Grace Folsom Talks Things I Don’t Understand

People are often fearful of the unknown, including such debatable topics as spirituality, the meaning of life and what happens to us after we die. Everyone also questions how they should react when our lives are threatened, and are faced with obstacles and forced to make changes that they don’t know how to make. The new drama Things I Don’t Understand, which was written and directed by second time filmmaker David Spaltro, courageously looks at the difficult topics that people are often afraid to approach.

Things I Don’t Understand follows grad student Violet Kubelick, played by Molly Ryman, who’s studying near-death experiences. She withdraws from her life after a failed suicide attempt. Her life continues to unravel when she and her two roommates face financial difficulties. To make herself feel better, Violet forms a bond with Sara, portrayed by Grace Folsom, the terminally ill girl she’s interviewing for her thesis.

Folsom generously took the time to sit down in a café in New York City to discuss what attracted her to the role of Sara. The actress, who’s making her feature film debut in Things I Don’t Understand, which shot for 20 days in Brooklyn last spring, also spoke about how she prepared for the role, and what it was like working with Ryman and Spaltro.

Question (Q): You play Sara, a terminally ill patient who is looking for a last connection, in Things I Don’t Understand. What was it about the character that convinced you to take the role?

Grace Folsom (GF): I think Sara’s a strong character. It’s a sad thing when children become ill. It’s one of those things that you think’s never going to happen to you or your family. When it does, it’s devastating.

I admired that part of her, that she had to mature so quickly, and she had to become her own caregiver. She was abandoned by everyone around her and who ever knew her. I admired her strength and majority. I think the way she handles it is really interesting. I was really attracted to the conflict within her. Just dealing with something that big at that young of an age is terrible and admirable.

Q: How did you get into Sara’s mindset? How did you prepare for the role?

GF: I researched a lot of aspects of the illness she has, Osteosarcoma-the stages you would go through, the medicine you would be on, and the side effects. A lot of the work was recreating the memories of not only the illness, but how her family, friends and boyfriend reacted.

Sara’s mother decides that she’s not going to come back and see her daughter anymore in the hospice she’s living in. I recreated that in my mind. Her boyfriend kept pushing her away. He decides that he’s not coming back, either. Violet is the one person who stays. So for me, I think the big preparation was recreating the memories of the toll the illness has taken on her.

Q: Violet is obsessed with dying and the possibility of an afterlife. Why do you feel people are so curious about the supernatural, and what happens to us after we die?

GF: I think that people, in a sense, want to know about the unknown. It drives everything in the world-science, religion, art. People want to know. There’s a curiosity, whether on a small scale or a large scale, of what happens. It’s scary, because we have no information about what goes on after death. It all comes down to what we believe is going to happen, because that’s all there is.

Q: Do you feel the death of a loved one can positively after a person’s outlook on life, and make them strive to lead a better life?

GF: I think there are positive and negatives that we can take away from every situation. There’s so much to be learned. As a person who doesn’t know very much, I think it’s scary and exciting to have those events in life. I’ve lost people; I think everyone’s lost people at a certain age. It just keeps going, and you have to learn how to deal with that. The way you deal with it, I guess is up to you. I think the idea of losing someone is negative, but it can have a positive effect.

Q: Molly Ryman plays Violet in Things I Don’t Understand. What was your working relationship with her like?

GF: Oh, I love Molly, she’s great. Molly’s a lot of fun and sweet, and she really welcomed me into the project. David and Molly worked together before (on his feature film debut, the 2008 drama …Around), so I was a little bit intimidated coming onto the set, being the outsider. I mean, a lot of people were outsiders, but with those two, they already had this working relationship. They were both so welcoming and warm, and ready to work and ready to give. It was great.

Q: Being that David wrote the script, did that make it easier to work with him as a director? Did he have a clear creative idea and vision of where he wanted to take the film?

