Fighting The Good Fight With Catherine Curtin Of STRANGER THINGS & GOLD STAR
Sophia Cowley spoke with Catherine Curtin, the lovely actress we know from Orange Is The New Black, Insecure and her upcoming film, Gold Star.
You may recognize her as the prison guard in Orange Is The New Black or as Issa’s boss in the HBO Series Insecure, or maybe Dustin’s mom in Stranger Things. Or perhaps you are like me and are obsessed with indie films, so you caught her in Gold Star or The Light Of The Moon. Wherever you may have seen Catherine Curtin, she has likely made a solid impression: one that lingers in strength long after the credits have rolled.
Catherine’s career has spanned decades of theater performances; she appeared in Burning, Aunt Dan And Lemon, and played the part of Janis Joplin in the Off-Broadway Musical, Love, Janis. Her repertoire of TV roles and film shorts is vibrant and expansive: from The Naked Brothers Band to Law & Order.
I had the good fortune of speaking with the actress, whose infectious spirit and untiring enthusiasm for the arts reverberated across the phone lines. (OK, the electromagnetic radio waves.)
Of course, our interview could not begin without a discussion on the state of the union and the role of art today. “We are living in an interesting time, there is no question about it,” Catherine says before our interview.
Sophia Cowley for Film Inquiry: Interesting is one word for it.
Catherine Curtin: (Laughs) Interesting is one word, yeah. I just feel like art right now is so vitally important for people to be able to express and release and feel, and think, and breathe, and exhale. I think people have to stay not numb. I feel glad to be helping bring art to people, whether it’s laughing or crying or thinking or being angry or feeling, whatever it’s stimulating, it’s so important. But anyway, I’m just rambling on.
No, no, it’s all important. I mean, you have been working with debut directors, and you have been helping out to make art more accessible. I’m curious what it is like for you to work with first-time filmmakers like Jessica M. Thompson (The Light Of The Moon) and Victoria Negri (Gold Star) versus working on a larger scale production like Stranger Things.
Catherine Curtin: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I love working with first-time filmmakers; for me it’s a very joyous occasion because it’s so much about just, the beauty of the writing, you know, the beauty of going for it, the beauty of saying, “this is my passion and let’s follow it.” Independent film, I feel like it tells smaller stories, and where many, many moments are explored, rather than TV, where you go from event to event to event.
I firmly believe that one event in a person’s life can completely change their life forever. And I think that’s a lot of what indie filmmakers are doing; they’re exploring that essential thing that happened, that Passover question, that one moment.
I think I’ve been really lucky in the TV shows that I’ve been on, because all of the TV shows I’ve been on have political, philosophical things happening with them. [With Orange Is The New Black,] I think people understand that our prison system needs a lot of reform, and it’s not really working, and we imprison more people than any first-world nation; we imprison more women than any first-world nation. It’s just crazy, and the job of Orange is to make people sympathetic and empathetic to the lives of others who are going through a life sentence.
And then, with Insecure, I think Issa Rae is a genius, what she’s doing subtly, politically and philosophically, and how she, in her own way, is making all of us so much closer by saying that we’re all so much more alike than not alike. She raises issues that are very problematic, and she does it and makes people laugh.
And on Stranger Things, for me it’s like, the best creative presence I could ever get, really, because it’s such a creative set to work on, and there’s such an enormous amount of kindness on the set and generosity and imagination…I feel so lucky to be a part of that amazing journey into the underworld.
I firmly believe that one event in a person’s life can completely change their life forever.
You bring a lot of heart to Gold Star. Can you talk a bit about your experience behind the scenes? What enabled you to embody the complex role of caretaker and head of household with such authenticity?
Catherine Curtin: My dad died when I was 17; I was a caregiver in high school to my dad. I think Victoria’s story really hit me, and I understood it. I think one of the most difficult things in life is to be graceful under pressure, and I don’t think [her mother] really is graceful under pressure as a character. I think she’s trying to hold it together and she’s doing okay and not okay and okay and not okay. And she’s angry, and she’s sloppy with her emotions, and I think most people are that way.
I don’t think there’s this pretty picture of good behavior when your soul mate is dying. When I see that in big-budget Hollywood films, I’m like, “Okay, well, that’s a beautiful reaction!” I’d be throwing things; I’d be like crazy. I think you have to have empathy for people handling things in ways that are not great. Because that’s true, that’s the way we are. When you’re losing someone it’s like, marching through quicksand.
I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but what was it like working alongside Robert Vaughn?
Catherine Curtin: Oh, he was beautiful. He was such a gentleman. There were no dressing rooms, there were no trailers, there was nobody making money, and it was fine for him. And then he would tell stories about old Hollywood, or when he would go in to audition for Man From U.N.C.L.E. and he had gone out the night before, and he looked at material that morning but didn’t really know it, but he just thought, “I’m gonna go in and have a good time,” and he did and he booked this huge job! He was never judgmental…he just came to it like, “Everything is great, everybody is great, and this is fantastic.”
I think for every actor, I wish that they could do a movie up until they die. I just did a short film with an actress who is 84, and I hope she doesn’t go for a long time, but I just thought to myself, “When I’m 84, I want to be doing a short film, in a church basement with nothing but bagels and donuts for food, following a crazy story with a crazy 20-something year old director and their vision.”
Your more recent roles in television and film seem to oscillate between a mother and a person of authority. (Not that these two are mutually exclusive!) In Orange Is The New Black, you play a prison guard and in The Light Of The Moon you are an attorney, whereas you play the mom in Stranger Things and Gold Star. What do you think draws you to these seemingly contrasting roles—someone in a place of power versus someone in a position of nurturing?
Catherine Curtin: That’s really interesting; I never really thought about it that way. I think the power dynamic in the world is certainly an interesting one, and it’s certainly a severe one, and it definitely, it creates a moment of pause in the soul. I do like to explore power dynamics, and I do like to upend them.
I like the fact that Wanda Bell in Orange, she was sort of good at her job, and sort of not. I had gone to the passport office in the city before I did that role, and there was the guard in this office who was like a fascist dictator. If you stepped over the line, you would have to start at the beginning of the line or come back another day. He was serious. I was fascinated by him.
And I kind of love how with Dustin’s mom, in a way, Dustin is taking charge. I sort of love that power dynamic, where the mother is so in love with the son that the stars and the moon align with his actions.
I do like to explore power dynamics, and I do like to upend them.
What can we look forward to seeing you in next? Anything we should keep our eyes peeled for?
Catherine Curtin: I’ve got a couple of films coming out. I’ve got Breaking Brooklyn coming out, and Crazy Famous coming out in January. And I would assume I’ll be doing the TV dance again, which would be amazing and wonderful. I’m trying to mainly do film and TV right now…so I think that is probably where I’ll sort of hang my hat for a while.
That’s great. We want you there!
Catherine Curtin: Aw, thank you, thank you. Thank you for saying so, I appreciate that.
Thank you so much for talking to me.
Catherine Curtin: Oh my gosh, thank you so much for talking to me! And take care, and be well, and fight the good fight, and thank you so much again, I really appreciate it.
Film Inquiry thanks Catherine Curtin for taking the time to speak with us!
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