Kelly O’Sullivan’s debut script ‘Saint Frances’ brings an authentic look into womanhood

Kelly O’Sullivan

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly O’Sullivan shortly after her film “Saint Frances” opened at the Chicago Critics Film Festival at the Music Box Theatre this May. O’Sullivan wrote the screenplay and stars in the film. We talked about her path to Chicago and acting before discussing this raw and unique film.

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO, NORTHWESTERN, AND MIMES

KELLY O’SULLIVAN: I grew up in North Arkansas. I was born and raised there until I was eighteen.

REBECCA MARTIN: When you were growing up, what shaped your love for acting? Or writing?

O’SULLIVAN: When I was little, my parents were huge cinephiles. They loved old movies. I grew up watching tons of old movies on VHS, before there were DVDs. Then when I was five, my kindergarten teacher told my mom that she thought she should take me to go try out for the local children’s theatre, and I don’t know why. Maybe because I was playing characters around the playground or something. But I did that. Then I acted in children’s theatre during my entire childhood growing up, and I just fell in love with acting.

MARTIN: That’s great.

O’SULLIVAN: And then I would do all the high school plays and musicals. After that, I decided to go to Northwestern to major in theatre.

MARTIN: I’m curious about those older films you used to watch. What are your favorites? Did any stay with you?

O’SULLIVAN: I was obsessed with Abbott and Costello. My favorite movie as a kid was, and still to this day, is “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948).

I was obsessed with Abbott and Costello. My favorite movie as a kid was, and still to this day, is “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948).

MARTIN: Is that a thing? Is that for real?

O’SULLIVAN: Yeah, it’s really funny because Dracula is in it, and it has the werewolf in it.

MARTIN: Oh my god, I need to see this.

O’SULLIVAN: It’s really good and the cool thing about that movie is they had all of those stars. Like the actor who actually played the werewolf in the classic movie.

MARTIN: That’s crazy, a mix of genres.

O’SULLIVAN: I loved it so much. I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen and I was actually kind of scared of it when I was a little kid. I was scared of the monsters. I also watched a lot of musicals growing up, like “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952). Those were the movies I was brought up on. And a ton of Lucille Ball. I feel like all my peers were into “Goonies” (1985) and everything else that was happening in the eighties and the nineties. I totally missed out on all of that. I was like, did you guys watch “Abbott and Costello”?

MARTIN: I think that’s great. I grew up with “Singin’ in the Rain” too. What brought you to Northwestern? What made you decide on that school?

O’SULLIVAN: Well one, we came up to visit it and the school was so beautiful. I instantly fell in love with Chicago. And I was either going to go to Northwestern or NYU. Something in me was like, “I’m not ready for New York.”

MARTIN: Yeah, New York can be a little much.

O’SULLIVAN: Well yeah, going from Arkansas to New York…

MARTIN: That’s a bit dramatic.

O’SULLIVAN: Even though I love New York, I didn’t think I was quite ready for that. Even though I was primarily taking classes in acting at Northwestern, when I was enrolling, I wanted to take other classes too. NYU is a conservatory program, and I wanted an overall education. So I ended up choosing Northwestern and taking up classes like storytelling and mime.

MARTIN: Mime, oh my god.

O’SULLIVAN: It’s really insane.

MARTIN: That was a class?

O’SULLIVAN: That was a whole class.

MARTIN: So a whole semester?

O’SULLIVAN: It was like a quarter. But at the time, Northwestern had a whole mime company. It was very prestigious. It’s very strange to tell people. I was not in the company. But it’s funny to talk about because it was like a serious art form. But I think it connects, because you know, Abbott and Costello was extreme physical comedy. And mime was also very physical, obviously. It’s related to clowning, and it’s still something I so appreciate in TV, movies, and theatre.

STAGE TO SCREEN

On set of “Saint Frances.” Photo credit: Corey Stein

MARTIN: So writing, I know it’s a passion of yours, did you do that at Northwestern as well?

O’SULLIVAN: It’s a very new passion. “Saint Frances” is my first screenplay.

MARTIN: Way to go!

