HEAT VISION

Malin Akerman on 'To the Stars' and the Wonder of 'Watchmen'

Malin Akerman -Getty - H 2020
Samir Hussein/WireImage
The actor reflects on overcoming bullying as a child and stepping onto the set of Zack Snyder's 2009 superhero epic: "A lot of blood, sweat and heart went into it."

Despite growing up as a Swedish girl in Canada, Malin Akerman could easily relate to the central story of her new movie, To the Stars, a coming-of-age indie drama set in 1960s Oklahoma. The film revolves around teenagers Iris (Kara Hayward) and Maggie (Liana Liberato), whose budding friendship takes them on a journey of self-discovery including confidence, sexuality and identity. The two young women fill each other’s voids as they navigate through bullying, intolerance and their overprotective mothers (Akerman’s Grace and Jordana Spiro’s Francie).

For Akerman, To the Stars hits close to home as someone who was bullied at school a la the Iris character, but like Iris, she would later find her confidence with the help of her own “Maggie”-type friend.

“I was very shy as a young girl, and again, I was bullied. Then, I moved out when I was 16,” Akerman tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I had this friend who ended up being my roommate, and we moved out to L.A. together. My friend was very forward; she was sort of like the Maggie character in this movie. For years, I watched how she handled herself with people she wanted to do business with, and I just thought, ‘Alright, it’s not that hard. I just have to step in, be confident and stand behind the words that I’m saying.’ I remember walking into a manager’s office and just deciding that day that I was worthy of being there. I just had to go and do it in order to believe that I was able to. So, it took a good friend to help me realize that.”

Even though she’s admitted to feeling out of her depth at the time, Akerman still looks back at her experience as Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre II in 2009’s Watchmen with great fondness. She’s also looking forward to catching up on HBO’s Watchmen series so she can watch her former co-star, Jean Smart, play the Laurie character 30 years later.

“I haven’t seen the Watchmen show yet, which is crazy, I know. So, I cannot wait to see it, and I love Jean [Smart],” Akerman admits. “[Watchmen (2009)] was incredible. It was like nothing else I’ve ever done. A lot of blood, sweat and heart went into it. The Owlship was absolutely astonishing. When you stepped into that thing, you were surprised it couldn't fly because it looked like it could. (Laughs.) It was brilliant and really well made with attention to all the details.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Akerman further reflects on her Watchmen experience, reteaming with Tony Hale and her desire to act in an 18th-century period piece.

How’s everything with you and yours right now?

We’re good, thank you. We’re healthy, and we’re together. I feel like we’re the lucky ones. We’re in California, and we’re hanging in there, day by day.

This film is set in the early 1960s so everything looks authentic in that regard. Of all the different time periods you’ve played in, do you have a favorite in terms of wardrobe and production design?

You know what? I have yet to dive into my favorite period, the 1700s or 1800s, which would be really exciting to do. I really did love this one because it’s very rare that I get to do a period piece. It was amazing because the costume designer got some authentic pieces from the ‘60s. We weren’t able to use the pantyhose that she got because they just wouldn’t work. (Laughs.) We didn’t have the proper gear to put it all together with the stirrups and everything. But, it was amazing to put the rest of it together and wear the authentic clothing. Where we shot in Oklahoma was just the perfect setting for it all. We even brought in all the old cars. So, it was a really nice time period to be a part of.

To the Stars starts off with bullying, something almost everyone can relate to on some level. Even though Canadians are known for being pleasant, is this something you experienced as a Swedish girl growing up in Canada?

(Laughs.) I sure did. Canadians are lovely, but kids are kids. We all have our issues. I was actually quite severely bullied when I was in one of the many schools I went to. This girl had it out for me and got all my friends to turn against me because they were scared of her. She would chase me around at recess with scissors, saying she was going to cut my hair off. So, I resorted to sitting in the bathroom stall for many months, reading books with my feet up on the toilet seat, so that nobody knew I was in there. I would hide out in there so that she couldn’t get me.

I’m sorry for making you relive that.

(Laughs.) Oh, no, it’s okay!

As a viewer, it’s always shocking to see a deadly serious Tony Hale. Is it just as interesting for you when you work with an actor who’s playing so against type?

Absolutely. What’s funny about Tony Hale and myself is that we’ve actually played love interests in another film that wasn’t a comedy, per se. It was very much character-based; it was called Happythankyoumoreplease. So, this is our second time around doing something together that was not a comedy. So, with To the Stars, it wasn’t surprising because I knew how talented and gifted he is. He’s so nuanced. But, yeah, of course, I love that element of surprise as a viewer. When I see somebody that you’re used to seeing in a certain genre and then they kill it in another genre, it makes it all the more exciting.

To the Stars is about many things, including finding one’s confidence. Do you remember that distinct moment in your life, or was it something you weren’t entirely conscious of?

