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Helena Howard
Brianna Capozzi

Helena Howard: super natural

“(Acting) is a battle of the imagination”— mining personal trauma on a public stage in Madeline’s Madeline, meet the young prodigy tearing down film’s fourth wall

Taken from autumn 2018 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

A young girl with dewy skin stretches her arms forward in a crawl, spine arched supernaturally. She crouches down silently, tightroping the edge of a table. She mews a low, flirty purr, accessing a register that’s not quite human. Will she corner you or will she cuddle up to you? Either way, you’re her toy.

So begins Madeline’s Madeline, a film that brims with questions, including the very nature of roleplay itself. Part experimental art drama, part family lament, part psych-horror, it erases the boundaries between the wild abandon of artistic expression and psychological release. It’s a performance within a performance about performance. Directed by Josephine Decker (Butter on the Latch), and featuring a stellar female cast including writer-director-artist Miranda July, House of Cards’ Molly Parker and brilliant 20-year-old newcomer Helena Howard, it is sure to be one of the year’s most mulled-over silver-screen wonders.

A highlight of Sundance 2018Madeline’s Madeline explores the twisted dynamics between Madeline, a teenage mixed-race acting prodigy, her neurotic mother, Regina, and rival maternal figure Evangeline, a hovering drama instructor whose intentions are unclear. Abandoning typical storytelling structure, the film instead weaves a hypnagogic map between seething internal emotion and outward catharsis, allowing us to question what it means to deal with our demons in a ‘healthy way’. At a moment when our global mental health crisis is at a high alert, Madeline’s Madeline is admirable in its attempt to examine those issues through a new, subtly twisted lens. For Evangeline, churning pain into performance is presented as the ultimate goal – expression at all costs. Madeline rises to the occasion, and Evangeline, hungrily recognising something in her next big star, wants to test its limits.

“I mean, ‘What was that?’” laughs Howard of her reaction to the film’s premiere. “I had no idea what I’d just watched. It was incredible. I was in such a daze.” Unsurprisingly, the process behind this unconventional film was anything but linear. Decker isn’t a director who sets out with an A–Z plan or a finished script – she first creates experiences through which a story might begin to reveal itself. From a million potentials, specifics slowly emerge. With the help of the Pig Iron Theatre Company, an experimental theatre troupe in Philadelphia, she planted the seeds of what would become Madeline’s Madeline through a series of exploratory workshops before filming it in just 20 days in 2016. But even at the point when plot or script or cast were little more than conjecture, Decker had one certainty to go on: she had already met her muse in Howard.

“Madeline wants so much... We want to be famous, especially with social media, so we play (these) parts just to get through our daily lives” — Helena Howard

Their first encounter ended in tears, I learn. Howard recalls the fateful day at a New Jersey performing arts youth festival when, in front of a small group, she performed Una’s heart-wrenching monologue from David Harrower’s play Blackbird. Decker was a guest judge. “I was in this little room and, with all our puberty and hormones and stuff, it was cramped in there!” says Howard. “I remember at the end of the monologue, she was supposed to give feedback to everyone and she just didn’t speak for a bit, which kind of made me nervous.”

“I heard the students whispering near me, being like, ‘Look at the teacher!’” Decker recalls of the scene. “I just think my mouth was on the floor because her performance was so gripping. It was alive and present in a way that is so rare for young people. I was just in love with that moment of witnessing her.”

Howard finally got her verdict. “She just started crying,” she says of Decker’s reaction. “She was like, ‘That was the best performance I’ve seen in my life.’ And then I started crying.” Looking back, Howard can see how Decker’s encouragement was a life-altering moment of her teens. “I was only 15 years old at the time. It had always been hard growing up (for me). One, with being mixed (race), and two, being an actor and not really fitting in with any group. There was jealousy and bullying, stuff like that.”

From there, the pair stayed in touch over email while Decker mapped out a vision for her film (hilariously, friends thought the director wasn’t legit at first, and Howard cites her then-dodgy website with “accordions all over the place”). When it came to the story, Decker had some basic inklings from the start. Inspired by a loved one’s “dire” struggles, she wanted to explore family dynamics, mental illness and the nature of performance. But it was through a collaboration with the Pig Iron Theatre Co, which produces work rooted in Lecoq techniques, that Decker was able to take a deep dive into her intuition to find her story.

There was no Madeline or Regina or Evangeline at first, just Howard as a centrifugal force. “It was initially going to be a story about my life, and the lives of people that Josephine has come into contact with,” explains Howard. “Through delving into the creative process that we all crafted through the workshops, she pulled back more layers and found there was a different story she could tell.”

The process began with an exercise on scale and anxiety. Through a collaboration with a real estate company, Decker was able to arrange workshops within large, vacant homes on the market. The houses became a vessel for metaphorical angst. “We were like, ‘What if we thought of the house as the brain, and its levels are levels of depression and anxiety?’” recalls Decker. “It was about incrementally increasing emotion – you start at neutral, then maybe your finger is twitching and the next person is crying deeply. The next person is, like, chain-smoking, and you kind of subtly increase the anxiety level to a point where you’re at the top of your volume.”

