Parents at times feel as though they’re adequately providing for their family if they can deliver all the physical belongings they need and want, and offer them the freedom to pursue their own interests. But teens sometimes need to be pushed to their breaking points to prove to their emotionally distant parents that they’re being psychologically neglected, and need more love and attention. That’s certainly the case between the main character, 16-year-old Emily Smith-Dungy (Olesya Rulin), and her professionally ambitious mother, Samantha (Kristin Chenoweth), in the new independent family comedy-drama, ‘Family Weekend.’ Helmed by first time director, Benjamin Epps, the film explores the damaging, long-lasting effects a tumultuous relationship between a teen and her parents can have, and the lengths she’ll go to fix the problems between them.
‘Family Weekend’ follows Emily, an incredibly motivated teenager who has grown increasingly frustrated with her parent’s lack of support and guidance. Her mom is a career-focused, non-nonsense high-powered business executive. Her dad, Duncan (Matthew Modine), is a happy-go-lucky artist who can’t be bothered to earn a paycheck. When they miss their daughter’s important jump-roping competition, Emily reaches her breaking point and takes it upon herself to restore order in the house. With the help of her siblings, they unite and take their parents hostage in hopes of becoming a family again.
Chenoweth generously took the time recently to talk about shooting ‘Family Weekend’ over the phone. The actress discussed, among other things, how the prospect of committing to playing a career-driven businesswoman who emotionally neglects her family convinced her to take on the role of Samantha; how she formed close professional and personal relationships with Rulin while they were filming the independent family comedy-drama, as they’re both dedicated to perfecting their characters; and how audiences can relate to the film’s heartfelt and comedic moments, which allow them to reflect on their own family relationships.
ShockYa (SY): You play Samantha Smith-Dungy in the new family comedy-drama, ‘Family Weekend.’ What was it about the character and the script that convinced you to take on the role?
Kristin Chenoweth (KC): What I really liked seeing for myself as an actress was the challenge to commit to a woman who sort of became the man of the household. She was the breadwinner, and had a bit of respect issues with her husband because he quit working. I liked how she deals with that and balancing it all. To be honest, she isn’t doing a great job of it. But she’s doing great in her professional career.
But then events happen, and she changes and evolves and grows. I always like to see that in a character. I like to see change for the better. That’s what we all want in life, so that was a big draw for me to play this part.
SY: Like you mentioned, Samantha is struggling to connect with, and understand, her husband, as well as their four children, in the film. How did you get into her mindset as you were filming, and were you able to relate to her at all?
KC: I don’t have children of my own, but I have a lot of kids in my life that I support emotionally. I’m a godmother and an aunt, so I have a lot of kids I love and care about. For me, just going to the park and restaurants, and watching women deal with their kids, they’re obviously professionals. For the many women who do it every single day, I have such respect for them. I can barely do it, and I don’t have kids-I have a dog. So it’s a big challenge.
I wanted to represent mothers in a positive way, especially at the end when you realize this isn’t who this woman really is. She just lost her way and her priorities.
SY: Olesya Rulin plays Samantha’s teenage daughter, Emily, who kidnaps Samantha in order to rebuild and fix their relationship. What was your working relationship like with Olesya while you were shooting the film?
KC: We met and then immediately started rehearsing and filming about two hours later. I don’t think I could have asked for a more perfect person to play my daughter. Olesya is very professional and a Type A perfectionist personality, much like me. So we got along and became close.
We were in Detroit in the dead of winter, in January, for the month. We really hit it off. I actually truly love her and adore her, and we’ve remained close. That makes me happy when you can mix business with pleasure.
SY: Would you be interested in working with Olyesya again on future movies, or maybe on television, as well?
KC: Yes. Again, she’s trained and professional and kind-hearted. That goes a long way with me.
SY: Another main relationship the film focuses on is the one between Samantha and her husband, Duncan, like you mentioned. Matthew Modine portrayed Duncan in the film, so what was it like working with him?
KC: Matthew perfectly plays Duncan as a dear, kind man who loves his family and wants to have fun and focus on his art. We were constantly tied to a chair, and Matthew made it bearable for me, because I’m not very good at sitting still. He would talk with me and we would laugh. We had many meals together, and he’s a special guy. I’d love to work with him again, too.
SY: Like you mentioned, Samantha and Duncan are tied to the chairs for most of the movie. What was that process like as an actress-did that prove difficult while you were shooting?
KC: Yes, because you don’t realize how much you need to move your hair or scratch. (laughs) You need your hands! We didn’t have them for quite a while while shooting.
When I was watching the movie (at the New York premiere on March 21), it all came flooding back to me. I realized I really was tied to the chair for a long time. But it’s funny and a great premise I haven’t seen before. I’m really proud of it; it’s almost like the little engine that could. It’s a gem.
SY: ‘Family Weekend’ focuses on the strained relationships within the Dungy family, and the extreme measures it takes to rebuild the trust and love between the children and parents. Do you think the film accurately represents the struggles American families are faced with today?
KC: Yes, I do. I was very keen (at the premiere) with my ears and eyes and listening and watching what people thought. They were generally laughing. There’s one moment in the film that’s pretty moving, and they were generally moved by that. Anytime you do a family comedy, you want the people to feel the story’s heart, but also laugh. We achieved that, but it’s really hard to do. But we did it.
SY: ‘Family Weekend’ marks the feature film directorial debut of Benjamin Epps. What was your working relationship with Benjamin like on the set?
KC: It was really fun to be a part of someone’s process who’s new. He was excited everyday to be there. It was a great reminder to me that we get to do this for a living. We don’t have to, but we get to. So it was a great reminder of that. I was really proud of him, because in any crisis we had, he never once lost his temper or yelled.
SY: Another one of your projects, ‘Live from Lincoln Center: Kristin Chenoweth: The Dames of Broadway — All of ‘Em!!!,’ premieres tonight on PBS. Why did you ultimately decide to participate in the show, and work with PBS on it?
KC: I love the ‘Live from Lincoln Center’ series. It celebrates American composers, and I wanted to investigate what that would mean for me. I worked for about two-three months on it. I helped come up with the concept for it, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Lincoln Center is like a second home to me.
SY: Besides films, you have also made a name for yourself in theater and on television. Why do you enjoy all the mediums of acting? Do you take a different approach when preparing for each medium?
KC: I don’t really think about it; I think more about the character and the part I’m doing and/or the songs I’m singing. I’ve been pretty fortunate to go back and forth pretty easily. I just really think about what I’m doing at the time. I don’t worry about if it’s too big or small. My body just kind of knows. When I get in front of the camera, my body knows how big and little I can go comfortably. So it’s more me concentrating on the part, whatever that may be.
SY: You have appeared in both independent films, including ‘Family Weekend’ and last summer’s ‘Hit and Run,’ and bigger budget studio films, such as ‘Four Christmases.’ Do you have a preference of the lower budget movies over the studio films, or vice versa?
KC: I just like to work. Now-a-days, you can’t be picky about whether you want to do a big movie or a small movie. So little is being greenlit and it’s so sad. So many stories need to be told and heard and seen. So hopefully this movie will be a gentle reminder that there is a big need for family comedies. I’m really proud of it.
SY: You have also made a name for yourself on television, including winning an Emmy Award for your portrayal of Olive Snook on ‘Pushing Daisies.’ Would you be interested in returning to television in the future, since there are so many good stories currently being told on TV?
KC: I’m always considering anything and everything. It’s a conversation worth having about how you’re going to spend your time and how you’re going to grow.
Written by: Karen Benardello