Interview with American Mary’s Tristan Risk: A New Face in Horror Flicks
February is Women in Horror Recognition Month and the perfect time to connect with Tristan Risk about her breakout performance in Jen and Sylvia Soska’s film American Mary. Little Miss Risk was gracious enough to chat with me about her new found success in indie horror.
WPR: I remember when you were Claudia Black’s hand double in one of those Stargate movies. Now you are a Fangoria Chainsaw Award nominee. What was the journey like from unknown extra to acclaimed genre actor?
It was pretty amazing. As someone who is a performer, I do stage and I do films. I like to entertain and, so just whatever projects came up, I’d be like that that sounds cool. And I had just started to get back to doing theatre and performing plays and stuff. That was the same summer the Soska’s were like “do you want to read American Mary” I said yeah, I’d love to read it. I read it and they had a small role for me. Originally they had wanted me to be the stripper that gets her face bitten, but they hadn’t found a Beatress. I read for that the first time face to face with them. They kept staring at me. It was great but a little creepy to have people staring at me like that. And the said, “It’s too bad you don’t do voices.” I said, “I do voices.” They said, “Too bad you can’t act.” I said, “I can act.” They knew I could dance so they offered me a chance to read for this role. When I read it, I thought this is fucking brilliant. When you read a lot of graphic novels, you can see the panels when you read scripts and storyboarding in your mind. After that, I really wanted to be involved.
They already had a big fan base with their first film Dead Hooker in a Trunk, so they self-propelled that and I feel like I am hitching on the tail of the comet a little bit. Now people are really recognizing the character. It’s really flattering to go from doing these little local produced shows to this. It was shown at cons. Every time something like that happens, I think this isn’t really my life. This doesn’t happen to people like me.” It has been so exiting. I’m not going to lie. And I want to keep making movies because it’s really cool and really fun.
WPR: Do you think living in Vancouver BC gives you a leg up because there are so many movie and TV industry folk there or is it a saturated market that you still have to work your butt off to get noticed?
I think it is important to work you butt off in any industry, if you want to get noticed. I think also because Vancouver has a really good industry going with big budget, but also independent stuff that goes on here too and events that support smaller artists. Those smaller artists eventually become bigger artists with their success. If you look at the Soskas, when they made Dead Hooker in a Trunk it was for $1200 on their credit cards and now they are doing stuff with WWE. It really does happen if you’ve got the creative streak and the gumption to make it happen. I don’t know that I would have the same opportunities in a small town in say, Missouri, but that is not to say that stuff isn’t happening there. I’ve been really sort of horseshoe-up-my-ass-sideways-roundabout way of getting involved in these things.
WPR: Let’s talk about your nomination for Fangoria’s Chainsaw Award for Best Supporting Actress. You are up alongside Julianne Moore and Lili Taylor. What does that say about the power of independent horror movies?
American Mary was a low budget film and completely independent and it did so well. It is that a good story, good characters all comes together that can kind of carry you through over a lot of regurgitated bigger budget stuff. Hollywood likes to play it safe and it’s done well for them recycling and remaking. But at the root of it, the cool independent is kind of like music when you find an obscure band and you get to share it with people. The horror fans get something they think is cool; they want to share it with their friends. It is really that satisfaction of introducing someone to something that you think is cool and sharing it. So I think that’s where the independent fan base comes from. The independent fan base is insane in a good way. Like they are crazy and I love it.
WPR: Given the readers of Fangoria, who I assume often frown on mainstream horror, what do you think your chances are to win? I think you could take it.
I think I could. I think I am a dark horse in the running here. It is so flattering to even be nominated at all. Even if I don’t win, I got my name out there and someone at Fangoria noticed and said we should nominate this person. That’s pretty satisfying. I’m not going to lie, if I win the Golden Chainsaw it’s going to be displayed prominently.
WPR: Can you talk a little bit about your American Mary character Beatress Johnson and her motivation?
Beatress and I have a number of things in common. We are both eternal optimists really and a little strange or a little damaged. But you know, ultimately for us the glass is always half full. I think Beatress befriends Mary, she is kind of that cat that sees the one person in the room full of cat people that is not a cat person and thinks: I am going to sit on you and we are going to be friends. Mary doesn’t want Beatress. She is cold and isolates herself from people. Beatress is like we are going to be friends. We all know that girl that says no we are just going to be friends and forces you into being her friend. Then you don’t know how it is you are out partying with her. And you don’t even know how this happened, yet there we are. It’s so strange. Beatress pushes those buttons.
She sees Mary as kind of an artist where a lot of other people would see her as someone who does mutilations and what she is doing is terrible. But Beatress is someone who feels complete and she doesn’t want the people around her, like Ruby, to feel incomplete or not finished. If anyone has a tattoo that is halfway to being done, you know, they don’t want their photos taken until it is complete. She [Beatress] doesn’t want any of her friends in the body mod community to feel that way and she thinks Mary can provide that satisfaction and that closure and sense of self to them as well.
