In 1974, the Sarasota, Florida-based journalist Christine Chubbuck shot herself in the head during a live broadcast on the WXLT-TV channel where she worked. She was 29 years-old. The years since have revealed that Chubbuck suffered from a host of mental health issues, but no amount of speculation can fully reveal the reasons behind her tragic act.
The new film Christine, opening October 14, doesn’t provide any answers to the questions posed by her tragic death. Instead, the movie, directed by Antonio Campos and starring Rebecca Hall as Chubbuck, paints a compassionate and sensitive portrait of a young woman struggling to find her footing in a world whose ground seems to shift beneath her with each breath. An ambitious journalist, she contends with the advent of the ruthless “if it bleeds, it leads” approach to television news. Personally, she grapples with her inability to forge meaningful social connections and romantic alliances. In Hall’s hands, Chubbuck is at once charmingly sympathetic and frustratingly off-putting. Even as the inevitable conclusion approaches, we hold out hope for a different ending.
What specifically was it about Christine, as both a character and person, that you gravitated towards?
I’d not heard of Christine Chubbuck. When I got the screenplay it came with one of those cover letters that agents write that reduce the story to five lines, and it’s always really badly written. And [it] does come across like some sort of exercise in exploitation. Because you’re like, “Why? Why do this?” I got kind of angry about it. And then I realized actually that if a film doesn’t grapple with this or art doesn’t grapple with this in a way that is compassionate and universal as is the story, then the thing she did is left to those five lines of reductive horror. Because that’s how she appears on the internet, on every top ten most shocking list. I thought, “How about there’s a person behind this?” The real horror, in a way, is that when I read it, I thought, “We all know what it is to be stymied at work. We all know what it feels like to get depressed from time to time. We all know what it feels like to be unloved.” It’s really hard for us to admit that were it not for circumstances that are completely arbitrary, gender, gender in time and place, social context, brain chemistry, we might all be capable of going over the edge. I don’t mean in the way she did, specifically. You realize she’s a harbinger for so many things that people are very bad at talking about: women, mental health, suicide, a time in America that’s arguably on some sort of nervous breakdown moment anyway with Vietnam. And you’ve got the golden age of journalism, but you’ve also got “if it bleeds it leads” becoming the mainstay for how the world is controlled and the notion that fear is used to manipulate people? It’s hardly gone away. It’s so relevant.
Then I had this feeling of, “Well this is a completely feminine story.” And also the screenplay felt feminine in the sense that it was about emotions. I found it complicated, but with this deep compassion. I thought, “Well, this is great that a woman is at the center of this, but why is it being made by two dudes? What’s going on here? Where are they coming from?” And I went and I met them. Well, firstly, [director] Antonio [Campos] is one of the most sensitive, feeling directors out there. And then I found out that Craig Shilowich, who wrote it, had spent close to 10 years battling with depression. And he came out of it eventually not knowing why it had happened or where it had come from, and not knowing just as quickly why it left him. But work helped him. And so when he came across the Christine story he really had this sort of upsetting thought: “Imagine if I’d been a woman in the 70's and I had my work taken away from me. Then what?” He wanted to exorcise some things he had actually gone through. So I understood that everyone that was making this had a sense of affection to the world that it’s playing. I don’t think it’s a cynical film, I don’t think it’s a bleak film. I know it’s a dark subject matter, but I don’t actually think of it as bleak because the film’s worldview of these people is very affectionate. They’re all just mucking along, trying their best. And everyone is doing their best for her. She doesn’t see it and that’s the kind of real tragedy. What I suppose I’m saying is it’s easy to complicate the darkness of the film with what is actually a profound sense of grief and loss about someone who shouldn’t have gone. She’s worthy of our sympathy. Sorry, I’m really rambling on!
Ha, that’s okay! Was portraying a real person tricky? There’s a sense of responsibility you must feel.
