Barbarella here to wish you a very happy New Year and share a conversation I had with the lovely Tara Westwood, who stars in a new vision of THE GRUDGE opening this weekend. In THE GRUDGE, based on Takashi Shimizu’s film JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, anyone entering a cursed house becomes doomed. Nicolas Pesce’s version's R-rating suggests it’ll be taking the gore further than previous iterations.
Tara Westwood and I engaged in some small talk off the bat, and the Canadian-born actor, who has been living in New York now longer than she lived in Manitoba, shares her ideas regarding the differences in the weather.
“Here’s the funny thing. It is very cold [in Canada]. Winnipeg is dry, so it doesn’t get in your bones. I always say in New York it gets so much colder, and everyone’s like, “What are you talking about? It was -42 in Winnipeg yesterday.” No one goes for a walk in Winnipeg when it’s -42. They turn on their car from inside their house. They get in their car. They go where they’re going. They get out of the car. I walk everywhere in New York, so it’s just so much colder here because I’m outside longer periods, and it’s that cold that gets in your bones. And I’m like, “Oh, it’s so cold.” And everyone always says to me, “Oh, you must love the cold.” And I kind of want to smack them and say, “Do I have to, just because I’m Canadian, love the cold?”
Weather isn’t the only thing that’s different, and when I asked about the accent, she had me laughing by tagging on one syllable at the end of her reply.
“Oh my gosh. I spent a lot of time trying to get rid of it, eh.”
She continued, “Where I am from in Canada, my whole family sounds kinda like they’re from Fargo. I spent a lot of money with a dialect coach to get rid of it. I was taking a two-year program at the William Esper Studio here in New York with my teacher, Maggie Flanigan, and it was week one when she said, “Oh Jesus, you need to go see a dialect coach.” I was like, “I don’t have an accent.” I look back at how I used to sound, and oh my gosh, I mean, it was bad. I can slip right back into it when I need to, but I’m glad that I got rid of it.”
Although it didn’t take her long to get rid of the accent in general, she explained that she would run into words that Americans just pronounce differently. I’m not sure how well this story will translate in writing, but I’m including it because I love it. In order for you to appreciate this, you need to know that Canadians pronounce “against” with a long “a,” as in ace, whereas Americans pronounce the vowel sound like the “e” in gem. Whenever she says the word, it’s with the Canadian pronunciation and when the director says it, it’s with the American pronunciation, so please apply the appropriate pronunciations to the below for the full effect.
“Occasionally there’s words that I don’t realize we say differently than y’all do. [Note: she said “y’all” for my benefit as she knew I was from Texas.] For example, I was on a set, and I had a line “I’m not against you. What are you talking about? I’m not against you at all.” Then I hear “Cut!” The director came over, and he points to the script, and he’s like, “Say that word.” I’m like, “Against.” He’s like, “it’s against. I’m like, “It’s against. Look at it, phonetically G-A-I-N, gain, it’s against.” He pointed to the word “right,” and he was like, “Say that word.” I’m like “Right.” And he’s like, “Right, but phonetically it’s rig-hu-tu. You don’t say it that way.” We all laughed. Okay, there’s a word I didn’t know people say differently in America.”
Even though I’m unsure any of the humor will translate in writing, we were laughing throughout the interview. It is a bit surprising that Tara Westwood has never done comedy. She recalls the following.
“I was at a dinner party and this wonderful woman came up to me and said, “You’re really funny. You’re so funny. You must do a lot of comedy.” I said, “No, I’ve never even had an audition for comedy.” It’s kinda like you got to book it in order to be seen for it, but how do you get booked for it first? I never have anything come my way, so I would love to do something like that. Whenever I get cast now, my loved ones will be like, “Are you killing someone or are you being killed?” So, I guess the eyes, they can look a little cray-cray, and then I can get emotional, so I get to often experience really bad things happening to me and my loved ones on film.”
Speaking of bad things happening on film, THE GRUDGE I suspect will have a great deal of that. I inquired about the casting process for the film.
“I got an audition, I put myself on tape and I sent it off. You got to try to let it go at that point. Then I didn’t hear anything back for a few weeks, so thought, “That’s a bummer.” I thought it was a good tape. You never know, sometimes you think it’s a good tape, and sometimes you think it’s a bad tape, and then you get something. All of a sudden, I got the call. “You got a callback Skype session with the director.” I’d already seen Nic’s (Nicolas Pesce) first movie THE EYES OF MY MOTHER and I just loved it, so that was exciting.
“We did the Skype callback, which was the first time I’d ever done something like that, so that was just interesting. He had a reader, and then we did a lot of improvisation. And then I got the call. At that point, I was given the full script, which made me cry a few times. It’s just such an emotionally layered script. Then, when I found out who the whole cast was, I was just elated. To be able to work with people like Andrea Riseborough, John Cho, Demián Bichir, Bill Sadler, whom I love, Jacki Weaver who’s so good, like the whole cast, Betty Gilpin…the fun part of my character was I got to kinda work with everyone, and it was a true joy to do that.