I do, actually. I do remember one specific moment. I was very shy as a young girl, and again, I was bullied. Then, I moved out when I was 16. There were a lot of things around my life that I was just unsure of, and I was afraid to speak up. I had this friend who ended up being my roommate, and we moved out to L.A. together. Of course, there were many moments before this, but I stepped into the role of a businesswoman and took on myself as a business. My friend was very forward; she was sort of like the Maggie character in this movie. For years, I watched how she handled herself with people she wanted to do business with, and I just thought, “Alright, it’s not that hard. I just have to step in, be confident and stand behind the words that I’m saying.” I remember walking into a manager’s office and just deciding that day that I was worthy of being there. And that was it. It felt amazing, and it was a real shift just in realizing that I could do it. I just had to go and do it in order to believe that I was able to. So, it took a good friend to help me realize that.

When you make a good indie like To the Stars without the resources of the major studio system, do you tend to feel more fulfillment and satisfaction since there was a higher degree of difficulty than most major studio projects?

There’s different kinds of satisfactions for both types of films. Aside from resources, everybody goes into indie films for the love of it, not the money. I just loved this script, and the fulfillment comes from it now getting out there to be seen, especially a period piece with a smaller budget. To make it look this beautiful and this professional is like what the Foo Fighters said in one of their Grammy acceptance speeches: “We made this album in our garage. You don’t need a big studio or company behind it.” So, I think everyone can somehow turn out something creative and make it look just as beautiful.

Martha Stephens directed this movie, and as a viewer, I felt the difference that a woman’s perspective makes on a story about young women. As a performer, do you tend to notice a difference in the way that a woman director uses the camera to tell a story?

I think it depends. I have male friends who are very much about highlighting women and do so in a beautiful way. But, of course, having an insider’s point of view on what it’s like to grow up as a woman and the things we go through differs from what it’s like to be a young man going through puberty. Of course, there’s a shift in tone and understanding, and as a performer, you trust it just a bit more. Instinctually, it’s an unspoken conversation and understanding that you have. So, yeah, there’s a tiny difference, but that’s not to say that a man couldn’t understand it and take direction. But, this was nuanced because of Martha and what she brought to it.

Does this job still find a way to surprise you?

Oh, all the time. For every new film and project, there’s always something new to be learned. You’re working with new people every time, whether it’s managing new challenges, walking through the fire together and figuring out what that feels like. Some people you trust more than others, and a lot of times when you’re on set, it all comes down to vulnerability and trust. If you have a good group of people, then hopefully a good performance comes out, but if you don’t, you have to find a way to work through that. There’s always some sort of catharsis or growth at the end of any production — in whatever way it might be. In that, there’s always an element of surprise, whether you find out something new about yourself, about other people or just the process in general.

Out of curiosity, did you happen to watch Jean Smart play Laurie 30 years later on HBO’s Watchmen?

No, I haven’t seen the Watchmen show yet, which is crazy, I know. It was actually at the top of my list, but we just haven’t done it. (Laughs.) So, I cannot wait to see it, and I love Jean. She’s incredible, and I’m sure she portrayed her beautifully.

You’ve worked with Jean, right?

I have! We did a pilot [The Smart One] together that never went. Ellen DeGeneres was producing it, and Jean played my mother. She’s just brilliant and lovely.

I talked to Patrick Wilson recently, and he was so into the Watchmen series since Dan Dreiberg’s Owlship and technology kept popping up throughout the season. So, I hope it brings you the same level of joy.

Yeah, I can’t wait.

Ultimately, were you fond of your own Watchmen experience as Laurie?

Oh, my God, yeah. It was incredible. It was like nothing else I’ve ever done. It was amazing and awesome. The sets were incredible, and so much time went into every detail. It’s a big graphic novel to try and portray. It took six months of actual production, and we were in preproduction for three months just training and getting ready for it. A lot of blood, sweat and heart went into it. The Owlship was absolutely astonishing. When you stepped into that thing, you were surprised it couldn't fly because it looked like it could. (Laughs.) It was brilliant and really well made with attention to all the details.

Everybody asks you about Watchmen, as well as the great comedies you’ve been in, but what’s a career highlight that you wish was brought up to you more often?

I mentioned it earlier, but it’s Happythankyoumoreplease. I get it; it’s an indie film, and they’re not always hugely promoted. It was also before the time of Instagram, but I love that film. I think it’s a beautiful story. Josh Radnor wrote, directed and starred in it. I play a woman who has alopecia, and while it’s many different people’s stories, her story is what it’s like to be dating with alopecia as a woman and the obstacles she goes through because of it. It was based on a friend of Josh’s. There are three different couples, and it’s just a beautiful story that I really love.

You’ve done a lot in this business, but what’s something you’re still hoping to do someday?

Again, it would be a real period piece — 1700s or 1800s, “Let them eat cake,” etc. Something like The Favourite would be really cool to do, or a Western. I haven’t done a Western, and I’d love to do something like that.

Now that we’ve put this out into the universe, perhaps it’ll happen.

(Laughs.) Yeah, exactly. Let’s see what happens.

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To The Stars is now available on digital HD.

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