Thirty years ago, when Krisha Fairchild was a 35-year-old Los Angeleno with a going-nowhere acting career, she found herself spinning her wheels, devoting herself entirely to her day job as Nancy Sinatra’s personal assistant. One night, Fairchild had a dream in which she woke up, fed her dogs, went to work, glimpsed her reflection in a mirror, and was terrified to discover that she was 60 years old.
“I sat up in bed,” remembered the actress, now 65, by Skype from her home in Mexico. “My partner at the time goes, ‘What’s wrong?!’ I’m like, ‘I just had the scariest dream. I kept working for Nancy until I died, and never went back to my own life.’ ”
That (literal) wake-up call inspired Fairchild to move to Seattle, where she launched a successful voice-acting career, and continued, over the years, to take small parts in the occasional TV movie or indie film. But it wasn’t until she was in her 60s, the very decade that once seemed so terrifyingly far away, that she landed her first major role. And she’s so spectacularly good in it that many are now wondering why it took so long for Krisha Fairchild to find the spotlight.
The movie is the indie sensation Krisha, which won accolades at last year’s SXSW and this year’s Independent Spirit Awards, and which opened theatrically last Friday to rapturous reviews. The film is written and directed by Fairchild’s 27-year-old nephew, newcomer Trey Edward Shults, who made his debut feature on the stringiest of shoestring budgets. Krisha was shot in nine days, at Shults’s mother’s house outside Houston, Texas, with a cast made up almost entirely of family members.
Fairchild plays the title character, whose dark past only slowly comes into focus. Eventually we recognize her as an aging addict reuniting with her family for Thanksgiving dinner after an attenuated absence. She’s particularly anxious to make things right with her college-age son, Trey (played by Shults), who has long lived in the care of her sister, Robyn (played by the director’s mother and Fairchild’s actual sister). At Robyn’s insistence, the family has tentatively taken it on faith that Krisha has turned a corner into sobriety. The reality is not so cut and dry. In a misguided effort to demonstrate her stability, Krisha offers to cook the Thanksgiving turkey, a doomed undertaking. Against the cacophony of domestic life, Krisha’s internal noise comes to the fore. Shults’s camera hounds her as she begins to unspool and as the gulf between addict and family, a chasm she naively thought she might bridge, widens ever further.
It’s is a searing look at the train wreck of addiction that calls to mind Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. Many critics have noted that Shults borrows techniques from the horror genre. And the director’s real-life inspiration was fittingly nightmarish: He wrote Krisha after his cousin and Fairchild’s niece, a longtime addict named Nica, relapsed at a family reunion and died of an overdose shortly thereafter.
Making the film, Fairchild told me, was therapeutic, particularly for her older sister, Nica’s mother, who also appears on camera. During our Skype session, the actress, a striking self-proclaimed hippie with unbridled silver hair, teared up repeatedly while discussing the pain of losing her niece, and her hopes that Krisha will offer solace to other families struggling with addiction. We also discussed her very long road to leading lady-hood, and why she wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’m sure you’re riding high from what’s happened with this film.
It’s very surreal! I wouldn’t call it a high. My partner is 20-something years sober, and he’s an organic farmer. He keeps coming to me: “You have the highest tomato thing, and you have the highest meta thing!” Then comes that moment: “Mac, see if you can find any figures for critically acclaimed movies in terms of how many people see them and how much money they make.” Five minutes later he goes, “Well, this isn’t fair!”
You can’t care about that stuff. You want people to get it. I believe in magical thinking. This whole process has been a magical thing.
Trey has said he wrote this part for you. Were you always dealing with this precocious nephew who wanted to write a movie for you?
Well, I didn’t know he wanted to write a movie for me. Creatively from earliest childhood, he was glued to screens watching movies.
I think it was at Nica’s wedding, the preacher had a video camera. He handed it to Trey, who was just a kid, and said, “You can use this while I’m busy.” Trey made a movie about the wedding that made everyone weep.
When he was maybe 17, he was visiting me in Hawaii, and my oldest dog was dying. One day she couldn’t stand up. Trey went with me to drive her in the car. He was in the back with her, comforting her, and unbeknownst to me, filming her last car ride. He went with me to the vet, and then he filmed me driving home [without her]. He filmed me sitting in the rocking chair with my feet in her bed, crying. When I saw it, I was just so moved.
When he got to be about 20, he said, “I’ve written a short film that I want you to be in.” He sent me this script about a mother who had accidentally caused the death of her child. I’m like, “Well, this is an interesting place to start.”
The heart of his later work was already showing. He did another one, a year later. It was that mother in a therapy session, talking about her grief process.
Those were the two short films he had done before the family reunion where we all watched Nica disintegrate. I guess we should have known he would have to write about it. When he brought that script to us, that’s the first time I knew he was really intending to give me a chance to do something nobody had ever given me a chance to do. I read the script and I was not frightened for a split second of anything in it.
Were there scenes that were particularly hard?
When I was first studying acting, they had me keep an acting journal where I observed people. That’s the only way that I could ever have been an actor. I didn’t want things to be about me, me, me. We had Mom, who was a drinker, and Nica, who was whatever she could get inside a needle. Then we had Trey’s biological dad, Bill. He was also a “What am I addicted to? What do you got” kind of guy.
Blame. Pain. Self-pity. Deceit. Those are the things I knew had to be in here. People who had experience looking in the eyes of the person they loved and seeing those things—they’re not buying it if that’s not there. When Trey handed me the script, that was there.