“I remember a very moving moment at the end of all that,” Decker continues. “We had one more person and it was like, ‘Where can this go?’ Because the person in front was already screaming. And then he just very quietly took his fingers, pointed them to his head and went ‘bang’. I remember bursting into tears at that moment. You realise that this is where you’d go if you were so out of control of your mind.” (In the wake of recent suicides – Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain within a space of a few days while writing this piece – it’s an image that haunts me too.)

“Honestly, the work was created that day,” Decker concludes. She “manifested” Miranda July’s email and flew to LA on a whim to meet with her for tea, begging her to play the part of Regina, the beleaguered mother. July accepted the role, despite having kept a low profile as an actress since self-penned project The Future (2011). “Although I was terrified about acting, I wanted to be on her set to learn. And it was life-changing – thank God she didn’t let me back out! I tried! Out of fear,” July explains. It was a House of Cards binge that led Decker to another eureka moment: she realised Molly Parker was perfect for the part of Evangeline, and soon made it so. “(Evangeline) does have a very nurturing quality, but she can also be so ferocious and cutthroat – (she) has both love and betrayal inside of her,” the director says of the role.

“My mouth was on the floor because (Helena’s) performance was so gripping. It was alive and present in a way that is so rare for young people” – Josephine Decker

Decker had found her characters and all of their quirks, pains and passions – Regina’s insta-panicked response to all stimuli; Madeline’s refusal to eat or sudden impulse to proposition a stranger (her teacher’s husband, no less); Evangeline’s domineering energy as she ingests her young talent’s most private struggles, mining them for performance material.

Method-acting exercises further refined characterisation, which the film showcases via Evangeline’s workshops. Through the theory of ‘acting through your scars’, techniques such as mirroring, animal exercises and forms of memory-recall create powerful, unexpected performances that unravel traditional boundaries of the self. Decker herself had already learned a lot about her own inner selves through a prior ‘clowning’ workshop with Pig Iron. “I had a very, very profound experience that summer,” she says. “I really watched these actors break open parts of themselves I don’t think they’d seen before, ever, in their lives. I felt it happening to me, too; I was using my body in ways I have never used my body, and it was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this person could live as a part of me, but they clearly are there. I just haven’t let them out.’”

These unhinged transformations flicker throughout Madeline’s Madeline, as actors in Evangeline’s workshops discover their literal spirit animals with the combustive energy of giving birth, and Madeline finds the feline essence and hunger underscoring her own performance, both onstage and ‘off’. The trust and intimacy that develops within an acting troupe can create a safe space for extreme expression – a judgment-free zone committed to radical transparency. As Howard explains, “I felt more of a sense of vulnerability (because) I could let myself go and not hide any part of myself.”

Of course, in the film itself, the question of how safe that workshop space actually is becomes... complex. Out of context, some of the film’s most memorable moments – a horrifying dream involving a hot iron, mirroring acting exercises turned cruelly personal, a barbecue turned obscene and a mask party as mutiny – register more as standalone stories than as part of an overarching narrative. Life is experienced as an existential sequence of loosely connected dialogues and actions; what really matters, Decker seems to suggest, is how much control is at stake in any situation. Throughout Madeline’s Madeline, thanks in no small part to the superb film and sound editing, the director leaves us unsure if what we’re witnessing from any character is objectively ‘real’, or simply a projection of their internal fears or fantasies. (Misophonia sufferers, beware: there is wanton chewing.)

With its emotional queasiness, controlling mentor figures and central theme of performance as exoneration, Madeline’s Madeline treads a kindred ground with Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010). From one moment to the next, a ‘let’s pretend’ playfulness can quickly veer into a claustrophobic, raw and surreal portrait of what cracking up might look, feel and sound like, as the lines between horror and drama, theatre and emotional balance hang violently in question. Those questions are never really answered – despite a (maybe?) optimistic conclusion – and the film experience is more poignant for it.

Decker says that asking is more interesting to her process than absolutes. “(It’s about) how you create boundaries when you’re working in performance, but also, the place you go to when you’re really in it,” she muses. “I want to know that place, because it can be very profound and liberating. I was having very specific visions of working on something where the camera would become the performer.”

As we invade Madeline’s skull, the spectre of mental illness hovers all around the edges and burns at the core of the film, daring you to ponder what’s wrong and what’s right. Madeline clearly struggles with her emotional wellbeing, and July’s masterful portrayal of Regina hints she has her own untold burdens, too.

