Annika Marks and Jenny O’Hara star in the incredibly funny, yet heartfelt film Killing Eleanor. I got the chance to sit down with Annika and Jenny via Zoom to talk not only about Killing Eleanor, but also balancing the emotionally heavy themes with humor.
Killing Eleanor synopsis: Recently out of another stint in rehab, Natalie (Annika Marks) is hiding her everlasting pain killer habit, while living back at home and working for her Mom (Jane Kaczmarek) on the condition she’s clean. When Eleanor (Jenny O’Hara), a terminally-ill old woman, sneaks out of her nursing home and surprises Natalie with a long forgotten IOU, her repayment request is shocking— she wants Natalie to help her die. Natalie dismisses Eleanor, but after a family intervention, led by her Type A sister Anya (Besty Brandt), she needs to get her hands-on clean urine. So, the two strike a deal— Eleanor will pee in a cup, and Natalie will help kill her. Their right to die odyssey is filled with complications as Eleanor’s past and Natalie’s lies catch up with them. But ultimately, helping Eleanor die with dignity might just teach Natalie to live with dignity.
Killing Eleanor features a wide variety of dynamic, flawed, relatable female characters. Over half of the cast is female, including both leads and both major supporting roles. There was strong female representation behind the scenes as well with 50 percent of producers and 60 percent of department heads being female – including Director of Photography (Jessica Young – 2 Distant Strangers, Oscar Winner for Best Live Action Short Film), Production Designer (Chelsea Daly) and 1st AD (Jennifer Wilkinson). In addition, 100 percent of the vocalists on all 16 songs used in the film are from female artists.
Check out my conversation with Annika and Jenny!
How does it feel now that the project is complete and that people are getting to watch it?
Annika: We made it three years ago, we actually filmed it three years ago. But Jenny can tell you it was actually 10 years before that, that I cornered her in a dressing room when we were doing a play and said, ‘I have this idea for a movie and I want to make it and I think we should do it together.’ And Jenny was like,’ Oh, sure. Yeah.’ It’s really surreal. I mean, I think you never lose track of the fact that, of course, you’re making it for an audience and you want it to move people and affect people, but along the way, like it’s just taken on so many different points of meaning in my life and our friendship. I hadn’t met my husband, but I conceptualized the film, and then he directed it. On a personal level, it feels so much like this reflection of growth. I think we were so proud and it felt so complete and then you remember that, like, overnight, it’s just beginning. People are just starting to see it. And then to hear that it’s resonating with people is a wildly satisfying feeling. It’s very humbling.
And Annika you wrote the script, what inspired the story?
Annika: I was subletting this apartment from this older woman in Chelsea back when I was 21, that was a long time ago, and she had handwritten a lease on a yellow legal pad. She was a really wild character and she was showing me around her apartment, telling you what to do and what not to do. And at the very end, right before I signed, she said, ‘unless you want to agree to help kill me when I’m ready to go, in which case you can have the place for free.’ I assumed it was a joke. I think she was joking, but I really never stopped thinking about her. I thought it was fascinating and intriguing even to have this thought as a joke was fascinating. And then I met Jenny doing this play, and it was really meeting her and thinking, I mean if you don’t know Jenny’s work, everybody knows Jenny’s work, but if you haven’t seen Jenny on stage or gotten to really witness her work… Jenny is a beast. She’s one of the greatest actors of our time. And I knew that immediately when we started doing this play together and I was totally intimidated. But I just knew that this thing I had in my head, she could bring it to life. I wrote it for her. That’s where it started.
Jenny, what was your reaction to knowing that this role was yours?
