By Morgan Roberts
“Before/During/After” (2021) is a triumphant film about love, loss, and reconnecting with yourself. I was given the opportunity to watch it last year as a screener from the Greenpoint Film Festival. It is hard to make a perfect film, but the “Before/During/After” team sure made one. Finnerty Steeves wrote, stars, and produced this film, and it is a real ode to the female experience. Steeves has worked on screen and onstage in New York. You may recognize her from “Orange is the New Black,” “Bored to Death,” or “Bad Education.”
“Before/During/After” follows stage actress Jenny (Steeves) as you see the rise and fall of her marriage. Steeves’ work in “Before/During/After” is truly remarkable. The writing and dialogue felt purposeful and effortless, and the woman that she brought to life onscreen was relatable.
“Before/During/After” finally has a wider release and I cannot wait for a larger audience to see this film. In anticipation of the film’s release, I virtually sat down with Steeves to discuss acting and the film, that to me, is utterly perfect. (Read my film review here). Without further ado, here is our interview.
My first question is, really, how did you get started in acting and storytelling?
I was really a pretty shy kid. Really silly and stuff around my family. I am still shy to this day; if I have to raise my hand in any group setting, like, my heart is in my – I’m like a shy kid. But my mom talked me into taking a speech and drama class in junior high. I hated it. But there was an experience where I – we had to do a mime, to this day I can’t stand miming, mimes scare me; (laughs) I don’t like it. But I was doing this exercise where we had to mime baking a cake, like an activity or whatever, and I’m sure I was hilarious because the whole class was laughing and I couldn’t stand it, because I didn’t mean for it to be funny, it was probably the funniest thing I have ever done because I was so serious. And I kind of clocked that as being something traumatic and awful but other people found it funny was weird to me. But then we had to do a lip-sync exercise and I gave myself permission to be really silly. And I realized that difference between sort of allowing people to have their opinion of you that if you can still do something, it was like a little permission inside me, “Oh if I can just decide that I’m okay with people finding what I do as funny, sad, or whatever that is,” so I suddenly became really excited about that. And my humor to this day, I love humor that’s not really jokes but people really being earnest and trying their best – that’s my favorite kind of humor. I’ve sought that out in other directors and writers. That’s what I attempted to do with the film.
There’s nothing more powerful than having people react. Was that kind of the permission? But also, you’re making people feel something that they weren’t feeling before.
I think that’s why I love live theater too because you can feel it more. You can trust that. That’s exactly it. I think – I’m just trying to think why I have a harder time auditioning for, like, the audition situation for actors is so difficult because a lot of times what the person watching you on the other side of the table is thinking is so many things, so it’s not a regular audience. I’m aware that, sort of, decisions are being in the moment. But when I auditioned for TV and film, there’s something so…I love it because I feel like the camera gets me. So I’m not as worried about how it’s landing in the room because you never know what people are thinking in terms of casting and stuff, but that is why I do love live theater just knowing that you can sense when you’ve lost people. And hearing people laugh. It’s the best. But I will admit, my sense of humor, even in theater is not, I always struggle – it’s one of the reasons why I went to graduate school, to be honest, I went to ACT, American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and I knew I needed to have the skills to do more then to just sort of be a quirky ingénue, and thank God because I’m not an ingénue anymore. I wanted to have the skills to do more and sort of how you can take the little thing of truth and how do you stay truthful in a theater with 1800 seats. How can you still be truthful? And that was difficult to me, is to translate, especially if it was a smaller, more intimate play, how do you lean on that truth so that more than three rows gets what you’re doing.
That translates into the film really well. I found the film to be very vulnerable and intimate which I don’t think we either capture or celebrate in capturing. What is it like doing it on screen versus doing it on stage? Once you do it and it’s there on screen, it’s permanent, but at least on the stage, if you lose one audience, you can learn and do it different with the next.
