Interview with Actor Allison Torem

I recently met Allie at the NYC premiere of the film Ellie Lumme during BAMcinemaFEST. To say she is a gifted actor is an understatement. Her warmth, openness, and fun-loving energy could not have been farther from the dark, cold, monotone Ellie that she plays in the film. Soaking up a summer day on a brownstone stoop near Prospect Park, we got to talk more about work and school and New York and Chicago (where she lives), and I really couldn't wait to interview her and pick her brain about acting and the general awesomeness she exudes. She's hilarious and brilliant. See for yourself.

Still from from Friends Who Like Nickelback, a short film Allison wrote, directed, and acted in for the University of Chicago's recent 48 Hour Film Festival.

Still from from Friends Who Like Nickelback, a short film Allison wrote, directed, and acted in for the University of Chicago's recent 48 Hour Film Festival.

When did you start acting? How did you realize you wanted to act professionally? 

I started acting with more of a focus when I broke my finger in a bowling accident in like 6th grade. I'm laughing writing that. That's so goofy. I had to sit out from the softball team and karate, and I think violin at the time, but "the accident" opened up the opportunity for me to focus on something else I liked doing. I was really attracted to the idea of being a star, I think. And I knew I got this incredible rush from being on stage. I'd found something I really loved doing that made me feel so good and so alive and probably so in my own body, if that makes sense. And I was really good at it. Opportunities started coming along to do it professionally, and I went with it. It didn't feel like much of a decision. As an older young person now, I think of acting more as a choice I'm making, but when you get into it at an age when you're still fantasizing about the whole thing and you haven't realized your life is your own yet, you kind of just go with the flow. In retrospect, it's kind of amazing that the 9-year-old girl who wanted to be an actor has actually wound up being that. But it's life, you know? There was no single moment for me. 

Do you have other creative outlets in addition to acting that you pursue?

I do have other creative outlets, and while it complicates things since I can't put all my resources into one single area, it's a really nice relief.When I want to connect creatively without being around people, I can paint. When I want to be on a film set making something special that I would want to watch, I can make a movie without acting in it. (She's currently in the process of creating a website for her art, but for now you can see some of it on display here. She takes commissions and sells prints, just get in touch with her through Facebook here if you're interested.)

 What has your favorite role been and what is your dream role to play?

My favorite role... hmm.... I was asked this once before, and I think I said Roann on stage at Victory Gardens, because my character was such a badass. Her dad had skipped out on her mom when he found out she had cancer. He was already having an affair. Roann was sixteen, came over to where her dad was staying, and kind of busted his balls. Chewed him out. And through all that strength came that wounded sixteen-year-old kid who just wanted to be seen, heard, and loved. I connected so so automatically with that character and her sincerity and loved, loved, loved bringing her to life every night. I would play her again in a heartbeat. That's Joel Johnson for you.

But I also really enjoyed playing Laura in the film The Wise Kids and Ellie in the film Ellie Lumme. Laura was such a great growth experience. People asked me how I played that role because she was so different from me in her beliefs and convictions. But when it comes down to it, she had beliefs and convictions, and I relate with that. We're both passionate and additionally, playing a person who was a fundamentalist Christian and struggled with a lot of discomfort about ideas she had been taught about homosexuality, made me a better person. Ellie was great because it was a unique challenge - for one, simply because Ignatiy (the film's director) has such a distinct vision and style of writing, and for two; because it demanded that we rehearse scenes before filming started in order to explore and nail down a rhythm of speech between myself and Stephen, which was very unlike how we both talk and talk to each other in real life, and it was the first time I'd ever done that for a film project. And for three; Ellie Lumme was a cool experience because I think I understood the character and the movie so much better once I saw the thing. It's definitely the first time I feel like I've learned something about acting from watching myself, as douchey as that sounds, and it does sound douchey, and I apologize. But that's a cool experience, and it resonates with a lot of my acting ventures because when I'm in them, I don't try to understand the character like a therapist would. I try to relate with them, and yeah, maybe I'll have some kind of broader grasp on what they're doing and why they do it, but I don't try to overthink it, and I think that works for me.

A lot of my work is subconscious and instinctive and so once I see the product, which I can only do with film work, which is another thing that's exciting about it, or once I've had time to digest it, like with theater after the run of the show, is when I feel most prepared to talk about what the heck was going on. 

