, and I couldn’t believe that I was going in for it, because it’s such a great role! They could get any actress to do this, and I’m not considered a movie star. So I’m wondering, what is going on with this? I read it and I loved the story and I went in and I met Laurent. And I could tell right away that he was—he had a star. You know, he had Charlotte, so he didn’t need a second one. That sort of left an opening for me. After I met him, I said, I have to have this. I have to have this part. You know, you say a lot of times, I would love this part, I would like to have this part. Occasionally you say, I have to have this part. It alters, potentially, your career, but also you as a person. It altered me as an actress. It was just so transforming on so many levels.
Can you talk a little bit about that, about how it altered you? You’ve done a lot of TV, a lot of feature films, and you have been working since, what, 1983?
In 1981 I made my first film. I had always been a leading lady and not the best friend type, but in smaller films that never really received a lot of attention or artistic acclaim, or they didn’t make a lot of money at the box office. But that didn’t alter who I was as a performer. So to get this opportunity to be a lead in the film was very welcome. I’m in my 40’s—not a great time for actresses. It’s hard to get any job, let alone a lead in a feature film. Just going to Haiti was unbelievable. There’s something about Haiti like no other place on earth. You will see what you expect to find. You’ll find a lot of poverty and a lot of squalor. But you also find this incredible energy there that a lot of people don’t get a chance to experience. Certainly not anymore, because there’s no tourists in Haiti anymore.
I think it’s a country that we have so many conflicting images of.
Totally! And those images can color your entire visit if you let them. But what I didn’t expect is this incredible exuberance! The people in Port-au-Prince—it was like being in New York City. The people were all on their way somewhere—get out of my way!—I have something to do! I felt very at home there.
Because of what’s happened politically there are such strong views about Aristide and the different regimes. It’s interesting to have this kind of throwback film to the 70’s, to the roots of some of this.
Laurent is French, so he will make a film, it will be political, without you being aware of it. Which is the beauty of it.
His other films are available on Netflix, so I’ve had a chance to watch them. In some ways this seems like a huge departure, but it isn’t if we look at the men as workers.
[laughs] Yeah. And I think many of the young men in that situation don’t hesitate to view it like that and take pride in it. You know, it’s not a shameful thing to go around bragging you have a 50-year-old girlfriend.
Well, the characters, if we can put it this way, seem to enjoy doing a good job at their work.
They have a much better life within the confines of the resort than outside it, certainly. They’re welcomed, and they’re pampered, and they’re fed.
Yet they don’t want people to treat them like mothers.
Exactly. That’s one of the things Legba insisted on to the Charlotte character.
What do you think this will lead to in terms of work for you? Will it change what you’re looking for?
Well, put it this way. It was hard to come home from because these opportunities don’t come along very often. It depends entirely on how well the film does. If the film should be seen by a lot of people and, you know, have a life, the returns to me might be different. But I have thought that my entire career and nothing has ever changed it. I’m not complaining! I’ve worked consistently my whole career. Very few people can say that and I’ve worked on very good things. I haven’t received acclaim like I envisioned when I first started out. [laughs] But when you look at it, I make my living doing this. That’s everything. I make my living and I support myself, I have two children. I really can’t complain. I live in New York, which is different from Los Angeles. I made the decision to stay in New York a long time ago.
Hmmmm, back in the 80’s, when a lot of actors defected to Los Angeles and are now incredibly wealthy! A lot of writers left, a lot of actors left, and became very successful in television. I never did that and I don’t think it helped my career, staying in New York. It may have helped me as a person. There’s just a volume of work that exists in Los Angeles—it doesn’t exist in New York. If I had a contract for a television show, I would leave. My children are in school here, I am comfortable here and I like it. If you have an offer you can’t refuse, if you have a contract, then sure.
I wonder what’ it’s like to work with this director. A lot of your role doesn’t involve dialogue. I’m haunted by the look on your face when you’re first searching for Legba. It’s clear that you’re looking for someone. And a lot of what happens in the film is physical. Cantet does this in his other films too.
Well, he’s extremely specific about what he’s looking for. He doesn’t delve into any emotional things at all, like an American director. It’s strictly visual. He will tell you how he wants to walk. Like the scene where I sort of lope across the bridge at the beginning of my search for Legba in the middle of the night. We did that—oh my God—maybe fifteen times. It took that long before I gave him what he asked for. It wasn’t a run and it wasn’t a walk, it was something in between. For him it was very, very visual. He’s very specific and I welcomed that. It was very refreshing not to have to explain what I was looking for in words, and not to have to explain things on an emotional level. It’s helpful in acting class but it’s not helpful when you get on the set. But everyone is conditioned to think, Oh I have to have a motivation—you know, this very thorough psychological background. Well, you don’t.
Is it a relief to turn yourself over to a director this way?
