THE GIRL WITH THE RED HAIR
An Interview with Casey Hartnett Lead In ”The Girl With The Red Hair”and Writer/Director Anthony M. Laura
BY ROBERT MASSIMI
When did you start acting?
CH: I started taking professional acting classes with a community theater in a Chicago suburb when I was 11. Before that, I acted in elementary school plays. In third grade, I played Uranus in our planet play because Uranus spins on its side and I could do a cartwheel. In 5th grade, I played Thomas Edison’s childhood neighbor who he convinced that birds could fly because they eat worms, so naturally I brought gummy worms onstage for the performance.
When did you first know you wanted to act professionally?
CH: I knew I wanted to act when I was five, but in high school it came down to choosing between dance and theater. When I was 16, I was cast in my first lead role in a play so I had to miss nearly all of my weeknight dance classes. I was competing with my dance studio’s company, so I was dancing every day of the week. My ballet teacher ended up kicking me out of our ballet dance for missing too many classes, and the next year I decided not to return to the studio and chose a life-long commitment to the theater instead.
What inspired you to write this story?
AL: I wanted to open up the conversations we have about various mental illnesses and the stigmas that surround them. When it comes to suicide, depression and, in particular, sex addiction, we tend to often see stories that romanticize those situations. I wanted to take a more raw approach, to bring the audience inside Hayley’s head and experience her trauma, as well as her happiness. It was always important to find a way to have Hayley’s journey be an experience that would be different live than filmed. When we’re all together in the room, feeling the highs and lows, breathing the same air, there’s a connection and understanding that surpasses any other medium.
What was your initial response when you read the script?
CH: I loved it. I was just incredibly humbled that Anthony had trusted me with a role like this, and I didn’t quite understand the depth of what that meant until I had read the script and met Hayley. I knew I cared about her and what all of these people were going through right off the bat, and I felt an empathetic connection in wanting to protect her and take of care of her.
How did you prepare for this role?
CH: I watched a lot of movies and videos about mental health disorders and read a lot of interviews and biographical accounts of people who have lived with (some not surviving) their specific disease. Girl, Interrupted, Sylvia Plath, and the play 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane played significant roles in my preparation.
What was your vision for the play?
AL: To tell this story as intimately as possible. I also really wanted to play with silences and feel the moments in between the dialogue. Each character has such an important story that it was important for me to spend enough time with each of them for the audience to understand everyone’s individual struggles.
What was important to you about this play and this role?
CH: Learning how to understand the misunderstood; or at least respecting what someone else is going through if actually understanding it is impossible. I get very protective over characters who are misunderstood by everyone else in the play to the extent that I feel an inclination to humanize the character in such a way that at least the audience will understand them, if the other characters can’t. Breaking the stigmas surrounding mental health and survivors of sexual abuse and being a part of a narrative that can potentially help do that has been very important to me.
Where did the character of Hayley emerge from?
AL: Hayley was an amalgamation of many different women I knew over the years who forced me to look at life differently. I grew up around a diverse group of women who always stood up for what they believed, who helped me through my own traumas by never making me feel alone. Yet, as I got older, I realized how much they were suffering in their own lives but never showed it and I found that even more remarkable that they were able to change the lives of people around them while going through such inner turmoil. Messiness always fascinates me and that’s the main characteristic I love about Hayley. She’s messy and unapologetic.
Can you speak about the similarities and differences you discovered between yourself and Hayley?
CH: This question is tough, because when preparing for something so emotionally involved, I feel like I’ve brought a lot of who I am into the work and related it to Hayley. I have never experienced a mental illness in real life to the degree that Hayley has, and I’ve never been diagnosed or admitted into a hospital, but I’ve definitely had anxiety attacks and I’ve experienced low points where I felt too depressed or anxious to leave my apartment, or had to give myself more time before leaving. I’ve had negative sexual experiences that left me feeling very alone and embarrassed and have caused me to test my trust in dating and relationships. I’m not sure if this is something that I brought to the character or if it’s obvious in the writing, but I think Hayley and I are both a bit stubborn and outspoken. Hayley’s anger is much more outward than my own, though. I don’t get loud or aggressive in my anger, so playing characters with these huge angry outbursts has always been a bit scary for me. I’m a very calm, quiet, reserved person so I’ve done a lot of work with myself as an actor to allow that side of me to show onstage.
Can you speak about how the cast related to each other in such an ensemble driven work?
