Ani DiFranco: Sitting in Her Glass House

Ani DiFranco Sitting in Her Glass House

 

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Rosamund Pike can guess what you’re thinking: that she blew her moment. Crowned as Hollywood’s new “it” girl for her performance in David Fincher’s Gone Girl, the English-born actress achieved the kind of breakout success most performers can only dream of. Yet for most American audiences, she seems to have disappeared since her red-carpet walk at the Oscars.

The quiet profile isn’t entirely by choice. Pike has filmed many roles in the past few years, many of which have run into problems on the distribution end. Cédric Jimenez’s The Man with the Iron Heart, an adaptation of Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH, is in limbo in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal (the film was set to be released by the Weinstein Company), while Amma Asante’s intimately mounted A United Kingdom failed to break out of art-house circles earlier this year, with Fox Searchlight only releasing it in 317 theaters.

Pike, though, has a big 2018 on the horizon, with Brad Anderson’s Beirut premiering at Sundance, José Padilha’s 7 Days in Entebbe opening in March, and Andrea Di Stefano’s Three Seconds currently in post-production. She’s also set to star in A Private War, the first narrative feature from Oscar-nominated documentarian Matthew Heineman. But first, she’s firing off warning shots in Scott Cooper’s Hostiles as American frontierswoman Rosalie Quaid, who in the film’s opening scene watches as her entire family is slaughtered, a moment that sets the tone for a harrowing emotional journey.

Earlier this week, I sat down with Pike to discuss the unconventional way she approaches her performances, her long game as an actress, and why men in Hollywood need to work harder to bring female stories to the screen.

In one of the few bits of press I could find of you talking on this film, I was struck by this quote when you were asked about playing Rosalie: “They’re not decisions I made, it’s a journey I lived.” I think I understand that process conceptually, but how does that work in practice?

DiFranco’s musical progression has always made sense and each album seems to be a stepping stone to the next.

It’s the strange thing that happens in certain roles where you empower your imagination to believe the story you’re telling, and then you let go and certain things are physically out of your control. When I watch the opening of Hostiles, I see it as something I lived, and my body reacts as if it was a lived trauma. It’s strange. My heart races. Empirically, I know it’s a movie, but my body is behaving like it’s living a memory. That doesn’t always happen. It’s how powerful our imaginations are, really. I knew I could really only attempt this character if I let in that terrifying fear of not being able to protect your children from death in a felt, real, and lived way. It’s not easy, and it’s quite scary.

Are there any other films where you had that experience?

A little bit on Barney’s Version. There, I played another character whose emotional life I lived very deeply. In terms of things happening physically, with Rosalie there were definitely moments that felt more like an out-of-body experience. There was a moment that took me by surprise in A United Kingdom where I hear singing in the house, and I come out of the house in Serowe. The women from the village have come to bring gifts when they finally accept Ruth as the wife of their chief. It was unscripted, but the women started to sing, and there was no acting. It was just living something. It was that funny blurring of art and reality, which is very precious when it happens.

Rosalie, for me, is the real emotional center of Hostiles. She channels all the rage, confusion, and compassion that the film asks the audience to sort through and feel. Does it affect your approach at all when you know your character has to do that kind of heavy lifting for the viewers?

I don’t think of it like that. I’m glad she does serve as an emotional touchstone. I just felt there was a lot of heavy lifting to do emotionally because to enter that otherworldly level of grief, it’s not something you can turn on and off. You have to be “in it”—operating at a level where you’re not really present but you’re able to answer questions about your radio mic or someone asking you to do up another button on your blouse. But you have to be kind of tuned out of that as well. It’s like having two brains—that brain that’s sort of functional, but your main immersion is in something much heavier and deeper. I felt more the burden of people watching the film for whom such a tragedy might be their reality and for them to feel like their experience was done justice. That weighed heavily on me because I felt a peculiar guilt of being able to pretend to feel it very intensely and then go home to put my children to bed. That was a strange source of anxiety.

So was it a feeling you had to check when you left the set?

It’s always [about navigating] that blurred line between pretending and reality. We have to pretend sometimes these harrowing experiences, which for people are real. And yet I do believe that art is the way that we come to process our emotional lives. It’s getting more complicated in my brains as I get older.

I’m sure many people will assume that you got this part because of Gone Girl, but I’ve heard Scott Cooper cast you in part because of the “Voodoo in My Blood” music video for Massive Attack. Was he looking for a similar kind of feral intensity coupled with technical precision for Hostiles?

