Film critics spend their careers on the lookout for actors like Helena Howard. Discovery is one of the rarest thrills of moviegoing, and in the experimental(-ish) new indie drama Madeline’s Madeline, the now-20-year-old comes out of nowhere with a star-making lead performance on par with Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures. It is the sort of debut showing that instantly projects a long future of varied work, of cult adoration, of an Oscar down the line. “Helena Howard” even sounds like a movie star name, the alliteration laced with an Old Hollywood glamour.
In the first screen credit on her CV, she portrays a young woman not unlike herself: a New Yorker, a fledgling actress, a thoughtful girl. She falls in with an experimental theater troupe run by the well-meaning Evangeline (Molly Parker), whose relationship with her favorite student toes the line of ethical questionability. Josephine Decker’s film poses some complex questions about the nature of acting, and there was nobody better-suited to the task than Howard, a teenager who name-drops Uta Hagen with the casual air of someone who knows that they know what they’re talking about. She takes her work very seriously, but has a sense of humor about herself — the perfect combination of traits for Decker’s purposes, and for success in a business where most actors her age seem more concerned about managing their personal brand than honing the craft.
Over the course of a chat with Vulture at distribution outfit Oscilloscope Laboratories’ Brooklyn headquarters, Howard spoke about the difference between acting and being an actor, her repeated viewings of Sophie’s Choice, navigating anxiety, and her favorite New York public-transit anecdote.
I heard you first met [director] Josephine Decker at an acting competition where you performed a monologue from the play Blackbird. What made you want to choose that one?
Not a competition, a festival. I was either at Barnes and Noble or the drama bookshop, looking at plays, and I just happened upon Blackbird. I never saw the movie. I read the description, and I was like, “Oh, I’ve got to read this.” I had put the monologue together myself, because Ray has some lines that break it up. It’s when she’s confronting him about changing his name, how it’s been 12 years since she saw him, and that she had to live with the burden of what he had done to her for even longer.
That’s an incredibly intense scene, and Madeline’s Madeline sometimes reaches that fever pitch too. Would it be accurate to say you’re attracted to particularly demanding material?
I really like to be challenged, I need to be, so I’ve always gone for traumatic pieces. My favorite film is Sophie’s Choice. I’ve seen it maybe over ten times, and for the first time when I was 11.
Has the way you see Sophie’s Choice changed since you were 11?
No, I’ve really always taken it the same way. It’s like, I used to watch Black Swan before I’d go to bed, to help me drift off. I’d wake up during the lesbian scene, go [half-asleep mumble], and then fall back asleep. Wake up again, now she’s dying, back to sleep. It’s an interesting way to see a movie, honestly.
When you watch these movies, do you feel extreme emotions each time you see them? Is the impact as strong on viewing ten as it is on viewing one?
Yes, though it’s mostly the performances. I watch them to feel, but mostly to learn. This is the greatest tool, because I don’t have a thousand dollars to shell out for an acting class. I’ll do whatever I can do — if I can read Uta Hagen’s books for free, if I can read plays and practice monologues on my own, if I can watch the classics or Academy Award winners online. Even bad YouTube videos on acting, I love watching, because you can learn a lot from those as well!
Where’d you go to high school?
I went to Union County Academy for Performing Arts. A lot of people there were really into musical theater, which I hated. You’re in the hallway, and everyone’s singing songs from Rent, and it’s like, “Shuuuut uuuuup, I just want to get to algebra!”
So you wanted to do screen acting from the jump?
Of course. I had a background in theater, which I liked, because you can’t erase anything that happens. You’ve gotta live with your performance, because the show must go on. I was in the plays, and I did a musical there one year. But I didn’t really have any friends. People didn’t like me very much, because I was very serious. Acting’s a craft, and people would be in class on their phones or talking, and I found that disrespectful. The instructor’s taking time to give us knowledge about something we all say we’re here to pursue, but you could tell that most people were there for their friends, or because it was a convenient way to get out of regular high school.
A friend of mine who went to theater school said she met two types: kids who wanted to act, and kids who wanted to be actors.
It’s a little disgusting, yeah. There’s a difference between being famous and being a great performer. Kylie Jenner’s famous!
In an ideal world, whose career do you model yours after?
Meryl Streep. I mean, she’s the queen, right?
You mentioned the “show must go on” principle before — I get the impression that Josephine kind of shoots that way, in long exercises that happen within their moment.
Yeah. We only had 20 days to shoot, and, like, 150 pages to get on camera. We had to really squeeze everything in, and with different angles, making sure that the light was where it should be. And Josephine’s the type of person where, when she has an idea, she’ll be like, “Let’s try it this way!” And I’m over here like, “I don’t know, Josephine, we gotta move on.” And she’ll say, “Yeah, no, I know! But I could be really good!” Which I love, because she’s usually right. But at the same time, I’m like, “It’s really hot in here.”