“The thing that makes [this version of THE GRUDGE] the most different immediately is that Sam Raimi, our producer, had always wanted to make an R-rated version of THE GRUDGE. I love Nic Pesce, I think he’s an interesting, wonderful, soulful human being, but he’s got a warped brain. So [having the R rating] really allowed him to push the boundaries of the psychological aspects of it, the gore, the scares, all of it. I think that the people that initially were in THE GRUDGE family that liked it will respond to this film, and I think we will have a whole new audience that will [too]. It’s really that R-rating that makes a difference and he took advantage of it.
“I think the current state of the world, truly the world, not just this country, will make people want to go see THE GRUDGE. I think that we need to get away from our own crap, and I think we want to feel something other than all the madness that we’re feeling. So we want to get a bit of an escape, and what a better way than to be infected by THE GRUDGE?”
Working on a horror film set must evoke various feelings. I asked if being on set was creepy for a movie like this and how she managed to unwind after a day of filming.
“I remember showing up for set one day, and there was a large puddle of blood that I had to jump over in order to get to hair and make-up, and I’m like “Oh, someone had a bad day.” You laugh in the moment when you’re not filming, but when you’re actually filming or you’re getting into the emotional place you need to be in order to go to that, yeah, it is creepy. If you’re really doing your job, you’re really experiencing what that character is experiencing. In that moment, I am that person, and your body doesn’t know the difference between it’s work or it’s not work. I remember having moments of like, all right, I need to go now go home and have a hot shower and maybe have a little cry just to kind of release it from my body.
“Unwinding after something like that, was really just kinda going the opposite. It was being silly on set with the actors. I love sports, I would watch sports. It was going for a lot of walks. It was exercising. Exercise for me is not about how one looks for me. It’s a real mental release. I do it because it really helps me mentally. I used to smoke. It was really hard not to go back to that old habit with this.”
Quitting smoking can be challenging for a lot of people, and since the beginning of the New Year is when everyone tries to make I change, I wanted to find out how she went about quitting. (I’m here to help y’all.)
“I had tried [previously] and not succeeded. I got two sons, and one day, my aunt was in town visiting me. I had the window open a little bit. I had a glass of water. I had mouthwash. I had an air freshener and hand cream. The idea was if I heard “Mama” from the bedroom, I would drop the cigarette in the glass of water, put on the hand cream so my hands didn’t smell, take the mouthwash, and spray the [air freshener] around so it didn’t smell like cigarettes. She looked at the process that I would go through if I just heard “Mama,” and she wasn’t being mean, but she said. “You look so pathetic right now. The extent of which you’re going through so your kids don’t find out that you smoke. You think maybe you should rethink this?” Honestly, that was what stopped it for me. Don’t get me wrong. Somedays it’s really freaking hard. 90% of the time, I think cigarettes are disgusting and they smell bad. Our neighbors smoke and I’ll come home at night, and I think oh that’s disgusting. 10% of the time I want one and 5% of that 10% I really want one. But, I think you make choices.”
Although she hasn’t seen the finished version of the film, she will be going to the theater on opening weekend to watch it. She spoke briefly about trying to decide whether or not to sit with her people during the film because she didn’t want her presence to influence their experience of it. We also spoke a bit about watching herself on screen.
“It’s really hard for me to watch myself. It’s just hard. When an actor says, “I never watch myself,” I always think, “Why?” I mean, I get that it’s hard, and you do critique yourself so much, but I learn from it. The first time I watch it, I try very hard to stay in the moment and really experience the film, instead of being like, “Oh, wait, that’s not what happens next in the script” or start to analyze it or take apart my own performance. But then, I will go back [and re-watch] and go okay, I could’ve done that different. I want to learn from it, and I will definitely pick it apart, but I also have to walk away from that because that’s a rabbit hole. I’m hoping to just enjoy it.”
We talked a little about the acting scene in Manitoba, and while she wasn’t aware of much of a theater scene at the time that she lived there, she’s heard that it now has quite a presence. If the scene didn't draw her into acting, what did?
“I think I just always loved the kind of escape of film and TV and I used to, at a young age, go into my room and make monologues. And I didn’t realize that that meant that I wanted to act. I just loved going in there, and I wouldn’t let anyone know that I was doing it, and I was involved in theater in high school and stuff like that, but it never occurred to me, or I never admitted to myself, that I could become an actor. Even when I finished my two years of acting school, and then I went to a master program, I still would never say I’m an actor. I was a couple movies and a couple tv shows in before I felt like I was allowed to say that.”
Although she wasn’t involved in the theater scene in Canada, she went on to talk about some of her work in the States.
