It was no surprise that when Chloe Baldwin met me at Chicago’s Bourgeois Pig for her Cinema Femme interview two months ago, her sandwich of choice was the Hamlet. Her love of Shakespeare is instantly palpable and utterly infectious. After performing in several stage adaptations of the Bard’s classics, she gathered a crew of friends and fellow actors to create her own web series, “Like What You Like,” a subversive take on Shakespeare’s 1599 pastoral comedy, “As You Like It.” As a woman posing as a man, Baldwin resembles the offspring of Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse, the teen lovers from this year’s romance, “Five Feet Apart.” Her web series is set to premiere on Friday, December 20th, and is among my most anticipated titles of the holiday season.
In person, Baldwin is an exuberant force of nature, and we had a blast chatting about everything from her role in Steve McQueen’s “Widows” and her endearing song sending up hipsters—which has been a hit at open mic nights—to her efforts in molding the dream role for herself without waiting around for anyone’s permission.
How did you get started in the performing arts?
When I was around 10 years old, I went to go see my best friend at a summer camp. She was acting onstage in this dark, twisted play, and it made me really feel something. I was very effected by it, and it made me realize that I wanted to try out acting myself. So my brother and I made home movies together, such as “Pet-Zilla,” where our dog Pepper attacked a Lego city. When I finally started acting, my love for it was pretty much instantaneous, and I knew that it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It’s an art form that encompasses so many skill sets and enables you to become different people. I also was fortunate to have a lot of good teachers.
We got to put on ten shows a year at my high school in the suburbs, and I did six seeks of Shakespeare in the woods at a performing arts camp. Then I came to DePaul for college, which is where I continued studying acting. Though I always like switching up the sort of characters I play, if there’s any particular role I gravitate towards, it’s those that are the opposite of me—especially the very dark and scary. Even as a kid too, I was very agreeable, so leaning into that side of myself has been a lot of fun. As someone who had a midwestern upbringing, it’s nice to get to be the wild person who will rip your head off. [laughs]
Have those sorts of physical roles led to your interest in choreography?
It totally has! When I was 14, I was in a production of “Peter Pan and Wendy,” where I got to play a dude pirate. They let us do whatever we wanted with our makeup, so I had this giant scar down my face made from eyeliner. Two guys were brought in from downtown Chicago, who had grown up in the suburbs, and were fight choreographers. I didn’t even know what that meant at the time. Then they put on a workshop for us, where they threw each other around the room without either of them getting hurt. I thought it was so cool because it demonstrated how you could let out that strong energy and be physical without causing any actual damage.
I started taking their classes, and when I enrolled at DePaul, I asked if I could just stalk them and carry their bags for four years. Instead, they made me their apprentice, and it ended up being an awesome way to get into the Chicago theatre community. I learned all about the different types of weapons as well as the illusions you can utilize to make a fight scene look scary without endangering anyone. I’ve always been interested in safety—I was one of the crossing guards in elementary school—so this profession combined that aspect of myself with my wild side.
I found a video on YouTube from your college years where you discuss your passion for Shakespeare, whose work has always provided actors with the opportunity to play against their gender.
Absolutely. That is exactly why I wanted to make my web series, “Like What You Like,” which is based on “As You Like It.” Roles that break down stereotypes are my favorites to play. If I say, “I’m a guy,” then you all have to buy into the fact that I’m a guy and what that means. Does it mean that gender is irrelevant, or that it’s a performance? Whether consciously or unconsciously, you start asking yourself all these valuable questions that excite me.
I saw a brilliant all-female production of “Mac Beth” in NYC earlier this year, which will run again next year at Hunter College.
That is such a cool concept, since there is so much gender in that play! Lady Macbeth’s like, “I don’t want to try to be a woman anymore, I’m done with this shit, I can’t survive like this!” [laughs]
What aspects of fight choreography do you find freeing? It’s essentially storytelling through movement.
Right, it’s storytelling on steroids in a lot of ways, because there are no stakes that are higher than the question of whether I’m going to kill you, or you’re going to kill me, or you’ll injure me so badly that I cannot fight back. It illuminates the morals of each character, like when Romeo steps in the middle of the fight and tries to break it up, until he becomes the aggressor after his friend is killed. It’s so primal, direct and undeniable.
What are some of the best experiences you’ve had performing Shakespeare?