The thing you always have to remember about this is when something is a piece of art, it’s a piece of art for a reason. A documentary or anything like that is actually limited in terms of turning something into a universal truth. So when I sign onto a project like this that’s about someone who existed, my duty is to the people who are making the art: the screenwriter and the director. And I trust them to have done their research. And the film focuses on her work environment, mostly. That’s deliberate. And it’s faithful. Where it’s different is by virtue of a mission, not really changing things. I had fifteen minutes of footage. But that’s okay. I think as an actor you have to let something work with your own instincts. So it is a process of imagination. It has to be.
Christine Chubbuck’s family has vocally protested the film as an exploitative endeavor. What kind of research did you have access to, besides those 15 minutes of footage?
I spoke to Craig, who went down to Sarasota and spoke to her friends and coworkers who are still alive. He didn’t speak to the family; that was a conscious choice. It was a conscious choice for me to not speak to anyone. It’s a very complicated thing to ask family members to relive what was for them a private trauma. I’d love for her brother to see it; I’d never push him to. I understand why nobody in the film got in touch with him. Because if I had, I would have felt very beholden to his perspective on it and probably would have backed out of doing it on some level. For better or worse, her story was a public one because she forced it out into the world. So what we did is sort of grapple with that information and we don’t get into her… the character of the mother is in the film, but the character of the brother isn’t. The rest of the family background isn’t. We never talk about her childhood. And we’ve reached out to her brother since then and said, “Please, we’d love you to see the film in a private, safe way.” He’s declined to see it. And I completely understand that. But I’m sad about it because I think it is loving and funny, often, and an honest portrayal that I think captures the spirit of her. There is someone who worked at the station with her right up until the end, who completely accidentally has seen the film because they were involved in an aspect of the post-production. They got in touch with Antonio and said, “I just wanted to tell you it’s uncanny how much of the spirit of her you’ve caught.”
So you were really working with those 15 minutes of footage. What was your entry point into trying to understand Christine?
I watched it. It’s a bit like having a first impression, you intuit a lot of things about people when you first meet them. And I think we tell ourselves all sorts of stories that change that. But if you can tap into that intuition, you’re often kind of right. So it was a sort of weird exercise in watching that [footage] and then going, “What do I intuit about this person?” “Oh, she’s someone who’s profoundly uncomfortable in her own skin.” And looks like they’re in such pain in every movement. And so I think to myself, “What would it be like if I was profoundly uncomfortable in my own skin?” Imagine if I thought everyone was judging me all the time, watching me, and the thing that really got to me was I noticed there was something about her that felt like it was performance. Like she was doing an impression of what she thought normal was, or what she thought everyone wanted. But it was not comfortable and she’s still resolutely her and I thought, “Oh that’s it. This is someone who is constantly performing what she perceives to be normal. She’s terrified that she’s going to get it wrong.” Sometimes she’s really good at it, and sometimes she’s just really bad at acting. And it’s funny or disastrous. That was kind of an in for me. The voice was a huge thing.
Many people have noted your uncanny ability to nail an American accent. But it’s not just an accent, it’s a cadence, too.
I’m fascinated by accents. And I think it’s sort of daft the way we talk about it because I don’t think there really are that many general accents anywhere. I think everyone sounds like themselves, if you really, really study it. Everyone’s got their own idiosyncrasies, everyone’s got their own weird… and I got to listen to her and was like, “I can identify that she was born in Ohio, and hear that she’s spent time in Florida and in Boston.” But mostly it starts off as an impersonation, but then it has to be something else. It comes from emotion, again. You start off from a place of, “What happens to my voice if I’m so nervous to release the sound?” It kind of clamps up and my chin starts doing a thing and everything sort of happens from there.
We live in such a diagnosis culture, but this film is set in the 70's when people wouldn’t have been as educated about or alert to someone suffering from mental illness. Hers is really just alluded to. How did you handle that in portraying her?