Jenny: Well, as Annika said, she said she was going to write this thing for us. I thought, ‘oh, yeah, that’s nice.’ We stayed friends. And 10 years later, we were living in the same neighborhood and would see each other from time to time but it never came up. Then she called, ‘it’s done. Remember I said I was gonna write that for us. Well, it’s not a play, it’s a movie,’ and I said, ‘Oh, ok,. Good.’ She said she’d like to have a reading and I said, ‘Okay, great. Give me the script.’ My husband and I sat down, read the script and thought, ‘holy shit, this is incredible. What she has written is incredible.’ This role was such a gift to me. It is the part of a lifetime. And working with Annika It was no work at all. It was like rolling off a log. It didn’t require rehearsal. It didn’t require anything but just doing it. It was so easy. It was like falling into a tub of butter. It was just perfect. And Rich (Newey, the director) is so delicious. He’s, I don’t know how to put it because he was there in everything, but it felt like the three of us were together and had a shorthand. Nothing else was needed… It was an astonishing experience, I have to say Annika, and I am forever indebted to you.
Annika: Obviously, we’re the lucky ones. She gave us this incredible gift with her work and I will say, this is not part of your question, but I will just add to that, that Jenny’s husband Nick actually married us (Annika and Rich), so we are sort of all like family and I think what Jenny is talking about is trust. So often you’re working for trust at the beginning of a project and by the end, you found it. We had it before we started and I think it’ll forever be the thing I’m trying to get back to, that sense of trust from the beginning.
Jenny: Me too. As an actor, with every project, you’re coming into a new family, into a new company. And many times, if it’s a series, they’ve been together for a long time and you’re the outsider. It takes a while to settle into that. If you’re good, you can settle in and do settle in and produce good work. It’s very nice, but it was nothing like this, is nothing like this. Annika’s parents were Craft Services, her dad is a neurosurgeon. And I spent so much of the movie wobbling as Eleanor, I don’t know what triggered this, but I thought, ‘god could I run for my life if I had to? I don’t know?’ So I thought I would just test this out. I ran up the steps to my apartment, tripped and fell and scraped the living shit out of my arm. Her dad came every day and dressed it, he did special dressings on it so it wouldn’t scar. It did not scar and you can’t tell that there was ever an injury. So I thought, ‘in an emergency, Jen, plan ahead. Avoid the stairs.’ No more experiments of that nature.
What inspired the really heavy themes of this story?
Annika: I think it started for me when I was a kid. My grandfather died of this degenerative disease that killed him really slowly over about 15 years. He was on the frontlines of World War Two as a medic and he was, you know, that generation’s strong, silent, “greatest generation” type and had a lot of pride. He was very private and I watched him become completely dependent on people and as a little kid, I couldn’t reconcile it. I was sure that if he had known this was coming, he would have gotten ahead of it and he would have stopped it. So, maybe I’m a weird little kid thinking those things, but I think that a lot of our discomfort with death is actually conditioning. I think that we are so uncomfortable talking about it and as we grow up into society, we sort of learn not to. But it is inevitable and I think we make it more uncomfortable by trying to avoid it until it is, of course, upon us. There is no escaping it, we’re just putting off these inevitable conversations. I guess it was kind of always in my mind and when that older woman said that to me, I started thinking about the end of life. How somebody might get to that point and be alone enough to ask something like that of a stranger and how would you get to that point in your life and be that alone? That’s kind of where Eleanor started to come from. And when I thought about who I might match her with, I was looking for another character that was sort of alive but not living. And I found that in an addict and, of course, there’s addiction in my family and so I was trying to draw on as much personal stuff as I could because that’s how I think we write things that resonate with other people. I was hoping to write a movie that was more about actually how we live than how we die, but that dealt with death head on in a way that could see it as something that could be a celebration of autonomy and agency, which is what we want over our life. I think we have a very hard time gifting that to our loved ones over their deaths. I think a lot of that’s about us and how hard it is, it takes a lot of courage and generosity, and I think it’s hard to get to those places when you’re struggling with grief. That’s a very, very long answer, but those are all the places where it sort of has creeped up for me over time and I don’t see it on screen a lot. I think it’s that people are afraid, they feel like it would somehow be offensive and we were all very clear from the very beginning that we were not going to treat this like it was taboo. We weren’t going to treat this like we were doing something risqué. We were going to treat this like what it is, which is just part of life.
