Erin Darke and director Keith Boynton, left, on the set of “Seven Lovers.”
By Danny Peary
I recently spent an enjoyable afternoon in Little Italy, in the basement party room of the restaurant Grotta Azzurra. I wasn’t there to dine but to watch the final day of shooting of the indie Seven Lovers, the much-anticipated third feature of writer-director Keith Boynton, and to speak to the leading lady and rising star, Erin Darke. Last year in the acclaimed Kill Your Darlings, Darke made a big impression in the small role of the sexually-forward librarian, Gwendolyn, who has an odd, memorable encounter with the 100% gay Allen Ginsburg (played by her current boyfriend, Daniel Radcliffe.) Darke’s screen time was too brief in Darlings, but as Laura in Seven Lovers, she is in almost every scene. Having read the script, I know Laura is a difficult part to play, even to get one’s bearings. Boynton (the sleeper Chasing Home, the sci-fi thriller The Now, and numerous music videos, including a super current one for Alison Krauss’s “End of a Summer Storm”) can be counted on for innovation and his new film jumps back and forth between seven storylines, past and present–one for each lover of his troubled protagonist Laura—and is shot in seven different styles. One storyline is animated. The scene I witnessed on the cramped set was in black-and-white, like from an atmospheric forties movie. At a dinner table, the elegantly-dressed Laura has her heart broken by the first of her seven screen lovers, Dan, when he informs her that he is married. Boynton shot the scene from different angles and each time the young actress reacted as if she were hearing Dan’s brutal words for the first time. Even the crew looked increasingly sad. Afterward, Darke brushed away the tears, slipped into something more comfortable, and was in a cheery mood as we sat outside on Mulberry Street and had this conversation.
Danny Peary: You’re from Flint, Michigan, like Michael Moore. Are you the only two from there in motion pictures?
Erin Darke: There’s one other, Evan Peters of American Horror Story, who’s from Grand Blanc, about ten minutes away. I think we’re the three! He’s a couple of years younger than me and I don’t remember meeting him but it’s very possible we took classes together at the Flint Youth Theatre, where we both went. They did shows and had classes and for Michigan, it was an amazing educational environment for a kid.
DP: I read that you were in a Christmas show, “Visions of Sugarplums.”
ED: Yeah, it was a blacklight Christmas show that–secretly–I think they may have ripped off from The Black Light Theatre in Prague. Because I went to Prague later and saw one of their shows and was thinking, “Wait, this is weirdly similar.” We were all dressed in black and carrying brightly-colored props. I had no lines so it’s still crazy when I think about it but that was when I decided I wanted to be an actor!
DP: Why do you think that was?
ED: I think for me at a young age, it was the magic of creating something and the interaction that you have with an audience. You spend a great deal of time creating something and then you get to share it–so the audience becomes part of your performance, influencing your reactions and your energy. I often remember how the Youth Theatre was such a nurturing environment and made art and the creative process seem so cool, so warm, and so welcoming.
DP: Did you need that?
ED: I went to small private schools growing up, and then I was home-schooled from seventh grade on, so doing theater was sort of my social life as a teenager–that’s where most of my friends were. The kids there were all very creative and artistic and it was the first time I ever met gay people my age who were out and comfortable with themselves. There was something just so magical about all of that.
DP: In anyone else in your family in the theater?
ED: My dad’s a computer programmer, my mom is a nurse, and my brother works for an insurance company. There’s nothing artistic about what they do. I’m a bit of an anomaly in my family. They don’t really understand what I do or why I do it, but they’ve always been incredibly supportive. My dad is a big kid, which makes him awesome as a dad. He just loves the Three Stooges and Weird Al, whom I saw in concert like three times because my dad was such a fan when I was growing up. My mother was very into the arts and she had let me try every sort of fine arts/ music/performing class growing up. I don’t know if I would be where I am now if she hadn’t always stressed the importance of creativity in life.
DP: What path did you take to become a professional actress?