When I was inhabiting those aspects of her, it was not painful for me to play Krisha, because I felt that I took on that need to use those defense mechanisms. The hard parts for me were the scenes with my sister Robyn, where we really looked at what could be wrong with me. When she says to me, “Did you lie to me?” everything after that is hard, because it all is going to break her heart. This is the person who had most believed in my character.
We talked about our own boundaries. For me, [with Nica] when the phone rang I had to stop bailing her out of jail. I had to stop paying the motel manager who had locked her things in the room. Instead, I asked her, “Put him on the telephone line.” I would give him a credit card number and say, “Please give her an extra $10. It’s enough to get a Greyhound ticket where she needs to go. Don’t give her more than that.”
Everybody gets to choose their own boundaries. We get a lot of response from audience members who are angry at the way the family has dealt with Krisha. It’s like, “Honey, there is no right way.”
I want to ask you about your career. You’ve acted and voice-acted. You had stints as an assistant to Joel Grey and Nancy Sinatra. Now you live in Mexico. Had you decided that your career was over?
This is a big-picture thing I’ve been mulling over. I came to Chicago the star of my high school, the star of the state drama contest in Ohio. I went to professional theater school, where they spent three years whittling you down to size, and then building you back up based on actual skills, not ego. I did a lot of theater. It was all wonderful. I didn’t know anything about acting for film. An independent production company was shooting a feature in town and I got a job in their office. They wrote a scene for me. They were going back to L.A. for postproduction. I was like, if I were ever going to take that on, it would be now.
I still had a pretty good snoot-full of belief in myself. Ooph. L.A. is like walking in an inflatable suit in a sea full of needles. I got taken down to size so quickly. I couldn’t get auditions. The one agent that interviewed me said, “We just don’t know what to do with you. You could play a leading lady, but you don’t look like a leading lady.”
I was curvaceous. I was like a sexy va-va-voom-y young woman, but in a hippie way. Insecurity devoured me. I had to find something to feel good about myself. So I stopped auditioning. I become the best damn restaurant hostess, night manager of a bar, celebrity assistant. I got a real estate license.
I had a friend getting married in Seattle. I went to her wedding, and after a decade in L.A., I was awakened to the fact that there are multidimensional people who do not live, dream, eat, and sleep the business.
I leapt at the chance to move to Seattle, and that’s when I found the voice work. I got an agent, started working. For my straight job in my first year, I became the managing editor of a publication that covered media. I was the person that people submitted their projects to because they wanted ink. An actor is a supplicant. The creative genius is the director. Actors bring their own special gift, the same way a cinematographer or a composer does. I had been a supplicant the whole time I was in Los Angeles, who didn’t believe I could hold up my piece. When I became the managing editor, I chose to be generous. I gave anybody who brought me anything ink. A year later, when I got cast in some Disney film—Chips, the War Dog!—suddenly I’m quitting my straight job to be an actress. From that moment on, I realized I’m just going to give and give. It completely became about karma. I was giving everything I could in support of helping people believe in their own gifts. And then they helped me get back to being able to do mine.
All those years, I was making a living in my closet. I could live wherever I wanted to. I didn’t have to look a certain way. It didn’t matter when I started to get old. These people who stayed in Hollywood, they’ve gone through the ringer. I read a thing with Sally Field. She said, “You have to know you’re on a roller coaster.” I walked away from the roller coaster, and I found a Zen pathway that I could stay strong and confident within. When Trey asked me to come back, I knew who I was.
When you were assisting Joel Grey and Nancy Sinatra, did they teach you anything about what you wanted your career to be like?
My relationship with Joel was very patriarchal. Nancy was a different matter. She was a heart connection. She’s a hugely generous, very vulnerable, iron-strong human being. I came into her life at a time when her long-term partner, the choreographer Hugh Lambert, was dying of cancer. He was the sweetest, most real person. They were a wonderful family. I know people always think that’s bullshit. There’s no thrill like opening the front door of the house when the doorbell rings and there’s Grandpa standing there without the toupee, in a golf sweater, with these icy blue eyes. He says, “Hey, kiddo,” and I’m thinking, Frank Sinatra just called me kiddo?
It was a lovely, beautiful experience. After I moved to Seattle, every time I was in some shitty movie of the week, Nancy wrote me a fan letter. Everything I ever did. The big lessons from those jobs are: Surround yourself with the people who have the light inside them, that let it out on everybody, not just people who can help them.
The experience of making Krisha will likely open more doors for you. Are you eager to do more films?
I’m completely content with my life right now. There is a can of worms involved with stepping back out into the public light. Most of my insecurities, my whole life, have been around my looks, the way I’m shaped, and now I’ve got age to throw on top of that.
If I get the chance to move people the way I got to in this role, I will welcome it. I will deal with my own insecurities. Whether I make any money at it, get any fame, that is the last thing I care about. I have everything I need from inside. I know that sounds like such bullshit. All I can say is when you’re a hippie and you end up this age, and you’re sober and you’re happy and you’re successful in life, that’s the truth.
Would I like the chance to play more women who are strong and survive? I would love that. Will it happen? I am not driving that boat. There was a reason we made this movie; it’s helping people. If I’m intended to help more people, I’ll get the chance to. If I’m not, I’ll just have the rest of my life. The best gift I could get right now is to know that Trey has a career.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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