WPR: How did you come up with the voice or did the Soskas ask you specifically for that voice?
It’s a funny story. One time I went to the Soska’s house to hang out. We had a little vodka and watched a few movies, one of them being Little Shop of Horrors. Little Shop of Horrors is the first musical I was ever involved in as one of the narrators and I fell into singing along with all of the songs, as you do when you watch a musical with your friends. I was singing songs and doing the Audrey voice. They went, “Yes, that. That is the Beatress voice.” I started doing some lines in that [voice] and they really dug that. “You should try to do that when you are in the audition. That might work.” So that was where it came out of. It’s a mix between Madonna in Who’s That Girl in the 1980s and Ellen Greene, somewhere in there. They were doing the Betty Boop thing, but putting their own twist on it. I stole what I feel is the best of them and smooshed into something I thought would be useful.
WPR: Was the costuming for Beatress inspired by the retro voice? I loved Beatress’ wardrobe and those floral dresses out of pin-up world. Were they inspired by you or was that vision they always saw for the character?
Jayne Mabbot was doing the costuming for us and because we were on a tight budget doing everything I said, “You know I have a lot of stuff. Why don’t I bring it to the wardrobe fitting and see what works in your mind and whatever.” She thought that was a great idea. So I brought a bunch of my clothes for her to look through and she said, “Yeah, this all works.” All of Beatress’ clothes are actually my clothes with the exception of one dress you can barely see because my jacket is done up over top of it. The shoes, the coat, the gloves, it is all out of my own closet. I wondered if I should cosplay Beatress, but it feels really lazy (laughs).
WPR: The make-up was significant for you character for this film. What was the process like for your prosthetic and make up regime?
I love wearing prosthetics. I did a lot of mask work in drama class when I was younger. Plus being a dancer you just learn to go naked into the character. I found, even being new to the acting world, that that part was really easy—to transform into this person. The make-up, plus the wig, plus the clothes and the voice made this a completely different person, yet still totally me. It was funny because the Soskas had rule on set, because there were people with actual body mods and people with prosthetics, that if anyone was caught making remarks to them, about them, or behind their backs, you would be off the project because that is not what the production was about. People were walking on eggshells around me because people didn’t know me. They thought that was my real face. I was the first person to set and getting make-up done because it took so long. No one would see me before I went in front of the camera. A lot of people assumed the Soskas ran into to someone who happened to have all this drastic surgery and who looked like Beatress, which is a testament to MastersFX and how well they did the make-up. I had friends working on set who said “I thought Tristan was working on this movie, but I haven’t seen her once.” When they were told I was Beatress, they were like “That’s Tristan?”
WPR: My next question is about the Soskas. At GeekGirlCon in 2011 when they were on a “Women in Horror” panel where they presented a clear vision for women both in front of the camera and behind it as being more powerful and in control in the horror genre. Can you tell me a little bit of what they are like to work with? What is unique about working with them either because they are women or because they are visionary?
Watching them [Jen and Sylvia Soska] work is amazing. When they work, they have very tight schedules on their films so you have 15 days to shoot this much and you have to get all your shots in. The beauty part is because they write and direct as a team, they have their vision and when they are on set is like having two totally awesome velociraptors. One will be talking to actors and the other to the crew or Director of Photography and getting the shot set up. So they are able to do the work of two directors [at once] and get everything done and done well. They have that twin telepathy back and forth and can anticipate each other’s moods. If one of them has to take care of something, the other one can keep the show on the road.
When we were working on American Mary, they wore sexy suits and heels to set every day. I think every time we’ve shot they’ve been dressed really, really well. Their philosophy on that is there is no reason why I can’t come to work and dress the way I want to dress. It is like: I’m here. I’m representing myself, my company, everything. It is a big joke in LA about playing a game called homeless or director where you can’t really tell if it’s a homeless guy or director because he is dressed kind of grubby. Which is kind of disrespectful to the other people you are working with.
And again that whole I-can-dress-however-I-want attitude, you can choose to call me a slut, but it doesn’t make it so. They are very strong and independent. But everyone assumes they are totally slutty. Um, no. No, they are not. They are trying to break those walls down and it is interesting to work with people who have such strong convictions and are sensitive around people with body mods too. They are willing to fight for the underdog on their set and say, “I want respect on the set and there is not going to be any of this bullshit.” And people listen to them and work hard for them. That also speaks volumes about how they interact with their cast and crew. The crew could probably tell you about other directors who are tyrants on set and everyone is you know walking on eggshells. But there is none of that when you work with the Soskas on a production.
