Diana Irvine Is The DIY Actress to Watch
Diana Irvine, besides actress, screenwriter and future star of a one-woman show, is also physical manifestation that blood, sweat and tears is what it takes to make your way into the film world. With three projects on the horizon, each pertaining to different realms within the singular discipline of acting, Irvine can be perceived as both an underdog to the public and a seasoned performer to the industry. Aside from starring alongside Zosia Mamet in “The Boy Downstairs,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is having its moment in Cannes this season, Irvine stars in a recently-released, co-written short, “Cuddle Buddy,” featured by Short of the Week and the Las Vegas Film Festival. Lastly, the aspiring starlet has also set after a less conventional, but equally respectable pursuit, writing and producing a one woman theatre production which, thus far, lacks a title, but certainly not talent.
So you have three big projects right now, what’s the first one coming out to the public the soonest?
Definitely going to be a short that I co-wrote and star in called “Cuddle Buddy.” And I made that about a year ago; that baby was finished in the Fall, and then we started submitting it to festivals as you do with short films and then ShortOfTheWeek.com, where most high-quality short films live after the festival circuit, is going to host its premiere next Tuesday.
Can you tell me what it’s about?
Yeah, so it’s about two women in their mid 20s, one of which, Regina, played by myself, is a bit of a recluse, and she’s in a really tough part in her life. She’s kind of in a downward spiral, dealing with isolation and depression. She’s like a young Hollywood actress who’s basically burned out and she has isolated herself over the Christmas holiday, she’s not going home to see her family and she’s in her apartment, cripplingly lonely, and decides to hire a professional cuddler. Maybe you’ve seen these things on Vice, because they’ve done a lot of articles on it, but they’re considered these platonic massage and/or cuddling services where people pay by the hour to simply hold them or be with them. And it’s something that’s really big in other countries, but it’s come to the US.
It’s huge in like Japan, I know and in Tokyo it’s like a “rent a boyfriend” type thing.
Exactly, or like for businessmen in Asia who are maybe really busy and don’t have time for a girlfriend, but still crave the basic human interaction and touch, but feel like they can’t ask for it, you know? Maybe it’s socially taboo or they feel emasculated doing so. So Regina calls this cuddling service as a last ditch attempt to feel better, and this professional cuddler comes over, who’s essentially a complete foil in opposite to her. She’s bubbly, from the Midwest, pure at heart, a do-gooder, and the short is about the two of them dealing with each other and essentially trying to turn an awkward situation into a fulfilling one.
When it comes to this, for example, you were both a part of writing it and acting in it, what has compelled you to be sort of that extra level of involved, writing, ideating around the , as opposed to being a strict actor playing the role given to you.
Yeah, well, Isabel Shill who co-wrote it and co-stars in it alongside me, she and I met on set of a Lifetime movie about a year and a half ago. We’re both actresses, didn’t consider ourselves writers, but were in the same boat of wanting to work all the time, but acting is a funny profession where you’re completely dependent on others in order to make your art. I could act in my room to a piece of furniture all day, but unfortunately, it isn’t the same. So we were both frustrated either that we weren’t working enough or perhaps getting roles that weren’t as meaty as we wanted, so we were like let’s just write something for ourselves to do. Low budget, one location. We’ll sit down and develop characters as we know how as actors, and we’ll start improving and start riffing narratives, then when we get on one that’s really intriguing to us and compelling to us, we’ll develop it and then write it based off of our improv and finesse it from there. That’s exactly what we did. Then we brought in Max Barbakow, a good friend, and a wonderful director, to come in and fine tune the rehearsal process with us, and then bring his directorial vision to it.
