The following is part 2 of a 3 part series of interviews on the forthcoming play, The Girl With the Red Hair. Written and directed by Anthony Laura, and featuring Casey Hartnett as Hayley Jones, Vivien Cardone as Doctor Watkins, and Sam Yestrebsky as Courtney Dawson/Azura, The Girl With the Red Hair will begin a two-week run on December 5th at The Alchemical.
On the heels of an interview with Casey Hartnett and Anthony Laura, I’m thrilled to dive further into the inner-workings and dynamic of The Girl With the Red Hair. This time, in addition to Anthony, I had the privilege of interviewing Vivien Cardone, who takes on the pivotal role of Doctor Watkins.
Starring Casey Hartnett as Hayley Jones, The Girl with the Red Hair, is an exploration of the damage rendered by sexual abuse, of a mind in turmoil as it attempts to cope with experiences far too extreme to process. In the ever-deepening shadows of the girl she once was, who is Hayley Jones, and will it be enough to simply be a survivor?
With The Girl with the Red Hair, Anthony Laura captures the true struggle of Hayley Jones in a troubling yet empathetic light. With the added insight of Casey Hartnett’s approach to portraying Hayley, they remind us that a victim’s experience never ends. That the struggle of coping is a solitary and difficult journey that pits the mind with the heart in a fight neither can truly win.
An Interview with Anthony Laura and Vivien Cardone
Vivien Cardone began acting at the age of 3 months in national campaign commercials for Pizza Hut, Sears, Pillsbury, Sherman Williams, and Prudential, to name a few. She had her first big screen role as Marcee Herman in the Academy Award winning film, A Beautiful Mind and played the role of Delia Brown on the WB’s Everwood. Additionally, she starred as Belle in the film All Roads Lead to Home and had roles on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit, and One Life to Live.
As a matter of professional necessity, Doctor Watkins keeps an emotional distance from Hayley in their sessions. As an actress, this requires you to keep a measured hand to the sensitive and important issue of an individual struggling with her mental health. How did you prepare for this aspect of the role, and did you agree with her approach?
Vivien: Part of the character development I worked on with Anthony involved discovering who Dr. Watkins was underneath her role as head psychiatrist. We worked on discovering her values and belief systems, as well as her personal life, and from there we were able to build on how she applied those values to her work. I think when a therapist is working with individuals who are struggling with their mental health, it is important to keep a measure of emotional distance, so that you are able to approach the issues at hand in a calm and collected manner. I think Watkins tends to take this to the extreme, and, as a consequence, struggles to look at the patient individually, which may hinder her ability to offer Hayley the type of treatment and rehabilitation she needs. Watkins is all about order and protocol. She goes by the book. And that isn’t always a good thing when you are dealing with people who are in a vulnerable situation.
The Girl With the Red Hair delves deeply into depression, mental illness, and sexual abuse. How has the journey of Hayley Jones altered your view of these issues in your life?
Vivien: Mental illness is an extremely relevant issue right now. Society has come to embrace invisible illness as valid and serious. However, I think it is important for society to not place labels on those of us who struggle with our mental health. Having depression, anxiety, mood disorders, eating disorders, that is only a small part of what a person truly is. We need to learn to look at the individual in their entirety and accept all the parts of them. And I think that applies to the person who lives with the illness. It took me a long time to be able to embrace, and even love those parts of me. Being in this play has helped me to be kinder and more patient with myself. I no longer approach my mental health as something that needs to be feared or fixed, but rather as something I can allow to walk beside me throughout my life. It’s the little monster on my shoulder that I need to protect and nurture.
With Hayley, that little monster has clearly taken hold of her life. What do you think we can do better as a society to help protect and nurture that monster, so that individuals like Hayley get the attention they need before things spiral out of control?
Anthony: I think, firstly, we need to listen. A lot of people who suffer from any type of mental illness are not looking to be given advice, they just want to be heard. It’s difficult for some people to understand that listening can be just as powerful as trying to help someone solve a problem. Sometimes, depending on the case, when dealing with mental illness, it’s not something that can be solved. It’s amazing what a simple ear can do. Secondly, we need to start getting rid of stigmas. As a whole, I think we need to cry more, we need to show our emotions. If we found a way to be more open and let ourselves show who we truly are, we would accept others and ourselves more. Shame is debilitating and we need to eliminate it.