CH: Everyone in the cast was so supportive of one another. Obviously, this is a tough piece and each character is going through their own stuff; whether it’s dealing with their own mental illness or personal issues in life in general. Every character is going through something. The environment throughout the entire process from table read to rehearsal to performance was just very supportive and empathetic for what everyone was working through with their characters. We all cared about these people.
Can you speak about working with each other and how that collaborative process worked?
AL: I was quite fortunate that Casey came on board to play Hayley. I’ve worked with her on a few different projects now and there is a unique understanding and depth she brings to her work. She’s one of the hardest working actors I know. It was an incredible experience as a writer and director watching Hayley come to life under her care. Her empathy, not only for her character, but for how much she cares about the other characters and their journeys is what makes her an incredible actor and collaborator.
CH: Working with Anthony has been great because he is truly an actor’s director. He only gives notes when necessary and allows the actors to work through the emotional life of their characters bit by bit and truly discover who this person is in finding their own connection and instincts within the piece. He trusts his actors, and that’s huge in allowing an actor to grow into their character. Anthony told me he wasn’t expecting to see Hayley’s sense of humor come out in such an intense story, but he never told me to put it away; he let it be because that’s who I am and restraining those natural instincts in an actor only hinders one's performance. It’s a gift to work with a team so open to collaborating, to learn from and bounce ideas off of one another.
The play deals with several different mental illnesses, including bi-polar disorder, hypersexuality and depression, some of which are rarely talked about. What kind of attention do you hope that brings to people who are suffering alone?
CH: I really hope this play allows those who feel utterly misunderstood by their mental illness to feel less alone. I hope this play gives someone, anyone, the comfort of knowing that there are others out there who are going through the same thing they are; that there are people who care and are working to see this topic in a less stigmatized light by opening the conversation and humanizing mental health rather than constraining it to being an ugly illness that is shameful, embarrassing, and abnormal. It is so normal to go through periods of time where you don’t feel so great, but it's the way we treat those periods of time that is what we need to do better with. We need to stop blaming others for whatever trauma caused them to become a certain way. We need more empathy and we need to learn how to reach out to those who may be struggling in an effective way rather than a hurtful way or ignoring them all together.
AL: I hope it empowers anyone who is suffering to find the courage to speak out with no fear and an open heart. Certain words or phrases still carry negative connotations and we need to change that narrative. It’s our responsibility to anyone who was sexually abused, to anyone suffering with a mental illness that may or may not make sense to them, to anyone who needs to heard, to listen and learn. I also hope we can all start to understand that the road to helping others begins with opening ourselves up to experiences that are foreign to us. I think it’s difficult, especially with people close to us, to understand their suffering because we long for them to be happy. One theme the play goes into is that no one is immune to suffering and trauma, and it doesn’t make us stronger or healthier than someone else because it hasn’t happened to us. If we can keep spreading love and gratitude, we can help anyone heal faster.
Why bipolar disorder?
AL: I think there's still a lot of stigma and misinformation attached to bipolar disorder. Sometimes the signs can still remain hidden. It can be confused with depression or hyperactivity, but it goes deeper than that. It effects over 3 million people per year and there’s no cure. We need to be talking about that. We have to educate each other about the signs of manic episodes vs. depressive episodes and how we need be careful with our diagnoses.
At the end of the play, after we experience Hayley’s rebirth, Hayley is faced with returning down the same path in her opposition against medication and treatment or to start fresh. Though the play never specifically tells you how to feel in regards to treatment, this is the moment I hope people remember, that we are in charge of ourselves and need to be courageous in perilous times, whether that means asking for help or taking a leap of faith and trusting others.
Often, when we feel low or controlled, we isolate and remove ourselves. That’s something I’ve always struggled with through the years, the ability to ask for assistance or to be around people instead of keeping to myself. How often do we think people feel a certain way about us, when we realize it all exists in our head? Once Hayley realizes the power of connection, friendship and love (including self-love), she becomes the superhero she always knew she was capable of being.
Hayley goes through a gamut of emotions throughout the play. Infact, for most of the play, you never leave the stage. Can you talk about the progression of Hayley's disease in real time and how you navigated that?
CH: This was something Anthony and I took time to sit down and talk about. Cycling through the highs and lows of the disease took some time to figure out, but the majority of it is already in the writing. The progression of the disease begins fairly calmly then spirals through points of manic highs and depressive lows towards a total loss of control at the end of the first act. The second act comes back in a calmed down state, but Hayley also hits rock bottom in the second act. Anthony and I worked on taking enough time with the transitions between each scene, because those are the key moments in moving truthfully from a manic episode of screaming into a low with the complete loss of energy as an effect of that episode,or going from crying to a more leveled out and calm emotional state. So living out those transitional moments onstage in a truthful manner depended on allowing the proper amount of time between scenes to do so. Of course, in some scenes the emotional stability changes very quickly in one beat, and that comes from my emotional preparation of knowing Hayley’s past traumas and what her personal emotional triggers are that cause her to get upset so quickly.