I think he was looking for the ability to be completely unvain and physical and express things—yeah, I guess a feral intensity. And certainly after Gone Girl I was given permission to let the crazy out. And I’m definitely being drawn recently to being not just a face, but being a body. The physical nature of film has become much more open to me. How much more I can do physically than I’ve been doing. Gone Girl, for instance, in the murder scene, the technical precision of that, the mad, warped, bloodlust dance that it was, it was very thrilling. To do that Massive Attack video and to start having the freedom in my body, I’m definitely drawn to that. I’m exploring those directions.

There’s this idea I think a lot of observers have that once an actor earns a huge, career-defining role like you did with Gone Girl, you become the talk of the town and suddenly the scripts and offers just start rolling in. Is that how it played out for you in 2014 and 2015?

I’ve always been my own worst enemy, I go into hiding right when other people would be jumping on the podium and taking everything being thrown—

Well, you had a child, didn’t you?

Yeah, and it was a conscious decision. I knew I’d made Amy and that a monster would be unleashed on the world. I thought, “I’ve got to make a human being.” And I also needed to come back to myself, rather than think so career-mindedly and be so ambitious to take another great big role. I’m really playing the long game, as I want to be around in my 80s doing this job. People probably think I’m in a rush, but I don’t think that I am. I’ve continued to do the things that interest me. I’m not so canny as to what the outside perception is. Maybe it looks to the outside world that I haven’t capitalized on the success of Gone Girl, but in my mind, I have. I’ve gotten everything I wanted to do. I’m working with directors who are thoughtful and profound filmmakers. And, obviously, I’d work with David Fincher again like a shot if he asked me.

I think people are impatient and don’t realize how long it takes for these things to metabolize.

I just want to keep challenging myself. Another thing is that there are many male actors who are happy to play a supporting role to another man but aren’t so inclined to play a supporting role to a female. With everything that’s going on in this climate regarding solidarity and people being more outspoken about sexual harassment, I feel that the next stage of that has to be male actors putting themselves on the line to support women. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and how our business needs a new face. Women have done it for years, happily supporting male leads. And obviously other men have to, but there’s got to be a sea change there. Well-established men should, could help to get female stories made. That’s the other thing, apart from women deciding to tell those stories and get them out there.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, for audiences, men have to start valuing women’s stories.

I think there’s proof that the appetite for them is there. Many films with women do well at the box office, so that’s clearly happening.

I think even in the marketing, there’s a perception that women will go to men’s films, but men won’t go to women’s or that men are a more universal avatar. For a long time, that’s been conventional wisdom, and finally that’s being flipped on its head a little bit.

I think there isn’t enough data, really. A lot of suppositions but not enough really specific data we need around traffic into theaters. That’s one of the things that was so great about Gone Girl, it was something that hit men and women. They wanted to be a part of the conversation, and they had to see it in theaters. That was a thrill unlike any other, and I definitely want to find that thrill again. If you make something that hits and is a conversation that people want to be a part of, it’s the best feeling in the world.

Your two major roles post-Gone Girl, at least the ones that have been released in the U.S., are both women who draw their strength from their maternal instincts. Was that at all conscious?

I think it’s actually a byproduct of being drawn to women who display courage, and I realized courage is something I’m inexorably drawn to. It’s why I’m playing Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times war correspondent right now, because it’s probably the quality I ultimately admire most in people. Then, if another Amy Dunne came around, I would jump at the chance. It couldn’t be another Amy Dunne but someone as confounding and complex and thrilling without any admirable qualities. That is fun too. But if I’m going to play people with admirable qualities, then courage is the one I’m looking for. It’s more the courage than the maternal that I’ve been drawn to. And the maternal is a byproduct.

You don’t think Amy Dunne has any redeeming qualities?

I think she’s a sociopath. And I loved the fact that she caused a lot of debate, and some people said this is a great film about women’s empowerment, loved her, identified with her. Ultimately, she’s a sociopathic narcissist. There are a lot of people like that out there who can also be incredibly exciting to be around. Narcissists can be some of the most fun people to hang around with if you don’t get too close. There’s a line [in the script], “My wife is a lying, scheming sociopath who’s also incredibly fun to be around.” And it was just sort of delicious to wield that power. It’s unusual for it to be the woman.

I just watched the film again the other night. You kind of want to sympathize with Nick, but then every time you do, he says things like, “I am so sick of women picking on me,” or making himself out to be the victim.

That’s why it’s so good. He’s also a narcissist, and the point is that she gets him when she says, “The only time you ever really liked yourself was when you were trying to be someone I would like.” Which is such a brilliant line, it’s so clever. Because that’s the game they’re playing. It’s the narcissism epidemic. It’s the way everyone is looking to see how they’re perceived by the outside world. It’s not enough to be just a couple. You have to be the happiest couple, the golden couple, the most fun couple, the sexiest couple, whatever it is. I don’t even know, Amy was slightly before the Instagram obsession, so I don’t know what she would have been now.

