Exclusive: Kether Donohue Talks The Bay, Working with Barry Levinson, the Power of Media, and More
If the horror offerings that came out before Halloween didn't live up to your expectations, then take note that The Bay (review) hits VOD and limited theatres staring today, November 2nd, and in honor of the occasion we had a chance to speak with one of the film's stars, Kether Donohue.
In our chat Kether shared her experiences working with the film's iconic director, Barry Levinson; told us how her part in The Bay was a real "dream come true"; talked about the found footage sub-genre as a whole; and lots more. Read on for the highlights!
Photo credit: copyright 2012 rikerbrothers
When did you film The Bay? Am I correct in thinking it was completed some time ago but is only just now finally getting released?
Kether Donohue: Yes! It feels like just yesterday, but I filmed The Bay in September and October of 2010.
How did you first come on board the project?
KD: Funny enough, I find that I book a lot of film work during the summertime in New York City. I was in NY that summer, and it was really just an audition like any other day. My manger sent me an email with an audition for the project, which was initially entitled, "Isopod," and the interesting thing was at first I was supposed to audition for the role of Stephanie, played beautifully by Kristen Connolly. Two nights before the audition I had a dream that I was a news reporter in an animation (the animation part is the irrelevant part; that was just part of the dream), and the next day my manager called me and said, "Casting also wants you to audition for the role of the reporter, Donna Thompson." My jaw dropped, and I was like, "Russell, I had a DREAM last night that I was a news reporter!" And of course he thought it was hocus pocus, so he kind of brushed it off and was like, "Oh cool, all right, gotta go." Then, the day after I auditioned, when I found out I booked the role of Donna, my manager was like, "Wait, didn't you have a dream you were a reporter?" and I was like, "Yep, you gotta listen to these dreams I'm having more often."
Ellen Chenoweth's office cast the film, and they did such a terrific job with me in the audition room. Amelia, who works in the office, put me on tape for Barry [Levinson], and the memo they sent out prior to the audition said, "Tell Kether very natural acting...everyone is being too dramatic, so go natural, real, that is the way to go." Amelia made me feel very comfortable in the audition room, and we did a few takes until we got it just right after she encouraged me to improvise and do everything I could to make it as realistic as possible. The very next day, my agent called and said that Barry watched all the audition tapes and loved mine, and I got the job! Before that, I was so used to going on so many callbacks and tests and producer sessions before actually booking a role that it was amazing to book the role after one audition and never meeting Barry. I learned very quickly through the filming process that this is a testament to Barry's genius; he knows exactly what he wants and is able to make the right decisions very quickly because he has such a clear vision. He's also so open to the fluidity of the creative process. The writer, Michael Wallach, told me that originally Donna was written as a more seasoned reporter in her 30's, but after seeing my audition tape, Barry altered the character to make Donna a younger college student at American University interning at a local news station, trying to mimic what she thinks a professional reporter would be like. His instincts were right on, because it definitely adds humor to the character and the tone of the film.
Speaking of Barry, it must have been a pretty big thrill to work with someone who's made so many classic films and Oscar winners. Was it intimidating at all? With how intimate the film feels, I imagine you worked pretty up-close and personal together. How much input did you have on your character?
KD: I was definitely intimidated when I first found out I landed the role, but as soon as I spoke with him (once on the phone before shooting) and then met him on set, his warm presence immediately put me at ease. He is so collaborative and actually is extremely open to input from everyone on set, from the writer to the cinematographer to the actors. The fact that he altered the role of Donna once he saw my audition tape is a testament to this. He was interested in bringing my personal essence to the character because that's what's going to bring truth to the character. One of my actor friends, Richie Portnow, had worked with Barry before, and when he found out I was going to be working with Barry, he said, "Be prepared to put your improv shoes on! Barry loves improv!" He was right. In my phone conversation with Barry, he told me this idea he had about making Donna an amateur reporter and told me to start thinking about creative ways to bring that essence and character backstory into my acting.
The first day on set, he sat down at the lunch table where I was eating to chat and get to know me. I told him a funny story about how I got my first speeding ticket after learning how to drive in one week in NYC before coming to LA, and he laughed hysterically and then said, "After lunch, I want you to tell that story as your character in your scene! Think of more funny stories like that and find spontaneous ways to incorporate them into the storyline." It was truly riveting and a very creatively fulfilling shooting process because along the way we made so many discoveries and created all these layers to the character through improvisation. At one point there was this great moment in the film where, as Donna, I felt torn between feeling emotionally compassionate when interviewing someone vs. trying to hide the emotion for the sake of being a "professional objective reporter" who has an obligation to stick to the facts without letting emotion get in the way. This became a theme for my character through the story and is actually a very interesting concept to contemplate when thinking about real-life news reporters. Where do you draw the line between showing your humanity as a reporter and getting too emotionally involved in a story? Should reporters have more permission to show their emotion? It's frowned upon in the professional world of reporting, but perhaps it should be celebrated.
Also, Barry said something during the shooting of the narration that always stuck with me. I did a complete take of the narration from beginning to end and threw in some improvisation, and when I was finished, Barry gave me some notes about what he wanted for the next take, and after he told me certain improv to take out for the next take he said, "But it was great; that's what happens when we play - we find things that work and don't work." It was very magical to hear him use the word "play," because as artists that's what we do for a living and it's an organic part of the creative process to "fail" or "fall on your face" before you find something that works. In order to have a "stroke of genius," you can't censor yourself or judge the creative process or be concerned with logic when trying things out.