Vivien: I think it really comes down to acceptance and unconditional love. In so many of today’s relationships, there seems to be this consistent theme of “I love you as long as….” And I think that to truly love someone, you have to be ready to accept all of them, not only the parts that are convenient and beneficial for you. Everyone has some form of trauma, everyone has a pathology. All of it is valid, and all of it is worthy of love. And when we start to approach people with the love they deserve, choosing to see that person in their entirety, we allow that person to start to love and accept themselves. Mental illness doesn’t mean you are less of a person. It is a journey that sets you apart from the rest, and adds to the beauty that comes with being a unique individual. So be open, be patient, and above all, be kind and loving.
At one point, Nurse Janice offers to Hayley that “People are hard because life makes them that way.” Given her comment is regarding Doctor Watkins, do you agree with her perspective?
Vivien: Absolutely. Life can be very difficult, and people’s hearts can be hardened by the trials and traumas they have experienced. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a way of protecting yourself from further pain. The mind is incredible at guarding itself. I think Watkins has had her fair share of trials in life. But she is a fighter, and she is not one to give up easily. She has very thick skin, and I believe that is what has helped her make it so far in her life and her career at such a young age.
Doctor Watkins aside, what character do you resonate with the most and why?
Vivien: I don’t feel like there is any one character that I resonate with more than the others. And I think that is what is so special about this play. Every character is a reflection of either a part of you, or a part of someone you know. I connect with Hayley’s stubbornness, strength and moments of denial, Tabitha’s nurturing warmth and patience, Nurse Janice’s bluntness and empathy, Courtney’s bubbly energy, Coury’s devotion, Eve’s confidence and sensuality. People are constantly evolving, and there are many aspects that make up who we are. So I truly believe there is something to be gained and taken away by anyone involved in this play, both on or behind the stage, or in the audience.
It’s typical for a writer to empathize and connect to their characters. How did the process of writing Hayley’s disintegration affect you?
Anthony: I think I love Hayley more than any other character I’ve ever written. I’ve spent the most time with her and every time I write more in terms of her disintegration, it feels like a betrayal to someone I love. Yet, there’s a beauty in Hayley that exists despite what she’s going through and that’s really what I admire about her. She never plays the victim. Often times, she doesn’t even ask for help. It’s hard not to admire someone who comes out on the other side of a struggle, who fights to make others better when they need the comforting. This is also the beauty in having someone as talented and open as Casey playing Hayley. There are moments you get lost when watching her move from scene to scene because you are overtaken by this force of nature. I think that’s why this particular story gains something from being told through a theatrical medium. To be in the same room and feel that energy Casey is giving off as Hayley, the way she looks out into the audience, it takes you by surprise. It’s not something you can feel in a movie.
Vivien, you’ve had the opportunity to play a variety of roles on both screen and stage. What challenges did the role of Doctor Watkins offer that differed from previous roles?
Vivien: Watkins is a very guarded and tough woman. But she also has a vulnerable side to her that she tries very hard to hide. I think trying to find that balance between strength and vulnerability has been quite a challenge. Also, there are many characters in this play, Watkins included, that I resonate with on a personal level. So, immersing myself into such a heavy character and world can be emotionally and mentally draining. But so very rewarding.
If Doctor Watkins could leave the audience with one message about mental illness, what would it be?
Vivien: There is no such thing as a lost cause. Every person is deserving of help and healing. You only need to be open and ready to heal. If you are willing to reach out and receive help, people are ready to guide you and support you. You are not alone.
The collaborative effort between writer and actor is on-going from draft to stage. How has working together influenced The Girl With the Red Hair?
Vivien: The best part about working with Anthony has been the amount of trust we have built with each other. On top of that, we are both very like minded in our approaches to, and passion for, storytelling. Anthony is an incredible director, and a wonderful writer. He truly values his actors, allows us the freedom to explore our characters, and is incredibly receptive to the discoveries we make in the process. This play has truly become a collaborative effort between the actors and our director, and that has allowed us to develop a very raw, authentic story that carries so many important messages.