It’s only now that I’m realizing how cyclical making this series has been, considering my first professional gig was playing Phoebe in “As You Like It.” We performed it outdoors on a little concrete slab in a park up in Evanston, and the director was amazing. It kind of set the ball rolling for me because after having that gig, casting directors saw that I had previous experience performing Shakespeare professionally. It’s my favorite thing to do onstage. The most recent role I played was Perdita in “A Winter’s Tale.” She doesn’t think that she’s a princess but then finds out that she is, which is funny because it’s totally against the type of person I usually play, which is tall, dark and twisty.
I’ve also played Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing,” and though I haven’t played Lady M yet, she’s on my bucket list. Right after we began writing “As You Like It” in early 2018, I was cast as Rosalind in a production of “As You Like It,” and totally kidnapped some of the cast to come be part of the web series, because it’s so closely based on the play. My favorite part about that role was how her performance as a guy subverts the audience’s expectations regarding gender. I’ve played Shakespearean guys before, and played them either as a real dude, or as someone who switches between being male and female.
Playing a woman who is pretending to be a man is really interesting because you have to factor in how they view gender and how they view men. There’s comedy that spawns from the fact that she has no idea what she’s doing, or she’s delivering an exaggerated performance of masculinity, but once she gets more vulnerable and lets her guard down, it becomes kind of a mind fuck. You’re seeing a woman be more vulnerable and we’re more used to that in society, but you’re also seeing a man be vulnerable, so you’re kind of tricked into being more accepting of it. It’s such a fun web to get people caught up in.
It’s an interesting time for Shakespeare to be revived as we are embracing more and more the complexity of gender and gender identity.
Shakespeare was always intentionally playing with those themes. He was kind of screwing with the audience too because they did not see as clearly as he did in a lot of ways. He made them secretly question gender, but not say it directly, because he couldn’t. I think that’s a good way to make art in general. I love to sneak it in there like “Inception” without hitting people over the head with it because it’s more effective that way.
You’ve also performed puppets in the past.
I’ve always been so interested in puppetry and haven’t done too much of it, but every time I’ve had the opportunity, I’m like, “Yes, gimmie it!” [laughs] We had multiple puppets on a show called, “Prospero’s Storm,” which is a musical for kids based on “The Tempest,” and it had a really long and funny subtitle. There were flat puppets with arms that moved, there were Muppet-style puppets, and there was the one I had—because of my height—which was about 15 feet high. Ariel, the spirit that has been assisting Prospero, takes on all these different forms, including the big puppet when she wants to be scary. I got to be the head of Ariel, and it was the heaviest thing that I ever carried. It was really cool to see how much the kids understood. I’m very optimistic in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to Shakespeare, so I was confident that they would be able to comprehend it, and they did. It was really amazing to hear them laugh at the right moments, or hear them be grossed out by Miranda and Ferdinand’s love, because they’re 8. It was so delightful.
I’ve gotten to chat with Muppet performers about how puppetry has enabled them to inhabit roles they wouldn’t have been able to play otherwise.
That is so cool, and I feel the same way about all sorts of art. It has to come from somewhere genuine. Even if it stretches into something huge in scale or weird and warped, it’s gotta begin with a kernel of truth. One of the things that I like about Shakespeare’s language is that it gives you a box with walls that you can bounce off of. If you have unlimited space, you’ll eventually feel lost, but here, you can paint the whole canvas because you just keep bouncing back and forth. I really value working with directors who either see that box, or have a similar one that can play off my own. It’s nice to have a playing area that serves as your personal spot. Cooking is like that too.
What sort of experience have you had in TV and films?
I just filmed Gillian Flynn’s Amazon series “Utopia” this summer, which was the first TV show that I’ve ever worked on. It was so much fun, everyone was so cool and I got to fight. Before that, I played a really small role in Steve McQueen’s “Widows.” I was in a very scandalous scene with Matt Walsh from “Veep,” and you see quite a lot of me in it. I’ve done a little bit of intimacy choreography, so when they asked me if I would be comfortable being naked, I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. I want to be in this movie, I’m very comfortable with this and I feel equipped to deal with the little bit of emotional nervousness and the vulnerability that comes with it.’ My familiarity with how Steve McQueen has dealt with nudity in his past films also made me feel more comfortable, as well as what I had heard about his approach to direction and working with actors. I basically had a chat with the casting director, and they filmed an audition where I was clothed.