My dream role: A while ago, I really wanted to play a lesbian. It was after I played Laura in The Wise Kids. Maybe, partly, watching Tyler Ross play a gay kid when he wasn't gay made me want to do it. I like the idea of portraying a lesbian for a lot of reasons. In retrospect, maybe I did play a lesbian - some people commented that maybe Laura had feelings for Brea she just wasn't aware of, which I find to be adorable and something I had never thought of. It's also recently occurred to me how cool it would be to play someone who is questioning their gender identity. That's a really complicated process that I've never been through and would like to be challenged to try to portray truthfully. Those stories aren't told enough. I'd also love to play Ellen Paige's jealous ex-girlfriend. I do not know why.

On a much cheesier note, my dream role is to play Michael Shannon's daughter in something, or Austin Pendleton's something in something. I just...Yeah. I just really want to do that. They're two of my top favorite male actors. I'd also really love to work with Steve Martin and Laura Linney. Even if it means playing their shoeshiner, I just wanna be around them. Steve Martin is wonderful because as a fan of his, you get to be a fan of so much of him, not just of his acting work, but of his Pure Drivel (the title of one of his goofier books), his personal journey, his anxiety in his early-20's. He's got such a big and multidisciplinary body of work to share with his fans and it makes me want to say, "I love you."

In Ellie Lumme, you play a woman who is essentially stalked by a relatively creepy male figure, how was it to play that role and how did it affect you outside of the role? How do you think you would handle a situation like that in real life?

Whenever I describe the plot of Ellie Lumme, I just want to stop and say, "Watch it." I know it sounds like a cop out, but it's because the movie is so complicated that the description, "A woman is stalked by a man," while accurate, really doesn't do the project justice. While filming it, and after filming it, I've never seen it as a man stalking a woman. I've seen it as a relationship that's really unbalanced in terms of power and control, and I see a girl trying to be something she's not, and a man taking advantage of that. The actual safety factor is real between these characters, but it's the emotional/psychological exploitation that really gets under Ellie's skin and shakes her out of her stiff, apathetic persona (which I have to say really engages me as the actor). I don't know how I would handle that situation if it were to happen today, but in my late teens I was lured into an emotionally/psychologically abusive relationship by a guy twice my age who employed me, and it took me a lot of time to understand and release myself from his imposition. So I was definitely moved by a lot of the lines in the script which refer to Ned's objectification of Ellie and his ability to toss around this human being for his own sick needs. 

Still from Ellie Lumme

Still from Ellie Lumme

What challenges have you encountered in your career and how have you overcome them?

One of the challenges I've found is one that most women can relate to - it's how silly, objectified, and simple so many roles are for women that we see in the movies and TV shows we're crossing our fingers to someday get cast in. That's part of the reason I'm so motivated to create content, not just as an artistic expression, but as a way to create roles for both myself and other women that will diversify the status quo. Lena Dunham has taken a very bold step, and it occurred to me once she did that, that until I saw a woman on a mainstream channel who didn't look like a stick or a model create content, hire herself, and be funny, I hadn't been able to envision that kind of future for myself in any sort of real terms. I forget who it was, but someone in Miss Representation said that we set our sights based on what we can already see, and if we don't see someone who is/looks like us, then we sit back and continue to under-reach. And this isn't just a women's issue in the biz, of course. Look - white, classically handsome, cisgendered, straight, able-bodied, healthy, American dudes need their stories to be told, but so do I, and so do "fat" people, and so do "old" people, and so do people whose skin color isn't white as snow, and so do real-life teenagers, and the gamut of underrepresented populations that don't tend to make it through the inherently limited camera lens of a white dude. I'm not sorry, I'm not sorry. And the big dogs aren't about to reach down and pull us up or go out of their comfort zones and learn how to actually write us. We have to do it ourselves. That's always been the case for revolutions, be they passive or not. I'm in favor of overturning the standard of normal and appropriate with some funny, moving, intersectionalist-ass shit. 

What or who can always make you laugh?

My sister. We're actually making a short film next week, and we wrote the script in like, thirty minutes, just riffing off each other. We were playing tennis, and we decided to do this festival my friend is hosting, and I said, "Everytime we serve, we'll throw out an idea. By the end of it, we'll have something." It actually worked. My sister and I have a very special relationship and whether we're watching Sex and the City, going to Walgreens, ignoring the cat poop on the floor, or crying about our feelings, we'll find something really funny about it and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

What do you to de-stress?

I actually consistently write "Relax" on my to-do list. I'm a pretty busy person and have about a billion google docs, desktop folders, and illegible handwritten lists filled with things I want to do in my life. So relaxing comes in the most basic forms. It has to. Watching TV - Sex and the City, usually. I've seen every episode about thirty times? So my sister and I make the same remarks and jokes and laugh at the girls (Samantha, Carrie, the gang) and their antics. It's lovely. Reading Steve Martin, taking a bath, jogging, ordering from the same Thai food place - the same order with a can of coke. That's me right now. That's been me right now for a long time. 

