The Biograph Girl

Dylan Gelula doesn’t want to be famous, and she’s probably screwed

“Being an actress in L.A. is just so embarrassing,” says the actress, Dylan Gelula, as if divulging a vulgar secret. “It’s the worst. I feel like the people I meet respect me right up until I tell them what I do for a living.” She may be exaggerating her contempt for my benefit, but her antipathy isn’t performed. Gelula is acerbic, and comes off as supremely self-confident. And yet at 21—after four years in Los Angeles acting for television—she remains in a sort of spiritual flux about her career. On Twitter, recently, she wrote: “Being settled enough into a personality where I’m not humiliated by everything I said more than a week ago is a sexual fantasy of mine.”

She’s also really funny.

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When I met with Gelula at the BRIGHT IDEAS office in Angeleno Heights last December, five days earlier, a film she’d starred in had been accepted into the NEXT category at Sundance. First Girl I loved—which is also the first Seed&Spark-crowdfunded project to premiere in Park City—revolves around Gelula’s Anne: a disheveled, artsy type who falls in love with the most popular girl at school.

Filmed in 25 days in the Canoga Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, First Girl starts off like a conventional, outsider-chases-insider teen romantic dramedy—with an LGBT twist. Anne shares news of her crush with Clifton (Mateo Arias), her best friend who has secretly been harboring feelings for her. But just as the viewer begins to write the story off as a retelling of the same first-love movie we’ve seen 70 or 80 times—albeit one stocked with exceptional, naturalistic acting—the linear narrative splits.

After Anne tells Clifton about her desire for Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand), the film rockets in two directions, never returning to the stability and innocence it had before Anne’s admission. At turns sweet, erotic, and brutal, First Girl gives great emotional weight to the too-often shameful struggle of discovering one’s sexuality in a public arena, and the courage it takes, at any age, to let yourself be seen for who you are.

Director Kerem Sanga’s loose camera and improvisational tone belies how intricately nested First Girl‘s narrative is. Moving back and forth in time, he builds toward a monumental emotional revelation whose genesis we never quite glimpse. Sanga has created a film that couldn’t be further from a light, self-important coming-of-age story. And Gelula deserves substantial credit for that triumph. Charming, vulnerable, and wryly funny, Gelula sets the film in motion. In the end, she’s also nearly crushed by its weight. But that only makes her survival more poignant.

As a young woman trying to find value in her acting, it seems, Gelula has nothing to be embarrassed about. Come January, I remind her, she could be the face of an important, breakout hit. As I say this, her face assumes a look of pure horror, and she hides behind her hands.

“Dear God,” she says. “I hope not.”

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BRIGHT IDEAS (BI): How did you get your start in show business?

Dylan Gelula (DG): When I was 10, I was an extra in M. Night Shamalayan’s Lady in the Water. Casting calls for extras are always such bullshit. They make it sound like you’re going to be in a scene with Bruce Willis, when in reality they just need a crowd of 200 random people. But when you are 10 years old and in the suburbs and you see this online, you ask your mom to take you to the convention center downtown. I just remember being bewildered that I got paid because I wanted to be there so badly.

BI: What were you like as a kid?

DG: Well, once, in 5th grade, we were allowed to choose our favorite poem and recite it from memory at an in-class party, in front of everyone and their families. I chose a poem by Dorothy Parker about methods of suicide and their downsides. The point of the poem is that they’re all too much trouble, so you might as well live. And if I was in 5th grade and aware of who she was, I must have been aware that that was inappropriate, right? So, I guess I was kind of unpleasant in general.

BI: It’s almost like the kid version of performance art. Did that impulse carry on into high school?

DG: No, I hated high school, so I barely went. I was a truant—like, in the legal sense, I was almost charged with truancy. I don’t think there was an entire week in any of my educational experience that I attended every scheduled class. Actually, while I was doing my first real role on stage—as Jean Fordham, the granddaughter of the family matriarch in August: Osage County—they told me that I’d have to repeat my senior year or drop out. So, I dropped out.

BI: And moved to Los Angeles?

DG: Yes, I moved to L.A. alone when I was 17. There was a lot of nothing in that first year. I sort of just hung around, haunting L.A. I got a part time job at a restaurant at one point, but I got fired pretty quickly. And I totally understand why. I would have fired me, too. It was this really high-end restaurant in Santa Monica and all of the clientele were really entitled old white people. They would keep asking me for things all the time, and I just didn’t want to get stuff for them! So that ended.

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BI: How does LA compare to Philadelphia? I’ve never been but I hear it’s incredible. 

DG: Philadelphia is different from L.A. in that it’s way better. I don’t think I’ve ever thought it’s “fun” in L.A. It’s always just represented the final destination of the escape plan, more than an ideal city for me. Once I moved here, the narrative shifted from “land of opportunity” to “this dude tried to pee on me while I was walking to Trader Joe’s” almost immediately, and I settled into the pure contempt I have for it today. I also just spent a lot of time alone. My journal from that period is hilariously dark and dramatic. Yikes. I don’t know. I’ve been here for 1,000 years now and still haven’t figured it out socially.