“I love doing theater as well. I do theater in New York. I did a play last year that I was really passionate about. It’s called "Triggered," and it started off my character and my husband’s character were getting dragged out of our bedroom and there are two people with guns to us. You basically think for the first part of the play that they’re coming in to rob us, and by the end of the play, you find out that I am a senator who voted against gun control, and these two people who are in our home have both lost children to gun violence. At the end of the play, one of them says to me, “You have a choice here, Jason or Joseph?” And those are my kid’s names. Their whole thing is you’re never going to understand through your prayers and tweets and everything until you’ve experienced this. The play was not about let’s take away everyone’s guns. That’s not the answer. It was just about some kind of control. It was a really interesting play to be a part of, and it was interesting afterwards. We’d all go for a bite to eat and you’d hear everyone’s take on it, depending on what country they were from or whether they believed in guns or didn’t think people should have guns or whatever. It was an interesting project to be a part of.”
For those who can’t get to New York to see her on stage, no need to worry. She has been in numerous television shows and films, even producing one.
“Give me a good script and I’m going to chew it up, and I’m gonna love it. I’ve done a lot of independent films. Those are always great. It’s just a different kind of feeling on the set when everyone’s wearing different hats because it’s a little independent film. I produced my own film called DETOURS, and that was interesting because as an actor, I know how much I love acting. But I didn’t realize everyone feels this way. I was able to bring on friends of mine, like Paul Sorvino and Richard Kind, and they were just wonderful. When I said, “I’m going to produce a film. Will you be a part of it?” They were so quick to say “yes.” I went to New Orleans with my brother, and we went and listened to a lot of bands, and then I just started contacting people, saying we’re going to need a soundtrack and would you like to be involved. How readily people were to say “yes” was really exciting to me because artists, in general, love what they do and they want to be involved.”
I’d read about her brother Troy, who is in the Canadian Football League, and I wondered if there had been any sibling rivalry between them. I decided to delve into the topic with her.
“I have two brothers, Trevor and the older one Troy. The sibling rivalry somehow was more between Troy and myself. Westwood’s are by nature, competitive. Even if I go home, I stay with my aunt and uncle, and my uncle, Trevor, and I will have a heated game of Scrabble. Yeah, there’s a little bit of sibling rivalry, but there’s a lot of love and support. Like Troy’s so excited about this movie coming out. You see a lot of my character in it, and he texted and he’s just very excited.”
I love delving into the personal lives of actors, because even though they seem to exist only on screen, they do actually live in the real world, and I often find it interesting to see how similar to or different from our lives theirs can be. I asked what a typical day in the life of Tara Westwood was, or even if she had a typical day.
“It changes all the time. I appreciate that you even get that. I’ll have a family member call me now and be like, “So next May we’re going to New York and we can’t wait to see you and can we all go see this play and do this and do that.” And I’m like, “Come to New York, stay with us, and I hope I’m in town.” And they’re like, “Wait What? What do you mean you might not be in town?” I might get a film or a play or a tv show. I don’t know from day to day what I’m doing. I believe though, in doing something every single day. [I may] watch a really great show that I know is going to teach me something. Typically, everyday there’s reading involved. I make sure I hit the gym so that physically I’m in shape but also mentally that helps me. If I’m having to do an accent or something, I might go work with my dialect coach. Or if I’m working on a project…I just recently booked a film about assisted suicide which is something that I’d actually already studied up on quite a bit, but now that I have this part, I’m going to be diving into that, so I’ll be spending a lot of time in the next month speaking to people and learning more about assisted suicide.”
I find it interesting that so many people think that acting is just memorizing lines and getting in front of a camera. It’s always obvious to me when talking with actors just how much work, research, and study goes into mastering a role. This can be challenging for some actors, and I wanted to know what was the most challenging skill for Tara to develop.
“The most challenging skill is stillness. When I watch a performance like Olivia Coleman in THE CROWN or I watch Jeremy Strong in “Succession” or I watch anything that Willem Dafoe does, I mean so many actors that I really admire, unless their character is high on drugs, there’s a stillness. So much can happen in a moment of silence. I just watched HONEY BOY again, and I am blown away by this movie, and I’m especially blown away by that young actor, Noah Jupe. I mean, I put him to the top of the list of people I want to work with because there are moments in that film when there is complete silence, and what transpires over that young man’s face is just beautiful to watch. I have been working on that actually with my coach, just those moments of stillness and filling them without doing too much.”
After pausing to consider some of what we discussed, she wanted to express what she believes is the key skill for any actor to have.
“As an actor, the number one rule of acting is to listen. If you really just listen, you don’t have to do much. We’re going to have an emotional response to what’s being said to us, and we don’t have to get busy with physical stuff.”
I had a delightful time chatting with her, and I hope she gets to audition for some comedies. I’d love to see her in a black comedy. But for now, I’ll have to settle for seeing her in THE GRUDGE. I hope it’s unique enough and sufficiently entertaining to warrant its existence.