WPR: February is Women in Horror Recognition Month. Since the start of this effort to raise the profile of women in the genre, have you seen more acknowledgements or a rise in the number of women filmmakers? Is Women in Horror Recognition Month having an impact?
I think it is. It opens up a lot of important dialog that people need to have. Joss Whedon has a great quote from when he was asked why he keeps writing strong female characters. And he said it’s because you keep asking me that question. Joss, love you so much, man. But it’s true. I don’t think there have been less female directors because there have always been women in horror from Mary Shelly writing Frankenstein to Barbie Wilde writing The Venus Complex. Women have had a longstanding association with horror and I think they are getting recognized more for it and becoming forces to be reckoned with within the genre. Filmmaking in general is something of a boys club. But going back to the really independent spirit like making your own films: Don’t dream it be it. Get out there and just do it. Now, women are supporting each other. That is another thing I love about women in the horror scene, is the community and support. You know women can be a little bitchy or catty and the claws come out, but I haven’t experienced any of that in the horror community, comic community, or gamer community. Everyone with ovaries has been super rad and awesome. And generally everybody else has been too. To be fair the guys [in these communities] aren’t douchebags as a rule, which is pretty fortunate because the people in this culture are people who were picked on or didn’t have friends growing up. There is a reason we gravitate to this. We know it’s like to be excluded and left out and marginalized. I think that we want to go against that and against making anybody else feel that way. We remember what it’s like.
With Women in Horror Month picking up more steam through people like Hannah Neurotica, Jill Sixx, the Soskas, Patricia Chica, and the other female filmmakers who are doing this and supporting each other. There’s this growth in it. There is a whole generation of girls growing up believing this is a thing. It is like my generation’s Lilith Fair—chick power and spelling girl “grrl,” you know. It’s that this is how we roll now in solidarity.
WPR: Being a horror fan yourself as well as comics and games, do you have anything coming up that you are looking forward to or any old favorites?
The beautiful thing about moving is that you find treasures you totally forgot you had. It was hard packing up because I came across all these comics I haven’t seen in a while and it is like seeing old friends. Now that I am unpacking, I am totally putting them on my bedside table to read. Some of them being: the collection of Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and a couple Tank Girl anthologies. I was like, “Oh, right I forgot how much I loved this.” Also Catwoman: Her Sister’s Keeper, which is my favorite Catwoman story and then everything Frank Miller. The one I’ve been enjoying so far is Afterlife with Archie, a really dark take on the Archie series. It’s fantastic, if you haven’t read it. Finally a way I can enjoy Archie. Being a girl, you know, it’s do you like Sabrina and do you like Archie? Gee, I like X-Men and I like Avengers.
WPR: I like Archie Meets The Punisher and then Archie Meets KISS.
I have the KISS comic books but I don’t have the Archies. That is one I’m going to have to pick up for sure.
WPR: What’s next for you and who would you like to work with?
Being big, hairy, and audacious, I would love to work with Joss Whedon and Robert Rodriguez. I’d like to work with some boys. I haven’t worked with many male directors so that speaks to me a little bit. Jimmyo Burril who does the Chainsaw Sally Show, I’d love to work with. Of course, Tarantino. If Tarantino ever got bored and wanted a flame-throwing stripper in the mix, he could use as many shots of my feet as possible. Also Patricia Chica and Jessica Cameron. There is a long list of people.
I am just getting started in this business and if people are interested in working with me, I say bring it on. Number one would be Malcolm McDowell. I made an off-hand comment on Facebook a while ago about how much I loved his career and the wild films he’s done. My friend, McKenzie Gray, invited me to lunch with Malcolm McDowell and I sat there the whole time with a big goofy grin on my face. All I could think was don’t mess up, don’t say something stupid. I just sat and listened to them talk. Malcolm is just as wonderful as you hoped he would be. I would love an opportunity to work with him at some point in the future.
WPR: Any parting words for your ever growing fan base?
I would like to say be sure to support all your independent filmmakers and musicians. Everyone is struggling, but the struggle is less of a struggle and more of a party if we all take care of each other and support and raise up each other’s art.
Thanks so much to Tristan for taking the time out of her busy schedule for this interview. She can be been seen in her regular burlesque act with Sweet Soul Burlesque in Vancouver, British Columbia for their “Sweet Sip Thursdays.” On February 28th, she will be performing a Star Trek: The Next Generation burlesque act inspired by Famke Janssen’s character in “Perfect Mates” in Beam Me Up Sexy at Wise Hall in Vancouver. Tristan will also be at the Vancouver Fan Expo April 18-20, 2014 and the Vancouver Fetish Festival. And, I hope to see her at Crypticon Seattle—fingers crossed she will attend.
Be sure to vote for the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards before March 20, 2014!