Sequel?

It’d be Amy Dunne the mother on Instagram.

A mommy blogger!

That’s pretty good! You should write that.

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In 1997, indie-rock queen Ani DiFranco, then 26, graced the cover of Spin magazine for the very first time, a feat that was viewed as extraordinary by some and as unwarranted by others. None of the folk singer’s studio albums had even been certified gold, yet the editors at the magazine knew something big was about to happen. Little did they know that putting DiFranco on their cover would be that big thing. That very year, Living in Clip, a live double-disc, topped critics’ lists and became DiFranco’s biggest seller, exposing her unique brand of folk-punk to an entire generation of mainstream rock fans. DiFranco was poised for her big breakthrough. Though she had made a career out of turning her nose up at the major labels that continually courted her, she finally seemed comfortable enough in her own skin to make the swan dive into mainstream popularity—on her own terms. The question was whether or not it would work.

DiFranco’s extensive catalog displays a woman on a mission whose musical development went hand-in-hand with personal discovery. Each album, from the pure folk of Not So Soft to the more musically padded Out of Range and the emotionally complex Not a Pretty Girl, mapped out a distinct pattern of perpetual growth. In fact, DiFranco was indeed a pretty girl coming to grips with a society (and fanbase) that would not allow a girl to be political while wearing lipstick and a dress. In 1996, she released Dilate, a dark and haunting mix of folk, punk, and dub influences. Many critics consider the album her best studio effort, with the folk singer pounding on the walls of every existing boundary in pop music. For the first time, she released a music video, a medium she had always viewed as too commercial. Co-directed by DiFranco herself, the clip was set to a trip-hop remix of the song “Joyful Girl” and featured DiFranco wearing an evening gown and enough makeup to send many of her militant feminist followers flying off the handle.

Seeing DiFranco perform live is essential to fully understanding the breadth of her talent. Her spastic energy, humor, and command of the stage is unrivaled, which is probably why 1997’s Living in Clip was such a huge success. But by 1998, her live audiences were changing. For the first time there were almost as many men as women, and swarms of trend-conscious teens began descending on DiFranco’s shows, due in large part to the media exposure and her new mainstream appeal. Where she had once played college campuses and small clubs, she was now selling out large theaters. Many of her core fans who had been there from the very beginning began feeling alienated by all the hoopla. They truly believed they owned her and didn’t want to see her change. Nor did they want to see her on the covers of mainstream magazines or on MTV News—which was just where she was headed.

There was speculation that DiFranco’s next studio album would be her official breakthrough. And no one seemed more aware of this than DiFranco herself, writing songs about self-examination under public scrutiny that would eventually become Little Plastic Castle. It was a fishbowl concept album, with DiFranco contemplating the leap into the shark-infested waters of rock stardom on tracks like “Swan Dive”: “They can call me crazy if I fail/All the chance I need is one in a million/And they can call me brilliant if I succeed.” The title track even responded to her disenchanted fans’ criticisms: “People talk about my image/Like I come in two dimensions/Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind.” Released in March of 1998, Little Plastic Castle debuted at an impressive #22 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart, but the album never really made the long-term splash that everyone expected. Its pop leanings alienated her fans even further, yet it wasn’t pop enough to match the success of other Angry Females like Alanis Morissette. The album quickly faded away, failing to fully crossover or reach the coveted gold plateau.

Less than a year later, DiFranco returned with Up Up Up Up Up Up, a relatively understated answer to the public response of Little Plastic Castle. Whether intentional or not, it seemed DiFranco was taking a step back to more organic, folk-rooted music. For the most part, the album was super-political and generally steered clear of any references to the folk singer’s taste of super-stardom. While some may think DiFranco was attempting to win back the loyalty of her disillusioned fans, it’s more likely she was simply staying true to herself and wasn’t concerned with furthering her star power. Either way, the anticipation for what she would do next continued to escalate; Up debuted at #29, moving close to 51,000 copies in its first week.

Less than 10 months later, the ever-prolific songwriter released To the Teeth, her 11th studio album in a decade. Maceo Parker and company brought a jazzy quality to the project, and while it sported several blunders, it was an eclectic mix that proved that DiFranco was most definitely her own boss. The album continued her “jammy” musical progression leading up to her latest effort, the double disc Revelling/Reckoning. Revelling features more upbeat material while Reckoning focuses on slower, more introspective songs, and it might just be further proof that artists indeed make their worst music when they’re happy and in love. The opening track, “Ain’t That the Way,” finds DiFranco, who married a man in 1999 (much to the chagrin of her largely lesbian audience), singing “Love makes me feel so dumb”—and much of it makes her sound dumb too. The lyrical metaphors that were once clever and unexpected now seem awkward and long-winded. On “Reckoning,” she compares a relationship to an amusement park and it all seems very forced. It was once interesting to see where she might go with her horn arrangements, like the ones in “Heartbreak Even” and “What How When Where (Why Who),” but they now seem obtrusive and overindulgent.