ED: I went to the University of Michigan, the Flint campus. I was sixteen when I started there and it was very personal and exactly what I needed. It certainly wouldn’t mean a lot in the movie industry, but I received a great education. I moved to New York from Michigan and I was doing off-off Broadway plays that nobody went to for a really long time, and couldn’t figure out how to get to the next level. I was making a living bartending and waiting tables for lots of years. Then I took an internship at a casting office, Chrystie Street Casting, to learn about the other side of the business. They were like, “Hey, you’re great at this,” and after about six months I was working full-time for them as an assistant in casting. For a couple of directors, Lynne Ramsay and Jason Reitman, I was the reader for all of their auditions, and they were like, “I’m going to put you in my film.” That’s how I got my first couple of small roles in good big films.
DP: You got cast in films through your own casting agency?
ED: Yeah, like We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne’s film. That was the first job I did on a film. I was doing the reading for all the auditions when Lynne put me in her film as Tilda Swinton’s assistant. I think I ended up with only one line in the film, although I had a few lines when we filmed.
DP: And what about Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, another super indie film you were in?
ED: Yeah, that was another one. I read Charlize Theron’s part at all of the auditions during casting, which was an incredible amount of fun. I’d been a huge fan of Jason’s so it was very exciting to be in it. It was a great movie. I’ve been listed as being in Wolverine, but I’m not. It’s horrible that I still haven’t watched it because we spent such a long time casting it.
DP: Has acting in movies always been what you wanted to do?
ED: Film is my dream job. I have loved film since I was a twelve-year obsessively reading Entertainment Weekly cover-to-cover in Michigan, and I’ve been lucky the last few years, since I got an agent, to get to do a lot of amazing film work. Most is not out yet, including a film I shot last summer called Love and Mercy, a biopic of Brian Wilson in which I play his first wife. So I’ve had small parts in big movies and bigger parts in small movies for the last three or four years.
DP: The movie where you caught everyone’s attention in a minor part was Kill Your Darlings, as Gwendolyn. How were you cast?
ED: I had gotten an agent and was auditioning at other casting offices as well as Chrystie Street Casting at that point. For Kill Your Darlings I got cast off tape through Laura Rosenthal Casting. I always like to mention the casting director because it’s such an important yet undervalued and rarely acknowledged job in the industry. I loved working on that film. And I loved the director, John Krokidas.
DP: What do you remember most about working with him?
ED: The first time I met John was when I went in for a costume fitting. I didn’t have a huge part in the film and I was, admittedly, a bit intimidated by the actors involved, but John immediately made me feel like a part of the cast. John is a wonderful director to work with because he loves actors. He gives you a lot of room to play and find things in the scenes, but you always know he has a vision and there is that safety net there. John is also so excited and passionate about his work that when working with him it’s impossible not to feel the same.
DP: He cast a number of actors who were on the cusp of moving forward in their movie careers. That included you and Daniel Radcliffe, who was a surprising choice to play Allen Ginsburg and turned out to be perfect in the part.
ED: Yeah, he was wonderful. The whole cast was so talented and incredibly kind and welcoming.
DP: So where does Seven Lovers fit in for you? What are you looking for at this point?
ED: This is my first lead in a feature. Obviously I was looking for the challenge more than anything. Laura is in every scene but the animated sequence and one other scene, in which a man she’s interested in, Brian, does a video monologue that he will send to her. That monologue was filmed on the one day during the shoot where I got to leave early and go to an audition. I obviously always want to work [and don't like turning down roles], but I loved Keith’s script and wanted to do it. I thought it was really cool and unlike anything I’d ever read before. Considering how much I read, it’s an increasingly rare feeling I get when something original. Obviously I was coming at it from an actor’s standpoint, thinking this would be unbelievable to play because I’d get to do so many different things in so many different worlds and styles. As an actor I was drawn to that. That was initially what I thought of.
DP: Did Daniel Radcliffe read the script?
ED: He didn’t read the script but he later ran lines with me, not chronologically but in the order of our shooting. So for him, Seven Lovers is this weird Memento-esque movie. He’s still trying to piece together all the storylines.
DP: Did you have to read the script a second time?
ED: The animation part, yes. I read it the first time initially before I auditioned but it’s different reading the script for an audition than reading it when I have the part. I have to really figure out what’s happening and justify it.