One aspect that hit home was being able to capture the need of happiness for these people that always seemed just out of grasp. Can you talk about that?
AL: Well, I think that’s the main struggle with anyone who suffers from any addiction or mental illness, the desire for happiness and release. Part of the reason the Eve story is so important to me is because of that very reason. Eve’s sexual addiction comes from a place of loneliness, each encounter leaving her unsatisfied, yet her joy always seems within reach to her. I don’t think there’s anything more frustrating than that.
In regards to Hayley, Casey navigates her search for happiness with such precision, that in those small moments, you catch glimpses of her pain of not being able to achieve it and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. It’s not always about crying when we feel our pain, it comes upon us suddenly and we aren’t prepared for that.
The relationship between Watkins and Hayley was at the core of the play. What made that dynamic so interesting to explore as a director?
AL: Honestly, that was because of Casey and Vivien. As actors, they are painstakingly honest and truthful with each other in every moment and it’s phenomenal to watch.
Watkins and Hayley are one of the relationships that people remember. Watkins has met her match with Hayley. That’s what’s so thrilling to watch. The characters challenge each other, test each other and never back down. Yet, underneath, there’s a respect there. It reinforces the theme of every character wanting to be heard and understood, and this applies even to the people in charge. The respect and support Vivien and Casey have for each other while they work translates right onto the stage.
In the second act, we find out that Hayley was sexually molested. Can you speak about Hayley's experience and her strength as a survivor of such abuse?
CH: Hayley was very young, only nine years old, when she was sexually molested by a family member. Over time, her mother didn’t believe her and she was blamed for “ruining” their family. At such a young age, sexual abuse is so hard to understand. And the silence around an event like that so often leads to depression, anxiety, whatever. Hayley was admitted to the psychiatric hospital for a suicide attempt and, for me, I don’t think Hayley had a firm grasp on the reason why she felt so depressed to the point of thinking she couldn't live any longer. She just did. And it was a pain so severe that she didn’t want to have to live with it any longer. Of course, she lived, and in the hospital she’s uncomfortably navigating the sexualities of other patients as well as her own. She tries to be intimate with another patient, but her depression has caused her to become so numb to it and she gets triggered very easily when someone touches her without her permission, that sex feels off the table in perpetuity. And that’s a very frustrating thing to have to deal with; if you’re physically attracted to someone but mentally cannot be intimate with them. But Hayley ultimately makes the decisions for herself about when to cut her interactions with others short if she needs to.
What was discovered during the rehearsal process?
CH: It took me awhile in the rehearsal process to understand a certain facet of Hayley’s relationship with Eve (a woman struggling with sex addiction), that finally near the end of rehearsals I had a moment during a run of the show where all of the sexual abuse and family trauma came flooding into me all at once and I realized how much Hayley was actually misinterpreting Eve based her own stigmas about sex. In that moment, as Hayley, I felt so guilty for not understanding that Eve’s sexuality was not actually all that fun for her. In general, though, the relationships between all of the characters grew so much during the rehearsal process that new discoveries were made every day as we dove further and further into these people’s psyches. The longer we rehearsed with one another, the more we opened up to what living in one hospital ward with each other for days on end would really be like.
What can we look forward to in the next iteration of the play?
AL: As we move forward with workshops, one of my main focuses is in exploring even more of Hayley’s inner life and how the disease is effecting her mind, both through music and emotions. Philip Lauto, our incredible composer, was able to create a beautiful soundscape in the version of the play we just staged, and those moments in between scenes that Casey brilliantly navigated were enhanced by that atmosphere. This time, I want to continue to play with the score, as well as how lyrical songs play into Hayley’s world.
Any time you have the opportunity to revisit characters and spend more time with them by going deeper, it’s an exhilarating experience. I’m very excited to dive in with the actors and learn or relearn who these characters truly are.
As you move ahead with Hayley, eyeing a December run, what excites you about the process?
CH: I have a long list of books to read still, and I’m hoping to speak with some people about mental health in person, so I’m really looking forward to continuing my research and learning more about bipolar disorder and what’s really going on in Hayley’s mind to bring as much truth as possible into living and breathing her air onstage.
- Robert Massimi
July 29, 2019