It’s interesting to me how if you say you’re a musician, it’s not that out of the norm that you can sit and play guitar and do a cover of a Katy Perry song and upload it to YouTube and have it go viral. Yet, with an actor, you probably can’t really sit in front of a camera, do a monologue, upload it to YouTube and expect the same result. It’s just not received in the same way, which is not to say you can’t D.I.Y., because in a way, this project was D.I.Y., but it has to be a little more thought out than other artists who are living in the internet age and utilizing that to either give themselves a platform, promote a project, or themselves, it just works differently for you guys.
I think that that’s exactly right. It’s just not the same. If you go on YouTube and search ‘Abigail’s monologue from the Crucible,’ it’s like 20 girls who’ve done this monologue to their video cam, and they’ve run it up on YouTube, and each has 50 views. It’s just not the same.
I wonder why that is, too. I guess with the general public, it’s not something where people are like ‘Oh my god, I love this monologue, let me watch other people act it out,’ you know? It’s just not a very public facing thing for some reason.
I think that also our expectations for high quality television now and web series, the bar has been set really high, because so many people have jumped in with their web cams, becoming Vine stars, whatever, so there’s just so much content out there, I guess across all artistic platforms, but I think that the bar is just set really high. People don’t necessarily have the patience, like you said, to sit through a monologue. I think it appears also self-indulgent, because people have a hard time I think separating an actor from their personal selves and/or their ego. It’s tricky, but yeah, we raised money, made a short film, there’s more investment that we put into it, but it was as you said, D.I.Y. because that’s what you’ve got to do.
What are some other projects you’ve done, and again, maybe it parlays into your other projects, maybe it doesn’t, but where you were dealing with the same sort of frustration of not wanting to deal with a producer, director, casting director, like ‘I just need to do stuff on my own.’ What are other ways as an actor/actress that you combat that obstacle?
Yeah, that’s been the pervasive theme since graduating college. So I’m in this movie that one of my best friends Sophie Brooks wrote and directed, it’s her feature. I star in it opposite Zosia Mamet, and it premiered at Tribeca Film Festival this year called ‘The Boy Downstairs.’ And Sophie and I met in her final year at NYU on her thesis film in film school, I was cast in that, we made that short together, then when I moved back home to LA, we made another short together. Then when she made this feature, she cast me in it, and it’s not, I mean, she and I have collaborated for three projects now, but we’re also just, we talk all the time about ways in which we can get our careers moving forward as fast as possible, so even though I’m in her movie in a traditionally actor-ly way, the spirit of supporting those around you, like friends who are in this business in different facets, while also yourself, always thinking ‘How can we all make more things together?’ Sort of outside of traditional studio systems for example, that’s just the general spirit.
So it’s a lot of just like, finding other people to collaborate with.
Yeah, 100%, because there are so many people who are just equally wanting to work all the time as well, and who are equally frustrated and have their different struggles. A writer friend may have a feature, and their journey to get that baby made, which is a whole other thing, and that’s really difficult. It’s about always saying yes and helping out where you can, which can be in different areas too. I just finished helping a friend wrap on a film this week, I did all of the food and craft services for it. It’s just good to be on set, you know? And definitely, it’s not as satisfying as acting and it can be frustrating, because that’s all I want to do on a daily basis, but it takes some investment of time and creative scheming in a way, to finagle it for myself.
Yeah, it’s interesting with actors, more than most other artistic professions, so much about it is being in proximity to a project in one aspect or another, even if it’s just doing craft services or whatever it is, it’s about being on set. Most of the time, you’re not working specifically as an actor, people want to be connected to projects in one way or another because they have to network to be able to collaborate. Producing on something when you want to act on it can still take you miles in a way.
Yeah, and when you’re an actor, you’re literally the last puzzle piece on a project. Everyone else has signed on, like it’s all green lit, all good to go, and then you jump on. So your sense of agency in these situations is pretty small, there is often a feeling of you’re replaceable, and I mean, you are. So, it’s amazing because you can go in and do your thing, and everything is set up and you can jump into the material because that’s what you’re there to do, but at the same time, you’re invested but it takes… It’s just hard! It’s all really hard.
