Interview with Actor, Writer & Producer Hannah Cheesman

Although I have yet to meet Hannah Cheesman in person, her charisma, wit, and intellect saturates every instance of correspondence we've had with one another. And in her acting, as in her writing, she delivers the same vitality. In the web series Whatever, Linda, which she co-created and starred in, her portrayal of Linda Thoroughbred, the struggling yet ambitious divorcee secretary at a 1978 Wall Street firm who launches a Ponzi scheme with the help of her female colleagues unbeknownst to their male boss, Hannah excels in keeping the audience hooked. I myself binge-watched all 10 episodes in a row as soon as I heard about the series. Clever, entertaining, provocative - the series has it all, and Hannah brings it. The Canadian born Cheesman has a schedule packed with writing, producing, acting, churning out a medley of projects - many award-nominated and received - and prepping for a move to LA so I was so thrilled when she agreed to do this interview with me. Check out this brilliant woman. 

How did you first get into acting and filmmaking? What has your artistic journey looked like from past to present, and what do you have in store for the future?

I started off dancing throughout my childhood, so this was my first experience in ‘performance’, and today dancing probably remains my ‘happy place’. When going to high school I attended an arts-based secondary school, so decided to audition for the acting program as opposed to the dance program. It was my attempt to flee the appearance-focused-ness of the teenage dance world, and luckily drama was also something I turned out to be pretty good at. So what does an egoic teen do when they find something that gets them attention and praise? They continue doing it! Which is just what I did.

From there I went to university (got a degree in Spanish/Latin American studies), and also did a 3-year program in performance at a place called The National Theatre School of Canada. After what felt like far, far too much schooling, I graduated and scrambled to figure out what to do. I ended up asking just about every person in “The Biz” for a coffee and a chat, and through this, managed to find a part-time job assisting a commercial director — a woman, by chance. Working with her really got me better acquainted with ‘the other side’ of filmmaking, the part behind the camera. For a few years following, I wrote a lot of treatments for commercial directors, and gradually got into writing for myself and my own work. 

But this is simplifying. I went through a full-on quarter-life crisis of self, faith, existential meltdown. I ended up writing my LSATs and was accepted into the excellent schools up here in Canada, and very nearly bailed for what seemed like a surer bet. At the same time that I was grappling with this decision, I went through a pretty bad relationship. It took the ground out from under my feet, and everything I believed to be ‘true’ was suddenly put into question. This was incredibly intense, the most fraught period in my life. But it was also a moment of serious alchemy: when the relationship ended, I put law school on hold. And where I had been operating from a place of fear, suddenly it converted into action. Every fibre of my being was alight with a visceral, unstoppable force emanating from me; in Reiki terms, my solar plexus was on fi-yah! And this is where everything began, in a sense.

I wrote and shot my first short, got ready on my second, and started writing Whatever, Linda with my pal and co-creator Julian De Zotti. I also acted in/associate produced a film called The Animal Project with a prolific and amazing filmmaker and woman, Ingrid Veninger, that premiered at TIFF in 2013 — this felt huge! It initiated me into the world of indie film. And these days, I pay my bills as a series regular on a Nickelodeon kids show called Max and Shred (it is so much fun), just finished script coordinating on season 3 of Orphan Black (ever trying to get closer to the writers’ room), and am (this week!) getting my O1 visa application in order so I can work and live in the mighty U.S. of A. Oh yes, and I write a feature series article every month for The Globe and Mail (our national newspaper) along with my lady biz partner Mackenzie Donaldson, a producer on Orphan Black

In terms of the future, I’m currently in re-writes for a feature film called The Definites that we filmed half of in December 2014 (at Art Basel in Miami), which we will finish filming this year; Donaldson and I (of Aberrant Pictures) are developing a new series called DID — a nail salon dramedy with a women-mobster backbone; and otherwise trying to get Whatever, Linda turned into a longer-format piece. So I’d say the future is not totally clear in terms of what’s coming down the tubes, but I feel busy and engaged with all that’s happening. As well as positive and hopeful! I’m also looking forward to the adventure that will be moving to LA. 

What are some of your favorite projects you've worked on and why?

Definitely The Animal Project. We filmed over 3 months as a sort of ‘troupe’, and I learned a lot (and continue to) from Veninger (the film’s director, a DIY filmmaker queen bee). It was fun, and wacky, and made by a true artist. Getting to be a part of the film fest circuit was incredibly eye-opening. Last year I went to Cannes with Veninger and I would love to go back; I can’t thank Ingrid enough for exposing me to so much.

And of course: Whatever, Linda. On set, there was such a feeling of our making something special. The grumpy sound guy felt it, for chrissakes! I’ve never witnessed teamwork in such a healthy, generally happy environment. Everyone brought something, put their best work in. It was one of those ‘a star smiled down at us’ projects. And the response has been really cool to gauge — so many awards, so much recognition. It’s been life-changing, the little web series that could!

