Finding a natural balance in life to effortlessly contend with heightened and versatile emotions is a challenge people struggle with during stressful times in their lives. The first title character in the biographical drama, ‘Frankie & Alice,’ which is now available on VOD and DVD, is secretly battling dissociative identity disorder during a time before the illness was widely recognized in America. Emmy Award-nominated actress Chandra Wilson, who plays Frankie’s younger sister in the film, powerfully showcased the difficulties family members of people with the mental disorder also contended with, during a time when awareness of the illness wasn’t publicized.
‘Frankie & Alice’ follows Frankie Murdoch (Halle Berry), a go-go dancer in 1973 Los Angeles, who is left without any memories during recurring blackouts. She tries to keep the consequences from the compromising positions she finds herself in secret from her mother, Edna (Phylicia Rashad) and younger sister, Maxine (Wilson), but they’re aware she often experiences these time lapses.
When one episode leads her stuck in traffic, Frankie becomes a patient of Dr. Oz (Stellan Skarsgård), a sympathetic psychiatrist. After he puts her through unconventional treat methods, he believes she may be suffering from dissociative identity disorder. He decides to use hypnosis on Frankie, and discovers she has two alter personalities. One is a frightened, unnamed seven-year-old, who the doctor identifies as Genius, and Alice, an older and racist Southern white woman. Dr. Oz then decides to explore his patient’s unresolved childhood trauma, in order to receive a healthier mental state.
Wilson generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Frankie & Alice’ over the phone during an exclusive interview. Among other things, the actress discussed how she was drawn to the character of Maxine because not only did she find the fact that Frankie was determined to overcome an illness that not many people were familiar with in the 1970s, but she was also happy to have the opportunity to work with Berry and Rashad; how she enjoyed working with Sax on the drama, as not only did he have a clear vision of how he wanted to present Frankie’s story, but he also encouraged the actors while they were filming; and how shooting ‘Frankie & Alice’ and her hit ABC medical drama series, ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ are similar in the fact that both projects are filmed on a short shooting schedule.
ShockYa (SY): You play Maxine in the biography drama, ‘Frankie & Alice.’ What was it about the character and the film overall that convinced you to take on the role?
Chandra Wilson (CW): Well, Maxine certainly has some sass! (laughs) That’s certainly always attractive to an actor. It was also really about the cast, and the fact that Halle was playing Frankie, and Phylicia Rashad was there to play my mom. So in a way, it didn’t matter what the project was going to be. (laughs) I wanted to be there for them.
Even with that said, the journey that Frankie takes throughout her entire lifeis finally getting a name, was also appealing. That’s something a lot of people suffering with health issues go through. The families in particular only know there’s a lot of chaos when that family member is around. Emotions are high, and it’s not about someone taking up all the air in the room; there could really be something wrong. I was really interested in the exploration of that.
SY: Speaking of Halle and Phylicia, who you mentioned, how did you build your working relationships with them? Were you able to have any rehearsal time with them?
CW: No, we didn’t have any rehearsal time. We went right in and started filming. I don’t know if it was due to the scheduling, because we filmed on a pretty tight schedule. With my availability coming from ‘Grey’s (Anatomy),’ I only had a couple days to shoot my role in the movie. So we just had to jump in and go.
But we really came in with a clear understanding of what was expected, especially in the home scenes, and where the emotions were. But there was also room for us to find our relationships, which was really nice. It was helpful to be able to find and explore the history that Maxine certainly has when Frankie comes into the room. She knows that a tornado’s coming in at some point.
SY: Does acting in an independent film like ‘Frankie & Alice,’ which has such a short shooting schedule, add to the creativity you infuse into your character and the story?
CW: No, not necessarily; it doesn’t push the filming to be more creative at all. I think it really comes down to the director’s work in so many ways. Some directors want to have that rehearsal time, and others just trust actors’ instincts more. Everybody has their own way.
Basically, my job is to come in as prepared as I can possibly be, with what I think is going to be looked for. Then I also have to make whatever adjustments I may get in my notes. The exciting thing about it is knowing that you’ve got that one day and shot, and that one opportunity to really get the scene to where it needs to be. But then it won’t be for another month, or even a year, until you find out if it worked out or not. (laughs) So basically the only technique you can use is to be able to trust what you’ve prepared.
SY: Speaking of directors, what was your working relationship with the film’s helmer, Geoffry Sax, like as you were shooting?
CW: There was a clear vision from start to finish, and he knew what he was looking for. He knew where he wanted the camera to be, and what the atmosphere to be like. I could tell the way the light was hitting certain areas of the house, and where it was coming from, that this was really going to be a visually stimulating film.
He gave very specific notes, and not necessarily about something that’s missing; it was more to encourage what was already there. I just had so much respect for him and his process, and I just wanted to contribute to that as best I could.
SY: Like you mentioned earlier, Halle’s character, Frankie, is struggling with her illness, as in the 1970s, multiple personality disorder wasn’t recognized yet. Do you feel it’s important for movies to chronicle such important mental health issues?
CW: I absolutely think it’s important. I come from a generation where everyone knew about ‘Sybil.’ (laughs) But I can’t put my hands on anything that’s as recognizable to me as that film. I think exploring this illness opens an awareness about it to a younger generation, even though the name of multiple personality disorder is now more common than it was in the ’70s.