What’s one of the coolest places you’ve visited/traveled to?

My mom took me to Iceland when I was a kid. She asked me if I wanted to go, I said yes, and then halfway through the plane ride I turned to her and said, "Mommy, what's Iceland?" I liked Iceland. Miniature horses, this weird dried syrupy thing called treakle, which is such an awkward name for a Midwesterner to say without laughing, and there were geysers. I think I thought it was really "stupid" that Iceland is rather green and Greenland is rather icey. I think I probably thought I was really smart when I "discovered" that. 

 Who are some women you look up to or admire?

I look up to Patti Smith. Basically, she's a total badass. Sometimes on the train, when a dude has his legs all splayed out and I'm supposed to automatically just take up way less space than my seat entitles me, I open my legs up just as wide, forcing him to notice and maybe even reconsider his stance. It's probably one of the best things I do ever, and I think Patti would be like, “Hey, alright, okay.” Also Melissa McCarthy. I like these artists on a pure enjoyment basis, and I also admire that they make up their own rules and that in doing so they make people's souls happy. I also highly suspect those women aren't sitting around a square table deciding how they can break the rules for the sake of being different, contrarian, or interesting, and certainly not for the sake of stardom. I think that they happen to break the rules but it's because they're making their own way in the world that is as true as possible to who they are and how they were born to express themselves. I admire people, for a really “relatable” example, who don't say things like “God, I hate Nickelback!” just because the band has a lame reputation. Fuckin' go ahead and like Nickelback! “How You Remind Me” is a great song, and I will defend it to the death.

I look up to Amy Carle, a Chicago actress. She's taught me and guided me so much. I look up to Tina Fey. I look up to Lena Dunham. I look up to Sheryl Sandburg, or what I've seen of her. Women in power have it difficult since there's that whole inverse relationship that isn't true for men between likeability and success. I think I have this idea of who I want to be when I'm 30. Not necessarily what I'll be doing, or where, but who. She's a person who is comfortable with herself. Who observes more than she judges, who gives helpful advice and actually believes that it's okay if she doesn't have children, if she's not a size 2, if she's real and her hair looks like it, if she exhibits stereotypically masculine qualities (which are all the things I think I encourage others to embrace). I think I'm on the path there. So anyone who embodies those qualities more securely than I do right now is definitely on my list. I also admire people, in general, who don't need the same things I need. Who don't need attention, who don't struggle with their "artist ego," who don't push themselves as much as I do. Who don't need to write "Relax" on their to-do list. Everything and its opposite. 

Still from Friends Who Like Nickelback

Still from Friends Who Like Nickelback

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes, I absolutely consider myself a feminist. I'm hesitant to even acknowledge that I know that the word carries some divisive baggage because I don't think it should matter as much as it does. That said, if someone has thought through why the word doesn't work for them, I'm glad they're on board in all the other ways, because that's what matters. For me, I'm a feminist, and that means I believe that a person of whatever gender should not be constrained from self-actualization by gender stereotypes. Once you see how conformist we're raised to be, you can't unsee it. When you realize that you haven't made the choice to shave your armpits or wear dresses but that you were raised to expect it from yourself in order to see yourself as pleasing to men, for example, it makes you want to make that choice for yourself. When you realize you'd see yourself as less of a functional, purpose-fulfilling, and feminine woman if you don't have children, it makes you want to make that choice. Feminism is not about making a particular choice, it's about making a choice at all.

Recently a friend asked me if I wanted to have children. I said, "First, I want to accept that it's okay if I don't. Then I'll decide." If you don't have these realizations and the humility to accept that you were raised by an imperfect society, and by the time you're old enough to question yourself and your surroundings, you've picked up some baggage and some lessons you need to unlearn, you're gonna just do what's popular, and what's popular happens to be patriarchy (and white supremacy....). I'm not sorry, I'm not sorry. 

To me being a feminist means that women, along with people of any other gender, are people, and people are complicated. It means not holding women to a more restrictive standard than men, for example. Let's allow ourselves to imagine that maybe a woman really does care both about her job and her baby at the same time. Let's let a woman wear a tight fitting sweater, for God's sake, and not say "it's so confusing!" And let's also let a woman be confusing, and contradictory, and complicated, because people are that. Let's let a woman change her mind, and make it up for herself in the first place. 

See, I told you so.