GF: Yes. In terms of being informed about the script, of course, it was great to have both the writer and director on the set as one person. It helped me creatively as an actor, it was great.

Q: What was the audition process like for Sara?

GF: I saw an ad online for the audition. I submitted (a tape), and David got back to me and said submit two taped monologues and a selection from the script. He gave me the whole script to read. I picked what I wanted to read.

I don’t have a camera, so I actually did it on a webcam. (laughs) So it was the lowest quality video you’ll ever see. But I was lucky enough to send it in and get a call-back. Then I actually went in and met David, and met other people involved in the project, and read for them. Then the next day I received an email, and it said “You’ve got it!” (laughs) I was pretty excited.

Q: David has said you’re the best actress he’s ever worked with.

GF: (laughs) That’s so nice of him!

Q: What is that feeling like, knowing he praises your work like that?

GF: It’s wonderful to have a supporter like that. David’s a very talented, driven individual. Having someone who respects my work like that, wow. That’s a Godsend.

Q: Would you be interested in working with David again?

GF: Oh yeah, it was a great experience.

Q: Things I Don’t Understand is David’s second film. Being this is your first film, did the fact that David is a relative newcomer as well help your acting?

GF: Yeah, I guess so, I didn’t really think about it. I saw his first movie, …Around, on Netflix, because he told me about it, and I loved it. I guess the fact that he was young, and went to school in New York like I did, we had that to connect over. That was easy to communicate over. We both had training. I think he’s very professional. You would never know that it was just his second movie.

Q: Speaking of training, you studied film and theatre acting under Stonestreet Film and TV Workshop and Playwright Horizons Theatre School. You have been in voice-overwork, shorts and commercials. So how is acting in feature films similar and different than your previous work?

GF: Well, for Things I Don’t Understand, I was actually cast much earlier than I have for anything else. I got cast in August 2010, and we shot in April 2011. So I had about seven months to prepare, which is a good amount of time. That was great, because the script gave a very full character, and I had time to fill her out even more. I was able to fill in all those memories, and do some research.

The great thing with films is, you get more to do, you get more to act. But in another sense, it’s all the same, because you’re creating a character, no matter what. You’re trying to fill them out, no matter what. But you get to live more of their life in actual filming of a feature film. I also got to work so many days. It was so much time, and I love acting. The fact that I got to work so many days was great.

Q: You have also done some theater work. Do you have a favorite area of acting, and do you want to continue with films in the future?

GF: Oh yeah, I would definitely love to continue with films in the future. I love both films and theater.

Q: Who are some of your acting idols and inspirations?

GF: I love Cate Blanchett and Marisa Tomei. Of course, I love Meryl Streep, everyone loves her. I love Laura Linney. I love the strong women actors, who can play so many different things.

Q: Sara was a dancer before she became sick. Do you have any dance experience?

GF: I was a gymnast for a while when I was younger. Then in college, I took dance as part of my training. I love dancing, I love moving. But I’m not a sports person-if you put a ball in my hand, I don’t know what to do with it. Dancing, gymnastics and yoga, I can do that stuff, it comes naturally to me.

I think it’s a base feeling that everyone can connect to when you have a dream. That thought of having the ability to reach your goal, and then suddenly having that taken all away from you, that can be rough.

Q: Did the shooting process meet your expectations, and was it like you imagined?

GF: Yeah, pretty much! (laughs) But they put a lot more make-up on me than I expected. Since Sara was sick, I thought they wouldn’t put much make-up on me. But it was a long, complicated process. (Make-up Department Head) Amy (L. Forsythe) and (Key Make-up Artist) Tiffany (Patton), they did my make-up, and they really knew what they were doing. I had no idea the make-up was going to be like that, I guess it was all special effects make-up. I’d never experienced that before, and it was really interesting.

There was also a longer period of time spent on set. With that comes more ups and downs. Working with so many people for that long, there are so many different sides, but it was interesting to get to know people. It made us more like a family.

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