Interview by Bears Fonte
Toronto, one of the hot beds of filming in North America that hasn’t had a musical made about it, has been supplying US audiences with great genre films and actors for years. However, the last place I expected to discover a Canadian up-and-comer was in the pastoral gothic thriller AMERICAN FABLE. Set sometime in the 1980s in rural America, writer/director Anne Hamilton’s debut captures the anxiety of a family living under the threat of losing their farm. At the heart of it is a sparkling, nuanced performance from Peyton Kennedy, who plays Gitty, the eleven-year-old girl who discovers her parents have kidnapped the developer trying to buy the farm and have imprisoned him in a grain silo. Trapped in an impossible moral quandary, Gitty finds herself pulled between loyalty to her father and to what she knows to be right, especially after she befriends the mysterious businessman. The film was without a doubt the strongest narrative at SXSW last year, and Kennedy delivered the most memorable performance of the entire festival. Pretty solid for your American debut.
“I was reading the Harry Potter books as the same time I was watching the movies,” recalls Peyton Kennedy on her decision to pursue acting at a (very) young age, “I was reading the books and all the descriptions about the magical things, and then I’d watch the movie and see them all come to life. This light bulb went off in my head and I realized these actors get to take the words off the page and turn them into the movie, so I really fell in love with that.” Kennedy told her mother this was what she wanted to do at age seven and in two months, she booked her first job. Working out of Toronto, she has a rep in both countries and comes down every year for pilot season in February or March, or sends tapes in for auditions. All told, she has been in the ‘grind’ for five years now.
For AMERICAN FABLE, Kennedy went out in August 2014 and met director Hamilton for the first time and auditioned. “I met her and then it didn’t work out,” she says, “I was too young for it.” In 2015, the project came around again and the young actress, who the loved the role, sent in a self-tape, skyped with the director, and booked the role. She admits: “Anne (Hamilton) told me, ‘you were too young for it then. If we would wait another year, you would have been too old for it.’ It was perfect timing.”
Kennedy’s regular gig in Toronto is a children’s show called THE ODD SQUAD, which she booked when she was ten. “It’s really just a fun set. Like 95% of it is all kids,” she says, “The set has slides and a ball pit. It’s just such a casual and fun area to hang around in, but you’re also working at the same time.” Kennedy plays Dr. O, a stern straightforward leader in the crime solver’s headquarters who constantly reminds people she is a doctor (somewhat like a certain Star Trek medical officer.) “She’s a crazy character and I love playing her,” says Kennedy, “I think it’s very important as an actor to have a broad spectrum of what you’re capable of.”
To that point, Kennedy has a trio of films playing in cinemas (and on VOD) right now, all lying somewhat under the heading of genre. In addition to AMERICAN FABLE, she stars in Ed Gass-Donnelly’s ghost story LAVENDER (released on VOD and in Theaters March 3rd by Samuel Goldwyn), and in one of the segments of female-driven horror anthology XX (released on to theaters and on VOD Feb 17th).
In XX, Jovanka Vuckovic directed the opening segment, THE BOX, based on a short story by Jack Ketchum. The most effective film in the collection, the tension-laden film plays like an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and follows a family that comes across an old man on a train who offers to let their son look inside his red box. Kennedy plays Jenny, whose brother confides in her (but not the audience) what is in the box, leading to strange disinterest in food. “I really like ours because the horror part of it is the suspense and what’s about to happen,” she says, “you never know what’s going to happen. That’s what I really loved filming it.” With a story centered around the dining room table, a lot of the film involved scenes of eating (or not eating). “Yeah I ate a lot in that film. I remember Peter [DaCunha], who played Danny, was super jealous because I got to do all the eating,” Kennedy recalls, “One night, he just looked at me and I had all the food. He was so jealous. It was so much fun.”
Working with Vuckovic, who also served as the Associate Producer on the entire XX anthology, Kennedy learned the power of restraint in this film. Unlike most horror films, in XX we don’t even see anybody being scared. “It leaves the viewer to think, ‘what do you think is inside the box?’ And, like AMERICAN FABLE, also has an ending where it makes you think and makes you question what you think happened.” For her part, Vuckovic never told her young actors what was in the box. “What you see is different from what everyone else sees,” Kennedy says the director told her, “and that’s what makes you scared about what happens in the film.”
Working with Vuckovic, and with Anne Hamilton on American Fable, Kennedy may have gotten a little spoiled, having two of her first major film experiences being with a female director. Certainly on XX, the excitement of doing a female-directed anthology was contagious. “I was really, really proud of being in a film with all female directors and female writers,” she says, “It was really great to work with someone who wrote and directed the thing because she really knows what her vision is and what she wants it to be like.”
AMERICAN FABLE rises to the top because the story comes from this same non-traditional perspective, as Anne Hamilton crafts a knotted trip back to faded nostalgia, both in setting and character. Gitty, at the ledge of adolescence, discovers the adults aren’t playing by the moral rules they set for themselves and her. The whole thing constricts to climax in a surprising elevation of character and theme. I can’t help but fear a male director would allow the tale to devolve into gunplay and violence. The film is simply one of the most surprising and well-executed allegories in indie film. It’s hard to describe. Part thriller, part drama, part parable, part coming-of-age tale, AMERICAN FABLE captures a purity of age and place seldom seen in film.
Strangely, LAVENDER is also set against the rural and nostalgic backdrop of a farm in the 1980s. “The farms both set me at ease,” she says. In the film, Abbie Cornish plays a woman tortured by visions that keep intruding on her present from a forgotten past on a farm that her psychiatrist suggests she revisit. Kennedy plays the young version of Cornish’s character. Kennedy’s performance is particularly strong despite having no lines. “I do like dark material!” she admits, “I’ve never really been scared of many things. I watch THE WALKING DEAD, I watched FRINGE with my mom when I was littler. I’ve never really been scared of things like that so it actually entices me to be in a film that’s darker.”
When she’s not filming, she’s very much like any other Toronto teen. “I do feel like I have two separate lives,” the actress admits, “I don’t really talk about it at school, much. I don’t want to brag and I don’t want people to treat me differently because of it.” She took her friends to the Canadian premiere of LAVENDER, but mostly when she’s home, it’s home, hanging with friends and buying CDs. “Everyone makes fun of me,” she laughs, “they’re like, ‘oh you buy CDs?’ But my mom and I listen to them when we go to LA, when we go to auditions. It really pumps me up for the audition.”
BEARS: What did you listen to on the way to the AMERICAN FABLE audition?
KENNEDY: Maybe some Pearl Jam—we like their new stuff!
BEARS: Do you like Pearl Jam or does Mom like Pearl Jam?
KENNEDY: I do! I really do! I have their new CD.
Peyton Kennedy is a delight to talk with and someone who seems ready to tackle anything. “I’d like to write and direct eventually,” she admits, “I’ve always liked creative writing.” She has several projects in post-production, but you can catch AMERICAN FABLE, XX and LAVENDER all right now on VOD.