Anthony: From the very beginning, Vivien has played an integral role in the development of Doctor Watkins. Together, we were excited to discover who she was outside of being a doctor. Through Vivien’s empathetic and vulnerable performance, Dr. Watkins became one of the strongest relationships that Hayley endures throughout her stay. Vivien is an extremely collaborative actor who is always open to trying anything in the room, and that was an incredible benefit when we workshopped in late summer. Through the way she talks about Watkins in the rehearsal room, it’s evident how much she cares and protects the character. I found that to be key in the development. Often, authoritative roles in stories like this tend to be caricaturish or only exist to provide conflict, but what I feel we were able to achieve, particularly with Vivien in the role, is to illustrate the care a doctor has for her patients, while understanding that doctors are often patients themselves.
With that collaborative effort in mind, how has the character of Doctor Watkins changed from inception to her current state?
Vivien: I think the most change that has occurred with Watkins would be the level of vulnerability and personal investment she has in her patients. Initially, I had played Watkins as a woman who is trying to gain control of her life throughout the overwhelming pressures she faces both at work and at home. As Anthony and I continued to work together, we began to discover the softer and more emotional sides to Watkins that she fights so hard to keep hidden. Watkins has good intentions. She wants to help her patients. She wants to help her family. And she is currently feeling the frustrations and fear of the limitations that come with being human. There is only so much one can accomplish on their own.
Anthony: There’s a new scene in the play that takes place in Act 2. There’s a big shift in the relationship at that point between Watkins and Hayley. I wrote this scene for a workshop and I felt very strongly about it, but I didn’t know how it would play. I remember the first time Vivien and Casey read the scene together, I was floored. I almost lost my breath. It’s a powerful moment for Watkins, but there’s something equally as powerful for Hayley. I don’t want to give away the scene, but I personally feel this scene is a prime example of how the evolution of this character came to me between the two of us. I wrote it knowing Vivien’s talent, but still couldn’t have imagined the depths she would take it. In my opinion, Watkins is no longer a doctor treating Hayley. She’s a woman working in a hospital who cares so deeply for all the people around her. The distinction of her being played as a woman and not as a doctor, which is solely because of Vivien, is the reason you leave the play thinking about their relationship.
Anthony, through Doctor Watkins you had to take a more clinical approach to addressing Hayley’s mental struggles. What challenges did that present in your writing?
Anthony: I found the challenge to lie more in creating that relationship rather than through her clinical approach. Both of these women tend to hold back more than they reveal, and though at the start of the play they seem to be very different people, I think as we understand what Watkins is going through, we are able to see how similar they are. It was also important to me that the clinical aspect be accurate and that all the medication that was referenced would be medicine that coincided with what Doctor Watkins viewed Hayley’s symptoms to be at that particular moment. From the audience’s perspective, we are able to see Hayley’s disintegration happen before us. However, what we don’t witness is the effect that Hayley’s disintegration has had on Watkins due to the way her treatment has remained unsuccessful. We catch glimpses, and again this is what Vivien illustrates so wonderfully, being able to show us these small moments of heartbreak for someone she truly cares about. I think balancing her professional care for Hayley versus her personal attachment to this particular patient is something that took some time to arrive at.
Throughout the play, Hayley sees a younger version of herself enjoying the spoils of being young. What inspired you to include her in the story?
Anthony: I wanted to explore the differences in the places we reside pre and post trauma. In the last run, we were able to experience how Hayley had changed from the moment we met her, but I thought it was important to understand visually how she had changed from the last moment she felt true happiness. I think there’s a difference in how we relate and feel happiness as children versus as adults. It’s rare we can move into adulthood and keep such a carefree and unguarded nature and I think, through Hayley’s disease and what she experienced so many years ago, she’s trying to find her way back to a place where she didn’t need to hide, where she didn’t question herself or her instincts and lived out in the world instead of inside her head.
Like any script, The Girl With the Red Hair has undergone a number of changes. During edits and rewrites, in your eyes, in what ways has the play improved?
