Sundance 2016 Interview: Royalty Hightower And Anna Rose Holmer On THE FITS
Getting dressed for my interview with the director and star of The Fits, one thought kept crossing my mind, "This isn't how one dresses for Royalty."
Royalty, in this case, being the 10 year old breakout star of The Fits. I decided on a white button down, gold fleur de lis lined ascot, and plaid floor length skirt. Royalty seemed mildly impressed. With a poise and candor befitting actresses much older, Royalty drove the delightful interview you see below with the same cunning and charisma she brings to the screen as Toni. Meanwhile, Anna Rose Holmer sat by smiling, only helping when she was needed but comfortable observing in that way truly great directors behave when in the presence of their muse.
ScreenAnarchy: So first of all I'd like to say that this film shifted me in a lot of ways. I grew up in a house full of women and there was a moment when my sister turned 13 when I started to feel like some sort of magic had taken her over, and i feel like that's something I saw a lot in this film. So I wanted to ask...do you guys believe in magic?
Royalty Hightower (RH): Yes.
You do? What kind of magic do you believe in?
RH: This film is magical.
This film IS magical.
Anna Rose Holmer (ARH): We had a lot of crazy magic things happen on this movie too.
What kind of things?
ARH: The first thing that happened was that there was this painting. So, we shot the whole movie in the community center in the west end. And I-you know, this movie is funded by the Venice Bienale--and I walked in and there's a painting of a woman riding a gondola on the wall. So I asked [about it] and no one could explain how the painting got there or who had put it there or what it was. So the day that we cast Royalty we took a picture and later, like 7 months later, we were able to take a gondola ride together in Venice. So there were these things...Royalty found a couple four leaf clovers.
Royalty smiles and nods.
ARH: So yeah, a lot of things aligned in this really special way that give you affirmation that you're doing something special, something magical. We use the word "magical" A LOT around here.
As you should. Something else that was pretty magical about this film was Royalty's performance and I saw another interview you did where you mentioned that all the other girls from the dance team auditioned. So, Anna, what was it about Royalty that drew you to her?
ARH: Well it was pretty immediate. Royalty has this amazing capacity to listen and observe which I think is rare no matter what age you are. She was just like a sponge soaking everything in and what was exciting about her was that she wasn't just listening to me: she was listening to her fellow performers, she was listening to herself, her own body. She was really in tune with the universe in that way. So when I did her first audition I wanted to work with her, collaborate with her. She felt like someone who would challenge me and elevate the quality of the film in ways I couldn't on my own. She was only the 8th girl that we saw audition, and after her I said, "That's it, we have our Toni it's Royalty" and that was it.
Fantastic. Something else I was thinking about while watching this film (to keep with the magic theme....why NOT have a themed interview? Hahaha) was the play THE CRUCIBLE, by Arthur Miller. Specifically the moment when young girls decide to allow themselves to follow and become part of a larger mass; that switch wherein our identities become erased in a way--middle school being the gauntlet where that happens first. When conceiving this, where did the idea come from and were you, too, thinking about the Miller as a device to play with and manipulate?
ARH: Yeah, but for me I really wanted to make a differentiation and say, "Yeah, you can fantasize about that group and strive for that without losing your own identity in the process, and what's beautiful about dance, especially drill, is that there are steps and choreography but it requires solo dancers and individual interpretations of those steps to make it really magical. So, uh, yeah that was really the theme. I wanted to play around with that border between individuality and conformity, and say, "These are not necessarily opposite or exclusive things." Especially when trying to find your own voices because you do look to other people to define who you are and that doesn't necessarily have to be a negative thing. I love my community of filmmakers. I am inspired by them and I am challenged by them and that's not a negative thing that doesn't mean I'm necessarily erasing who I am. (To Royalty) I don't know, what made you want to be one of the Q Kids from the beginning? You wanted that, right?
RH: It was...it was hard, because I was the youngest on the team with all these 15 and 16 year olds. So I was the littlest thing on the team and everyone thought I was just some cute little girl who'd walked in off the street, but I wasn't. And once they saw me dance they realized I already danced just like the older girls. At first it was hard because everyone knew more than me but once I started to get to know everyone it was fun because when you're new you feel like everyone is just staring at you or laughing at you because you don't know the steps. But that wasn't true, everyone, if they see you need help, they will invite you over to their house to learn. That's how sisterly it is. Like we have sleepovers where we just hang out and practice choreography and if you don't know something they'll teach you.
