Do you have a doppelganger? What would you do if you met him or her? What if, after the initial curiosity and attraction, you found out that they weren’t your double at all, merely a facet of your personality that you were trying on? This is the basic premise of She Stoops to Conquer, a Canadian short by Zack Russell and Kayla Lorette playing at TIFF 2015. But it doesn’t really begin to cover the bizarre and wonderful dance that the film explores.
Really, it started “from a small kernel of an idea.” According to Lorette, director Zack found it funny that she can often play old men in shows and different productions they’ve worked on together. So they just wanted to create something where she would play “some kind of old man and explore that.”
The character they created is “an outsider trying to find some kind of twin or partner in the world and not feel like a weirdo.” The title is a nod to an 18th century play of the same name which deals with cross-dressing and identity questions, but central to the unusual title was “stooping to conquer as a concept,” or “how low you go to win and what kinds of dark corners will you explore to feel power.”
The starting concept meant transforming Lorette into someone else completely and the first step was finding a face for her to don. The duo were looking for “the most distinctive face that they could have access to, and Julian Richings came to mind.” Richings is one of those actors whom everybody recognizes, but nobody knows. He also checked all the boxes for the pair.
“We wanted him because he had a distinct look and we thought that it would be striking,” Lorette says. “And the way we described the character when we were writing him. We wanted him to be older, but we wanted him to be handsome and we wanted there to be a kind of dark sexuality to him. Richings just checked all those boxes for us.”
Russell and Lorette were able to get a cast of Richings’ face to make a primary prosthetic and filmed a teaser to send to him.
“It was kind of dreaming and fantasies that he would say yes to this. We just sent the teaser to him and were like, sorry if this is creepy, but please meet with us. We’d love to talk to you. Thankfully he wasn’t creeped out. He was just so wonderful and supportive and excited to be making work with emerging filmmakers.”
She Stoops to Conquer plays with gender dynamics and takes a lot of inspiration from Toronto’s drag community. Lorette feels a great deal of love and respect for the drag community and the sense of self that drag queens bring to their performances.
“They have such humour and this level of appreciation for femininity that’s so fierce. They’re so enamored with the feminine. Zack and I talked a lot about that kind of identity, about playing a broader version of the other gender, but to do it with such care and tenderness that I feel like drag queens have for women. There’s such honour there.”
That appreciation for the opposite gender is what Lorette wanted to bring to her performance, except in this case, through the performance of masculinity.
“The drag world is also such a fun, kitschy one to explore, especially in She Stoops to Conquer,” she explains. “There’s drag kings, but they’re all dressed up in gay stereotypes from the past. Zack and I talked a lot about the cultural neutering sometimes of the gay man for television—things like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which seem so sexless.”
She Stoops to Conquer is far from sexless. Sexuality plays a big role in the film in the interactions between Lorette and Richings. The filmmakers directly connect the ability to disguise oneself as another to the ability to become sexually liberated and adventurous. The two characters are attracted by their similarities, but also by the differences that are inherent between them. They have the same face, but very different bodies. One is obviously performing, the other is supposedly authentic and in their natural skin. It’s about choosing to explore existence in a skin that is vastly different from the one in which you were born and celebrates that choice.
Wearing a prosthetic was an interesting experience for Lorette, one that was both positive and negative.
“I have such a love and fascination with playing strange characters and costumes and hiding yourself and really feeling like you’re living in the skin of a character and this is the most I’ve ever felt that,” she says. “So there was something powerful about that because I did feel like I could transform fully and to be removed because I wasn’t that venerable since my face wasn’t exposed. It was just amazing to look at myself in the mirror and have this weird body mapping issue of this is what I look like right now because it felt real. That was all incredibly exciting.And then it was horrible and uncomfortable and difficult to eat.
The worst part was no one would talk to me for very long because they found it very upsetting. They could see my eyes and they could tell it was me, and even Zack, who was so tender with me throughout the process would be like ‘It’s too scary to talk to you.’ I’d get maybe five minutes out of people and then they’d start to not look at me and make excuses to leave. So it was just me with the beautiful make-up artist who was so great. Around the fourth day, I was glad this wasn’t a feature.”
So has making this film helped Lorette discover why she’s drawn to playing characters that are old men?
“It’s a great gimmick. It sells tickets. [laughs] But all joking aside, I’ve thought about it a lot and I think it’s something about the ability to be something so other from yourself and playing with the power and sexuality coming from an older man’s point of view. There’s something freeing about the mask of playing something so different from what you are onstage. You get an extra boost from the audience and draw power from that.
It’s an insane concept that I, as a younger woman, would want to look like that for a movie. I wish that that could be the reality—that sometimes I could play an old man and everyone just agreed that that was normal; that I was just allowed to play whatever character I wanted without question.”
She Stoops to Conquer screens as part of the Shot Cuts Programme 5 at TIFF 2015. Short Cuts Programme 5 plays Sunday, September 13 at 7pm at Scotiabank Theatre 10 and Saturday, September 19 at 12:45 at Scotiabank 11.
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