Yeah, that was, actually, a huge challenge. I had two directors which was incredible. That’s a whole other thing, how I had two directors. They both had certain things in common, but I just loved what they could each bring to the table. And one of my directors is Jack Lewars and the other is Stephen Kunken, who is also an incredible actor. And Steve was really able to help me gauge what would work normally in a theater, how that would translate. He was really good at helping me keep track of Jenny’s arch. Sometimes things that felt truthful… in all honesty, I don’t know if I’ve told this to any interviewers yet, but we actually had a slightly different ending. It was still the same structure. When Jenny decides to run back and sort of fight for herself and she’s like, “I know this woman,” it used to be that Jenny went home, which she does, she goes home defeated, and it used to be that Jenny nails the monologue at home. Which sort of happens to actors; it happens all the time where I blow it in the room and as soon as I get home, I am just able to really do it. Or the second the elevator door closes as you leave you understand something. So, we did that, and it was awesome. Jenny nails the audition. But the problem we had editing, was, because the Jenny character hooked in so beautifully to that monologue it seemed like she was hurt, right? Which is what actors do, you go there, and structurally for a film, we needed Jenny to be stronger at the end, we didn’t want to worry about her: “Oh God, she really hooked into this character.” And because where it came in the film, we were like, “Oh crap, this now feels like she went backwards,” even though actors understand it. It felt like she was not moving forward. Especially in this piece where we are jumping around in time, it was really important that we gave the feeling that she’s going to be okay and this was a power moment. So that was really difficult. But that’s when we decided that we could move the scene with the mom and make that be enough for her to run back. And I think it worked beautifully. But that was one of those things that was really difficult to cut, but once we saw it all together, we were like, “Oh man, it really does seem like [she went backwards] so how can we do that same thing?” It used to be that you would hear the monologue as she was running back and then she would finish in the room. But we decided that the editors were incredible, we put back, sort of, a recollection of going back and forth from the hallway so we knew where we were in time, because, at the end of the film, you realize the whole thing as actually memory.
I find non-linear to be the most difficult and easily botched. So, how were you able to lean into that structure and how much of it was in the script or came out through editing?
When I wrote the piece, I never wanted to write and I’d never written anything, and I was with this really incredible writers’ group, and as an actor, I was sharing scenes at a time. I am such a rule-follower, and I was so afraid that I was going to mess this up. So I thought, “well, I know how to write moments. I know how to write scenes. And I’ll figure it out later.” So, I just started turning in these scenes to be read. And I was like, “That is what divorce feels like. Where you are trying to put the pieces together.” And this idea of memory – I’m obsessed with memory. I, myself, have a really bad memory, so I love this idea of memory and how memories change over time and depending on where you are in the moment. And I will admit, I got a little hung up because I thought, “who am I to break rules that I don’t even understand yet?” So I was feeling like a bit of an imposter and [my mentor] Jason was like, “You’re an actor. You are a writer, you have an appreciation for writing. Tell the story. You know how to tell a story. Use the rules later to help you if you get stuck. Otherwise, keep going. You know how to tell the story.”
You worked with two co-directors (Stephen Kunken and Jack Lewars). And I find that two directors interesting since it is two people working together. But also, you wrote the film. Can you talk about that?
It could have gone horribly wrong. I assumed I would have a female director. Because of the nature of this little indie, it really came down to people that I knew who were willing to help. That being said, I couldn’t imagine a better team. It ended up that the limitations of that brought the best people to me. I reached out to a friend, a female director, and then she said, “Do you definitely want a female director?” And I said, “No, I would be open to a man. Who were you thinking?” She said, “Stephen,” which is her husband. Jenn [Thompson] is a dear friend of mine and an incredible theater director. I was like, “Yeah, I would be interested in that,” and she was like, “Because he loves the script and would love the chance to sit down and talk with you.” In the meantime, another dear friend, Katie [Hyde], came to me and said, “Please no pressure, we want to support you in any way we can, but we [Katie and her husband, Jack Lewars] would love to throw our hats in the ring.” So, I met with them separately. And I was like, “How do I make this work?” Because they had such different strengths; they had similarities but they had such different strengths and things to bring to the table. Jack is an incredible colorist at Technicolor. Colored “Manchester by the Sea.” He has just an incredible eye. And with non-linear storytelling, he had all of these great ideas about subtly using color when jumping around in time, and it aided [the film] so beautifully. So, I was Googling co-directors and everything said, “Don’t do it.” But I felt in my gut that I had to introduce them. I mentioned it to them; they were both a little hesitant, but I just suggested we go out for a drink. And with Jack, Katie would come on board to help me produce. So, we went for a drink, and small talk, small talk turned into talking about projects and independent film and my film, and then suddenly we hugged it out and decided we were going to make this film together. I cannot imagine a better team. They work so beautifully together.
How long did you all shoot?
We had a 20 day shoot. Which was a lot for that big of a cast and that many locations. As a first time filmmaker, I’m like, “They’re at this location. And this location.” So, there were a few things that had to be changed. But in some ways, because of that, really cool things came out of it. Even going back to the diner. Originally that was a different location.
You also really did have an impressive supporting cast. I mean, I infamously shouted “Miriam Shor!” alone in my apartment. How is it like bringing in super renowned stage and character actors to have varying degree time on screen in your film?