Jenny: My mother died a little over a year ago on October 16, in New York, at 103. She was an icon in Greenwich Village, she ran an Off Broadway theater for 50 years. She had dementia and she was such a fighter. She was born in Idaho, raised on the stump farm, as a note, but when the loggers came through and cleared up the land, they made the stumps and we could buy it for very little, which my grandfather did, and then pull out the stumps with a bit of dynamite and a mule. So, that’s the stock she comes from, and therefore the stock I come from. What was so disturbing, to me, was that she was a fighter for life and she was a fighter for theater and she was a fighter to hold on to all of that. And the dementia sent in and she could no longer make a decision. And so her life was prolonged and prolonged and prolonged, not medically, but with care. We hired a series of carers to be with her all the time and I would come in as much as I could. I couldn’t imagine what was going on in her mind, where she was in the universe, what capsule was she living in? I didn’t know if she was in the past, or just white noise. Her carer said my name to her multiple times in a day, so she never forgot me. And early on, I would sing to her songs and she would sing to me back but that went away. That was awful. It was awful to see this tower of determination and strength just slope off. I don’t know, I mean, for myself, if I was facing that, I would choose an end point and then make people swear to it.
Annika: I’m amazed at the messages I’ve gotten from people that I don’t know, who have seen the film and are reaching out with stories like this, about how much they wish they could have given what Eleanor had to their loved ones. And what I think is so incredible about that is that the character of Eleanor is really very alone. She has found herself totally alone at the end of her life and for so many of us whose loved ones are not alone at the end of their lives, we still cannot figure out how to give them these endings. And so I think there’s some hope, potentially, in the way that this movie is reaching people. I hope that it starts a conversation so we can ask our loved ones as they are aging, ‘what do you want and how can we achieve that?’ The last thing I’ll add about that is just that my husband’s father died of a stroke and spent, not too long, but several weeks in a nursing home and I’d already written the script by then. But spending time together and watching his father in that place was probably the final thing that made us feel like we absolutely have to make this movie. Because there are these spaces that none of us look at until we’re forced to. But a huge part of our population lives this way, they’re being kept alive, at some lengths, and I think some of those places are wonderful, his was not and it was so depressing. You’d want to get out of there as fast as you could, but once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it. People go a long way into their life before they ever step foot into a place like that. We sort of keep it in the shadows.
This film resonated with me for very similar reasons, especially the scene where Eleanor is yelling at her… it was just like a gut punch. What was it like filming that and getting into that emotional state?
Jenny: As I remember, Annika, we did it in real time. The filming progressed in the time that the film was scripted, so you’re locked and loaded by the time you get there.
Annika: It’s interesting, one of the reasons that I knew that Jenny- so there was a time when we thought of raising money for this movie and we knew we couldn’t do it with just the two of us. We would need to get somebody in one of these roles that was just a giant name and I said, ‘fine if we’re going to do it, then you’re going to replace me because there’s no other actor that can play Eleanor. I won’t even have a conversation about it.’ And I’m very, very lucky that we didn’t have to replace either of us and I got to play with Jenny and play with Rich and be part of this as an actor. But one of the reasons that I knew that Jenny had to play this role, it’s a couplet of a reason, but first of all, she has the kind of stamina that very few actors have. I mean, she is inexhaustible. And of course, you know, she’s a theatre actor, right? She’s used to doing eight shows a week and that is an exhausting way to live. And she has a reserve of emotional depth that most actors have to work a lot harder for than Jenny does. She could just reach down and grab it. It’s intimidating to share a space with her emotionally because she never gets tired. And then, coupled with that, she’s also not vain. She’s an unselfconscious actor. Everybody’s striving for that and very few people can reach it. And Jenny again, doesn’t have to work for it at all. There is nothing standing between her and the truth. It’s just there. So, I think the things we’re playing were actually pretty simple, they were just scary. And Jenny’s impossible to scare. I never had a moment where I thought, ‘oh, she’s gonna be unwilling to go here. We’re gonna have to tiptoe around this,’ no… She’s impossible to slow down. She’s always ready to try things and get dirty and get messy and she also finds a lot of humor with it, like, oh my god in the middle of one of the darkest scenes, she’d be falling asleep. She’s not working to try to drum up hard things or sad things or funny things, she’s just being human all the time. And I think when you’re able to do that, as an actor, the really great actors like Jenny, it’s all there, all the time. She’s just playing circumstances and it’s really something to watch.