That’s in the writing and it’s very well portrayed. The real Christine, everyone around her was trying to help her, and there were diagnoses-ish and there were hospitalizations and medications. What the film does is allude to that without going into it. I suppose what it does is put the audience in the same position as her coworkers: observing someone and going, “Well she’s a little strange, but I don’t know why and I don’t know how, but I still like her.” When I was thinking about it, I read eight or nine books about bipolar, borderline personality and the spectrum, so many different things. And there were so many different possible ways that I could diagnose the script. And that’s all I could diagnose. I wanted to try and really understand what it must be like to have a suicidal tendency where you really struggle every day and every day there’s a feeling of, “I made it, I really want to survive. But I’m struggling with this impulse.” It was something I wanted to get right. And I wanted to get right the sense of disproportionate reaction to things that happen to her, like someone who doesn’t have the tools to react like other people react. And that was based on reading, my own personal relationship with knowing people who had mental health issues. And just on a personal level, I’ve dealt with anxiety in the past. I’ve been to therapy, I’ve definitely had low periods where I felt I wasn’t going to get out of them. I was never medicated or diagnosed with anything like depression, but anxiety, sure. I’ve had issues with that. I honestly don’t know anyone who doesn’t have someone in their family or know someone that doesn’t battle with something like this. I don’t mean like this [what Christine battles with]. So I suppose it’s trying to be true to that moment of what it’s like to understand having that pain. The thing of performance is a thing that I kept going back to because I kept thinking, “Are we harder on women in pain? How do we as a culture deal with women in pain and the sort of fear of being labeled a hysteric or not coping?” That helped me to understand why she was so desperate to hide everything and just appear capable at all times. We’ve all sort of dealt with that.
The suicide element: none of us will ever know why she did it. But you, in character as her, ostensibly know why. How did you navigate that conundrum?
I felt that every thing she does in the film is informed by wanting to survive a day without doing this thing that she thinks about doing every day. I don’t mean shooting herself on live TV. In my head, that wasn’t something she comes up with until that night when everything goes horribly wrong. But it was something I was sort of entertaining in my head throughout everything that she does. But not in a kind of bleak, dark, navel-gazey “I really want to do this thing” kind of way. More in a: “What do I concentrate on so I don’t do this thing? Oh, these people are good. Telling good journalism is good. Serving the community is good. Helping people is good. That will keep me from thinking about that thing.” So it was quite active. How does she find a way to laugh today? How does she find a way to be funny? How does she find a way to be kind? How does she find a way to be a good journalist? Then I think the construction of the film is such that there are events that happen which are brutal to her, including this sort of romantic episode where someone who is not a sexualized being puts on a sexy dress and thinks for one second that she’s going to be seen as a woman — and then has that crushing disappointment when she realizes that’s not the case. The headspace I got to before doing the scene where she kills herself was not a sort of angry, fuck the world kind of feeling. For me it was that she got to this point, like, “I’ve worked out what the game is and you want me to do this thing, so if you want me to do 'if it bleeds, it leads,' if you want me to be that kind of journalist, that means I don’t get to survive, so I’m going to bow out.” And then I thought, “What must it feel like if you’ve battled this choice in this incredibly frenetic way for so long and then you just give in and decide to do it?” And so it kind of felt like an exhale. And so that last scene was perversely relaxed, because I think she’s most herself when she’s just made the decision. It wasn’t pleasant, though. Because you just got to that point and I was like, “I don’t want to kill her.” And nobody on set wanted me to. Because they’d all lived with her, everyone loved her. The crew that day were like, “Please don’t do this.”
Literally! That day was incredibly somber. Nobody wanted it to happen. And there was a kind of silence on set. It also happened to be my last day of work and so I left after that and they all kind of felt this strange absence. I think the grief is the resounding feeling that you’re left with. It’s a horrible, horrible tragedy.
Also at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival at the same time as Christine was another film Kate Plays Christine, a documentary that focuses on an actress preparing to play Christine Chubbuck in a fictitious biopic. And then of course there’s the ongoing obsession online with trying to uncover footage of her suicide. What are your thoughts on the coexistence of all of this?
It troubles me. You asked me about responsibility to a real person. That whole stuff feels a bit macabre and a bit sensationalized. And I haven’t seen Kate Plays Christine. I sort of don’t really want to. It frightens me that it’s a film about someone who can’t play her. Well, I just did! I think it’s possible to bring humanity to everyone. To add to this mythology like, “hands off it’s so dark and weird” it just feels a bit sensationalistic which is the thing that we’re trying desperately not to do.