One day following the world premiere at SXSW, writer-actress Kelly O’Sullivan spoke to Solzy at the Movies about the crowd-pleasing Saint Frances.
Unfortunately, Saint Frances director Alex Thompson wasn’t able to make the interview because of complications with parking in Austin. It was a thrill to attend the world premiere and be able to support Chicago filmmakers on the ground during the SXSW Film Festival.
How did you come up with the idea for Saint Frances?
Kelly O’Sullivan: I was a nanny in my 20s and I thought that was an incredibly rich, bizarre kind of transformative experience for me to grow to love kids who were not my own. I knew that like I knew the job was going to end and I wouldn’t get to spend that much time with them again. I thought that was just rich ground to explore dramatically. When I was in my thirties, I had an abortion and I realized that I didn’t think there were enough depictions of non- traumatic circumstances surrounding abortion. It feels like in TV and film, the decisions really hard to make and women change their minds at the last minute. I wanted to write a story about a woman who doesn’t change her mind—who knows immediately that that’s the choice she’s going to make, and is confident about it and is allowed to explore the more complicated feelings that come as a result of it but that there’s no regret. I thought taking those two nuggets of truth and juxtaposing them and having them both happen in this one summer would be interesting.
I noticed that there were a lot of side effects that came with the abortion.
Kelly O’Sullivan: Yes. The thing that’s funny is truly every woman is different in terms of what the side effects will be. I can only speak to my own experience which is that I did have bleeding that lasted longer than normal. I think it’s actually pretty abnormal. In my life, I went and saw the doctor and they were like, “This is normal. It doesn’t happen that often but you shouldn’t be worried about it.” I made the choice that Bridget doesn’t go see a doctor. She’s too reticent to talk about the experience with anybody so she doesn’t check in with her doctor.
The film was set in Chicago. What do you like about having to show Chicago on the big screen when it feels like so often it’s always New York and LA?
Kelly O’Sullivan: I loved that opportunity because I love Chicago. I’ve lived there a really long time now since I graduated from Northwestern. I think it’s beautiful and especially Chicago in summer is really beautiful. It was really fun to get to show the difference, too, between Chicago—Bridget’s world—and then we shot in Wilmette. The northern suburbs of Chicago have such a neighborhood, wealthy vibe and then getting to show a one-bedroom apartment in Uptown. I thought that was an incredible opportunity to get to show a city that sometimes is overlooked.
I’ve seen quite a few films set in Chicago over the last year and one of them was criminally underappreciated…Widows.
Kelly O’Sullivan: Oh G-d, I loved that movie! I loved seeing—did you see all the Chicago actors in it, too?
Clare Cooney’s head—the back of her head!
Kelly O’Sullivan: The back of Clare’s head! Keith Kupferer was in that movie. I think James Meredith is in that movie briefly so lot of Chicago theater’s staple actors were in it and that was so fun, too.
I noticed you mentioned in the Q & A that you’re more theater-based. How did you decide to audition for like TV roles like in Sirens or even decide to write yourself into this starring role?
Kelly O’Sullivan: I’ve always been interested in TV and film. It just so happened that my career—Chicago has such a vibrant theater scene and theater community that that’s kind of the direction that I started to take. I’ve always been auditioning for whatever TV and film stuff comes through Chicago. When Sirens happened that was so amazing because I got to stay in Chicago. It shot there so getting to like stay in my hometown but also start to have this TV experience was amazing. Now, I love so much working in film and on film. I loved getting to write a screenplay for the first time so I think more and more, I’ll try to do both.
What was the writing process like?
Kelly O’Sullivan: I started writing in January 2018 and then showed Alex the first few pages. He liked them and encouraged me to keep writing. I had to write very quickly because we wanted to shoot it that summer. In order for us to be able to go into preproduction, we had to finish pretty fast. I was just writing like crazy. I think—originally—the script was 200 pages. Knowing that I had to cut 100 of those pages—we also shot a bunch that we didn’t include in the movie. There were 10 speaking roles that we ended up cutting. I kind of overwrote and then we narrowed it down from there.
Do you have a favorite Chicago movie?
Kelly O’Sullivan: Recently, I loved Widows. I really did because I also love Steve McQueen and I love Viola Davis and getting to see a bunch of women being bad asses while showcasing Chicago, I thought that was really amazing. I’m also love Stephen Cone’s movies. I love that he’s he chooses to stay in Chicago. I loved Princess Cyd. I like a lot of homegrown Chicago stuff, too. Do you have a favorite Chicago movie?
The Blues Brothers.
Kelly O’Sullivan: Oh yeah—the classic.
I come from the improv world so I gravitate towards comedies.
Kelly O’Sullivan: You started in improv?
I saw The Second City Touring Company (Blue Co) as a freshman at Bradley University during Welcome Week and later moved to Chicago for Second City in 2009 as the bug bit me. The economy crashed, moved back to Kentucky, and moved back to Chicago in 2016 when I came out as transgender.
Kelly O’Sullivan: Amazing. It feels like so many people moved to Chicago for that reason. It’s this hub of the best improv training you can possibly get.
Kelly O’Sullivan: Are you starting to see—it feels like so many people who come out of there go on to do these amazing things.
Sundance was a reunion for me and a few improv friends that had since moved to LA.
Kelly O’Sullivan: That’s incredible. Once you have that connection, too, of understanding Chicago and coming out of that world, it feels like that connection never goes away.
Yeah. It’s always nice watching friends pop up on TV or film or just see them get these recurring and starring roles.
Kelly O’Sullivan: I love that too. I love being like, “Alright” and then also figuring out, Does that person live in LA now or do they still live in Chicago. It’s kind of like a mixed bag. People live all over.
Did you only study theater at Northwestern or did you try your hand improv at any of the Chicago theaters?
Kelly O’Sullivan: I did improv at Northwestern. They have two different improv teams—at least when I was there. I did improv with Mee-Ow, which was the short improv and then The Titanic Players, which does long-form improv much more like iO. I loved it there and I ended up doing the Second City intensive and iO intensive during the summers. I did the compressed curriculum and I loved it. I just started doing more and more theater and didn’t have time to continue with improv. We used improvisation in Saint Frances. There were a couple of scenes that were just improvised. We especially cast Max Lipchitz, who plays Jace, because he’s such a good improviser. He comes from that world and we knew that he could bring that spontaneity to the movie.