Well, it’s not formulaic, everyone finds their own way to do it and there’s no set path. That’s, I bet, very inspiring but also very anxiety-inducing depending on how you work.
Yeah, and it’s always been this way, when you read about the history of acting, it’s kind of these are just the things. But, yeah, I’m not working in the old Hollywood studio system, where I get contracted to a studio and act in the movies they have. I’m very much my own little bubble of Diana the actor floating in Los Angeles.
Was this your first feature film that’s at the length that it is?
Yeah, it was my first feature.
And how much more labor intensive was that, then, or how much did it relate to stuff that you’ve worked on before? What was the production of this like for you?
Well, because I had read a couple different versions of the script before we started shooting and because I’m so familiar with Sophie’s work and with the story, I knew going into it what she was going for and what she would expect of me as far as preparation went, so there was a comfort and an ease. It’s the biggest role I’ve had, the most screen time, the most responsibility, it’s something that in my training, both at NYU and the Atlantic Theatre Company and post-grad, is very much within my wheelhouse, because often, we work on entire plays, or we do break down entire screen plays and talk about a character’s arch and how you would do all of the chunks and what’s required of you, so I felt like it was finally like ‘Yes! I have the opportunity to do the whole thing for once!’ Not just a scene, or a couple of pages, I get the whole thing and get to make it mine, and my choices are entirely my own, filtered of course through dialoguing with Sophie what she wants, but we have a short hand, but so much of this movie, ‘The Boy Downstairs,’ was doing the scene as written and then maybe improving a bit or discussing with Sophie and Zosia what’s funniest here or there, what feels good, trying things a couple of different ways. So it made things really fun, and I had the opportunity to play around a lot, essentially, which I think is the dream. Everyone on set was, you know, it was a New York crew, so a lot of New York actors, some I had worked with before, friends of friends, it was just one big family. It really was a dream Indie film experience, so for that to be my first experience is really special and I recognize that it’s truly a blessing. And to be with Sophie on her journey, this is her first feature, so it’s a really big deal for her, so in moments where maybe I was feeling self-conscious or down on myself for whatever. I could take a step back and say I’m so proud of Sophie, and the movie as a whole, I can default on that supportive friend role when it’s convenient for me, which is really special too.
What’s the third project, then?
So that’s something I started before Tribeca. It’s a theatre-piece, a solo performance piece that I wrote for myself to do. It’s a one woman show essentially.
Have you performed it live yet?
No, so I’m workshopping it, I finished writing it and I started to work on it alone, in my room, to furniture, but I’ve sent it to some directors, so I’m in the stage of getting someone else on board who would be an exterior set of eyes. And I’ll start putting it up on its feet and rehearsing it, and I think I want to do a weekend workshop of it, see how people respond, and if the response is good, then I’ll think seriously about doing a little run of it in L.A., or maybe even New York at a little theatre somewhere. Something that’s really within my control, because it’s just me and a director.
Do you consider it something that’s in your comfort zone? A lot of what we’ve talked about has been on camera, as something that you wrote and came out of your head, is it something that gives you any anxiety, or are you equally as comfortable?
