Even with an illustrious acting career beginning at the age of three, Azura Skye admits that her new leading role in The Swerve is unlike any role she has ever taken on before. Following in the career footsteps of her late grandfather Brad Johnson (perhaps best known for his role in the western series Annie Oakley), acting seems very much in the DNA of Skye. This comes across clearly in her performance in The Swerve, Director Dean Kapsalis’ debut feature that has swept up several Best Actress accolades following its debut at Frightfest. Kapsalis’ and Skye’s partnership in the dark thriller showcases one another’s talents in a manner that makes their creative ingenuity seem effortless – even if both found their roles to be a new challenge.
Scoring acclaimed television roles in shows such as Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the early 2000s, and continuing into the new decade with appearances in Riverdale and American Horror Story, Skye could have easily been considered an acting veteran by her early twenties. Despite such talents, even Skye admits that taking on the role of Holly, a seemingly perfect mother driven to her sanity’s edge following a bout of insomnia, required “accessing something greater than myself”. The role demanded greater emotional vulnerability than any role Skye had taken on before, articulated in a provoking, yet unique vulnerability through Skye’s performance that led to critical acclaim.
Skye video chatted with Screen Queens’ Bethany Gemmell to discuss this new evolution in her career, learning to bake a pie from scratch, and more.
Bethany Gemmell: The character of Holly is unlike anything most audiences have seen before. What was it from the script that attracted you to play her?
Azura Skye: When I first read the script, I liked the script very much. I loved the character. I immediately recognised it as the role and the opportunity of a lifetime. I think you can go your whole life, or your whole career and never get a role this meaty and great. Holly really is a Lady Macbeth or an Ophelia, she is truly such a classic, doomed heroine, that it was such a gift to have that kind of material to work with. Because it’s very rare that you get something so juicy as an actor.
The Swerve is, in many ways, a character study of the impacts of both mental, and also to some extent, physical illness. How did you research this kind of role?
In my experience, there was no way to really prepare for this role. It was really about the magic that hopefully happens on the day. It was really, in terms of preparing, just getting my myself in a mental place where I was comfortable, and I felt safe, where I felt like I could tap into some kind of universal cosmic pain and sadness. It was almost kind of accessing something greater than myself, in a way. It was kind of getting out of my own way, if you will, and allowing something larger to take over.
But like I said, I found it, I found that it really wasn’t possible to prepare for her in any standard way. Although I did make a pie, because I thought that was a good exercise to put myself through, I had never baked a pie, as pathetic as that is [laughs]. I was sure that at some point on the set, the director [Dean Kapsalis] would be like, have you ever even made a pie? And in that, in that moment, I wanted to be able to truthfully say “yes!”, so I did make an apple pie just to put myself through the paces before we started filming. At one point, the director asked me if I had ever made a pie, and I was able to honestly say yes.
The film is very intimate, with this hugely intense focus on your character, and her declining mental state. What was your working relationship like with the director, Dean Kapsalis. Did the focus on your character affect your relationship with the director?
Certainly. It’s interesting, because in the sort of situation, you show up and you meet someone, and then you dive into this very personal, intimate situation. So, you really have no choice but to form a relationship immediately and bond with that person. You really have to have a certain level of trust. What would usually be a relationship that would take months or years to build, you have to fast track it, and just decide that you are partners with this person. This is your partner-in-crime, and you are cohorts, and you have to be on the same page with that person. Otherwise, there’s no chance of success.
Did you use any techniques to fast-track that bond with the director?
I had spoken with him a couple times via video before we started, but we were in different cities. He was in New York, I live in Los Angeles, so I couldn’t meet with him or anything. I took a huge chance, and I got lucky — we had a really nice rapport. Obviously, he had notes for me for about the character, but I felt like he kind of… left me alone to do my own thing, while focused on making the movie. And I focused on my performance, and I let him sort of do the rest. It was a nice balance.
Are there the performances by other actors that maybe you felt drawn to when you’re trying to get into like the headspace to play Holly?