It sounds like a good balance between scripted vs. improv. You seem so natural – everyone in the film does, really – and organic. What was the shooting process like? With so many interweaving storylines, I imagine you probably didn't see, or even meet, many of your co-stars.
KD: I will say the only reason I felt so comfortable improvising is because Michael Wallach had such a solid, tight, well-structured screenplay. I heard a famous actor (I forget who) say once that the only time you can improvise is if you know the structure of a scene and have a clear idea of the beginning, middle, and end points that need to be made. Because Michael's script provided that framework, it was easy to have a playground to "play" in within the confines of the structure.
I really only acted with one person on set: Frank Deal, who plays Mayor Stockman. He is a truly gifted actor. He's the nicest human being in the world and is so convincing at playing the villain. We had a lot of fun improvising together! Other than than, I met Kristen Connolly and Will Rogers on the plane ride home to New York but never acted with them. They were both very sweet as well.
While a film like The Bay definitely proves found footage still has a lot of life left to it, there has been a bit of a backlash against the sub-genre lately. Were you concerned about that going into the project, or could you tell from the script what a fresh feeling it brings to what some describe as an increasingly tired approach to filmmaking?
KD: I was not concerned at all. With all the brilliant talent involved, I knew there was going to be a fresh take on the sub-genre. I'm a huge fan of the Paranormal Activity series, and knowing that it was the same producers, combined with Barry's directing and a compelling script by Michael, I was so sucked into the storyline that I actually forgot we were making a "found footage" film. I don't know who said the quote, but my fiance's favorite quote (and I may be paraphrasing) is that "editing is the invisible art. When you're watching a movie with a brilliant editing job, you don't even notice it's edited because it's so fluid and serves the story." The same goes for any art, and in this case the writing and directing is so brilliant that you don't label the film or put it in a box when you read the script or when you watch the film because you're truly sucked into the characters and the story and the message being conveyed. The film really transcends the category. I think I read in an interview that Barry didn't go into the production conscious of the fact that it was even considered "found footage." The cameras that the story is told through are there for such a specific purpose and make such logical sense as tools for moving the story forward rather than it feeling forced that the cameras are there for the sake of making a "found footage" movie.
The idea that something like what transpires in The Bay could fairly easily happen in “real life” is what makes the film so terrifying. Did you guys talk about that while filming, and did it affect you in any way personally? Any nightmares or fears of going swimming? For me, I definitely thought twice the first time I had sushi after watching it!
KD: Barry and I didn't discuss the reality that the film was based on until we shot my narration, which served me well as an actor because in the parts of the film where I'm not narrating, my character genuinely has no clue why this disaster is occurring. Once we discussed the fact that isopods are in fact real and that these deathly consequences could happen in real life, the heaviness of the situation started to truly seep into my body and was translated into the performance. Before shooting the narration, I researched a lot of video interviews of young women with PTSD and connected with that sense of shock and survival tactic to be removed from your feelings because it's sometimes too painful to relive. My father is a Vietnam War veteran with a severe case of PTSD so I am very familiar with the emotional effects of it and felt that my character absolutely experienced the same effect. I am so proud to be part of a film that is not only entertaining, but can be used as an agent of social change. My major at Fordham University was Communications and Media Studies, and my professor, Dr. Gwenyth Jackaway, had a profound effect on the way I perceive media. The media are true gifts as they have the power to reach millions of people, and when you have a story that can touch people on an emotional level and also raise awareness about an issue that affects everyone on the planet and can create social change, it's a beautiful, powerful thing. Everything we read, see, and hear in magazines, television, films, books, radios, etc., is information that we absorb and influences what we think about and how we think about it. It's refreshing when there's a piece of media that can satisfy guilty pleasures and have a positive message in there, too!
The Bay is your first horror film; would you like to do more? Are you a fan of the genre? If so, what are some of your favorites?
KD: I would absolutely love to do more! When I choose projects to act in, I'm not so concerned with the genre as I am my connection to the character and story so if that's in place, it can really be any genre. I am a fan of the genre. I love the Paranormal Activity series, and I'm not just saying that because it's the same producers that did The Bay. *laughs* I also love the Scream series.
With The Bay now finding its audience, what's next for you? Do you have some completed projects coming out? Anything you're just getting started on?
KD: I am VERY fortunately to have another film in theatres right now called Pitch Perfect! It was such a blessing that these films came out back to back. My fiance, Nick Gaglia, and I also produced a film together that he wrote and directed and I star in called Altered States of Plaine. It is currently playing all over Latin America and will be coming to the U.S. soon. I will keep you posted! I also enjoyed doing a fun cameo in the pilot episode of "The Mindy Project".
Anything else we might have left out? We heard your birthday was Halloween- how did you celebrate?
KD: Actually, The Bay coming out today is THE BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT EVER! I was unable to celebrate my birthday on Halloween because I was so busy with work so I decided the best way to celebrate would be to have dinner with friends and then go with a huge group to see The Bay tonight!! It's perfect; this is the last interview question I'm answering before I have to start getting ready in 5 minutes for this evening's festivities! The only other thing I would say is THANK YOU to all the fans and people who are seeing the film this weekend and for the duration of its theatrical and VOD run! It was an honor and a pleasure to answer your questions.
And it was our pleasure speaking with Kether. Make sure to head out to see The Bay this weekend if it's playing anywhere near you. It's worth the drive! Click here for the full list of the theatres where it's playing.
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