While you were working on the film did you like that you basically got to hang out with your "sisters" all the time? Because one of the things I loved about the movie is that you all lived in a world where adults basically didn't exist in the film.
RH: Yeah! When I got on set I thought I was basically going to be the only one, I thought every day was going to be boring with me not doing nothing. But then, like, everybody just started coming in -- especially Alexis!
ARH: She plays Beezy.
Ah, OK. I loved that. I noticed that...well, your camera work in this film is phenomenal, and you craft a lot of very dense stage pictures constantly. Was that also out of necessity to keep people around Royalty while you filmed some of these really intimate work out scenes and stuff like that?
ARH: Well it was all about how we wanted [Toni's] isolation to be self-imposed. So she's sometimes in a room by herself, but mostly she's in a room with a lot of other people and she feels like she's by herself. So you need other bodies to get that message across. She's like, her isolation is kind of a creation she's made herself. Like Royalty was saying, you think everybody's going to be scary, her idea of who the older kids are is what we are see onscreen more so than who they really are. Everything is from Toni's perspective. I also worked very closely with my D.P., Paul Yee, we did a lot of things to isolate her focally, in terms of composition, but always you needed the other girls or the boxers to tell that story otherwise it wasn't so powerful without the other bodies.
So, I only have two more questions for you guys then I'm gonna let you get out of here, but I have to ask you guys about what I call in my review, "The Rocky Moment."
Oh my god I love that you--
ARH: And her sweatsuit is Rocky!
Yes! Oh my god it's so good! (To a mildly confused Royalty) Have you ever seen ROCKY? Or CREED? Which, yeah, I guess those two are for people much older than you, but Royalty you do such a good job in that scene on the bridge after you do your jumping jacks before you do your dance. What was that like for you? What were you thinking about while you were doing that?
RH: I was thinking that...Toni, she's not used to dancing in front of crowds or anything but she secretly really likes it. So she was picturing a crowd out there watching her dance and it was just her. Only her and it was exciting because everyone was there just to see her. So she was just up there just doing her thing.
ARH: That was, for me, well we call that "the shot" in the film because it -- pretty much the entire story of the film happens within that single shot. It's her transformation, it's her phoenix, it's her transcendence. She blossoms into, the way it's written in the script is: "Toni blossoms into a dancer before your eyes." And it's this thing where...Royalty did this amazing...(To Royalty) It's so nuanced, your performance in that scene. The way she carries herself and the pure joy of dance that explodes from her face. I cried when we filmed it, it was just like, a really special moment.
I definitely cried while I watched it.
(Royalty giggles and looks off, hiding her face)
ARH: Rocky was a reference for us. That's why we put her in the jumpsuit and on the stairs... (Royalty sinks down into her seat. Anna Rose Holmer smiles and looks at Royalty's mother) I think Royalty wants to say hi to her new friend. Can she just--
Go go go.
ARH: She hasn't been starstruck really yet, so this is amazing.
(Royalty runs over to Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers, the stars of Southside With You and begins to melt. The fangirling is mutual as Tika reaches down and gives Royalty a big hug and tells her how excited she is for The Fits.)
Royalty's Mother: We have two episodes in the DVR of The Haves and the Have Nots (a show on OWN starring Tika)
(After pictures are taken and Instagram handles are passed back and forth, Royalty returns to the couch beside me, flushed and excited.)
OK, Royalty, so here's my last question. I heard a rumor on a bus that when Anna Rose took you to a certain agency they asked you what type of film you'd most like to be in and you said a horror movie and that CHILD'S PLAY is your favorite movie. So if you got a chance to pitch a producer an idea for a horror movie starring you what would you pitch?
ARH: Yes. This is awesome.
You want to be in a CHILD'S PLAY reboot?
RH: (nodding vigorously) Yes!
Wow. Ok. You heard it here first. I can't imagine a better lead for it.