Typically, I don’t really like to draw on what other people do. I just kind of have to make it my own and see what originates organically, so I would say no, I didn’t take cues anyone from anyone, acting-wise. I suppose if anything, I took cues from women that I’ve known — women you see every day, women who have the house with the white picket fence and minivan, and everything looks so perfect, and you wonder what’s really going on there. I feel like, as people, we often have to go out into the world, and we put on these brave happy faces and put our best foot forward. And I think it’s just a reminder that you really never know what’s going on with someone.
I feel that with your character, and the film overall, it makes quite a feminist statement about what demands are placed on women, particularly the everyday woman as you were saying. Your character, Holly, is treated by her husband and family as if she doesn’t truly exist. I was wondering, did you interpret it as a feminist piece yourself?
Very much so. So much of the time, you know, women really do bear a lot of the brunt in the joy that matter of every day at domestic life. It can be a very thankless job, and it’s one of the most difficult. I think, you know, as women and mothers, you’re constantly taking care of other people, and sometimes you can forget of yourself. Sometimes all the people around you are doing great because you’re taking such good care of them, but you personally are suffering.
Do you think men are going to react to The Swerve differently to women? I know I felt pretty sympathetic towards your character, but I don’t know if that’s from the female perspective of seeing the constraints placed upon Holly.
It’ll be interesting to see if it speaks to women more than it speaks to men. It is really more of a human story than a female or a male story. So hopefully, it will strike a chord with everyone. When I first read the script, it was such an intensely female story. I thought it was so interesting that a man had written it, and I was so excited to get on the phone and talk to him about it. I thought that was such an interesting point of view, as it seemed like something that a woman had written.
It is so intensely female in so many ways, but oftentimes, I think the most interesting way to approach a subject and tell a story is through an unconventional point of view, or not, from the obvious point of view. I think it’s interesting, men’s points of view on women and vice versa — how we see each other. I feel like sometimes it can be very difficult to see ourselves clearly. But we can see other people perfectly.
We do see your character as a mother, but it’s mostly almost like played off screen until like the climax of the film, which obviously, I won’t give away. Do you think your character’s motherhood plays a big role in her declining mental state?
Well, I think we always assume that motherhood is this joyous thing, which it is, it could be. But I think for a lot of women, it can be a burden, as well. And I think it can often be different when than what you think it’s going to be. And I think you go from being number one to your child being number one. So you know, you’re obviously taking care of your putting someone else’s wellbeing ahead of your own as you must and you should, but sometimes a little bit of yourself can get lost, I think, and I think that’s the struggle is balancing, you know, taking care of everyone else, like I was saying and still managing to take care of yourself.
With The Swerve’s release at this point in time, with all that going on in the world, how do you think audiences will relate to your character’s isolation? Obviously, lots of us are going through a sort of isolation because of quarantine. Do you think people will maybe be more sympathetic to your characters plight, or perhaps less so?
I hope they don’t think she’s a monster, I hope they’re able to see here with some sympathy. But I do think that perhaps people can relate more to it now than a few years ago, unfortunately.
Obviously, mental health is a huge issue. And I think over the last six so months, it’s made things a lot harder for a lot of people. We’re not able to see the people we love, and we’re not able to do the things we like to do. And that that definitely takes its toll. Even if you’re not someone who generally suffers. I think we’ve all been having to deal with that and cope with that in new ways.
I hope they don’t hate her. I hope they feel sorry for her. But I also think, in these very trying and difficult times we find ourselves in, and even if you don’t relate to her, I think you can watch this movie and say, “See, things could be so much worse. As grim as things are, they could be worse!” [laughs].
*This interview was edited for clarity and length.
The Swerve is available on VOD in the US now
by Bethany Gemmell
Bethany is currently a student at The University of Edinburgh. She has a highly embarrassing talent of being able to tell which episode of Friends she’s watching in about 15 seconds of screen-time. Bethany’s favourite scene in all of cinema is in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout sees Boo Radley for the first time. You can follow her on twitter.