Yeah, because I trusted him implicitly. If I didn’t trust him then I couldn’t have done it. You know, your whole being says no! But I trusted him from the minute I met him. I do speak French and I was able to speak French with him when I met him. Not as much as at the end of 2 ½ months together, but enough. And I could comprehend what he was telling me. He understood me and I think we just had a good rapport from the beginning. And I think he liked the way I looked. He doesn’t divulge a lot of information about himself. He’s very personable, but he’s not personal. We had tremendous difficulty with the shooting schedule because of the weather. We had to change the schedule 27 times. So that put a lot of strain on him. He was all set to shoot something and then the wind would blow and we’d have to go inside. He was a changed person when I saw him afterward. He finally got it in the can, and he could let down a little bit. He was terrific. A very brave director.
What’s the part in the film you like the best?
Oh, there’s so many things! I love going into the bar looking for Legba. That scene on the page was like one eighth of a page. It was like four lines. But it was on the schedule for the entire night. And I said, what are we gonna do? How am I going to sustain a performance that is described in four lines for an entire evening? I called up my old acing teacher in the United States. He talked me through it. He said, “Everything you see in that bar is a clue to where he is. You know, that person behind the bar looks like he may be the brother of the woman who sold you that tobacco in the market.” He gave me an objective, which an acting teacher should do. Which was necessary at that point. I didn’t know what to do. And then Laurent just had very clear ideas of how this was to be set up and shot. I loved that part. I loved that evening and I loved that whole section of the movie. Brenda does find what she’s looking for in the end and it’s not him! Lo and behold, it’s not the object of her search, it’s someone who will stand in for the object of her search. It leads to something, it leads to a big change in her. It’s not my favorite scene in the movie. My favorite scene in the movie is when Charlotte is rebuffed by Legba in the restaurant and walks back to her bungalow. They show her walking away from the camera and her hands are completely relaxed and unfurled. Her fingers are completely straight. She’s given up. It’s so moving when I see that, it’s my favorite scene in the movie.
Each of the principals has a monologue where you face the camera, The older man who runs the resort has one too. I wonder if you would talk about how that worked for you as an actor.
It was very difficult to shoot because we weren’t supposed to do it until towards the end of the shoot. Then we found ourselves doing it in the first week. So we had a lot less time to think about things. It is a lot of strain to be the only person on the camera, speaking directly to it. It was never clear who I was speaking directly to. In the end, it sort of didn’t matter, it was just an address. It was speaking from another place that you don’t normally use as an actor. I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but—the way he came up with that monologue is Persona, the Bergman film. He loved that. And he used that as inspiration to have all of us do a monologue to the camera. But it was a hard scene to shoot. I think it was the anticipation of getting there and doing it. It was a 45-minute drive from our hotel to the set. Because of the terrain there, the roads are really bad. Yeah, it was very hard to do.
What do you think is next for you as an actress?
I feel like I’m in a funny place as an actress. Probably one of the reasons I felt I had to do this film is because I felt I needed something to get me through the last kick in my career. [laughs] I need something to kind of get me over the hill! Boy! I know what I would like! But I don’t know what’s in store for me, it’s two different things.
Well what would you like?
I would like to continue to work on films like this, as the leading lady—very daring, great independent films by great directors! [laughs] I’m laughing cuz it’s hard to come by. You know, that’s what I would like.
I have a feeling your career is far from over, Karen!
[laughs] Let’s hope so! Let’s hope this is an auspicious re-beginning. I’ll be honest—I am ready for a change.
Anything else you’d like to say about this film or that you wish someone would ask you?
I had been thinking of Charlotte a lot in the last few days. I saw her in New York when she was here doing press. When I saw her again it brought back how distracting it is to work with her, because she so beautiful. Sitting across from her, studying her face and looking at her mouth. Her mouth is like a perfect embouchure to play the flute. I had to take flute lessons when I was in high school and for six months I worked on my embouchure, which is how you form your mouth to make a good sound, and Charlotte’s mouth just goes completely perfectly into one. She was so great. I don’t know if I wished somebody had asked me that but it’s just what comes to mind.
Does she know that you think that about her mouth?
No! I was going tell her one day and I kind of got shy about it. [laughs] Yeah, it’s unusual to hear this somehow. Now that it’s out.
Well I appreciate you talking with me very much.
Oh it’s been a complete pleasure.
And I wish very good things for this film. I admire it very much.
Thank you so much. You do all this work and of course you want as many people to see it as possible and attention to be paid. So often films don’t even get a distributor. But this always struck me as exceptional, even reading the script. It’s certainly not a script that you would be sent in the United States.
Well I would like to see it framed thoughtfully, that it really isn’t just about a lot of older women who go to Haiti and have sex.
Yes! Previously, when we were in Europe it was about sex tourism. Laurent was very keen on saying it’s not that. I had never heard that phrase until we were about three quarters of the way through making the movie and it came up in conversation. I said, that’s what we’re doing? I had no idea! Yeah, I said, but it’s not, it’s not what we’re doing. Laurent said, exactly. Although it’s an easy thing to sell it on.
Heading South is playing in New York City; it opens in Los Angeles on July 21st, then in limited release. This interview will broadcast on WAER Syracuse 88.3 FM on Thursday, July 27th, 8 p.m. DST via webstreaming at www.waer.org.