Anthony: I really enjoy that addition of Young Hayley. I think it opens up the play in a way I didn’t even foresee when I spoke to Casey originally about the idea. In this new version, I feel the characters are more vivid and we get to explore deeper truths with each of them. Two of my favorite additions come in the form of monologues. One is delivered by Cortney (played by Samantha Yestrebsky) and one is delivered by Hayley. They both exist in the second act and I think the incredible ways that Casey and Sam execute these monologues brings us so deep into the minds of these characters that your heart breaks for these people you’ve come to really care about.
Anthony, at what point did you know Vivien was a fit for Doctor Watkins? And Vivien, at what point did you know you wanted to be a part of this play?
Anthony: I knew before I picked up the script to revise it that I wanted Vivien to be part of the production. Beyond being a talented actor, she’s one of my favorite human beings. I knew whatever this new draft turned into, it would benefit by having her on board. However, in the original play, Doctor Watkins was written and played by a man. As I went through certain revisions, I realized I felt the energy of a male therapist didn’t align with the story I was telling anymore. I knew Vivien was perfect for the role because it required a mix of strength and vulnerability. I spoke with her briefly about what the role was and she agreed to do it blindly. Vivien’s involvement has meant such a great deal to me because the research we’ve done together and the emotional investment she’s made in Dr. Watkins has pushed the character into territory I never would’ve imagined.
Vivien: I began my journey with Anthony when I was cast as Natalie in his upcoming film “The Rabbits.” I had also performed in his short play “The Purple Room” this past summer at the Theatre for the New City. From the start, I have deeply admired Anthony’s talent as a writer, so when he told me about this play, I already knew I would love the storyline and the characters. So I jumped right on board to play Dr. Watkins before I had even read the script. However, during our first table read, the script far exceeded my already high expectations. I was blown away with the raw emotion, and how well Anthony displayed the humanity behind Hayley and the other patients. I remember having to walk out of the room a couple of times to gain my composure, because so many of the monologues resonated with me on such a deep, personal level. I thought to myself “This is exactly where I am supposed to be. This play is going to be something special.”
The process of writing and directing or performing gives you both repeated runs through the entire script. What is the one scene, monologue, or line that sticks with you, or stands as your favorite?
Vivien: For me, that would have to be Hayley’s monologue during the final scene in act 1, after her altercation with Dr. Watkins over her medication. There are so many statements throughout that I have personally felt, as I am sure many others have, at one point in my life. This is one of the few moments in the play that we see Hayley being upfront and honest with her feelings towards herself. It’s a powerful, emotional, and raw dialogue. And Casey delivers this monologue with such heartfelt emotion. There have been many times where I have walked off the stage during that scene with tears in my eyes.
Anthony: I don’t think I can reveal my favorite line as it gives away an important moment. However, my favorite monologue has come to be the roof monologue in Act 2. In the midst of a manic episode, Hayley speaks about her teenage years and going up to the roof of her old house. It’s a four-page monologue that’s told through a flight of ideas. I don’t even know how many full sentences there are in the monologue. I wrote it fragmented and the moment Casey spoke it for the first time in workshops, she hit every fragmented pause, every bit of language I was going for without us ever having had to speak about the way it was written. I’ve never had that happen with an actor before. It’s an emotional monologue, dealing with her past and how that ties into her present situation. There are a couple of monologues in the play where we deal with one speaker and very rarely an interruption but coming in Act 2 very close to the end of the play, this has different meaning. There is so much pain inside this one cry for help. One of my favorite lines in the context of the monologue is, “Because all of this hurt, every moment that I’ve ever felt so alone, which has been more times than I’ve ever felt, I dunno, loved, I guess, it just doesn’t make any sense why someone would be willed into existence only to never be loved or understood.” I think about that a lot. The total amount of times in our lives we’ve felt loved versus alone and how that can take a toll on someone if the math doesn’t add up in your favor. There’s so much buried in this monologue that Casey uncovers every time she performs it and I think, even outside of experiencing a manic state, I think we can all relate to such flight of ideas about things that eventually bubble to the surface.
Part three of this series, featuring Sam Yestrebsky, will run in November.