Last week at the Toronto International Film Festival, I sat down with a number of the main players of “Leslie, My Name is Evil” – Reginald Harkema’s pulpy and political black comedy about Charlie Manson devotee Leslie Van Houten. First up is a chat with Kristen Hager, who plays the infamous Leslie, and Gregory Smith, who plays juror Perry in the piece. Hit the jump to read about moving from small towns and innocent “Everwood” to sadistic murderers and religious folk, love of all things Canada, and the vampires and cops that are in their future.
Q: How did you both get involved with the film?
Hager: The old-fashioned way – I auditioned and got the role – that’s about it.
Smith: I did a movie a couple years ago, and the director of that movie and Reginald Harkema were friends, so he told him about me, and then told me about the film, and that was basically my entry into it.
Q: Were you both familiar with the more detailed aspects of Manson and his followers?
Hager: I knew the basics – that Sharon Tate was murdered, as well as a household of people with her. I knew they were a cult, and they lived outside L.A. in the desert, but I really had to do a lot of research, and learned a lot of really crazy and disturbing things.
Smith: I knew very little, almost nothing about it. I knew some people got killed, and there was a crazy cult thing going on. I started to do research before the movie and then I stopped myself. Because of my character and his storyline, I wanted my character to discover it on camera. So I focused most of my research on how to be a good Christian, which is also something that was very foreign to me.
Q: How do you learn to be a good Chrisitian?
Hager: I had to do incredible amounts of research, just to prepare for the role. Watching every interview she did, books, Manson documentaries, and really trying to let that role seep into my skin.
Q: Did you have any contact with Leslie?
Hager: No, I didn’t. Originally, I thought that was something I’d like to do. But once I read the script and realized that this was very stylized and partly fictional, I opted not to because it’s not a biopic. Reg really gave me freedom. “Yes, you are this woman, but I really want this to be your own interpretation of her.”
Q: Gregory, you’ve done a lot of youth oriented fare. How do you break out of that to become a Christian with all of these lascivious desires?
Smith: That was one of those things I didn’t think too much about. As I’ve grown up, my tastes have matured, and I think if I was still trying to do movies that pleased 16 and 17-year-old girls, it might be a little bit creepy. You just start following your heart and what interests you, and what you’re going to be happy doing. This is a movie that satisfied all that in a way that hasn’t for a long time.
Q: Is there a difference with how you prepare for the roles?
Smith: The fundamentals of what I’ll do to prepare for a role don’t really change. They evolve as you work with more actors and you pick up more tricks. The biggest difference… My first day on “Everwood,” I was riding a ferris wheel, having a scene with a stuffed animal. My first day on “Leslie,” I was covered in virgin sacrifice blood and having a sex scene with Kristen. So that’s a bit different.
Q: Kristen, you come from small town and remote town of Red Lake…
Hager: You know of Red Lake?! Yeah, it’s such a small town.
Q: What has the transition to Hollywood and the world-at-large been like?
Hager: Amazing. It’s a dream come true. I grew up always wanting to act, always knowing that’s what I wanted to do. And it’s a very remote town, end of the road. The closest city is Winnipeg, Manitoba, and that’s a 5-hour drive. There wasn’t even a movie theater in the town. Nothing. Not even any fast food chains of any kind. Regardless, I knew that I was going to leave and become an actor, and be in film and television, and I’ve done it.
Smith: I feel like that balancing act was more of Reg’s job. I just looked at his overall arc – where he started and where he had to get to – and sort of kept that in the back of my head, and then drilled down and looked at each individual scene. I wanted to find the most interesting/honest way to play each of those scenes. Sometimes it was more tilted into the dark side, sometimes more into the light side. I was just sort of following my instincts.
Q: And Kristen, how do you tackle a character who is based on a real person?
Hager: For me, by far, this was the most challenging role to date. This woman is alive, and the public has seen all kinds of footage on her. So there’s the challenge of being compared to her, and as well, it’s a frightening place to go to – where she went in real life. I had to sort of put all my personal beliefs aside, and not tack any judgment on the character. And do my best to bring humanity to the role.
Q: Did you go through a process of deciding what aspects of Leslie were important to maintain?
Hager: Yeah – I didn’t ever want it to be like I was imitating her, but I watched so many of her interviews, and listened to her cadences, her energy, and the way she moves. Eventually, it just sort of settled in myself and was my own interpretation entirely. It sort of became an amalgamation of me and her.
Q: A lot of Canadian actors hit mainstream America and don’t look back, but after both of you have done mainstream work in the US, you’re doing a small Canadian production. Are you both trying to stay involved in both US and Canadian work?
Hager: I know for me, specifically, L.A. is just an overwhelming and scary place. I like spending part of my year there, but I love having Canada as my home to come back to. To create art in this country is really what matters most to me.
Smith: For me, selfishly, Toronto is my favorite city in the world. It’s the greatest city and you have the whole world here. It’s just awesome, and every time I’ve shot here, it’s just been the best experience ever. For years, I’ve been asking my agents: “Please, get me stuff here. Let me come back here.” So, any chance I get, I’m here.
Q: What differences do you notice between working on a U.S. film and working on a Canadian film?
Smith: Generally Canadian films are smaller. I think the market here is a tenth of the size of the States. So there’s less resources to put into the films. But, a lot of films in Canada are subsidized by the government, and compared to a studio, the government really stays out of your face creatively. You have a lot more freedom to explore and improvise in a Canadian film, which you might not have when there’s 13 different production companies that all have serious equity investments.
Hager: By far, the content of Canadian films. You’re able to push the envelope in ways you can’t in the U.S., I find. But also, because of the budgets and everything, it’s all condensed, quick, and short. It’s a very short filming period that you have to work with, so these really jam-packed days of rushing around and trying to get everything done. It creates a lot of really fascinating scenes as a result.
Q: Gregory, you’re starting a new Toronto series called “Copper.” Can you talk a little about that?
Smith: It’s about 5 rookie cops, starting their first day on the force. It’s sort of akin to “Grey’s Anatomy.” I play Officer Doug Epstein, who’s sort of the skinny, hipster, dork cop who loves guns and wants to hang out with hot chicks. And, you know, the uniform kind of helps. I’m working with Missy Peregrym, who is from “Reaper,” and Travis Milne, who played Bobby in “Leslie.” The show will air on ABC down in the States. I get to shoot guns and pick up chicks all day. It’s awesome.
Q: Kristen, you’ve done a short web series for MTV called “Valemont”?
Hager: It was a very cool series of 40 episodes that are 5 minutes long. The first twelve will air on television, and then after that, they will air the rest online as a webseries you can download daily. It’s about vampires, and it’s by one of the writers who wrote on “Six Feet Under,” so it’s very well written. I play Sophie, the lead character. Basically, my parent’s died when I was twelve, and then my brother essentially abandoned me in a foster home right after that. He disappeared for six years, and I find out that he’s been murdered. It’s the story of me going to this prestigious university, where he was killed, and trying to solve his murder. And I find out that I’m surrounded by vampires!