Sophia Takal’s psychological thriller Always Shine is a quintessentially female film. Any woman who’s friends with other women will know the familiar pang of jealousy and the constant comparisons society puts on women, and as a result that women put on themselves. It’s a combination of these toxic feelings that lurks below surface from the very beginning of Always Shine and eventually gets blown out of proportion between the two main characters, Anna and Beth (played by Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald, respectively), childhood friends who both grew up to be actors. Except that Beth is much more successful than Anna—she’s performative in a way that lands her more roles and makes her more desirable to male suitors, and she follows traditional expectations of what is considered feminine behavior. Anna is the opposite in the way she carries herself, and thus less successful in her career and love life, even though she isn’t lacking in talent or looks. Always feeling inferior to her friend, Anna is no longer able to keep her frustrations at bay when they go on a weekend trip together.
Recently I got the chance to sit down with the film’s director, Sophia Takal, and star, Mackenzie Davis, to discuss competitive female friendships, comparisons to Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth (the two movies were shot around the same time, for the record), and one intense scene during which Davis got carried away with acting.
COLLIDER: I’ve always said my favorite movies are about either sociopaths or female friendships and this really combined the both of them.
SOPHIA TAKAL: Have you read that book House of Psychotic Women? It’s a book about all the different movies that are about psychotic women.
No, but I should… Mackenzie, it must be fun to play the crazy role.
MACKENZIE DAVIS: Yeah, it is fun. Of the two characters in the movie, I was the one that got to have more fun for the most part. Because it wasn’t internalized and oppressive, it was explosive and cathartic. It was really an intense film.
Did you deliberately pick Mackenzie [Davis] as the Anna role and then Caitlin [FitzGerald] as the Beth role? Did you consider switching them at any point?
TAKAL: No, never. I cast Mackenzie first and it just made sense to me to cast Anna first, I don’t know why. I really relate to Anna so maybe that’s why.
DAVIS: You know what I just remembered? I think my agent sent me the script as Beth and I told them I connected with Anna more.
TAKAL: We Skyped and I feel like we instantly understood each other on a really deep level.
DAVIS: It’s true.
TAKAL: Mackenzie, I feel like you were really honest about how you felt sometimes growing up, like you weren’t the right kind of woman and that you tried really hard, or you felt a pressure to mold yourself. I don’t want to speak for you, and anyway I felt the same way. Then after that we cast Caitlin [FitzGerald.] I knew it was really important for me to have two women who were both beautiful. I wanted them to look alike. I didn’t want the movie to be about how one girl’s so pretty and the other girl’s like not as desirable because she’s not pretty. For me it was about how we’re performing and how we’re presenting ourselves. Anna presents herself as a more aggressive person and that’s what makes her less attractive to men, not because of her physical beauty. It’s that she’s not behaving the way men expect a woman to behave. I think that that’s where her frustrations come from.
DAVIS: Like how I flirt versus how Beth flirts. I’ve had that similar experience multiple times, one that Anna has in the movie. It’s like engaging with something and giving it back as hard as you’re getting it and questioning what they’re saying. Just really listening to somebody and giving them shit if you think what they’re saying is shit. But the sort of meek, let you come to me behavior is the one that gets a result.
TAKAL: We found boyfriends though.
DAVIS: Yeah, you’re fucking married.
Did you ever feel like the role was uncomfortably meta being an actress yourself?
DAVIS: I never thought about it being about actresses. I think it’s interesting that it’s actresses because actresses are required to perform the epitome of a certain type of femininity. So it becomes easy to draw the picture of an oppressive version of femininity between these two characters but it really is about being a woman. The fact that they were actresses always felt secondary to me but it was a really smart plot device to get these versions of femininity the most rewarding and the least rewarding versions possible. But I think what Anna’s dealing with and what Beth is dealing with is something that everyone is dealing with. Girls growing up and receiving feedback that they’re too quiet or loud, that they’re not doing it right. Could you be a little bit smaller, and a little bit tighter, and not talk about that, and don’t have such a loud voice, and don’t push people, and don’t engage that way, can you just listen and be quiet and sit still.