What kind of writing do you do, and where can we read your work?

In terms of straight up essay/article writing, I write for the Globe and Mail with my partner-in-crime, Mackenzie Donaldson (together, we've founded Aberrant Pictures— the Globe and Mail is like Canada’s New York Times. It’s wacky to be writing for such an established place, and within our series we look at various aspects of being youngish women filmmakers at the crossroads of new and traditional media. Google up some Globe and Mail and my name — there are blogs and the print articles, too. 

Otherwise I write a lot of comedy — Cheese, Brunch Bitch (two shorts), and Whatever, Linda all have a strong comedic tone — but I am foraying into dramatic writing too with The Definites, and I’m also keen on developing a few other ‘dramas’ on our slate. But I have to say my heart feels nice in the comedy world. 

I’d love to foray into personal essays and the likes, but am only starting to investigate how and where and which websites or magazines might be a good fit. It would be dreamy! And it’s not outside of the realm of possibility. We’ll see. 

 Did you have any formal training as an actor/producer/director?

As an actor I’ve trained for years. 

As a writer/director, it’s all the school of LIFE, yo. But at some point I think it would be amazing to focus for a time in a dedicated environment to get better at both of these. My dream would be to have a mentor I could trust and speak to and learn from — a yoda of sorts. So I’ve started looking into various international initiatives that work with emerging filmmakers. It would be ideal to work in a semi-formal setting within film festivals to take advantage of some amazing training programs out there. Writing and directing are certainly two places I want to focus, and am focusing, energy when I am able. 

 Who are some female role models you admire or that inspire you?

Lake Bell, Amy Seimetz, Lena Dunham, Mara Brock Akil, Tilda Swinton, Amy Poehler, Miranda July… But to be perfectly honest, I get really inspired by women around me who are fearlessly pursuing their work. There are a number of producers, writers, actors, DPs, directors here in Toronto who I consider a part of my more immediate community who really make me think: “Hey, it’s possible. It’s possible goddammit!” There’s a movement of these women all over North America, I think, looking to eschew perceptions and expectations, and instead forge ahead and change the demographics of ‘above the line’ filmmaking roles (and below the lines - DPs, whoop!).

I read an article where you discuss that in Canada, women still comprise a much lesser portion of the filmmaking industry than men, which is reflective of the overall gender gap in employment and the economy at large we see nationally in the US as well. Can you share some specifics with us? What has your personal experience been like as a woman in the industry? What obstacles have you run into? What situations have you encountered that directly correlate to your gender?  

It’s worth taking a look at this article we wrote, I think. In here I relay a personal experience of expectation and the way this played out in my life recently.

In general, given that I’m a cis-born white woman living in Canada, the barriers are there — but they could be much more challenging. More and more I’m thinking about the privilege I have in comparison to other women or trans people who face greater barriers than me. I find this a complex kind of minefield, and I’m trying to sort through where I stand with this, with my feminism, with the responsibilities that come with identifying as a feminist, and how this all fits into my work. 

Personally, I do feel a psychic ‘hangover’ of sorts. By this I mean: the examples of women being as successful, as often, as men in similar roles in media (writer, director, producer) are fewer. As such, “can’t see it, can’t be it” persists with a kind of middling effect. I battle my own thoughts with regards to whether I believe I can or I can’t do x y z, which is not useful in the long run. Because ultimately I’m really interested in seeing the numbers and statistics of “women in…” change for the better. I think it would be amazing if men and women got to a place where they felt as consistently comfortable working with the opposite sex as they do the same sex. We earth-dwelling humans seek out what feels the most comfortable, understandably, but from my end, I’d love to get more comfortable in feeling uncomfortable. 

What advice/resources/tools could you share with other women who may want to pursue acting or filmmaking in their own lives?

With regards to acting — just do lots of it. Do shorts, do classes, be surprised by what those experiences bring you, the approaches and kinds of actors this exposes you to. And then make your own work. Nothing has gotten me notice like creating my own schtuff has.

In terms of filmmaking — work with people who are better than you, and see if you can leech their talent! Something has got to rub off eventually, if you’re keen and paying attention. Then team up on something, and make stuff. I’m still very much in a space of teaming up to make make make. I have so much to learn!

Now! Whatever, Linda specific questions - can you tell us what this show is all about? When did you first conceive of the idea? What was the process like producing the idea into a reality? How do you feel it's been received so far? 

