Ever since “Teeth” hit Sundance back in 2007, actress Jess Weixler has been in the spotlight while also flying under the radar, choosing smaller, independent projects, letting her sink her teeth, no pun intended, into meatier roles and get the opportunity to work in the most appealing environments. Well, the abandoned mental hospital she shot “The Normals” is wasn’t particularly appealing, but after a major redesign courtesy of a top-notch art department, it was all beagles, mind games and a ton of mints.
Weixler stars as Gretchen, the sole female in a group of people opting to spend a couple of weeks at a drug testing facility to earn some quick cash – well, in addition to other activities. Gretchen follows the rules, taking her pills, giving blood and eating her meals as required, but in her free time, she enjoys taking advantage of being the only lady on team green, much to Billy’s (Bryan Greenberg) dismay.
“The Normals” already wrapped its run at the Cinema Village in New York City, but you can pop this little gem of a comedy whenever you’d like courtesy of iTunes, Amazon, Movies On Demand and more. In honor of the VOD release, I had the opportunity to chat with Weixler herself about life as a drug test subject, her hopes to make her directorial debut, our hair woes and more. Check it all out in the interview below.
Ever since “Teeth” I’ve been expecting you to make some big move, like join the cast of a superhero movie or something, but you’ve stuck to pretty modest projects. Can you tell me a little bit about your decision making process? How do you choose your roles?
Jess Weixler: I spent a lot of time in the last few years reading scripts and looking at the characters and seeing if it was something interesting that I would have fun playing, something I hadn’t done before. Every now and then you read a script and you just think it’s beautiful and the character is interesting, but you feel great about the movie as a whole, and sometimes it feels like it’s more about the characters that you get to play. In this one it’s a real ensemble comedy. I just thought the characters would be really fun for us all to mess with our dynamic with each other. That’s sort of how I chose this one.
I found that interesting. It’s certainly an ensemble, but Bryan’s character is still front and center. While being part of an ensemble, are you doing anything to highlight his character?
I feel like the purpose my character serves was to give Bryan’s character a false beam of light. He’s searching for meaning in his life because he’s so lost and wayward – all of us are, really, because none of us have jobs. We’re like those weird people who can take several weeks out of their life and go do something bizarre like drug testing, so I feel like I served like a false start. Like he thought, ‘Oh, maybe I can see this girl on the outside. Maybe this is a real thing. Maybe this is something that could be real for me,’ but I wasn’t that person because I was really just interested in getting a bunch of attention from all of the guys. [Laughs] So he then has to make a sharp left and try to find meaning somewhere else and clearly he does it in the wrong place.
And how about Gretchen in particular? We definitely get a clear sense of what she’s out for in the movie, but what about before? Did the book have any backstory for her in it or did you come up with anything of your own?
I sort of just figured she’s one of those free spirits. What I liked about playing this role is she’s quite predatory and sexual. I think I tend to get cast fairly innocent, accept for Teeth. Usually there’s a twist at the end or something. [Laughs] But I guess with her backstory, I knew she had to be messed up in some way to be having all this time off. But maybe that’s the wrong thing to say. I felt like she knew what she was doing and she was one of the most clearheaded of the group there. She agreed to do this thing for money, she thought it would be fun to go and be in a group with a bunch of guys and get a lot of attention and then quickly realized she was on placebos so she wasn’t feeling anything. She probably was like Bryan there, looking for some meaning in her life and didn’t really find it until she met the guys who were breaking the dogs out of the nearby building. She didn’t come planning to be part of this escape-the-dogs squad, but then I think halfway there, probably sometime after she met Bryan, she was like, ‘Oh, what I actually want to be doing is be part of this really cool squad of dog savers.’
I feel like you should just take the slow motion shot of you carrying the beagle at the end, and make that your entire reel.
[Laughs] It’s really funny to see you and everybody else moving in slow motion when you’re running.
That’s a great montage at the end!
The movie definitely goes bananas at a certain point. It’s such a strange movie in that way. [Laughs] It doesn’t follow the rules of normal moviemaking, that’s for sure.
How did you guys go about making this? It’s a pretty low budget film I imagine, so that one main location must have been a major plus. You didn’t actually stay there, did you?
Oh, lord, no! That place was terrifying! It’s an abandoned mental institution. I think some buildings are still working, but I don’t know how many buildings there are. I’m gonna guess like 70, or something like that. It’s a large facility with a bunch of squatters in nearby buildings. Our incredible set design team, which I give like 50% of the credit for the whole movie, came in and cleaned out what was essentially, to me, seemed like a scary, haunted, abandoned, filled with squatters, old mental institution with medical equipment still everywhere. The hospital beds were everywhere and machinery. It was crazy!
I never would have guessed!
They get so much credit! It was like the best edition of Home Makeover you’ve ever seen. They were sweeping out what were probably dead animals. It was awful!
The squatters must have really appreciated that!
Yeah! We left them with a better home. [Laughs]
So how about your shooting schedule? Did you get it done pretty quickly?
