Anna Schafer stars in Elizabeth Blue, a film from Vincent Sabella that follows the title character after she is released from a mental institution. Sabella’s script is based on his own real life battle and with an illness that we rarely see on accurately portrayed onscreen. It’s an intense film and Schafer’s performance is extraordinarily effective as she captures the emotional torment of her character struggling to distinguish reality from waking nightmare as she fights to maintain her grip on the real world. I caught up with Schafer to discuss the research she did to take on a role that dealt with an illness she knew very little about, and how witnessing an incident with Sabella helped her understand the role.
This film, I have to say is outstanding as is your performance, How did this begin for you?
I got the script last year and read it. It completely broke my heart and I fell in love with the characters and the stories. I found out that the story was based on Vincent and his life and that period where all the medications plateaued and he went from being a functional schizophrenic to losing all control. He stayed home with his husband for an entire year to try to figure out his medication. It’s based on that period of his life. When I found out it’s based on a true story, it became that much more appealing to me. I went in, auditioned and found out I got the part.
What I found so particularly incredible is that it’s a true story about schizophrenia. We always see stories about depression and anxiety, but not that. What was your impression of it before coming into the film?
I really didn’t know what it was. We hear about it and we kind of know what it is, but I had no idea about what it really was until I met Vincent. You see commercials for depression and anxiety, but you never hear about schizophrenia and those hallucinations that seem so real that the person experiencing them cannot tell the difference between hallucination and reality. That was really fascinating because it was this big mystery to me. After I did the film, there were five people in my life that came out and told me that their mother was schizophrenic. I was completely in shock that it took for me to do this film for these people to open up. I think there’s this stigma that comes with it.
It’s become more common and acceptable to say you have depression and anxiety, but this is a diagnosis, as you point out, that people don’t talk about.
Absolutely and that surprised me.
You said you didn’t know too much about schizophrenia before the film, so what research did you have to do because this is a disease that manifests itself so differently in different people.
I was telling Vincent’s story so I had to keep the focus on his journey, but first I had to find a way to understand schizophrenia and make it relatable to myself. I read a book called Surviving Schizophrenia, A Family Manual which gave incredible insight into what it’s like living with that mental illness. I spent every day with Vincent getting to know him on an extremely deep level. It was so wonderful because Vincent and his husband, Joe Dain invited me into their lives and allowed me to see what this relationship looks like. I got to witness Vincent’s episodes first hand and see how it affected Vincent and Joe in the aftermath.
I guess the moment for me where I had that “ah-ha” revelation was getting to spend time with the real Dr. Bowman. They didn’t change the name for the movie and I got to do all these sessions with him. I asked him, “How can I make this real for me?” He asked me if I’d ever had a nightmare or a bad dream. I was a fairly new mom at the time and my daughter was a toddler at the time and since I’ve had her I’ve had these horrible dreams where I wake up crying and run into her room making sure she is OK. I was able to go back to sleep saying it was just a dream. He looked at me and said, “Imagine that dream happening to you while you’re awake and there’s no way to tell dream versus reality.”
Oh my goodness.
For me, that was an awful moment and realization that if I’d had that dream while I was awake and there was no way to tell myself that it was a dream and she was fine. That’s when I had the moment where I could understand that headspace in which she was living. Not knowing whether life is real or not. It was terrifying and allowed me to tap into who Elizabeth was.
Is that how you allowed yourself to get there on that daily basis?
Yes. I think a lot of it was living in a lot of that headspace. We shot the film in 15 days. It was intense. I basically woke up and went to bed as Elizabeth.
I pushed my daughter’s bedtime so I could see her every night. When I walked into her room and rocked her to sleep. I was able to put Elizabeth to the side because I couldn’t afford to bring her home to my child. When she was sleeping, I’d pass out from exhaustion but I’d wake up as her character and constantly lived in that state of mind.
And it was really thinking about that nightmare part when Dr. Bowman said to me imagine that would happen. I had a moment where I thought to myself, “What if I wake up and found everything I know to be true not real?” It was living there and it was sad and emotional but it helped me tap into that.
The film is filled with empty space and silence and then there’s sudden loudness. What was that like for you on set?
From talking to Vincent and talking about the character, if you meet him, he is like us, but he has these really low lows and then high highs. It was interesting to work with him because he let those moments play out.
Sometimes in a scene I’d wonder when he’d yell cut because he’d let the scene go on for five extra minutes, but that’s where the magic happened because I’d get anxiety and that’s just what the character needed. It certainly helped in those silent moments when my head was going a hundred miles per hour.
When I first signed on to do the film, the train scene scared me the most. It was the one scene that I couldn’t see in my mind. I could not imagine how it would play out. I even told Vincent I had no idea how it would play out.
During the chemistry read, Vincent looked up and asked me if I heard a sound. I thought it was the AC dripping. He got up and started looking for this noise that only he seemed to be hearing. He’d open and close doors and knocked things off the table. Joe grabbed him and Vincent knocked him, but Joe managed to get medication to him. So, after that, they left the room and ten minutes later they came back and Vincent had returned to his normal self.
He asked me if he had scared me. I told him I was paralyzed because I had never seen that before. It was so unfamiliar to me and you don’t know what to do. If Joe hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have known to get his medication. The silver lining in all of that was that I knew how to play the train scene. That scene helped me with the loud and intense moments because I got to see it firsthand. It is very much about ups and downs as you say with silence and then the loudness, this wave.
That’s what those moments do. They show you how it is.
That’s really how it is.
How was it working with Vincent and seeing his script and story come to life?
We had three months of prep. He was so prepared and he knew how he wanted every scene to look like. Every scene he wrote was really visual and you can see it come to life in front of you. He also wrote in the music so you get to hear the music that comes with it. I was completely blown away by the preparation he had done.
It was easy because everyone was so prepared and we also knew we had fifteen days to get it done and it was a good pressure.
Having Vincent there was so courageous because he allows you to see what schizophrenia looks like.
That’s what I found so beautiful about it because he takes us inside his world.