DP: When you read it, did you have an emotional response? Did you think you could relate to what your character, Laura, experiences?
ED: I think everybody who’s had their heart broken for the first time can relate. For me it certainly wasn’t because of a married guy, but it’s that same general feeling. It’s the loss of innocence in a relationship, when you trust something so much and then you discover that you had no idea and have the feeling of being totally blindsided. It’s only once in your life when that happens, when you’re in a place of complete innocence and there is no guard up and the rug is pulled out from underneath you. I think I found the script weirdly relatable. I’m in a place at the moment where I’m in a happy relationship and my life has gone past where Laura’s is in the scene we’re filming today, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t so many moments and feelings that I can relate to.
DP: I read an early version of Keith Boynton’s script, and I thought it was essential for people to fall in love with Laura, as much as he does. Reading the script, did you fall in love with her, or did you think you had to do something extra to make people fall in love with her?
ED: I try really hard to not get attached to parts you audition for because if I don’t get them it’s a really heart-breaking experience. But I fell in love with Laura. Obviously there are some storylines of Laura’s life that I love more than other storylines, but I think all seven storylines show the process of growing up and being in relationships. I’m sure if I looked back at myself at various times in my life, I’d think, “Oh, gosh, you should have stood up for yourself a bit more there, honey.” So I think I was immediately drawn to the different people Laura is as she’s grows up and learns about herself. Also I was drawn to the way Keith’s different visual styles for each storyline support that. I feel there’s a strong correlation between the visual style of each one and where Laura is in her life.
DP: How does the animated sequence fit in?
ED: I feel like the animated story reveals Laura’s general relationship with herself and her viewpoint on men during that whole time. It’s in a different world and isn’t a specific relationship in Laura’s life, but I think it’s part of the process most women go through in their search for men. As a young girl, I know there’d be the good guy there, and I’d not be interested and go for the bad guy. It’s not until you’ve been fucked over a little bit that you’re able to recognize the beauty of what it is to have someone who just is nice to you and makes you feel good. Nice is incredibly underrated.
DP: Were you aware that the scene you shot today of the married Dan [Max von Essen] revealing his secret marriage to Laura is in black and white?
ED: I rarely look at the monitor and forget sometimes it’s in black and white. We were filming a lot of stuff at the nightclub yesterday, and it was also all in black and white. Max was dancing and I was supposed to be there for his eye line. But I kept staring at the monitor and being distracted and mesmerized by how beautiful it was. Then I’d look back at Max and say, “Sorry!”
DP: How long is the time frame in the film?
ED: I think it takes place over about two years, though it’s never specified how long Laura and Dan were together, or how long her relationship was with Karl, the stalker. The scenes in the present take place about a year after she breaks up with Karl. Chronologically, Dan is the first lover, then the Stranger is her rebound after the Dan breakup we shot today, and then comes Karl, followed by Dominic the artist. You don’t see Dominic, just his sketches. And Ian, who is British, and Brian are sort of around at the same time and overlap.
DP: Brian and Ian both seem like nice-guy suitors. How are they different?
ED: I think everybody makes a list of the things they think they want in another person. Ian is very much that idealized person, fitting all of those things you might write down. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s the right person for you. I think the beautiful thing about Brian is that he probably doesn’t fit half of Laura’s paper list, but when she’s with him she just feels good and there’s a connection.
DP: Could she have been with Brian two years before?
ED: I don’t think so–no!
DP: Since the film jumps around in time and with characters, is there a turning point in the script, for you?
ED: I think the turning point is when Laura makes a video diary for Brian and recounts everything that happened to her. I don’t think she was in denial before, but when you’ve had a really traumatic experience in your life as she has, there finally comes a moment when you are able to talk about it. I think for a long time you talk about it from a deeply emotional place and you can share it only with your closest friends, but the moment that you can take ownership of it from a calm and collected place is when you know you’re going to be okay. It’s a big moment. I know for Laura it is. The decision by her to share her story with Brian, whom she hasn’t known for a very long time, is pivotal. Because she obviously has trust issues after Dan reveals he’s married and Karl turns out to be a stalker. She could never reveal her story to Dominic and that was why their relationship ended, despite the fact that he was a good guy. So her forcing herself to do this really uncomfortable thing, making the video for Brian, and really put herself out there when there’s no guarantee he won’t say, “You’re crazy!” is a very big risk.
