While the name Amy Jo Johnson may be synonymous to many as the OG Pink Power Ranger, I first came to knowing of her work from the dearly missed TV series Felicity. On the show, Johnson showcased her acting and singing talent and I’ve been an admirer of hers ever since. Whether she was singing and playing guitar to celebrate the successful funding of her directorial debut (which Brief Take exclusively debuted the first clip from) or showing her range in shows such as Flashpoint and Covert Affairs, I was a champion of her hard work. Therefore it was a thrill to sit down and chat with her and her dynamic lead actress, Anastasia Phillips, from her sophomore feature film, Tammy’s Always Dying.
The following is an edited and condensed version of our sit-down talk at the Toronto International Film Festival last year.
Brief Take: What did you like best about working with each other?
Amy Jo Johnson: Oh wow. You know today, when we were doing an interview and just chatting about the best things about working on movies and for me, it’s usually the relationships that come after. It was such a nice surprise and so lovely to have this really cool, interesting woman in my life now. [to Anastasia] You’re a really cool, neat person.
Anastasia Phillips: Aww, I’m so touched. And I’m so grateful too because [to Amy] you’re got such an open heart and you’ve completely welcomed me into your life. I found Amy so inspiring to work with, to watch, to watch her stand in her power but still keep this soft atmosphere of allowance and curiosity and generosity. It’s been so inspiring. [to Amy] I’ve learned so much watching you evolve as a director.
AJJ: That’s so nice to hear. Thanks, lady! [laughs]
BT: How did you get involved with the project?
AJJ: So I went to the Canadian Film Centre and I was in the Directors’ Lab, and Joanne Sarazen, who wrote Tammy’s Always Dying, was in the Writers’ Lab at the time sort of developing her script in that program. So I heard a reading of it and I just fell in love with the story. I knew I wanted to make this film. And then Jessica Adams, who produced my first feature, well I produced that one with her, but then with this one, I gave her the script and she said, “oh my God, we have to make this movie.” So then she produced it and in literally a year we raised all the money, it happened so quickly. I’m a new Canadian, it’s only been seven years, and I just think I’m in the right place and in the right time to become a filmmaker because the support that Canada has in Telefilm and CFC and Crave and Ontario Creates and even NABET, which is the union and they were part of the funding…it’s just all the support. Anyway, within a year, we went to camera and went through the casting process and found Anastasia, she put herself on tape, and I had a lot of tapes come in from a lot of women but as soon as I saw Anastasia’s tape, I knew that she was totally Cathy. And Felicity Huffman came on board a little bit before that, she had read the script and we flew out to New York, me and Jessica, to meet with her. She talked to Joanne a bit and it just sort of took off from there.
BT: Did you do a chemistry read?
AJJ: Not with Felicity. [to Anastasia] You did one with a bunch of Reggie’s. I think it was really good pairing with you and Felicity though. There was just something…
AP: That was a huge get, I never really thought about that.
AJJ: Well we had Felicity.
AP: You had Felicity but you never saw us in a room. She would have signed off on me, as executive producer, right?
AJJ: Oh yeah! I sent to her all of my faves and we sort of narrowed it down to our faves, [to Anastasia] and you were always the number one fave. And actually Jessica Greco was up there too, who plays Kelly.
AP: Oh wow! I didn’t know that!
AJJ: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And she’s so good as Kelly. She’s so good! I think she really shines in that role.
AP: That is so interesting.
AJJ: It would have been a different movie. The relationship between Tammy and Cathy would have been so different.
AP: She never told me that. I would have gone on set and said, “I just want to let you know that I read for this part and I got really close.” She didn’t say a word. She’s so powerful in the film.
AJJ: Yeah, she’s great.
BT: What did you like best about working with Felicity?
AP: She really fought every step of the way to make the film the best that it could be and to honour the script and to go as deep as she could into the material. She was so raw, so vulnerable, no vanity, completely in her process, and it was very inspiring to watch.
AJJ: She really gave one hundred per cent.
AP: She was a dynamo.
AJJ: The calibre of actress that she is and just the A game that she brought to the table was very helpful and very generous. It really made everyone rise to the occasion because she is a force. When she would come on set, it was like [claps] “we’re shooting right now!”. It was fantastic as a director to have that energy be part of the film.
BT: Did you have a favourite scene to shoot with her?
AP: It may sound strange but I think it’s probably the bathtub scene.
AP: She was so vulnerable in that scene and it was so intimate and I really felt like a daughter taking care of her mother and also getting to know someone who you really don’t know that well in such an intense situation creates this intuitive knowing of each other that you bypass so many steps, when you’re playing mother-daughter in that vulnerable situation. So that’s a scene that I think of in my mind and remember.
BT: Was that towards the beginning of the shoot or more towards the end?
AJJ: Uh, that was maybe the third week. It was the third week because those were her last few days.