Julian DeZotti and I are the co-creators and writers of the show. In about January 2013, Julian approached me wanting to write something kickass for all the out-of-work women actors we know; the Madoff story was sitting there waiting to be plucked; and the twist of his secretaries-as-culprits of the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme felt like excellent dramatic material. So we went forth, choosing web series because of how much more simple it might be to realize a digital project, rather than a TV project. That — and in Canada we have something called the Independent Production Fund that gives loans out to promising digital projects. So we applied to that, and after teaming up with Secret Location (our digital EPs) and getting our director (Matt Eastman), we were awarded some funds. Then we got our co-producer (Mackenzie Donaldson), and line producer (Kevin Saffer, Touchpoint Films), and started wriiiiitiiiing.

It was such a trip to take this sucker from concept, to scripts, to filming, and finally — to screen. It changed so much from top to tail, and we were always open to the best idea winning. But as I mentioned earlier, we had a STELLAR TEAM, and I really think that what’s up there to be viewed is reflective of each individual’s hard work. 

So far, we’ve had amazing critical reception. We were nominated for 3 Canadian Screen Awards (our Emmys) and have won over 20 awards worldwide. We were featured on a panel down at SXSW, and we’ve had some excellent reviews. Linda has gotten some wicked buzz. BUT. We continue to fight to find our audience. No doubt that has been, and continues to be, the biggest struggle. As well as — nailing down next steps for the series. 

Who is Linda Thoroughbred, besides the obvious titular main character? What makes her compelling and important to pay attention to? Tell us about the other characters as well because each of these women are dynamic and instrumental to the plot in their own way.

Linda begins one way, and is changed. Yes, that’s character writing 101, but what makes her unique is her moral ambiguity. Is she bad? Is she good? Is she in-between? Will she become bad? Will she see the error in her ways? She’s not black and white. She’s complicated — she has a sex drive, ambition, anger, kindness. She’s largely imperfect, but who ain’t? As a sort of ‘thematic character’, I think Linda proposes a lot of questions with regard to greed. Can a ‘good life’ be borne of greed? For me, all of this is an interesting as well as topical field to play on. 

The other characters are very dear to my heart. There’s Pepper, the silver spoon heiress with serious connections to the money world (which may come in handy…); Didi (Deirdre) the hard-ass, funny, chip-off-her-shoulder, African American fighting for her place in the late 70s; and Annabelle, the closet lesbian, married Catholic, and mother of 3, who falls for Linda — and ultimately ends up acting as Linda’s saviour (but at what cost?). Linda is an ensemble piece, and each woman creates the entire world of the show. The favourite bits to write and perform in were those in the office. Such a killer dynamic between all the women — so many viewpoints that lend access to Wall Street 1978, and women’s place therein. The show sings when all four are onscreen.

I've read that Whatever, Linda was created through guerilla-filmmaking...can you explain this?

This is half true. We shot exteriors in NYC, which involved me, our director, our DP (Rob Scarborough), a local makeup girl, a rolling suitcase full of clothing for me to change into, and a location scout courtesy of google streetview. 

We took about 3 days to steal shots (with and without me in them) that still looked 1970’s-ish, and that would give the sense that the whole series was not just shot inside studio (because yes, it was). 

The best part about this? We hadn’t yet locked scripts at all. So it was a matter of the director telling me to essentially, “look happy… now look sad… now think about things…” and so on. We figured we could stitch these moments together if we caught enough great moments with a variety of emotional range. So bass-akwards, but it worked!

On the Whatever, Linda website there is an awesome interactive sort of timeline of feminism through the ages, whose idea was this? What kind of research was done to construct this aspect of the project?  

Yes, feminism through the ages. To be frank, I can’t remember now who thought of that! But it was a team effort between Secret Location and ourselves. All of the research and copy on the website was either written by Julian and I, or the amazing team over there. But given the bent of our show, the timeline just felt right. 

What feminist notions do you think are explicitly and implicitly communicated through Whatever, Linda? Was feminism a founding factor in composing this script and developing the characters? 

Ouf, tough question. We’ve come under a lot of scrutiny with the feminist question within Linda

On the one hand, of course feminism is implicit within the show. I identify as a feminist — and so I’m interested in media and entertainment holding a space for women that is inclusive and representative. Linda was written, in part, to explore women and feminism in 1978. So for me, certainly feminism was a founding aspect of the show.

And yet, I bring biases and experiences from my own life, and cannot cover the entire spectrum of feminism. I’m aware of this fact, but perhaps only in hindsight. At the time we were writing it, I didn’t really realize how limited this version — my version — of feminism was and is. I love that Linda looks at morally ambiguous women. I love that it sets four women at the centre of its drama, and employs four women actors. I love that it beyond passes the Bechdel Test. But in future iterations, I will definitely pay attention to precisely whose feminist lens we’re looking through.

That’s the problem with teenie tiny writing rooms — you only get so many POVs. 

But while Linda does look at a rather simplified, 1978 version of feminism, it’s still relevant in a lot of ways. Here’s hoping we’ll have more seasons to get more sophisticated with our feminist angle.