FIFM interview: Camila Morrone (Mickey and the Bear)

Annabelle Attanasio’s debut feature Mickey and the Bear had its world premiere almost nine months ago at the South by Southwest festival, and it has been making the rounds on the festival circuit ever since (it also opened in theaters in the US a few weeks ago). Focusing on the relationship between a war veteran and his teenage daughter Mickey, the film shows a role reversal of a father-daughter dynamic as Mickey is the housekeeper and babysitter for her father who is addicted to alcohol and opioids.

In Marrakech the film is playing in Competition, and it was there that Cédric Succivalli spoke to lead actress Camila Morrone about the film’s central relationship and how she prepared for this with James Badge Dale (who plays the father). They also discussed the small town of Anaconda, Montana, where the film was shot, and the self-tape that landed her the role.

CS: I discovered the film yesterday and I was riveted by it. With the film’s theme of a father-daughter relationship I was thinking about a few other films with the same theme, and it occurred to me that they were all directed by women.

CM: What other films, I’m curious?

CS: Toni Erdmann, a German film with Sandra Hüller. Then Leave no Trace. Also The Ballad of Jack and Rose, with Camilla Belle. Always stories about broken relationships with fractured fathers. The chemistry you have with James Badge Dale is astounding because it could have gone wrong and become overdramatic. How did or didn’t Annabelle direct you in terms of letting your emotions go?

CM: I think Annabelle, having been an actress, knows what it’s like to be overdirected and how much that sucks. So she allowed me to have the creative space that I needed to get to places on my own and make discoveries on my own. She did the same thing with James. She just gets it. She’s been a young woman, she’s been an actor, she knows what it feels like to be on the other side of the camera, and she has this sensibility and this sensitivity to her that is really astounding for someone so young and new at directing.

CS: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think prior to filming she did some research in Anaconda, Montana, where you ended up shooting. The film deals with a father who was a marine in Iraq, and who’s suffering from PTSD. She did research in that very community, didn’t she?

CM: Annabelle actually got a grant from, I think it was college, to go and explore a town. I think she stumbled upon Anaconda, fell in love with it, and chose to do her research grant there. Get to know the people there, and I think she spent quite a bit of time there. And I know that she went back and forth over many years, and Anaconda is absolutely gorgeous, as is Montana. She decided, after speaking to the people, that that was where she wanted her story to take place. She spent a lot of months there before, prepping pre-production for the film,

CS: And you did end up shooting there, didn’t you?

CM: We lived there, shot there, home base was there. Everything was in Anaconda.

CS: And apart from the ensemble cast, the rest was cast on the street, right?

CM: Yes, locals. People from the town. It’s a very small town, a very intimate town, everybody knows each other as they do in small towns. And we were able to incorporate the cast quite a bit, which I think was a really cool thing. We were able to have real people in the film. For most people it was their first time acting, and it was quite fun. And I thought they were all very good.

CS: There is a theme in the film about women being silenced. There is an incredible and traumatic scene of your character’s birthday where the father doesn’t even listen to his daughter and ignores her. It’s a film that gives a voice to women in general and to this very young woman that you play. It’s a coming-of-age story, a beautiful one. How did you relate to your character in terms of acting and how difficult was it to cope with such a difficult and complex father, who is not one-dimensional and totally evil?

CM: I think that’s what makes James Badge Dale so brilliant in this role, in that he is never a monster. That is the most important thing, because you need to be able to love him and root for him and care for him, support him and want him to get better. Else I believe there is no film. His role was so important, and he played it and walked that line so brilliantly. As for me, I related to Mickey in the sense of co-dependency, I related to her being a young woman coming into her adult years, feeling weird, leaving home. I related to her in taking on too much or maturing perhaps too quickly. I worked from a very young age in the industry, so I know what it’s like. I did it by choice and I wanted to work, but I understood the responsibility and becoming an adult quicker.

CS: You are basically the caretaker of your father, without you he would be more than destroyed. You do compromise up to a certain point, until you meet Wyatt, played by Calvin Demba. You have an incredible chemistry together. The gist of the film is that you are the empathic character, the one who is contantly drawn to positivity even in the darker moments. But you’re surrounded by some dodgy guys, some of whom are very violent. But the film never goes too much into the violence, this is not explored extensively. How was it to work with the two young actors, Calvin Demba and Ben Rosenfield?