O’SULLIVAN: Thank you. Yeah, I’m still very new at it. I still have no idea about what I’m doing.

MARTIN: Well I think you’re doing a great job.

O’SULLIVAN: Thank you. Yes, I still have a hard time. Now I’m trying to write something new. And you’re at the bottom of the mountain with the boulder again.

MARTIN: Yeah, it can be very intimidating, I get that.

O’SULLIVAN: It’s such a vulnerable thing to do. It’s difficult when you’re writing to know if it’s good or not. And you don’t really know until you put it out in the world, and people either say yea or nay.

MARTIN: Yeah, I think you’ve got to connect it to your heart. That’s when I write better. So after Northwestern, did you go into theatre?

O’SULLIVAN: Totally, it was like a straight shot into Chicago theatre. And I still love the community, it’s amazing. We found all the actors for “Saint Frances” through the Chicago theatre community. They are just the people I’ve admired for years, and friends. The coolest part about “Saint Frances” is getting to write for really amazing actors, which I never thought I would get to do.

MARTIN: How did you transition from theatre to film?

O’SULLIVAN: So I’ve done a little bit of TV and film in Chicago. I did some independent features, and I was on the show “Sirens” on USA for two seasons. That was kind of my first exposure to being on camera with those things. And I met Alex, my partner, since he’s a director, when I started to write, even though I’d been a part of Chicago theatre for a really long time. I thought it would be easier to make this movie together, rather than try to get a play produced.

MARTIN: That’s awesome you’ve got someone you can collaborate with.

O’SULLIVAN: It went better than we could have expected. Like every day we were ready for something to go wrong and for us to go, “Now we can’t make the movie.” But if something was going to go wrong, we’d do everything we could do to fix it.

STORY

On set of “Saint Frances.” Photo credit: Corey Stein

MARTIN: How did your story tie into “Saint Frances”?

O’SULLIVAN: There’s a lot of fiction there, but there are two pieces of real life that I used as a jumping-off point. I was a nanny in my twenties, and in my thirties I had an abortion. … I knew that they connected, and the juxtaposition of those two things could be really interesting dramatically.

So choosing to make both of those things current in the same summer would make for something thematically to make connections, and also would make for good comedy. Ramona is so funny, and being a nanny is so funny. It’s so strange that even though you don’t have nearly as much emotional investment as their actual parents, you are in some ways playing a parental role. And also trying to execute the parents’ vision. You know how their children will be raised, with the discipline and the habits. It’s like trying on parenthood.

Ramona is so funny, and being a nanny is so funny. It’s so strange that even though you don’t have nearly as much emotional investment as their actual parents, you are in some ways playing a parental role. And also trying to execute the parents’ vision. You know how their children will be raised, with the discipline and the habits. It’s like trying on parenthood.

MARTIN: I could see in the film how you were like the buddy, that seemed natural. I think you’re so brave for two reasons, how you brought abortion into the film, and how you went about normalizing it, not making it a big thing. I appreciate that. There are so many layers of emotion. I know you’re an actor, so you’re good at that. What were you trying to bring to the screen? I saw something different that I usually don’t see in any film.

O’SULLIVAN: Well, it was really important to me. Yes, we have Bridget’s voice, which is very important and very similar to my own, and I knew that I could write her in this place of specificity and authenticity. We’re the same age, and she’s a fallen Catholic. Those are nuggets of truth from my own life.

It was also very important to me that the other main characters were women with different points of view. And so it’s really intentional that it’s multigenerational.

But it was also very important to me that the other main characters were women with different points of view. And so it’s really intentional that it’s multigenerational. You have the character who’s my mother, and you have Annie and Maya who’s a little bit older then Bridget, and deals with different challenges and struggles in life. Then you have Ramona (Frances) to bring that multigenerational perspective. It was really important to me that the moms were lesbian. It’s queer parenting, but it’s not about queer parenting, kind of like how the movie is not about abortion. Because those issue movies are so… it’s like taking medicine. I know I should do this, but it’s a total drag, it’s totally boring.

MARTIN: Exactly, there’s really a human side to all of this. It’s so real, and that is something I love about it. It’s just so raw and so real, and you brought something to the screen that should be up there.

