Exploring what’s truly lurking below the surface of any person’s life or circumstances can be an equally enthralling and unnerving experience. An existence that appears to be immaculate on the surface may not be as flawless under closer examination. That’s certainly true for the seemingly successful protagonist of the new horror-thriller, ‘The Cleaning Lady,’ who’s played by co-writer-producer-actress, Alexis Kendra. While the lead character appears to have a lucrative career and prosperous personal life, the movie’s title antagonist ultimately upsets the balance in her new employer’s life.
‘The Cleaning Lady’ is now available On Demand and Digital, as well as DVD, courtesy of RLJE Films, after it had its World Premiere at last year’s FrightFest. The psychological drama was directed by Jon Knautz, who also co-wrote the script with Kendra.
‘The Cleaning Lady’ follows Alice (Kendra), who leads a seeming perfect life, and appears to have it all, including a gorgeous apartment, a booming career, a stunning physique and a handsome boyfriend. The only problem is he’s married to someone else. Looking for a way to simplify her life, Alice hires Shelly (Rachel Alig) to clean her house. As Alice begins to confide in Shelly about her illicit affair, their friendship grows, and so does Shelly’s twisted obsession with her new employer. It soon becomes clear that Shelly has motives that reach further than a normal cleaning lady. Shelly wants to cleanse Alice’s entire life, and will stop at nothing until she’s done.
Kendra generously took the time recently to talk about co-writing, producing and starring in ‘The Cleaning Lady.’ Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how she enjoys the experience of collaborating with Knautz as co-writers and producers, as well as the director and actress, as their talents and ideas naturally complement each other. She also noted that she thinks it’s important for actresses to take their fate into their own hands, and write and produce their projects whenever possible, in order to show off their strengths.
ShockYa (SY): You co-wrote the script for the new horror film, ‘The Cleaning Lady,’ with Jon Knautz. What was the inspiration for the story, and what was the process of collaborating with him on creating the screenplay?
Alexis Kendra (AK): When Jon and I get together to write, we come up with really twisted ideas, for whatever reason. I think that’s why we work so well together. The way that we always write, and will continue to write, is that we work on our opposite skill sets. He covers a lot of the arching storylines in the beginning, middle and end, while my skill set is the dialogue. We come together in that way, and end up writing the overall script. We usually write about obsession, which is a recurring theme in our films.
SY: In addition to co-scribing the script with Jon, you also play Alice in the psychological thriller. Was it always the intention for you to portray the protagonist in the movie while you were working on the screenplay? Why were you interested in also starring in the drama? How did working on creating the story influence your portrayal of the protagonist?
AK: When Jon and I wrote the script, my intention was to play Shelly, who’s the burn victim housekeeper, as well as the villain. That was my intention because I’m drawn to characters like that. As the producer, I can make that call of who I’ll play.
But we couldn’t find anyone to play Alice. I was in a meeting with Jon, and from across the table, I knew what he was thinking. I was like, “Really? You have to be kidding me! Are you sure?” He said, “Yes, I’m sure.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll play Alice.”
So I had to switch my mind a bit, and become a completely different woman. I ended up changing things so much that I had a really great time.
As a writer, I always tell actors to write. If they can also write the scripts they act in, they don’t have to work on the character as much as a performer. They’ll already know the characters, including what their backstories are, and where they’re going. I don’t think there’s any better homework than that. You definitely have an advantage when you’re playing a role that you also wrote.
SY: The film also stars Rachel Alig as Shelly, the title antagonist. What was the casting process like for the role of Shelly?
AK: Rachel is fabulous. I cast her in the first film I wrote and produced, which is called ‘Goddess of Love.’ I worked with Jon on that film, as well. Rachel auditioned for us, and she blew us away, but we didn’t end up going with her for the lead role for a number of reasons. But we ended up putting her in a smaller role in that film. She was completely underused, and we knew it.
So I decided we needed to work with her again, and we kept her in our minds. So when the role of Shelly needed to be cast, I already knew Rachel would do a good job. We then had to come in and read together, and then we ultimately cast her.
I like to work with people I’ve already worked with before-not only the actors, but also behind the camera. So the more movies I make, the more you’ll see the same people in front of, and behind, the camera.
SY: Once Rachel was cast, what was the process like of working with her on building your on-screen relationship?