CM: I think they are both naturally very good actors, they have good instincts. Like you said, it’s important to not play the sad story of an abusive father and his daughter. We didn’t want to overact it and make it a movie where it’s just horrible thing after horrible thing, because you lose the audience in that way. Annabelle walked a really fine line, like you said. I think working with those actors, they both meant two very different things to Mickey, one being the hope and positivity and maybe feeling what real love was like, and the other one just another reincarnation of her father, of someone slightly abusive, taking advantage of her, not appreciating her. So they are two very important, monumental people in her life and in the course of growing up.

CS: Sadly that’s what life is about. The father being so uncontrolled, he ends up punching Wyatt in the face, and that puts an end to the potential of that relationship.

CM: He ruins everything. And even when he isn’t necessarily trying to do wrong, unfortunately almost everything he does comes off the wrong way.

CS: You have a natural, almost auratic presence on screen in this film. Not just because of your character, but you bring a luminosity and strength to you character, I found it a very strong performance. Were you influenced by actresses or particular parts when you read the screenplay and prepared for the role?

CM: I worked with an acting coach that helped me figure out where I could relate to this in my own life. He helped me find where I’m like Mickey, because you almost never find a character that has a similar or exactly the same life as you do. So you are always going to have to be playing somebody else’s life at some point. I think that there’s bits and pieces from having watched movies all my life and having read hundreds of scripts. I don’t know if it’s one performance I would be able to put a finger on, because like you said, there’s films that show the father-daughter dynamic and they’re different, maybe a different time period and so on. Probably subconsciously it was an accumulation of things, but I definitely started from scratch on this one, trying to bring Camila into Mickey. Because you have to bring a part of you, or else it’s all acting and it’s not relatable.

CS: I listened to an interview with Annabelle a few days ago, and she talked about a self-tape and how phenomenal you were. What was this self-tape, what did you do?

CM: I read halfway through the script and said, “I want to audition for this. I’m going to prepare this and send it in tomorrow.” And I did, in my kitchen and living room, with my iPhone. I still have the self-tape. She told me to do three scenes from the film: one was with Aron, the boyfriend. One was with my father when he forgets my birthday and I’m doing homework. I have to say I forgot what the third one was. But it was those two tapes and I sent those in. And she responded and asked if I wanted to come out to Montana. I didn’t have the job yet, but I said yes and bought a ticket to meet her.

CS: With regards to the PTSD and opioid addiction of the father, did you talk a lot with James Badge Dale about that, or was it his part and you were just the one to cope with that and suffer from it?

CM: I think it was a little bit of both. I didn’t want to know what he was going to do, because I wanted to use that element of surprise to my advantage, but we did talk a little bit about our backstory and what our life was like before you see us on screen. I think we needed to be on the same page about some facts, like how did my mother die, where was he, how long was he at war. So basic facts we spoke about. But in rehearsals we didn’t do the scenes full-out, we just kind of read through them and then in person James brought back fear.

CS: The character of the psychiatrist is really ambivalent. At some point there is this very powerful scene where you are basically shouting at her, because she seems to be unwilling to respond to your honest request. And then there is this sense of community of womanhood where she ends up realizing that you really need help, not just the father, you as well.

CM: What that character represents in the film is her only female mentor and guidance. Because she doesn’t have a mother, she doesn’t have older friends to look up to, she doesn’t have family or cousins. So Rebecca (editor: Henderson), who plays Watkins, becomes kind of like the only north star that she has of sanity and femalehood, and who she becomes very reliant on in the end.

CS: The very last shot of the film reminded me of one of my favorite films ever, a French film with Juliette Binoche called The Night Is Young. It ends up like that, and you have Juliette Binoche, who was even younger than you are because she was 16 in the film, who is just walking with the camera on her face, and she is walking to her destiny, to her new life. So I thought about Juliette Binoche when I was watching you.

CM: I didn’t know that! I want to see that now.

CS: It’s called The Night is Young, a beautiful film by Leos Carax, who has just finished a film with Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver, called Annette.

CM: Did you see it yet?

CS: No, it hasn’t been released yet.

CM: What’s the title of the film you mentioned?

She grabs her phone.

CS: The Night Is Young, from 1986. The ending of Mickey and the Bear and that one are very similar in so far as it opens up an entire world of hope for those very young women.

CM: Mauvais… Blood?

CS: Mauvais Sang, yes. But I know the English translation was The Night Is Young.

CM: Bizarre, that’s very different. I want to see that. I wonder if Annabelle pulled any inspiration from that.