It was the most humbling, incredible experience. We had Marcia DeBonis and Amy Christopher as our casting directors. They have great friendships with so many of these actors. And because Stephen is an actor also he was friends with a lot of these people. Miriam’s husband Justin [Hagan] actually plays the handsome stranger on the street that Jenny flirts with. An incredible actor also doing a part with no lines. We did a play together 15 years ago Off-Broadway and have been dear friends ever since. So, to have these people show up and do these parts to help me, to help the story was just incredible. And every time I watch it, I go, “Oh my god, Kate Burton.” I cannot believe these people who are in this film, who said “yes” to one day to come in and play. The very first shooting scene was the dentist scene. Thank God it wasn’t an emotional scene because I had the biggest smile on my face, I could not believe I was hanging out with these people.
I found that also adds to Jenny’s world in acting too. I find New York acting and Los Angeles acting very different. What was it like giving that texture but not giving the stereotypical actor or actor scene to the film?
That was one of the things Stephen and I talked about. It was important and Stephen said, “I don’t want to get someone fancy and plop them in.” There are these awkward cameos in films, where it is strange to see someone famous in a weird little cameo, so it was important that they were appropriately cast in a way that just felt very real. If you didn’t know who they were, you still felt like they were perfectly cast. We looked it up, and I believe that there are over 100 Broadway credits amongst our cast, separate from Off-Broadway, so it’s just an incredible group of actors.
When it came to casting, some of the people Marcia and Amy were suggesting, we kept saying, “We don’t want anybody funny.” It needs to be just as serious as possible, in terms of the humor. But the more serious they could play – there are some theater actors who are known for crafting their roles in such an incredible way that I don’t think, sometimes, translates to the camera. And I find that New York actors are cool with being a piece of a puzzle, even if that ends up being a smaller piece, they want to be a part of a cool puzzle. That is what I loved about all of the actors Amy and Marcia is that they were all just so authentic and really earnest. That was the most important thing.
What is it like being an actor playing an actor?
It was really fun. I think actors, in general, we use our own experience to tell the truth that was really thrilling to me. And to be standing there in front of Michael Emerson and auditioning for him. And that room was actually part of the Actor’s Company Theater which has since gone under but I’ve rehearsed and auditioned in that room before. That truthfulness was really great. The audition scene in the film, the sort of thread of it – [the film] is based on personal experience of my marriage falling apart. So shortly after my marriage fell apart, I auditioned for a beautiful play called “Dinner with Friends,” I was sobbing because I thought, “I have to play this part – it’s me.” I could barely keep it together while I was rehearsing it. Then I went in to audition and I couldn’t go there. I remember the director saying something very similar to what I had Michael Emerson saying, he said, “This is a woman, if you can even imagine, this is a woman, whose life she thought she knew is gone. Everyone thought they were the perfect couple, everyone including her. So take that in and give it another go.” I remember being so pissed off, I thought, “I was already trying to heal and then you took that from me, you took my ability to be a human and connect to my work. That was temporary and I ended up not getting the part. I didn’t run back and fight for myself in the real true life version.
I like to end with a few rapid fire questions if that’s okay.
What is a movie that makes you cry every time you watch it?
One of my favorite movies, but it doesn’t make me cry, but it makes me super happy is “Born Yesterday.” I mean, I want to cry because it’s perfection and it’s also a play, I love it because of that. Judy Holliday is so over the top, but completely earnest and truthful. She just melts me.
Who is someone you would want to work with? Writer/Director/Actor…
Catherine O’Hara. She can do no wrong. She is perfection. She is so funny. Frances McDormand, I just adore her so much. It’s just so inspiring. She doesn’t do the thing that we’re told we’re supposed to do. It’s refreshing.
Have you had a TV show that has helped you through the pandemic?
I love old episodes of “The Office” (UK). It’s kind of my go-to. And if I’m in a really bad mood, I will watch the DVD extras. It will get me out of a funk. I would love to work with them some day.
The last question I always like to ask is, who is a woman we should know more about?
The person who keeps popping into my head is my friend Jenn Thompson who I mentioned earlier. She is an incredible theater director. She deserves to be directing on Broadway. She’s the best. I’ve worked for her twice. I did “Lost in Yonkers” with her off-Broadway, and did a silly production of “Boeing-Boeing” in Vermont, and she is an incredible director. I would say people need to know more about her.
“Before/During/After” is now available on VOD. You can find out more at https://beforeduringafterthefilm.com.