I think we did. I don’t think it was too long of a shoot. I want to say it was around a month. I don’t remember exactly. Since I wasn’t the lead of this one, I didn’t have to be there the whole time. It was easier on me than say something like “Teeth” or “Peter and Vandy” where you’re there like 24 hours a day, every day – or it feels like that. This one was more relaxed for me personally, but I’m sure Bryan got exhausted on the shoot.
What was the prep process like? I’ve always wondered what goes down in these testing facilities. Did you get to learn about that at all?
Yeah, I looked into it a little bit and there were certain things that I was just like, I’m just gonna defer to the book on this because the truth is they separate men and women in those drug facilities. They don’t put you in the same group with men and women so you can’t go all college dorm style like we did. I think as it goes, half of the people are on placebos and half aren’t, and people are trying to figure out who’s actually being affected [laughs], which would be fascinating.
And I assume you guys were just taking sugar pills while shooting?
Oh, yeah. I think they were little mints. [Laughs] We were popping tiny mints and probably went on sugar overload a few times.
It doesn’t sound that bad, but when you think about how many times you take the pills in the movie and how many takes you must have done for each, that’s gotta be a lot of mints.
I think we did the pill sequences all in like one or two days, so it was maybe just those two days that we got a little too much sugar in our bodies. [Laughs]
How about some of the tests you guys do in the movie? Did you give any a shot for real? I know that one where you’ve got to move the metal ring around the rod always drives me insane at carnivals.
I don’t think they actually do that stuff in real life. I would be surprised. But it was really fun to do and I can see how it would be a good test to see who’s still sharp and who’s not. But some people are just bad at those games, and some people are actually good at them! I didn’t mind sitting there for a little while playing those games with my friends.
I love those shots of you guys working at the tests where the camera’s tracking across the table.
Yeah, I liked shooting those, too. If I’m correct, I think you have to have maybe for SAG reasons, you have to do at least one day on a set as opposed to a location and that was our one set was that room. That was the one thing that we created out of nowhere, maybe in a warehouse or something.
Another shot I found kind of interesting, that one at the beginning on the bus when Billy is talking to Rodney and you’re in the forefront obscuring the frame. I feel like there might have been something awkward for you with that blocking.
[Laughs] I knew when I turned my head that they would kind of be able to see me because they wanted to establish that we were beginning to make eye contact early on, but I don’t think I realized how much I was in the frame. If I did realize I probably would have been even more uncomfortable. [Laughs] You don’t want your head so big on a screen.
I totally know what you mean. I probably would have been checking the monitor and futzing with my bangs the whole time. Speaking of which, I feel like I can track your shooting schedule based on the length of your bangs. You totally shot this after “Free Samples.”
I did shoot it after “Free Samples!” I shot them both within like three months of each other. [Laughs] Good call! I moved away from bangs after that and it makes life a little easier without bangs, but now I miss them!
I try all the time. I get them to grow to my nose and then I chicken out and cut them back.
All women understand the struggle!
From bangs back to movies, what’s next for you? You’ve got a bunch of things in post, but any new projects you’ve got your eye on?
It’s gonna take some time, but there’s something that I want to direct next and it’s something that I’ve written so hopefully I will make that happen next year. I’m sort of squatting and writing and getting that worked out right now. And I love the two movies that I shot this year, “Look of Love” and “[The Disappearances of] Eleanor Rigby,” so I’m very excited to see how those turn out. The cast in both of those that I got to be around and work with were inspiring.
What’s the plan for “Eleanor Rigby?” Are they going to release both at the same time?
I’m not sure. I think so, but I don’t know. I think so. I’m sure they’re trying to figure that out, too.
I imagine it’d be a conflict at the box office, but the idea of releasing two movies, each offering a different perspective on the same story and letting moviegoers pick the one they want to see sounds so interesting.
Yeah, it’s like an experiment at this point because it hasn’t been done.
And how about you directing? Are you doing any prep or directing 101 with people you’ve worked with before?
No, I’m sort of talking to some of my friend who I’ve worked with. My buddy Josh [Leonard] directed “The Lie” and the whole cast storyboarded it together and it was interesting watching him do it and it sort of made me realize, ‘Oh, yeah, I think I can do this.’ I’ve been on so many independent film sets at this point that I have faith I’ll be able to at east handle myself on the other side of the camera. But, you know, I don’t want to put the cart before the horse because raising money is an uphill battle. Until I have the green light on this I can’t talk about it too much. I’ve gotta have a green light and my car. [Laughs]
How about after working on “The Normals” though? Is there any one specific thing you learned while making this movie that you might do or not do on your own?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t specifically say that working on “The Normals” that there was something that changed with me about it. It felt like a fun independent movie, sort of in the world of some of the other fun, take-a-risk independent movies I’ve been on. Every time I get on a set I respect the director though. Every time I see a director have to juggle all the balls and negotiate everybody’s artistic visions, I respect that so it sort of just went in line with being impressed by those around me and dealing with multiple creative personalities.