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Isabelle Fuhrman really went all in for IFC Films’ The Novice, written and directed by Lauren Hadaway. Not only did she learn to row — and subsequently did so for six hours a day — but she also dug deep into the emotionality and complexity of portraying Alex Dall, a college freshman who joins her university’s rowing team and will not stop her efforts to become the best, no matter the cost.
The outcome, she tells THR, left her completely drained. “I didn’t realize until we wrapped just how far down this rabbit hole I’d gone,” says Fuhrman. “Because it really hit me like a train. I completely crashed after doing this movie, which I can imagine Alex probably does at the end of the movie.”
Fuhrman and Hadaway talked to THR about Hadaway’s inspirations for the film (if you’re thinking Black Swan, you might be on to something), Fuhrman’s audition process and what scenes were most challenging for the duo.
Lauren, this is your feature directorial debut. Where did the idea come from?
LAUREN HADAWAY I had a whole first career in postproduction sound, and I had this point of success where I was like, “I want to transition into writing and directing.” And then it just really became like, “What’s the story that only you can tell?” And I never really felt like I’d seen rowing represented onscreen properly. There’s one amazing scene in The Social Network. But aside from that, nothing, and that was just like a traumatic and character-building four years of my life. Basically, I took my four years of collegiate rowing, and what would be 10 years of coming of age, compressed into a year, and I wrote The Novice.
Isabelle, how did you get involved and why did you want to be a part of it?
ISABELLE FUHRMAN Lauren’s script was just so incredibly captivating and told this story of grit and ambition in a way that I hadn’t ever experienced, where there wasn’t an external force driving Alex to be the best, like, a mom or coach. It was really just this internalized drive. As an actor, that’s such a meaty challenge to plunge your teeth into and then, on top of it, the whole physical transformation that I knew I would have to go through. Lauren, when we first met, was like, “You’re going to be rowing the whole movie; we’re not going to have a double.” It really was this extreme challenge. I was adamant that she cast me: I taped extra audition scenes, I wrote a letter to her. I really just wanted her to know that I want[ed] this so badly. And I just completely threw away any idea of being embarrassed.
HADAWAY When I met her in person, [she had this] ferocious, very determined energy, which I thought was going to be really important for the role. … Isabelle was rowing six hours a day the six weeks leading up into shoot, and that’s not an easy feat for anyone.
Isabelle, how did you prepare for the role?
FUHRMAN It’s not like I was just rowing every single day. I was going home and poring over the script. And Lauren was seeing my script [with] millions of tabs, literally notes in every single margin. … When I was on the water, it was me experiencing certain things that Alex goes through, like the same clunky beginnings, falling in the water and really wanting to do well. For my own reason, I wanted to be the best that I could be when I started on set. So that way, I felt like I fit in with the rowers that Lauren was going to cast to play the rest of the team. … It really was moments out on the water when I was absolutely exhausted or coming home at the end of the night that I was realizing that the emotional work that I was doing was seeping its way into the physical training, and they were entwining together and creating this very open, very raw kind of place that was really terrifying. To go to work and literally feel like you’re holding your insides together every single day … I didn’t realize until we wrapped just how far down [a] rabbit hole I’d gone. Because it really hit me like a train. I completely crashed after doing this movie, which I can imagine Alex probably does at the end of the movie.
Lauren, at what point did you turn away from the autobiographical aspect of the script?
HADAWAY The first draft, I wrote July 2017; we shot [at the] very end of 2019. And so in that time span, I went through a lot in my life: some breakups, life changes, whatever. Initially, [it was] a lighter story, but it got darker as it went on. In some ways, it was going through this and writing in a lot of the physical traumas.
What were your influences?
HADAWAY Fuck, a lot. I mean, Black Swan specifically. I remember when I was editing, I was watching that film on repeat. Figuring out the first 15 minutes of the film was difficult. … I think, for me, all of [Darren] Aronofsky’s stuff, [David] Fincher — I was watching a lot of his things obviously — and I love the film Whiplash as well.
What was the most challenging scene for you both?
FUHRMAN The scene in the hallway with Amy Forsyth, confronting her after the seat race: We had so little time to film that scene, and the lights kept turning off. We were literally racing against time to film that scene. And that’s one of the most pivotal scenes in the entire movie. And I remember I was like, “Shit, I have to nail this every single time.” The [harrowing breakup] scene with Dilone inside the bathroom was [one] that I really emotionally prepared for. The scene took a whole different turn, and it became so much more real that Lauren, Todd [Martin, the DP] and Dilone and I were lying on the ground and crying afterwards.
The rowing scenes, as much as I prepared for them, terrified me every single day because I wanted to look like I was a good rower. I didn’t want to flip the boat. … As much as I had trained, this is not a sport you can pick up in an hour or a week. I would not have been able to dive emotionally into this character the same way that I did had I not been rowing every single day because that was such an integral part of my performance — living and breathing this petri dish of the sport. Being isolated in the middle of nowhere in Canada doing that, I felt completely and totally alone even though I was surrounded by people. It was fantastic.
HADAWAY [For me], just the fucking Water Week, period. And my first week as a director was Water Week. The first thing that we shot was the very middle of the film with the beautiful foggy row, slow motion, sunrise, bird flying by. That was the first thing we shot, and it went so well, and I naively thought, “I’m fucking born to be a director!” Then three hours later, I’m about to cry in the trailer like everything is going wrong, I’m like three fucking days behind. … I remember sitting on the pine cabin floors, thinking, “I have just lost all my investors’ money. There’s no way to finish this film. I’m so fucked. And what are we going to do? We have 21 days left.” And thinking that it was all ruined. And that’s actually when I started researching my favorite directors. Damien Chazelle had done this interview with THR, and he said that [while] making Whiplash, every day it felt like “walking the tightrope between making something really beautiful and utter, crushing disaster.” I thought, “OK, then I’m just fine.”
Did either of you need to decompress after scenes?
FUHRMAN Decompression for me really was just taking a bath at the end of the day and sleeping whenever I could.
HADAWAY I was worried about you all the time. I would wrap you up extra chicken and send it back to your trailer — Isabelle wasn’t eating any carbs for a large portion of it. She’d have, like, one fingerling potato. Amy is eating in every scene [of the movie], and Isabelle’s, like, dying.
For me, it was driving to and from set. During the pandemic, I would take drives up the Angeles Crest, sometimes three or four hours of driving a day, just aimlessly.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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