No, I’m terrified! There’s something really exhilarating about theatre, and it is as they say, the actor’s medium, on stage it’s you up there and you can do whatever you want up there. It’s in your control, which is both a blessing and maybe a curse. So theatre is an actor’s dream, especially because it’s something that I wrote, it’s deeply personal, it’s also something that I don’t know how it’ll be perceived until I’m literally up in front of an audience of strangers, and it’s just me and them. It’s all on me to tell a story and to make sure it’s engaging and to be truthful, and if it’s not good, I can’t unfortunately point to other variables and be like ‘Well, you know, the writing wasn’t that good, or that wasn’t my best take, it was a difficult environment.’ I can’t blame anyone other than myself. I can’t really ever blame anyone, but you know, you’re naked up there essentially. It’s a piece about what it means to be a woman and a feminist in 2017, it’s very much inspired by two incidents, one was getting held up at gunpoint on my street in October of 2016. It was totally unexpected, I lived in New York for three and a half years, I was always on high alert, if it were ever to happen, I would have thought it’d happen at 2AM in Brooklyn walking to a subway train or something, but it happened at like 6:30PM on a Tuesday night, right in front of my apartment building on a beautiful residential street in Los Angeles. It was fine, but it was just, I felt really vulnerable and I felt like I was targeted because I’m a young woman who appears defenseless and that just really clicked in with me, and then the election happened and that was a further click in, and I started reading a lot about the history of patriarchy in our society, and digging deep into the ways in which we, as women, hold ourselves back, or underestimate ourselves and contribute to this machine, this patriarchal machine. It came out of that. And it felt good to take these two traumatic events and to process it through writing, and I started watching Lily Tomlin’s one woman show, Whoopi Goldberg, these really really amazing, sort of like 70s to 90s one person performance pieces, that were really popular at the time and did really well commercially even. I was watching a lot of those, started putting it all together, thinking this might be something really interesting and creatively satisfying, and it’s something that I can control and make happen for myself if there’s down time.
Yeah, it sounds very therapeutic, though I think art and therapy are very intertwined, but it makes you so vulnerable in different ways. Talking about you on stage, just you, and also even what the actual content is, you sharing a very vulnerable, scary, real experience with an audience.
Yeah, it’s a play, not just myself and this one woman show, I’m not playing myself, but a handful of other women speaking on their different experiences, all under this theme of how do we hold ourselves back, because there’s also a feeling, after the election of… I mean I think that theatre, film, TV, are all an effort to explore what it’s like to be an other, and to exercise that empathy muscle. So the one woman show is also a therapeutic moment for me, after these two events, to reconnect and try and understand how other women are going through their lives and struggles and how we’re all sort of working with the same limitations and frustrations just in different ways and wanting to feel connected to “the other,” in a time where other people are throwing down these divides, you know?
Outside of commercial success, which is a given, but how do you define success within your career? What is the goal? Besides winning an Oscar and the obvious, but what’s the secondary or even tertiary thing that you aspire to achieve?
I mean, I think that we all want to be seen, right? And acting is a really prime example of that, to be seen by peers you respect is huge. I mean there are actors and actresses who if I could be seen with them, that would be mind blowing. There are directors and writers that I want to work with, and then on the flip side of that, there’s something really beautiful about having a stranger come up to you and saying ‘I just saw this!’ or a friend of a friend, someone you don’t really know, saying they’ve seen you. That moment really affects me. And both of those recognitions feel satisfying, but I really think none of that compares to the goals I set for myself and I mean I just want to be the best, the biggest, brightest version of Diana that I can be, and that means pushing myself to play characters that I wouldn’t think I could. I’ll take what I can get, and if the industry says ‘We love you in this genre of movie, or this TV show, and that’s it for you,’ but it means steady work, I’ll take it and that’d be wonderful. But the dream would be to have first crack at projects that I connect with and to be one day at the level of where I read a book and that book is being optioned, being turned into something, and I can call someone up and be like ‘I really want to do this role,’ and that that’s feasible. So that sort of agency is a dream, and then to be at the end of my career, as an old woman looking back at it, saying ‘I did it all,’ I did the Shakespeare, I did the sitcom, the quiet Indie hit that made Sundance, I want all of it, but what I really want is to always be working.
Yeah, because that’s obviously easier said than done, especially in your field.
Yeah, and I think that the actresses I aspire to, and am starstruck by, are the ones that you can tell have put in the hustle for years and maybe didn’t get recognized in a mainstream way until their late 30s, but they have this beautiful sense of ‘I earned it, and I earned it in this traditional, hardworking, blood, sweat and tears kind of way.’
Amen to that.
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Photos curtesy of Natalie O’Moore.