That gets down to what I’m most curious about. Madeline’s Madeline is about an actress pushed too hard by a director who wants to tell her story. How does that compare to the dynamic you had with Josephine while making this film?
There’s no connection. During filming, our relationship was nothing at all like the script. To avoid anything as exploitative as what happens between Evangeline and Madeline, an actor just has to make sure to use their voice, and to get themselves in situations where they feel safe speaking up about what makes them comfortable and uncomfortable. As a director, you’ve got to know your boundaries, and know who you’re working with. Some directors feel as though they can dictate, because as an actor, it’s always your mission to please the director. So it’s sometimes hard to stick up for yourself.
To go back to your previous question, though: While working, I had a hard time saying no. I don’t think I said no at all. I spoke up, we had a few artistic differences we worked out, but for the most part, I just wanted to make Josephine happy. I could see how much this film meant to her, and still does. While filming, I wanted to make everyone working on it proud.
When performing, do you often feel self-imposed pressure like that?
Of course. All the time … I think being self-conscious is a big part of being in this profession. I’m an overanalytical person, constantly picking apart everything like it’s an equation in my brain. What someone just said, how what you’re saying is going to be interpreted — I get in my head about it, and people are like, “What’s wrong with you?” and all I’m just like, “I’m weird? Love me?”
Do you think there will come a time when you get past that anxiety?
While I’m in it, I don’t feel it. It’s always prior, and after. I go in the zone, but it’s not like I’m possessed. I just am the person I’m portraying. There’s some of that during the anxious state of being, but once I’m on, there’s a new clarity. I’m not worried about the pressure, because what I’m supposed to be doing in that moment is clear to me. Because it’s not me, necessarily, it’s Madeline. Or Zia. Or Abby, whoever.
Race is one of the other big components in Madeline’s Madeline, the divide between your character and her white instructor. Thus far in your career, has that been a factor?
Being multiethnic, I kind of get caught in the middle of the big conversation about race that’s going on right now. In my household, we didn’t look at that so much. My dad was like, “We’re American!” But with my mom, she was more, “We’re all part of the human race.” I just hated having to check “other” on forms growing up, because you have to choose one thing. That really sucked. I’m not an other! “What are you?” “I am Other.”
In my career, though, it can be hard. Auditioning is tough, because I’m not famous or a celebrity or whatever. And so when casting directors look at me, sometimes I get, “We don’t know what you are.” That can be for the best, but often, it’s just “we need this family to be black” or “we need this family to be white.” Maybe they’ll stick a mixed girl in there, but what if she doesn’t look typically mixed, or like, fully biracial mixed? I don’t go on a lot of casting calls, I prefer one-to-one, because you can show who you are more exactly and directly. Plus, I hate waiting rooms.
Did you have a favorite sequence to shoot?
When I was screaming at people in the streets, up in Times Square near Port Authority. This was August, and summer in Times Square already brings something out of people. I do that all the time, kinda, just striking up conversations with random people. In New York, the chances are that you’re never going to run into this person again, so fuck it!
When did you see the finished film for the first time, and what kind of effect did it have on you?
It was at the Sundance premiere. I don’t like watching myself. I remember being so entranced by the sound design and the cinematography. I didn’t speak during the Q&A. Walking out after, it felt like not knowing how to process and yet still processing everything anyway. Later that night, at the party, I was trying to think about the movie while I was still stunned. I remember staring into this big bonfire in a city in Utah I’d never been to before, thinking about everything that’d led me there. It’s funny — we were at a party for a movie where I was the star, and nobody really talked to me except the agent I ended up signing with and some people who were there with the film. But looking into that fire, I was like, “Oh, this is a metaphor, huh.” There was this big thing raging, and nobody else seemed to notice. I think everything moved in slow motion.
So, wait, you’re 19?
Twenty next week!
Happy almost-birthday. Are you in your feelings about leaving the teen years?
My feeling is: yaaaay! I’m ready to get out of the teen years. I think I’m going to be shooting a short film on my birthday. I hate celebrating my own birthday. It’s just another year closer to death!
Do you still have spare time to dick around? By my count, that’s really the biggest upside of being a teenager.
When I’m in New York, which is most of the time, I’ll just walk around for hours. Watch people. I’ve walked through the same areas I don’t know how many times, and you never know when something completely unexpected is about to go down. Once, I was on the train deep in Brooklyn on the C. I get on the train, and then this guy gets on the train with some food, I think cookies. He throws them on the seat next to me, and he’s like, [with theatrical grandeur] “I do not have any food! I am going to do a dance!” I got the sense he may have been on something? But he says, “I am going to do a tribute to Michael Jackson!” And then he starts doing — I wish I had gotten this on video. Here, it was like [gets up and does surprisingly solid MJ impression, complete with trademark “hee-hee!”]. No moonwalk, though. Then he put his hand up, popped, and stood. It was incredible.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.