This movie extenuates the dynamic that can happen in the home for years before family members realize something deeper is at the core of what can be considered bad behavior. It allows you to give people the benefit of the doubt, as opposed to just writing them off. There could really be a health issue that’s affecting their behavior.
SY: What do you hope audiences can take away from Frankie’s struggles, as she works with a psychotherapist to uncover the reasoning behind her multiple personality disorder?
CW: Yes, I think it’s important not to write people off for who you think they are, or what you think they’re going through. Usually, you don’t really know what a person’s journey is, and what they’re going through, or have been through. But there can be light at the end of the tunnel, once you’re able to put a finger on the name of your diagnosis. It doesn’t mean that everything’s done from that point on, but it at least puts you on a healthy road towards living the best life you can.
SY: After ‘Frankie & Alice’ received a limited theatrical release earlier this year, it’s now available on DVD and VOD. Do you think the On Demand platform is beneficial for independent films like this one?
CW: Most certainly, yes. Even the wide theatrical release wasn’t a large wide release, so a lot of people didn’t get the chance to see the movie. People in my hometown of Houston, or even in parts of New York, didn’t know what theater to go to, or the theater was far away from. It may have only been released in artsy districts.
So this (VOD platform) will give people immediate access to this film they’ve heard about for a few years now, and saw Halle get her Golden Globe nomination for it (in 2011). So it can give the film a whole other life that it had before.
SY: The drama premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and screened at the AFI Film Festival in 2010. Were you able to attend the screenings of the film at either festival? What did it mean to you that the movie premiered at Cannes?
CW: No, I wasn’t, but I was able to attend a screening in Hollywood. It was pretty cool to get to sit in the audience and share that response. It was great to hear how people really understood and appreciated Frankie’s journey. It was also nice to see that they could understand the dynamic Maxine had with her sister, as well as her mom. It was also rewarding that they understood what you were trying to create.
SY: You’ve spent the majority of your career starring on television series, most notably ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ How does acting on television compare and contrast to appearing in films, particularly smaller one ‘Frankie & Alice?’
CW: Well, the work is certainly the same. As an actor, I always feel like work is work, no matter what the role is. (laughs) You have to put your all into it. But it’s certainly exorcise of a different muscle.
The television schedule is 10 months a year, and we shot up to 15 hours over the course of five or six days a week. That’s certainly very similar to the one we used for ‘Frankie & Alice.’ It was a small film, so it was shot over a short period of time. For both projects, we have to get the work done over short periods of time. I felt like that time crunch muscle was something I was already good with. (laughs) But with bigger budget movies, you can work on one scene for an entire day.
But it’s always nice to go out and flex other emotional muscles that you have as an actor. It’s great to go in a different direction when you’ve been fortunate to be on a long-running TV show. Then you can make sure those other muscles work. (laughs)
SY: Speaking of the bigger studio films, are you interested in acting in larger budget movies, in addition to indies like ‘Frankie & Alice’ and television?
CW: I would absolutely love to make a bigger budget film. But as an actor, it’s all about time. With ‘Grey’s going into its 11th season, it’s all about availability. A lot of the bigger budget movies take a few months to make, and don’t just film over a summer (when TV isn’t shooting). But when the opportunity does show up, and I can make a contribution to a film that’s already in progress, I would love to do that.
SY: Besides acting on ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ you have also directed several episodes of the series since 2009. What was the process of helming a series you also star in? Does directing the episodes influence your acting at all?
CW: I certainly have a further interest in directing, as a result of my experience on the show. I always thought about being a director in theater, because that’s where I grew up. I come from musical theater, in particular.
For this gift to show up in my lap, and to be able to direct on ‘Grey’s, has been amazing. I’ve directed 10 episodes of the show, and have been looking to expend out into other shows. But again, it’s all about time, because I want to make sure Miranda is in ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ (laughs) So I’m not trying to bite the hand that feeds me or anything. (laughs)
But I find my experience as a director more akin to my experience in theater. It’s the totality of the production that makes the show, and not just the acting. So directing puts me back in those boots where we’re all together, making contributions to the overall product, as opposed to when I’m just wearing my actor’s hat, and only focusing on that.
SY: Speaking of theater, would you be interested in acting in plays again in the future, when you have time off from ‘Grey’s Anatomy?’
CW: I certainly would be interested. The last theatrical production I did led me back to Broadway, and I starred in ‘Chicago’ during hiatus from ‘Grey’s. I played Mama Morton in the play. It’s all about whatever can be worked out during my time off from the show. I love exorcising all muscles of being an actor, whether its in television, films or on stage. It’s really exciting to me, and what I’ve always done, and want to continue to do.
SY: Besides ‘Frankie & Alice’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ do you have any upcoming projects lined up that you can discuss?
CW: I’m currently working the film festivals for a short film I starred in, called ‘Muted.’ It actually already won Best Short Film for 2014 at ABFF (American Black Film Festival). We also brought it to the Rhode Island Film Festival, which we were excited about. We also will have a showing on HBO in the beginning of 2015. HBO will also spotlight us at the AFI festival.
Written by: Karen Benardello