One of my favorite scenes is that part where you guys are reading the horror script I just thought that was brilliant.
TAKAL: Would you see that movie?
I love horror movies, so absolutely, especially if you make it.
TAKAL: What’s your favorite horror movie?
Probably Rosemary’s Baby or Suspiria.
TAKAL: Oh, those are good.
That scene actually made me think of Clouds of Sils Maria a lot just in the way you’re not sure what’s the movie and what’s the movie within the movie. Did you find that to be the turning point of the relationship?
TAKAL: For me the turning point is the part right before where she sees Beth take the number [from a man that Anna was interested in]. At that point she’s made a choice to no longer try to make this relationship work.
DAVIS: It’s the first indication that Anna’s not crazy, from her perspective. That she’s not imagining these things and then she gets repeated instances of confirmation.
TAKAL: Yeah, that was a really big thing for me. When I was struggling with all these female friendships, part of it was that I was berating myself for feeling jealous and feeling bad and feeling paranoid. I would just be like, “It’s all your fault.” Anna is internalizing this idea that Beth is innocent in the same way that the men are and when she finally sees that Beth’s not as innocent, it frees her in a way to release this anger towards Beth.
This is such a uniquely feminine relationship but you had your husband write it.
TAKAL: Yeah, because he’s a better writer. He captured these two characters’ voices perfectly from the beginning. I wrote a one page outline of my idea, and Larry [Lawrence Michael Levine] was like, “I actually really relate to these feelings of failure for not fitting into how I’m supposed to be as a man. The same way you feel like you’re not fitting into femininity, I think I could write a more fully fleshed out script. Would that be okay?”
I know you’ve been getting like a lot of Queen of Earth comparisons…
TAKAL: I’m gonna go on the record and say we shot our movies at the same time.
I know. I’ve noticed that your movie has less of the manic woman presence. Like there’s no running mascara. All her like the crying is done off screen. Were you always kind of conscious about not playing into that trope?
TAKAL: I think there are so many movies about hysterical women and so many of them are directed by men. I don’t know if because I’m a woman, the way I chose to shoot things was a byproduct of that but I never thought about that particular thing. Every decision about what to show and what not to show came from the characters and how they would naturally behave. I never thought that Anna would let herself be seen crying. She would hide and would wait ‘til the very last minute when she was all alone. I feel like there were a couple moments when I was trying to push you to be a little bit more hysterical and you were like, “I don’t think that’s right.” I was glad you did that.
DAVIS: I have no recollection of this.
TAKAL: The scene where you grab her, I wanted you to be like a little bit more unhinged and that just didn’t feel right to you. I think in the end you were right.
The men play a really interesting role in the film. Twice I thought the men were either going to kill or rape the women.
TAKAL: That’s cool.
DAVIS: That’s cool.
TAKAL: I just thought about the fact that we’re both like, “That’s cool.” No affect.
When you see the guy offering Beth the ride I was like, “Oh shit, we know how this goes.” He even insists he’s just trying to help. Murderers say that probably. When you meet Lawrence at the bar and he’s talking about celibacy, that sounds like something a rapist would say.
TAKAL: We definitely wanted to play around with the traditional tropes of evil lurking in the forest, and serial killers, and murderers, but I also wanted to play with this idea that these men are portraying this sort of violence against these women, even if it’s not a physical violence, by expecting them to look and behave a certain way that is creating this feeling of competition between them.
Did your relationship with Caitlin [FitzGerald] ever get tense because you got so into the acting?
DAVIS: It’s such a terrible thing to tell because it’s like the number one rule in fight scenes to not get carried away but I got a little carried away in a fight scene. I just hit her a little bit close to the ear and she just super respectfully said, “Don’t do that.” And I clobbered at her feet and said sorry and felt like such an idiot for doing it. But emotionally, I don’t think at all. Sophia created such an environment with meditation and trust exercises. We ended a day of shooting with some sort of group coming together and we shared what was the high point of our day and what was the low point of our day. So it was never like we all just went home and went to bed and we all just started the next day with all these feelings. We closed each day in a really healthy way and started each day and isolated the bad feelings for performance.