O’SULLIVAN: And it was very important that our cast was racially diverse. All of those things were intentional choices, but we also intentionally did not make it the centerpiece of the movie. It’s just like life, where all of these things exist. You just don’t need to make a big sandwich out of each issue, you know?

On set of “Saint Frances.” Photo credit: Corey Stein

MARTIN: Yeah, there were so many scenes that stand out to me. I think one of my favorites was at the park prior to the fireworks display, when Frances (Ramona) shakes hands with that woman who’s being so smug to her. Then all of the BS goes away, and everything comes to a head. Just that one action was like, “Hello, this is how we should treat people, and this is the realness we should have.” I loved that.

O’SULLIVAN: I’m so glad. Because that is something I really believe in, and I’m not very good at executing in my own life. I’m much more like Bridget, who’s like, stop being a dick. Like being totally inarticulate, and being a teenage version of myself. So I thought it was important to have all of those different perspectives, where you have somebody who is totally reactionary, like Bridget, and somebody who is smug and passive-aggressive like the woman who shames her for breastfeeding, and then you have Maya who’s the most adult. Although it scares her, it’s hard for her to say, “This is disrespectful, we can be better than this.” Then you have the purest, simplest version, which is Frances being like, “Hi, this is my name.” And I’m really glad that moment resonated.

WOMEN SUPPORTING WOMEN

MARTIN: Do you have any women that have inspired you and supported you in your career?

O’SULLIVAN: I feel the women who have supported me are the women at PR Casting, who worked on this film. They have been unbelievably supportive and unbelievably inspiring, because they treat actors so kindly, and they are so proud of their actors. They are about the work, and they are so thoughtful about their casting. So in addition to them being friends, they are just great examples of being women in the business who’ve maintained their integrity. So I love them.

Mary Beth Fisher, who plays my mom in “Saint Frances,” is a huge inspiration to me. I’m so inspired by her career and she is such a great actor. I loved her ever since I worked with her. I have a really fantastic group of friends that is made up of actors and writers. They really help me out on a regular basis. So they are not necessarily mentors, but they are people I run to all the time. We turn to each other, we support each other.

MARTIN: I love hearing stories about women supporting women. It’s such a powerful alternative to competing in a way where we tear each other down. We are so much more powerful and strong united.

O’SULLIVAN: Yeah, we are 51 percent of the population, why don’t we take over? It’s time. Internalizing sexism is a huge problem. It’s something that’s real, and something we have to address. And I have to address my own internalized sexism.

Yeah, we are 51 percent of the population, why don’t we take over? It’s time. Internalizing sexism is a huge problem.

MARTIN: What does “internalizing sexism” mean?

O’SULLIVAN: It’s about being raised in a way that you are sexist without even knowing it. Like if I was ever to defer, even unconsciously, to the man in the room, and be like, “What do you think?” instead of trusting my own opinion or saying to the woman next to me, “What do you think?”

There may be moments where we’re not even clear that we are doing those things. I was watching these interviews with women, and one was saying, “We can’t trust her when she’s on her period.” And there are women who genuinely think that. That’s because we are in a society that denigrates women, that does not trust women. It’s just trying to keep women submissive. And there’s no way to be raised in that culture without internalizing some of it. I’m constantly having to say to myself, “Why did I just have that thought about how she’d be prettier if she put on whatever.”

AUTHENTICITY

MARTIN: What advice would you have for young female filmmakers or screenwriters?

O’SULLIVAN: I would say writing from a place of authenticity in terms of your own stories is going to be the thing that resonates the most. Even if it includes things that feel super vulnerable and super scary or even unflattering, you know, not the best version of yourself, but those things deserve a place on-screen. Because they reflect the complex humanity of women.

Writing from a place of authenticity in terms of your own stories is going to be the thing that resonates the most.

For a long time, we’ve only been allowed to be certain things on-screen. And now, so many more opportunities have opened up to take advantage of the intricate and sometimes uncomfortable experience of being a woman and elevate those stories by putting them on-screen. I think that’s the thing I’ve learned the most in making movies.

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