A week later, I got a call from a number that I didn’t recognize, so I didn’t answer it. Then I got an e-mail from my agent that said, “Hey, if you get a call, answer your phone!” I was temping that day, checking people into a meeting, and I immediately excused myself to call the number back. When I did, the man on the other line turned out to be Steve McQueen. He had called me personally to make sure that I was comfortable with the scene because he was really interested in me for it. Once we got onset, he was super-kind, and so was Matt Walsh, who was so lovely and very respectful. It was the ideal situation, and it occurred prior to when intimacy design became a huge thing in Hollywood. I’m sure that nowadays you’d probably have an intimacy designer onset, but this was a textbook example of how this sort of scene should be done and how to ensure that the talent is comfortable. It was such fun to be on my first big set at Cinespace, to get driven around in a van and to meet people like Elizabeth Debicki.
I play Matt Walsh’s underage niece that he’s found having an affair with, and in order to shoot the photos that Viola Davis discovers, we traveled west of Chicago to a seedy motel. So my big claim to fame is that Viola Davis has seen my boobs. [laughs] I should get a T-shirt that says that. Sex is so similar to violence in some ways, and so different because they should be, and often are, the complete opposite. Sex indicates we’re coming together because our needs are aligned in a very specific way, whereas violence indicates we are coming together physically because our needs are so opposite that we can’t abide each other’s existence, so it was the same level of stakes. There are times when intimacy design crosses over into violence design, which is when it gets the most volatile. Intimacy design always requires emotional safety, but it almost always requires physical safety. If someone gets tackled to the ground, I know how to do that as a violence designer, and it’s very similar if they are getting tackled to the ground while they are kissing.
Filmmaker Emily Lape found catharsis in making her film, “Mercy’s Girl,” where she directs and acts in a sex scene that deliberately goes against the violating experiences she’s endured on male-dominated sets.
That’s so amazing to hear because it’s also so much of why I made this web series, not because I had experienced that degree of emotional trauma, but because there is an element of control that you want to get back, especially as a woman working in the arts. There is so much bullshit you have to deal with. Before I was cast as Rosalind onstage, I went to one of my best friends and said, “I really want to play this role, and if I do, I want you to play her best friend, Celia.” So we decided to write a web series that would be a modernized version of “As You Like It” designed for us and our friends. I was also looking to have more control over a project because there had been a couple of situations where—without being in any way creepy or sexual—I had lost creative control of a project due to reasons that seemed like they had to do with gender.
I was really frustrated and knew that I had to find a way to gain some autonomy back. As an actor, if I want to tell a story, a lot of the time I’ll wait until someone gives me permission to do a role in implicit or explicit terms. With “Like What You Like,” I decided to give myself permission. We were going to film it on our phones if we had to, but of course, it snowballed from there as these things often do. There is no way that I could’ve written it without my friend, and from now on, I always want to have a writing partner when I write anything. We kept each other so honest and got it done so much faster than I thought it ever could. We wrote a 107-page script in less than two months, and by three months, we had a draft that we were really happy with, which was amazing. We based it really closely on the play too, which was cool, so some of the scenes are line-for-line translations—like “No Fear Shakespeare,” except better interpreted.
The first thing we did was take all the scenes and we wrote a notecard for every scene that was in the play, like for example, “Celia tells Rosalind, ‘Yes, I will run away with you.’” Then we put them on my giant folding table that we set up whenever we’d have meetings, and we looked at every scene to figure out which ones we’d want to cut or move around. Eventually, we distilled them into five acts, each one being the length of an episode. In our version, Rosalind’s love interest Orlando is played by a woman, which is a total gender reversal of that character, and it aligned perfectly with all the gender-flipping that we were doing. The actors were brought on early enough into process where we could give them the premise of the scene and have them improvise dialogue for two or three takes. Then we took the best parts—the ones that fit them and their characters the best—and made a scene from that. I ended up crediting them as writing consultants.
Were there any web shows that you were inspired by?
There’s a web series “Nothing Much to Do,” which is based on “Much Ado About Nothing” and it was made about five years ago by these Australian teens for a school project. It’s super low-quality and the audio is terrible, but it was so compelling and fun to watch. We figured that we’d have no good audio audio, and that we’d just be passing the camera in between the two of us. Then I met my partner, Paul Stafford, after my friend and I had written the web series. He’s very technical—he studied computer science and is currently in industrial tech—so he’s very much a problem-solver and more analytical than I am.
