Down the Call-Sheet: Sarah Snook in 'Predestination'
While this on-going column's namesake is meant to bring attention to actors who aren't the primary stars of a certain show or movie, its true intent is to bring some sense of discovery to those who haven't become household names. While Sarah Snook in 'Predestination' is certainly the co-star of this movie with Ethan Hawke her name was elusive to me upon reading.
Indeed, hailing from Adelaide, South Australia, this young actresses credits pre-dating this movie were primarily Australian television productions. It's quite telling that since this performance she has eight projects in various stages of completion including 'Steve Jobs' with Michael Fassbender. In other words, what I witnessed in this performer wasn't missed by the industry at large and soon enough she'll have more than enough undue attention.
'Predestination' comes to us from the Speirig brothers who most famously teamed with Hawke previously on their surprisingly fresh take on the vampire-genre in 'Daybreakers'. Upending conventions, they presented a world in which vampires were the majority and humans were becoming extinct as a source of food. It was a dark, stylized and humorous movie that managed to twist expectations in an already abused landscape of cinema. In 'Predestination' they have boldly taken on the well-trodden 'time-travel' movie and folded it over so many times it rivals an Escher drawing.
(Spoiler alert) There is simply no way to discuss Snook's performance in this genre-gender twister without disclosing key elements of its playful game of reveal. So much so even the filmmakers themselves have her slyly listed in the credits simply as 'The Unmarried Mother' to preserve the conceit. If you plan on viewing the movie, and I do recommend it, then come back to this article later. It is a movie and performance that lingers beyond the first blush of viewing.
Based on the Robert Heinlein short-story, 'All You Zombies', we begin the story with Hawke's character, John after he is recovering from a traumatic explosion which leaves him post-surgery so altered that "even my mother wouldn't recognize me". This is our first hint that some sleight of hand is at play with our characters' identities. John is part of a team of time travelers called 'Temporal Agents' who go back in history to prevent horrific occurrences from playing out. He is on the trail of the notorious "fizzle bomber" and for some reason is staked out in the recent past as a bartender seemingly in wait to find him. Here is where we meet Sarah's character yet we don't even realize it.
At first glance we observe a rather simple but curious looking fellow hunched over the bar who starts some casual banter with Hawke's assumed role as barkeeper. While our minds are quickly trying to parse if this person is the soon-to-be suspected bomber those thoughts are immediately put on the back-burner as the man continues speaking. You see with each passing word of this barfly's story we begin not just to question his identity but rather his/her gender altogether.
Yes, Sarah Snook begins the movie as a man.
The degree of difficulty in starting a performance as the opposite gender can be hard to quantify. Often the arc of a story is watching that character's transformation take place before us. It is rather another thing to have them introduced fully in their new identity without a hint of their back-story. When done to effect of 'Boys Don't Cry' or 'The Crying Game' the reveal can be quite powerful but it is a risky gambit that holds the weight of the film on the performer's shoulders. (Incidentally, both Hilary Swank and Jaye Davidson respectively got Academy Award nominations for their performances with Swank winning hers.) Quite simply, if we don't believe her from frame one the film is in a lot of trouble.
This requires a critical accounting of one's voice and body-language to an unprecedented degree. It is one thing to "pretend" to be a woman or man on-screen with the audience participating in some form of a ruse as in 'Tootsie' or many other cross-dressing scenarios. It is quite another to embody full transformation to the point that there is no question in doubt. The societal coding of our collective learned behavior as men and women runs deep. The gait of your walk, the way you sit or even a small gesture all are a potential give-away. Then there is the simple biological element. The voice alone begs to betray you as one finds themselves drawn into absurd characterizations to escape their natural timbre.
Add to the fact here that Sarah is not simply asked to remain in the masculine or feminine but jump suddenly back and forth through-out the film. What's miraculous to watch in this young actress is how she embraces each phase of her character's life. When she is a young girl she is bright and out-going without a trace of indication what is to come. As fate and preposterous circumstances befall her (him) she gains a weight to her body and voice to the point we no longer see the previous self.
What the Speirig brothers do cleverly is lead the audience with just enough information for them to attempt unraveling the plot while keeping the snake-eating-its tail theme virtually impossible to forecast. The movie stops in its tracks to tell whole-cloth back-stories and then proceeds forward as we struggle to digest or accept the audacity of its narrative. All along the way there is Sarah Snook in various forms like some confused caterpillar questioning its fate as a butterfly.
Developing a character's arc over the length of an entire film is difficult enough due to the nature of shooting. Day 1 for the actress may be Day 30 on the call-sheet for the character. She could be a teenage girl on a Monday and then a fully formed male adult on a Tuesday or even the same night. Meaning you better know where you are going and how to get there well in advance. Add to the complexity that the story travels large swaths of time from childhood to adulthood and then over-laps them ad infinitum. Then upping the ante further for the young actress she also has to process that she becomes another actor altogether. My goodness, it's a challenge to describe let alone break down into intricate and detailed pieces of nuance, character and the fact she if often left acting across from herself.
It's a role that would and should scare the shit out of any performer or be such an awesome dare that you just take that leap. Sarah seems to have opted for the latter. It is a very rare occasion for me to stop the actual viewing of a show and just proclaim out loud, "Wow, she's really good". I took a few minutes and tried and unravel how many levels were at play for her and just shook my head and continued.
It is common advice to actors to "do what scares you". On the other hand we are also advised to know what you can and can't do. Seemingly there are just some roles that aren't right for you. In between the two are teams of advisors, agents and managers trying to help navigate those choices with you. In the end it's just you and the camera. The rest of the world then gets to decide if it all worked out. It's a long tight-rope and waiting at the bottom is a deep plunge in humiliation without a net.
I think it's safe to say Sarah made it to the other side. So much so I'm sure she's already tired of explaining exactly "how did she do that?" Don't worry, Sarah it looks like you'll have plenty more roles to explain in your future.
Or is it your past...?