DiFranco’s musical progression has always made sense and each album seems to be a stepping stone to the next. And while her latest direction might not be as emotionally gripping as her previous work, she seems to have come full circle on R/R. Many of the songs find DiFranco singing alone with an acoustic guitar. The appropriately titled “Garden of Simple” begins with “Some crazy fucker carved a sculpture out of butter,” a brazen reminder of her old-school lyrical prowess. She also continues her spoken-word tradition on “Tamburitza Lingua” and “Kazoointoit,” where she shows us what folk-tronica really sounds like. “Imagine That” is an intriguing look into the thoughts of a touring artist and provides further insight into the relationship she has with her fans (“In the haze is your face bathed in shadow/And what’s behind you is hidden from sight”), while the beautifully poetic “Grey” is solemn in its simplicity: “What can I say/But I’m wired this way/And you’re wired to me.” The problem, however, is that the album is a bit over-ambitious, one disc reviving her pure folk style while the other continues the muddled jam sessions of which she’s become so fond.

A tongue-drum featured on “Your Next Bold Move” provides a minimalist percussive backdrop for DiFranco’s familiar politics: “The left wing was broken long ago/By the sling shot of Cointelpro/And now it’s so hard to have faith in anything.” Her attack of the Reagan Era is typically fierce: “I am Cancer/I am HIV…Just looking up from my pillow feeling blessed.” These are the kinds of songs that would have made her early fans proud, but it’s probably too little too late. With her audience getting younger and younger, it’s hard to imagine they even know what Cointelpro is. They might prefer her growling “Fuck you for existing in the first place!” as she did in the popular “Untouchable Face.”

It might seem unfair to suggest that DiFranco is a better songwriter when she’s pissed off, but it might just be that she no longer needs to purge her feelings through songwriting now that she has a husband to confide in. On “Sick of Me,” she grapples with growing older and mellower: “I took to the stage/With my outrage/In the bad old days…But the songs/They come out more slowly/Now that I’m the bad guy.” “School Night” finds a woman choosing between the two loves in her life, her husband and her career: “What kind of scale/Compares the weight of two beauties…I stand committed to a love that came before you.” Elsewhere, she wrestles with the time that has flown by: “She’s 19 going on 30/Or maybe she’s really 30 now.” There’s a comforting brilliance in knowing that she at least acknowledges the fact that she has changed—personally and musically. At 30, she’s dealing with the world from an older, wiser perspective, a perspective that might be foreign to an audience that pines for the anger of songs like “I’m No Heroine” and “Not a Pretty Girl.”

DiFranco’s career can basically be divided into two parts: before and after Little Plastic Castle. It might seem harsh to say DiFranco has stumbled since that album, but there has been a definitive arch in popularity. R/R debuted at #50 on April 21st, 2001, selling 37,000 copies, significantly less than her last three releases. While double albums traditionally sell less, DiFranco followers are particularly fanatical, often snatching up her new albums even before the official release date. And though the album has received great reviews across the board, the fans seem increasingly fickle and the major labels have finally stopped courting her. The chances of DiFranco ever appearing on the cover of Spin again are essentially slim-to-none and with no music videos, MTV has little interest. Yet DiFranco is consciously limiting her exposure by not making music videos; therefore, like her gradual rise, she is once again in control.

But industry politics aside, DiFranco’s music now seems to lack focus. She’s dabbled in electronica and hip-hop, only to abandon them for twangy folk-rock and improv-jams, often all on the very same album. To the Teeth is a great example of this sort of inconsistency. Not a Pretty Girl and Dilate, on the other hand, are probably her most cohesive sets, and not because they’re musically homogenized, but because they’re sonically pure and emotionally raw. Now that she’s personally contented, her focus has shifted to larger issues like mortality but without the incendiary fervor of her early recordings. Perhaps it’s a product of growing older, or perhaps it’s a product of being in a stable relationship.

Or perhaps DiFranco is just evolving and redefining the music industry along the way. She’s still the queen of her own compost heap, but maybe she’s finally used to the smell. While she may have once jumped head-first into the unknown, she has clearly abandoned any aspirations for expanding her success in the mainstream. Developing new artists with her own Righteous Babe Records and inspiring musicians like Prince, who are looking for alternative ways to make music in an increasingly corporate industry, seems to be more important to DiFranco. And as far as disappointed fans, she sings: “They never really owned you/You just carried them around/And then one day you put ’em down/And found your hands were free.”