Stepping into the shoes of a devoted young woman whose sister is grappling with deep depression after a suicide attempt, was a challenge that Alison Pill embraced with every fiber of her being.
In the new film All My Puny Sorrows from Momentum Pictures, Pill plays Yoli Von Riesen and her lifelong friend Sarah Gadon portrays her troubled sister Elf Von Riesen. Mare Winningham plays their mom, Lottie.
With a long family history of depression and suicide, the poignant film — based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Miriam Toews — allows us to watch these actors grapple with the highs and lows that come from family angst. We also let them take us on a highly emotional ride.
Pill, now 36, began her career in film and television at age 12. She is best known for her films Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, Midnight in Paris, Milk, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
On television, she has starred in The Newsroom and Star Trek: Picard and Them.
Pill acknowledges that each role comes with its own learning curve, even if the material is not seeped in heavy drama.
“Life lessons can be learned on a really silly comedy that may not be apparent in the final product,” Pill exclusively tells Monsters & Critics.
“I wouldn’t say that the more emotional ones yield more emotional epiphanies,” she added. “But when it comes to this film, in terms of the greatest gift to me was for Sarah [Gadon] and I to be able to hold space for each other in each of our performances and kind of go to bat for the decisions we wanted to make.
Please read on about Pill’s emotional portrayal in All My Puny Sorrows, a frank discussion on bravery, and what movie her fans still want to talk about 20 years later
Was it difficult to get in that headspace with all the love and the bonds the two sisters in the movie have?
Alison Pill: I think Sarah Gadon and I have known each other since we were kids. We went to the same school and we shot a movie together when we were teenagers. There are a lot of the things that you sort of have to manufacture when playing siblings or people in a long-term relationship actually existed for us in our lives. This made it a special one-of-a-kind experience.
We also found each other at kind of similar points in our adult lives and with such mutual respect and a similar way of working that I think I feel like it was such a gift to be given this opportunity to be together on film and to be able to work on this material as a team.
How important is this to you as a cautionary tale about maybe noticing if our loved ones are in pain or even considering suicide? Did that enter into your research or getting ready for this movie?
No. The book All My Puny Sorrows is based on Miriam Toews’ life. I didn’t feel any need to research beyond that because the book and her experience sort of told me everything I needed to know. And the author’s own wrestling with these questions of what to do I think we are so much greater from her own experience than anything I could manufacture.
Why do you want my readers and other audiences to see this movie?
I think it’s a good movie with good performances. I think it’s shot beautifully. I also think it’s a subject that sort of brings to mind only tragedy. I think the power of the film is that there is also a great deal of life-affirming lessons throughout, and a great deal of love.
I think the questions that it poses about why some people can remain afloat through despair and some cannot is one that people dealing with depression wrestle with, family members of people dealing with depression wrestle with. I think in the way that it approaches those questions with respect and open-mindedness and a real lack of judgment is something new to bring to discussions of depression and suicide.
Do you feel that the discussion that’s brought up in the movie about being brave in your own life despite hardships is something that was important for you to explore or one of the themes?
For Yoli or her sister to be brave?
For both of them to be brave.
I think to me, the exploration is less about bravery than about just going on. Like holding on. There’s a scene between Yoli and her mother where Yoli asks her mother, “Is this too much?” Her mother answers, “Almost.”
It’s sort of like keeping that answer to almost may be as good as we can get a lot of the time. Or is it too much? It might be. But not today. And I think there’s hope in that. Whether that’s bravery or just sort of a willful optimism I don’t know, but it gets us through.
You’ve done a lot of different projects. Some are more emotional than others. Do you feel that there are certain ways that you’re personally changed by this material and this movie exploring these issues?
I think the changes happen kind of in-process and less because of the film or the material involved. And really that joining forces was a really spectacular thing to feel. Sort of this creative force that’s passing back and forth between us was really magical to experience.
Do people recognize you more for certain projects that you’ve done, like Star Trek: Picard or Newsroom, or from a conglomeration of your work?
Honestly to this day one of the most common ones is still Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen and it’s 20 years later.
Do you have a career plan?
No. I think what I’ve been gaining these last few years is a sense that I would like more ownership and control of any future projects. Like being an actor for hire is incredible, but I think the limitations that you can come up against in terms of the way productions are run, in terms of questions that I have that don’t get answered, I would like a more official position to make people answer my emails.
So, you’re thinking about producing?
Potentially. But it is just about – it’s not about necessarily a change in the size of parts or the kinds of parts or who I work with. I believe more and more firmly in the no-jerks rule. That’s becoming a bigger part of my thing.
I think as I get older and have learned to rely less and less on the reception, critical or box office or whatever, the reception of the thing, it’s so much more about the process and having the ability to make sure that people are respected as I believe they should be across the board is something in the entire process that everybody feels part of the same creative team. Which I see on some sets and less on others. I would like to see it more across the board and have some say in how to foster that.
When you’re filming an emotional scene, and there are a lot of them in this movie, do you take that home with you?
No, definitely not. The thing that carries over is simply exhaustion. In the same way that any time after you cry, you’re tired, there’s something exhausting about sorting through emotions. But I don’t carry the anger or sadness home with me. Especially like my daughter is five and she would care unless there was a problem with her supper and bath time. It’s a wonderful way to get back to what my actual life is. I don’t really have any confusion on that count.
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All My Puny Sorrows is currently On Demand and Digital.