DP: Do you think that by this time she’s stronger than ever before?
ED: I absolutely think she becomes stronger. And I think she has become more comfortable with herself and with acknowledging what actually makes her happy.
DP: Could Erin hang out with Laura?
ED: Yeah! I have to say that now there is so much of me in her.
DP: When I read the script I thought what it needed most was the injection of a strong actress.
ED: Yeah, and I hope I’ve done that. I had an interesting conversation with Keith before we started filming. He and I got coffee and I said, “I want to talk to you about the differences in Laura there are in all of the storylines. He said, “I wanted to talk to you about what’s the same with her in all the storylines.” Since I am playing her in all the storylines, parts of my personality will automatically be in there, so there will be similarities whether or not I try to inject them. That’s why it’s more interesting to me to figure out the differences and the changes and the growth.
DP: Do you sing in this movie, at the club?
ED: I do. It was terrifying. I don’t consider myself a singer; I love to sing but I don’t consider myself particularly good at it. And Laura’s supposed to be a real singer. Luckily we recorded all the songs in pre-production and for a nice week and a half I just got to concentrate on that. So yesterday it was just my singing along to playback. It’s very jazzy and cool and so much fun to film. It was like a childhood dream that I didn’t realize I had that came to fruition. But I find the act of singing in front of people so terrifying.
DP: And liberating?
ED: And liberating, yeah. It was liberating yesterday to hear my tracks and think, “Hey, these don’t sound horrible, so I can just have fun with this now.” That was definitely a nice feeling.
DP: I know auditions for this film took place not very long ago, so I’m amazed this is the last day of shooting. Did you know that the shoot was going to be so quick?
ED: It has definitely been a quick shoot, but it has never felt rushed. It ended up being fortunate that some of the storylines, like the one today with Laura and Dan, are being filmed with just one set-up, because you can cover so much more material in a day when you don’t have a thousand set-ups. On some days we did fifteen pages of dialogue in one day, which was mad and crazy, particularly because almost nothing was chronological. But we had to.
DP: I would think the dialogue had to be easy to deliver for you to be able to film that many pages.
ED: When I first read the script, my favorite thing was that Keith’s dialogue was so well-written. It’s so natural, it was so easy. I always know that when it’s easy to memorize for the auditions, it’s good dialogue. I did a couple of scenes for the audition. One of them was the scene where Laura gives Brian her video diary, telling him she did something weird. The other was a scene with Laura and her best friend Tess, when they see Ian at the coffee shop. I also read Tess’s part in the coffee shop scene.
DP: Since the movie is about Laura and her male lovers, was it a nice change to play scenes with another actress?
ED: Gia Crovatin, who’s playing Tess, and I were secretly soul mates. Within the first hour of her being on set, we were making all the same horrible jokes and singing all the same terrible nineties songs. We were saying, “I think we have to be friends.”
DP: Keith Boynton himself is an actor, so was that apparent in how he directed you?
ED: Honestly, I didn’t really know that Keith was an actor until halfway through the shoot. I wouldn’t have guessed. He talks like a director and had such a thought-out vision of the film and was very specific about what he wanted in every area of the production. I was doing a lot of things in this film that aren’t really in my comfort zone and, with such an ambitious script, that sort of specificity was very comforting. It is so much easier to just jump and throw yourself into it when you know that the person leading you has it all mapped out. Keith is also just fun to work with; it was a fun set, we laughed a lot. It was one of those projects that remind me that, even on rough and crazy days, making movies can be the best job in the world. I think we all felt pretty lucky to be a part of it.
DP: What did you get from being in this film?
ED: For me, it was a great learning experience being here every day, and I’m realizing how much I love working with a group of complete strangers and creating something together. Again, it has reminded me about how much and why I love film. Keith and the crew were amazing and all the other actors were so wonderful…I’m really sad that it’s over.