“(Madeline’s) illness is nondescript,” says Howard. “The film goes on and it isn’t discussed. There’s never a diagnosis (or) a label. There’s an imbalance which, you know, a lot of people go through daily – it’s real. I chose to portray Madeline in a way where what she’s going through is (open to interpretation), so it’s not being forced on anyone. I’ve had lots of people come up to me and say things like, ‘Wow, my mum suffers with bipolar disorder and I totally saw that,’ or, you know, schizophrenia, or major depressive. It’s so interesting to hear all of these descriptives come up, where you don’t know what it is (in the film) but everyone’s feeling X-Y-Z... That’s what is important, and that’s what needs to be talked about because the stigmas are out there, and they hurt everyone who’s going through it.”

“(It’s about) how you create boundaries when you’re working in performance, but also, the place you go to when you’re really in it. It can be profound and liberating” – Helena Howard

There are moments in the film where Madeline’s behaviours cause concern (a scene where she wanders about in public off-meds; interludes where the whole cat persona goes too far) and others where you want to protect her from the corruption of others. As Evangeline adopts Madeline as her wunderkind and the film nears its climax, her level of influence over her escalates to manipulative levels. She is easy to demonise as an overbearing stage mother figure, just as Madeline is easy to idealise as the troubled artiste who is too delicate for this world. But, of course, neither is totally true.

“I think she is intimidated by Madeline,” Howard muses. “She wants to drown out the light that she has and control her.” She cites the gruesome pig masks that appear in the workshop as an example. “In commedia dell’arte they wore masks to show you the different emotions of characters. There’s the juxtaposition between pigs and cats. The pig is supposed to be really grotesque and Evangeline chooses it for Madeline, even though Madeline prefers the cat.”

Decker takes a more empathetic view of the character, potentially because she sees her as a cautionary tale for her own profession. “When Molly took on that role she was like, ‘I think I’m playing a version of you – but we need to have empathy for this person, because that’s gonna make or break the realism in this role,’” she says. “I realised that I had, in a way, created the worst version of myself. I wanted to say, ‘These are the mistakes I feel like I made or almost made; this is how delicate these relationships are and also how delicate the relationship is between an older white director and a young woman of colour who’s in her art.’”

Howard acknowledges that the character dynamic touched closely upon her own personal experiences, too, reigniting certain feelings. “My whole life I’ve been asked, ‘Are you adopted?’ Being seen with my white mum or my black dad. People not knowing necessarily what I am. They ask me, ‘What country are you from?’ So I definitely brought stuff to all that, because there’s a lot of frustration, especially where Evangeline is trying to take control and thinks she knows everything about Madeline. And with my mental health... It certainly hasn’t been easy, and I think that’s just the society we live in. There’s so much to be anxious about – the mind is a wanker.”

Ultimately, Madeline’s Madeline promises nothing about wellness but offers bruising honesty instead. It’s art imitating life imitating art. It’s about the mask you decide to wear that day, and who you’re wearing it for. “Madeline wants so much, as I think a lot of people (do), especially in this world we’re living in today,” says Howard. “We want to be famous, especially with social media, so we play the parts we might not necessarily be just to get through our daily lives – the good neighbour, the good mum or the theatre director.” In the film, Madeline creates her own mask: she replaces faces with skies (you’ll just have to see it to know). “The sky is just so vast and beautiful,” Howard reflects. “And, you know, it’s endless. There are endless possibilities to what it can be.”

“My mental health certainly hasn’t been easy, and I think that’s just the society we live in. There’s so much to be anxious about – the mind is a wanker” – Helena Howard

The same might be said for Howard’s own prospects, with the young actress signed by the WME talent agency at Sundance. But, despite being lauded by the establishment, Howard seems to be taking her cues from the women who have shaped her in the making of Madeline’s Madeline – July, for instance, who has always opted to go her own way and remain an outlier to the mainstream. “As an actor, I don’t want to be in this profession to be famous, or make money – that’s meaningless,” Howard explains. “To be able to tell stories that are real and have them seen is something that’s beautiful.” At the time of writing, there are no new projects in the pipeline but, as the actress quips, she plans to “just keep kicking ass, hopefully. And not be a sellout.”

“I think it’s the battle of the imagination,” says Decker, giving the final word on her film’s central feat. “It’s the battle between the part of your imagination that is creative and exclusively fulfilling and transformative, and the part that deeply desires to keep you oppressed and tell you the worst things about yourself. These two parts are always in conversation, and are played out by other people (in our lives); the manifestations of those voices can be part of our growing upand how our parents talk to us. And then they become how we talk to ourselves.”

Madeline’s Madeline is in US cinemas from August 10.

Hair Akki Shirakawa at Art Partner, make-up Francelle Daly at Art + Commerce using Lovecraft Beauty, set design Mila Taylor-Young at D + V, photography assistants Jesse Gouveia, Eduardo Silva, Hiu Zhi Wei, styling assistants Jessica Aurell, Savannah Pence, Clemmie Saglio, Rhiarn Schuck, hair assistant Ray Kawauchi, make-up assistant Ryo Yamazaki, set design assistant Kate Atkinson, production Cristina Bartley at REP, post-production October NY, executive talent consultant Greg Krelenstein at Starworks Group