AK: The way Jon likes to work is that we’ll have some rehearsal time before we begin filming. But since this is an independent film and we didn’t have a lot of time to make it, we only had a few days of rehearsals on a couple of Saturdays.
Once we began filming, it was tricky to rehearse on set, because we were filming in other’s people’s houses. What we did before we shot really informed our performances. But we were able to explore and experiment with some of the ideas that Rachel and I came up with during our rehearsals a bit more on set, and see if they would work.
SY: What was the process of creating the special effects and physicality for ‘The Cleaning Lady?’
AK: As a producer, I worked with Jon on all the concepts. I really wanted to push him on what he wanted to do. We made a short film with the same name as a proof of concept during the stage we were raising money for the feature in 2016. We used a special effects artist on the short, and he was fantastic.
Having made it and seen how it looked on screen, Jon said, “That’s a great starting point. But let’s change it, and make it more detailed, for the feature. So we still used (special makeup effects artist) Kelton (Ching), including on how Shelly’s make-up would look, in the feature.
SY: In addition to co-penning the script, Jon also served as the director. What was the process of collaborating with him as the helmer on the movie?
AK: He’s such a pleasure to work with on set. Any actor who gets to work with him is very lucky, in my opinion. In terms of me working with him on ‘The Cleaning Lady,’ since I’ve worked with him before, we already had a wonderful relationship. He’ll just look at me, and I’ll know that I need to go this or that way, and we don’t even need to talk. But that comes from years of practice, and working together for years to get a film made.
If Jon’s not feeling what the actors are doing, he’ll go up to them and ask what’s going on. He’ll get in there, and work right along with them. Jon cares deeply, and he’s the most passionate filmmaker I’ve ever met.
The reason why I love working with him the most is that he won’t move on until he gets his shot. So I know the performances are quality, whether they’re mine or somebody else’s, and that’s why I respect him.
SY: ‘The Cleaning Lady’ was shot on location in Los Angeles. What was the process of finding the locations where you filmed the thriller, and shooting on location?
AK: We shot everything in Los Angeles. We filmed one of the scenes in Orange County and Laguna. We also shot a lot of Shelly’s house on a ranch that’s about 45 minutes outside of L.A., which is really cool. There were horses all around, and it was absolutely breathtaking. That house was really cool, because it was almost condemned, in a way. There was a lot of production design that was done there, but the structure was perfect.
I saw a lot of ranches in, and around, L.A., but they were all too nice. It would have been too difficult to turn them into what we needed the house too look like. But the house we found was perfect.
I especially like when we film near where I live, so that I can go home at night, and sleep in my bed. So we were really lucky that we were able to shoot in L.A.
SY: In addition to co-writing the screenplay and staring in ‘The Cleaning Lady,’ you also served as one of the drama’s producers, like you previously mentioned. Why did you also decide to produce the film? How did you balance producing and starring in the thriller?
AK: I started out as only an actress, and I did that for about 10 years. I would get some roles, and then not get anything, so it wasn’t the most fulfilling experience for me, at all.
I remember meeting Jon on a short that he directed (2013’s ‘Blue Jay’). I went in to film a quick, little part, as I also had a web series at the time. We just instantly clicked as work partners.
I never got rid of acting, clearly, since I’m in ‘The Cleaning Lady,’ and I was also in ‘Goddess of Love.’ I’ll continue to do other roles. But I think the moment I became a producer, as well as an actress, was when my life became really good. I felt like I had more control, as I was able to do more.
This is a really difficult, name-driven industry. So if you’re not famous, it’s really difficult to get a leading role. I never would have gotten this role of Alice in ‘The Cleaning Lady,’ or the role of Venus in ‘Goddess of Love,’ if I wasn’t also a producer on the films.
I think it’s really cool that actresses can take their own fate into their hands. They can write themselves into their projects now, like Brit Marling and Lena Dunham. I really like up to those women, and they’re really who inspired me to do my own stuff, and not just act for other people.
SY: ‘The Cleaning Lady’ is (now available) On Demand, Digital HD and DVD. Why do you think the digital release is beneficial for an independent movie like this one?
AK: I’m really looking forward to seeing people’s responses to the film after they watch it on all of these different platforms. The more distribution that we, and any independent film, gets, the better. We’re available all across the world, but it will take time to see how well we really do on these platforms. It can take up to one or two years before filmmakers can make their money back, let alone a profit. So it’s a slow process, unfortunately, but also a rewarding one.