Jenny: Annika, you make me blush and I did fall asleep. It was very early in the morning, and it was cold out, waiting for set up. I didn’t realize I was asleep and apparently I started snoring.
Well, this is a good segue into my next question- how do you balance the heavy stuff with the humor in the film?
Annika: I conceptualize it as a comedy and I realize that it is a drama that has comedic elements and I don’t want to falsely advertise the film but I thought of it as a comedy. I guess I can sort of think of life as a comedy, either it’s actually funny, or we’re using levity to survive the hard things. But in either situation, I think people strive to laugh and to keep things as light as they can. I always have a hard time putting things in categories, whether something is a comedy or a drama, because if it’s true, I just think it’s always both. And we tried to just hold on to that with this. I think things are heavier when you’re afraid of them and I think for both Eleanor and Natalie, they are walking on that line. Neither of them are really afraid of death, at least when we meet them and if you’ve taken that away, I mean, what is there to be precious about? You know? So in so many ways the movie is about letting Eleanor go and hopefully bringing Natalie back to life. I think for most of this film, they could go either way and that’s a lot of freedom in that space. And they find that kinship in each other and there’s a lot of fun there.
Jenny: Oh god, there are exceptionally funny exchanges that come out of that situation and nobody is backing down. That’s what makes it so funny. Getting Jane Kaczmarek as Natalie’s mother, it’s just heaven. And Cameron (Manheim) touched my heart so deeply in just one little scene. Every single performance, every actor, and we had a lot of interns as part of the crew because we were outside of Chicago, they were film students, and they stayed on the set to watch scenes. Usually there’s the setup and then everybody leaves who doesn’t have to be there. But these kids, they just hung on it every single scene. Nobody left. Nobody took a break. Nobody went and got a sandwich. They just hung while the work was going on and it was really wonderful.
Annika: I’m pretty sure they were hanging out to watch you.
Jenny: You were so good in this movie. It’s really wonderful and so easy to work with you.
What do you both hope that people take away from watching this film?
Jenny: I hope that people take away the courage to honor the wishes of their old friends, parents, anybody who is in need of this. I hope they can find the courage to help. I hope the people involved, the recipients, can find the courage to ask them and to take their lives back into their own hands. We spend, most of us, our lifetimes trying to own our own lives. And in this end stage, it’s really, really important. You don’t want to become a ghost. You don’t want to become some sort of walking dead. I don’t anyway. I’m making plans already, just laying out the territory, trying to be clear. But that’s what I think. And the thing about this film is it restores your faith in humanity in these perilous times.
Annika: I feel like what I always want from films and when something really resonates with me, it’s usually because it’s made me laugh and sort of cracked me open. And then once I’m in that space, it’s made me think about things that I would rather avoid. And so I guess for me, my greatest hope is that it just starts conversations that people might avoid otherwise. But to start them from a place of empathy and maybe empathy for people that we might just sort of judge if we met them on the street. And something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is just about our need for connection and I think that’s just at the center of this film. We really do need each other. I hope that it starts conversations between people, about these sorts of uncomfortable things that they might avoid, but I hope it also brings people together in the process. At the end of the day, that’s everything. Our connection, my connection to Jenny, my connection to Rich, my human connections got stronger in the making of the film and I hope that it helps people’s human connections get stronger through watching it.