Set in the small suburban town of Troy, New York, the film H., which won an Independent Spirit Award for directors Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia (out today in New York and on demand), follows the lives of two women, both named Helen, after their town falls victim to a paranormal catastrophe. A sequence of unexplainable events follows, sending many of the townspeople wandering into the forest in a trance-like state. The first Helen (Robin Bartlett), married and in her 60s, spends her life meticulously caring for an eerily lifelike baby doll as if it was her own newborn child. The other Helen (Rebecca Dayan) is a multimedia artist in the midst of a hysterical pregnancy with her non-commital partner and falls victim to the trance. We caught up with Dayan, who is an artist in real life.
So you are an artist playing an artist. I can’t imagine it was that hard to get into character?
[Laughs] No, it wasn’t that hard, even though I played a different type of artist. My character and her boyfriend were multimedia artists, whereas I’m mostly painting for now. But the process is similar for every artist, the research—exploring the subject—even if its visual rendering is different.
Not only does your character undergo a hysterical pregnancy, but she is one of the people who falls into the trance. Needless to say, she deals with psychologically intense subject matter. How did you emotionally prepare for this role?
Of course there was a lot of preparation, I read the script many times and I made choices as to how I could relate to the character. I focused on the sense of longing that both of the Helens have. In their case, it was the longing for a child. But longing is something everyone can relate to, no matter what it is you're longing for, so that was something I focused on.
Have you ever experienced the kind of longing that your character does? So much so that it becomes real?
Well, she wants to be a mother. I don’t have that so much in my life, but I can understand the longing for something that completes you. I think longing in general is something we all can relate to. But when I first read the script I had never heard of hysterical pregnancies. I was like, ‘Could that really happen? Is that a real thing?’ I didn’t know it was something where you can show all the signs of pregnancy and convince yourself so much that your body starts changing to reflect a real pregnancy. Apparently it can happen in animals, which I find really interesting because it means it’s not necessarily a society-induced thing. I think we all understand what it’s like to want something so badly that you trick yourself or you’re so desperate for something.
The film is very dark, eery, and emotional. Was it like that on set?
The overall vibe while we were filming was crazy—there was something so surreal about the places we were shooting in, like this one dream-like scene in the forest in the snow before she lies down with all the people. I was just trying to be present in each scene. It was pretty intense.
Do you believe in the paranormal?
Not really. I believe there are things we can’t explain, but I'm not afraid of the world suddenly ending, in an apocalyptic, religious way, not unless us humans destroy the planet.
What was the most memorable moment from the shoot?
There is a scene right after the catastrophe when a horse suddenly appears out of nowhere. It was so surreal, it almost felt like a dream. It's part of my unconscious now. It was mesmerizing and terrifying, and I was kind of scared. We were filming in the forest in March, I was in a nightgown sitting in the snow. It was so cold, which actually helped. I remember the crew trying to get me warm and I told them "No, this is good for me. I'm actually freezing in real life so there's not as much acting work." That whole sequence was very strange and kind of terrifying.
Fate, time, and happenstance, are a few themes at work in the film. What did you personally take away from it?
That you need to appreciate what you have, and enjoy how things are because they may change. What is interesting about heavy dramas, and also the most heartbreaking, is seeing how something was and then how it's not anymore. It's about enjoying things in the moment as they are and not trying to make them different from what they are, or trying to make them better.