So he offered to be our cinematographer and suggested we film the show on a Google Pixel phone with a gimbal and moment lenses. We were able to use an anamorphic lens that was $150 because it’s tiny, and we got these really smooth, beautiful, cinematic shots. Paul also happens to be a musician, so he brought those audio skills onboard. One of our actors, Tim, is taller than me, and we ended up calling him “boom pole” because for every shot he wasn’t in, he was often holding the boom mic just out of frame. It worked perfectly.
Filming took place between March and July of this year, for about 14 ten-hour shooting days and six pick-up days. All the different hats that we were wearing was crazy, and it also took place out in the woods. The nice thing about “As You Like It,” and part of the reason why we picked it for what we wanted to make was we knew that we could get a forest location and not have to go through anybody or pay for it. We could do it in different locations, and it didn’t need to be continuous, so if we ended up in a different grove for the next scene, a lot of the series consists of people running into each other in different places, so it would be seamless.
After we finished filming and began on post, we discussed whether we should just cut the footage into a film. At some point, we might do that for fun and just see what it looks like, since it’s about the length of a feature, which was satisfying to realize. I have carved out a lot of editing time over the next month and a half. I did a ton of editing in high school for assignments and personal projects, so I know how time-consuming it is. It really is one of my favorite parts of the process because it feels like a big Tetris puzzle.
I could sense that you’d be a good editor just from watching your hilarious song, “I Fell In Love With a Hipster,” which has a comedic energy that’s all about timing.
I completely agree. Editing is like a composition. There is an ebb and flow to every scene, whether there is music under it or not. It’s just about feeling the flow of the story, and that’s something you can’t really mold when it’s being done live. Of course, as an individual performer, I love to get that sort of specificity onscreen and to make the pace and tone perfect. When I went to that arts camp in high school, my counselor for my cabin was a conductor, and she taught us a little bit about her work.
Your face is so expressive and vibrant in this video, like you’re having a relationship with the audience a la “Fleabag.”
Oh my god, that’s all I want to be is Phoebe Waller-Bridge when I grow up. In regards to women telling stories, we are often told what people wouldn’t want to hear from us, and Phoebe’s success proves that we can and should be telling all sorts of stories. “Fleabag” is very Shakespearean too. When she turns to the camera and talks to us, it’s like a soliloquy. “I Fell in Love With a Hipster” is still one of my favorite things to perform live. It’s so much fun because people get it. I have performed at an open mic last month, and it was the first time I had done more than just one song.
It was really fun to kind of string a bunch of stuff together, but it’s also terrifying because you have to be funny in between songs while adjusting for the next one. I love music, but I’ve had imposter syndrome when calling myself a musician, especially since I know so many amazing, talented, multifaceted musicians, whereas I’ve dipped my toe in that world. Being a hipster is such a meme, but there is vulnerability wrapped up in it, which is why everybody goes, “Awww” when they hear the song because it’s so relatable. It draws you in by poking fun at hipsters, and then once you’re in, you realize, “We’re all alone.” [laughs]
And how people cloak themselves in irony because they are afraid to be vulnerable.
What are your future plans?
Paul and I have been doing a lot of research about different ways to film fight scenes, and my friend Emma and I are excited to collaborate on that, so that is on the radar. It’s funny that you bring up the hipster song and live performance because I’ve been thinking about trying to put together some sort of one-woman show. It would be something different from that song, but similar in style. I’m also playing Fortinbras in “Hamlet,” another gender-bending Shakespeare production. To be totally honest with you, I have been thinking about heading to LA, though I’m not sure if I will. I grew up here, my parents are here in the suburbs and DePaul’s here, so my community is in Chicago, but a couple of my friends have begun moving out to LA as well.
I’ve lived here for so long and I love it, but LA might be the right place for me somewhere down the line, especially because it’s warm and it has so much energy that I want to tap into. It might be fun to move back and forth between cities since it gives you a little exoticism, which is something I’ve heard from my friends. When they’re in LA, people tell them, “Oh, you’re from Chicago? You’re a robust actor!” And when they come back here to perform, people say, “Oh, you’re from LA? This is so exciting!” If I could figure out a way to do both, that would be my ideal. If I could live here sometimes and do Shakespeare, and then live in LA sometimes and do action movies there, that would make me a very happy person.
For more information on Chloe Baldwin and to keep updated on “Like What You Like,” follow her on Instagram.
Header photo caption: Chloe Baldwin, creator of “Like What You Like.” Photo by Lauren Renee Mitchell.