BI: What was one of your early roles?

DG: Right after Miley Cyrus got caught smoking pot or salvia, every family TV show was doing a “my kid is trying drugs” episode. So, I had one scene in one episode of Are We There Yet? I was the bad girl exerting my influence on the daughter by offering her salvia. I’ve played variations of that character a few times.

BI: I was just thinking that that sounds a little bit like Anne, your character in First Girl I Loved. Would you say you’re typecast as the cool, bad influence?

DG: Yes! I’m always the kind of girl who wears Doc Martens and reads poetry, but is really bad in school. It was always like that when I was growing up, too. My friends’ parents would always say, “Oh, don’t go to Dylan’s house.” I wonder what about me is suggesting that because it’s really inaccurate. I’ve never been much of a drinker, and the first time I smoked was when I was 19. I think it might be because I’ve always spoken to adults as if they were my equals. I’ve never had reverence for people older than I am. Actually, that was something that came up when we were shooting First Girl. In one scene, I walk up to address the school counselor played by Tim Heidecker. After we did the first take, the director, Kerem Sanga, pulled me aside and said, “You can’t talk to him that way. He’s your counselor.”

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BI: What do you look for in the characters you play? 

DG: I know it’s a cliché to say this, but I want to play real people. And they’re hard to find. There really are no good roles out there for women. You’re either completely over-sexualized or you’re dumb. That’s what I really appreciated about the characters in First Girl I Loved. Kerem wrote not only one incredible, complicated three-dimensional teenage girl, but two! Two real people! Two girls that are distinct from one another, rather than just two versions of the same person. I was talking about this with Pamela Adlon, who plays my mother in the film. After we finished the script, we both flipped back to the title page to double-check who it was written by. We couldn’t believe it was written by a man! But that’s just a testament to how talented Kerem is.

BI: How do you prepare for a role? How would you describe your process?

DG: I don’t have a process! Maybe I’m just too new to the game to have a process. I’m very much untrained, and therefore sort of messy in my acting. Which I like in other actors. Degrees of imperfections and spontaneity, to me, sell the illusion that what they’re feeling is real. I am constantly saying out loud to my television: “I don’t believe you!” and it’s really that simple. For First Girl I Loved, specifically, I had a great resource: my journal from when I was Anne’s age. Our lives were very different, but the raw frustrations and growing pains were nearly identical. I brought another journal to set and would combine things I had said then with Anne’s lines, into this incomprehensible Emotion Writing. I have read some of that recently and I might need to be hospitalized.

The biggest thing I thought we had in common was the weird color that being precocious paints your childhood. I knew Anne was an early cognitive developer, which was my biggest downfall in school. I felt so much smarter than all the other kids, but really, I just developed earlier. I wasn’t smarter at all. By middle school everyone had caught up to me and I had never learned how to study because I didn’t need to. So, when it came time to need to learn, I just declined the opportunity. I saw a similar brainy childhood past, current teenage delinquency thing for Anne.

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BI: You were incredibly convincing as Anne, and the romance between her and her love interest, Sasha, felt really authentic. How did you approach playing an LGBT character?

DG: I’m very sensitive to the history of straight actors playing LGBT characters and the misrepresentation that results. So, I wanted to be very careful about it. I’m not gay myself, but my very best friend in the world is a woman who sleeps with other women. So, I was just constantly calling her, asking her questions, and trying to learn from her experiences. She grew up hooking up with guys, so she knew what it was like to do both. And she explained the difference to me in that sleeping with women has a softness to it—a gentleness and really beautiful sense of commonality. So, that’s what I was trying to evoke. And Brianna Hildebrand, who plays Sasha, is really genuinely a wonderful human, and she’s goddamn beautiful. So, it wasn’t hard to pretend to fall in love with her.

BI: First Girl I Loved was your first feature film, right? How did it feel? How did it compare to your experience in television?

DG: It was incredible. It was the perfect creative experience. I really genuinely mean that. There was so much more room to focus on performance than I’ve had in TV. In TV you’re rehearsing for the camera, and if you move one inch to the right, they’re mad at you because you’re out of focus. But here, there was a lot more creative input, too. I suggested that Anne have a blue streak in her hair!

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BI: I’m really excited to be talking with you before you head off to Sundance. I feel a little like I’m talking to you on the cusp of fame.

DG: The culture of fame in the United States is my favorite topic in the entire world. I’m reading a book about it called Gods Like Us. The more I meet people who have experienced fame, the more I get obsessed with how sick and fascinating both the worshipped and worshippers are. And how we all want to be both. I can’t stop reading about Florence Lawrence—the first person whose name was used to promote a film, for the silent movie company Biograph. She got hurt doing a stunt and time forgot her until her suicide. She was buried in an unmarked grave at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery until someone bought her a headstone. It says “The Biograph Girl” with the wrong birth year. I went to sit beside it the other day and someone recognized me from Kimmy Schmidt. Pretty dark.

Photos by Evan Lane