AP: Yeah, we did the bridge on like the second day of shooting. That was really intense.
BT: The beginning or the end?
AJJ: All of it. All of the bridge stuff in two days.
AP: I know. It was like “She’s your Mom!” and then “ok bye!”. [laughs]
BT: You really had to capture the whole journey of the characters in those scenes.
AJJ: Yeah, and she was so brave. Wow, we haven’t talked about this at all in any of the interviews we’ve done, but Felicity was so brave. I mean she had to sit by the side of the bridge tethered in.
AP: In a miniskirt.
AJJ: She looked at me right before the first take, she turns around and she goes “if I die, keep the cameras rolling”. [laughs] Me and Matt (Hotson), my First A.D., were just like “Oh my God!”, and then she walked into the scene and it was like “Oh my God, what is happening right now??”. [laughs]
AP: That is Felicity. She’s like that, she’s ballsy.
BT: And Clark Johnson is such a tender performer. His performance just broke my heart.
AJJ: Yeah, he was so good. I had worked with him on Flashpoint, he directed me on Flashpoint, so it was very interesting being in a whole different role for me to reach out to him and invite him. And of course he read the script and said “yeah, I’ll do it”, so it was interesting working with him wearing a different hat. But I think he’s really wonderful in the film.
AP: So much warmth.
BT: Especially in the bar scenes.
AP: I agree. I was very taken by how that all came together and all the colour he adds to the film, that’s not really represented anywhere else in the cast.
BT: And the moment where he’s toasting with the donuts? So beautiful.
AJJ: And did you hear Joan Rivers in the background? Yeah, if you listen, it’s this clip from the home shopping network channel with Joan Rivers. Bryan (Atkinson), the editor, had put that in the edit and I kind of got married to that and fell in love with it because it’s such a quiet scene and it adds so much, I love Joan Rivers, and just hearing her riff and talk about how funny Don Rickles is? It’s so iconic and classic. We asked all the right people and finally got the rights to do it. I wrote Melissa a letter and they said yes. I thought it was really cool.
BT: Let’s talk about how you crafted the character of Cathy, Anastasia.
AP: The shoes were useful. I wanted this pair of Sketchers that were, to me, the quintessential waitressing shoes but we didn’t end up using those. How did I start crafting? Oh gosh.
BT: It’s interesting in the scene with Lauren Holly where your character is given clothes to wear in the interview and you say “this isn’t me”. How did the costumes help you inhabit who Cathy is?
AJJ: [to Anastasia] And that gold dress you wear in the hotel.
AP: Umm, let me have a think on that because this one I approached slightly differently. For this one, my mother passed away from cancer and I had a slightly different approach to this because there was a whole part of me that sort of opened a gaping wound that wanted expression and needed space to breathe, so that’s sort of what I lived in for this. So it wasn’t so much of the exterior. But then again, the way that it’s written, like “Ma?””Yeah Cathy””Come down, Ma”, like it’s already in the script, you know? You just have to say the words and you’re there, you’re her. So that would be how I approached this one.
BT: Going back to speaking about your scene partners, Anastasia, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kristian Bruun in a role like this.
AJJ: So many crazy, quirky roles. And within the script, he is the happy person, the person who is perhaps the most well adjusted person in their life.
BT: I loved the one scene on the couch where you’re talking about what it means to be happy. The philosophy is so simple and it just clicks.
AP: Right?! I know.
AJJ: It’s refreshing. And I think that actually is the key of the whole movie, really. It’s not that enormous of a scene but if you look at the overall message, it is hidden in that one little scene.
AJJ: What will take care of Cathy later on.
AP: Yeah, and also what it’s like to have a parent who just sees you and sees the child…
AJJ: …you don’t have to do much.
AP: You don’t have to do anything. They’re just appreciating your essential self, that’s it. You just have to be there.
AJJ: Just being lovable.
AP: Yeah. And I think that’s all Cathy ever needed – she needed her Mom to look at her and to see her.
AJJ: Mmm hmm.
AP: Wow. Spoiler alert.
BT: Who are your role models in the industry?
AJJ: Oh wow, I have a lot of them.
AP: I know. Ah, I love Juliette Binoche, Kristin Scott Thomas, Marion Cotillard, Cate Blanchett – these women who are timeless and so strong and so available and have this deep humanity to them. And Meryl, Meryl’s up there too.
AJJ: For me, lately, transitioning from acting into writing and directing, some of the filmmakers that I just love are Jean-Marc Vallée, Noah Baumbach, and then also some of the directors that I’ve worked with in the past such as Larysa Kondracki. I love her, I did a workshop with her. First of all, she directed me on Covert Affairs as an actor, and I thought she was such an amazing director. And then I did a workshop for National Screen Institute, I did this director boot camp, and she came and she talked and I found her very inspiring and grounding.
Tammy’s Always Dying is currently available On Demand and Digital