It’s your typical love story: girl meets boy, girl is uninterested in boy, girl meets girl, girls falls in love with girl, girl and girl sneak around behind the back of girl’s husband, girl spurns girl, girl leaves girl to join the army, girl returns home on leave and attempts to process complex, conflicting feelings about girl. Jeez, Hollywood, get some new ideas!
There’s nothing typical and nothing Hollywood about AWOL, a raw and emotionally resonant indie that debuted this past weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival. As Joey, a tomboy with plans to get out of her declining Pennsylvania hometown even if it means enlisting in the Armed Forces, Lola Kirke provides the same mixture of innocence and savvy that helped her elevate Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle to the big leagues of TV. As Rayna, the fading beauty that catches Joey’s eye, Breeda Wool (of unREAL fame) builds up and quickly destroys the audiences’ hope for the film’s central romance several times over, all without ever losing the viewer’s faith in her character. But both young women make mincemeat out of roles so demanding that the lesbian sex scenes barely crack the film’s top five most intense sequences.
The leading ladies took time during a busy day of Tribeca press to sit down with us for a conversation about the silent politics of AWOL, learning to empathize with your fellow human being, and a particularly touching bar mitzvah.
Hey, how’s your day been?
Breeda Wool: I went to an incredible bar mitzvah earlier and I’m going back tonight, for a sweet boy named Dakota Williams. He gave a speech about working for the gay-straight alliance at his middle school, and he feels like it’s important to stand up for LGBT teenagers in his community. He hates bullies, and he wanted to let the community know that there’s lots of people who stand by them. I was so deeply moved by that.
So it’s safe to say that the topics covered in AWOL are very close to your heart?
Wool: Oh, yes, absolutely.
This is an intensely intimate film. Did you two know one another prior to this production? What was the process of getting comfortable around one another like?
Lola Kirke: We had met in the casting process. On set, you have so much time to spend with people and develop relationships, especially if you get along, and we really did.
Wool: We both have two older sisters, powerful mamas.
Kirke: We weren’t living in close quarters or anything. But it’s at least a 12-hour working day, and if you’re an actor, you spend a lot of time waiting for things to happen. You have a lot of downtime. I think there’s a similar disposition that goes into being an actor. It was Breeda’s third time being on a film set, my first time spending an extensive amount of time on a film set, and Breeda made me feel so comfortable, and so looked out for. She told me what would be right, what wouldn’t, and [joke-blubbering] I just love you so much.
Wool: I remember, it was really magical. There was a serendipity to us being in this movie together, for sure, but I also think that when you’re asked to be in love with somebody, you look at them with this… I don’t know. Look, anybody can be in love with anybody. You look at the possibility of somebody’s life and say, “For this moment, I’m going to be open with this human being.” Going into things with an openness, and a willingness, lots of love can happen in any situation. If there’s not a lot of ego caught up — and Lola really serves the story first — things can be perfect.
There are scenes that require you to go to what might be uncomfortable places personally. If there’s this warmth and comfort between the two of you, did it feel unnatural to keep up a tumultuous relationship onscreen?
Kirke: I mean, you just do your job. Acting is a weird thing to do. People who don’t want to do it think you’re fucking crazy to want to do it, to want to simulate heartbreak, like, “What a bummer of a feeling that is, why would you want to make a movie about it?” It’s a bizarre craft.
Wool: I have a competition in myself. The harder something is, the badder I want to nail the triple-axle, double-dive or whatever. There are a lot of people who have built this platform, and that makes you want to stick the landing even worse, even if you’re freezing. Story is king, and so you try to make it about that, and not your personal feelings about a situation.
Apart from a couple scenes in which Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is mentioned, this isn’t an explicitly political film. Do you still believe the film has a partisan stance on the hot-button issues of LGBT rights or military action?
Kirke: I think something the film does really well is embed these economic landscape into the love story. The drama of the love story comes from the circumstance these women are both in, their positions in the world. I don’t think this film is saying that our characters should be together, by any means. I don’t think that they should, either, as a viewer of the film. But I think it shows a realistic portrait of what happens when you come from this background. Both women are very much products of their environment.
Wool: One of the most political things you can do is show somebody something they wouldn’t have seen otherwise. That’s the political nature of art in general. Watching a portrait of another person is inherently active. The process of empathizing with a character like this — that we don’t see very much at all, though this is a real person that exists and not a stereotype — forces the audience to emotionally access this. The style of filmmaking that Deb has accomplished, its intimacy, you get to know the character of Joey in a sensual way, and that alone is political. The fact that it’s not overtly political gives people the opportunity to experience something without judgement.
Kirke: One of the most humorous parts of the film for me was when Joey goes out to dinner with the girls who are out in college. Seeing the politicization and the intellectualization of who she is, as something that can be foolish, it was funny to see how precocious they are about sexuality.
To them, it’s all just ideas and concepts, but your character is living it.
Kirke: Exactly. And they are, as well, but there’s a major privilege to being out and not being totally stigmatized by it. My character didn’t entirely have that.
Do you think the film would be changed in any meaningful way if your characters were both men? Do you think stories about women in love are different than stories about men in love?
Kirke: I think this would be a powerful film if it were about men, as well, but there’s something about women that’s just different from men.
Wool: My character represents a very political portrait of the decay of the American housewife. I have no education, no options, and ultimately, she’s subservient to the people who take care of her. Women in poor rural communities land in that position, and because of this class divide, they can be forgotten by society. The specificity of being a woman is a part of her learned helplessness. This is imposed on women. If I was a man, I’d have a certain power and privilege to earn, so I could have different choices with my kids, my lovers, altogether. I wouldn’t have to be under any caretaker. There’s no dependency there. Though I’m sure there are men suffering in this same condition, I think it’s mostly a female issue.
Rayna goes between a physical relationship with Joey and her husband, and she flirts with the patrons at the bar, exhibiting this notion of sexual fluidity. Is ignorance of concepts like these, in rural communities and elsewhere, more to blame for a lack of empathy than simple bigotry?
Wool: Personally, I think education and dialogue makes a tremendous difference in anyone’s capability to make choices. Education is the cure to all things, right? With education, you have the ability to say I should be equal, or I should be free, or I should have my rights. Rural communities can be very educated, of course. But if there’s no infrastructure because of the government, with allocation of funds and cutbacks and everything, then that’s not possible. You see this running along racial lines, too. I like to think back on Harvey Milk. You go out, talk to people, meet people, and anybody who has an interaction with someone unlike them can learn something from that exposure.