Interview: Kaley Wheless On Playing A Deviant Substitute Teacher In ‘Frances Ferguson’

In Bob Byington’s dark comedy Frances Ferguson, Kaley Wheless takes on the role of a substitute teacher who is sent to jail for having an affair with one of her students. A role that shows she is not afraid of playing characters who rub up people the wrong way.

In this thought-provoking interview with Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge, Kaley talks about her relationship with this complex character, the isolation of filming in Nebraska, Hitchcock psychological thrillers, and much more.

Q: The phenomenon of female teachers sleeping with students completely baffles most people. What was your initial understanding of Frances and the situation she finds herself in?

A: I can say it baffles me as well, to be sure – my initial response was, I think, primarily judgment? And a little bit of trepidation about how she was going to redeem herself for the audience and kind of in my eyes as well.

She is very prickly from the get go, and none too enthused about anything really, and I suppose in the end I approached her like anyone I might try to understand who seems cold or inaccessible…it takes a while to wear down the exterior and see what they’re using it to defend against, or what they’re protecting, but you get there eventually.

Q: Did that impression of Frances and your relationship with the character change much over the course of making the film?

A: Most definitely. I knew her persona and tone from the beginning, after a lot of workshopping with Bob, but I did judge her, and felt she was probably going to be hated and I understood why.

Now, while people may hate her, I feel kind of protective of her in a way I didn’t before – along the lines of feeling like I can make fun of my sibling or friend but no one else can, you know? I can fully rebuke what she did but then explore the why behind it and have empathy there. As you might for a friend or family member who has struggled and subsequently made large-scale mistakes.

Carmen Hilbert1
Kaley Wheless in ‘Frances Ferguson’ – Image by Carmen Hilbert

Q: As we witnessed in ‘RSO’, Bob Byington is never afraid to approach uncomfortable or taboo subjects with dry and dark humour. What is it like working closely with Bob? I imagine he has a particularly unique and fresh way of viewing the world and these subjects.

A: Yes, RSO definitely paved the way for Frances! Bob is very much like his movies, and that sense of humor is evident from the first 30 seconds you’re around him.

He just knew who Fran was and what the movie was, and what specific, tiny instances fit tonally within what he was trying to do, in a kind of aerial view way that was interesting to witness. Like he would find people in North Platte, Nebraska, and be like I think they fit and then put them in the movie kind of on the spot. I’d never worked quite like that before.

Q: I’ve heard Frances described as an isolated millennial. Can you talk about tapping into this character? Did you pull inspiration from the real-life cases, your own life, or elsewhere?

A: Sure! I think Fran is like the worst of my ennui and sarcasm, exaggerated. I also think we all can relate to feeling claustrophobic, or like you’re doing the things you’re supposed to but you still aren’t fulfilled. Or being trapped in a hometown, or a job, or a relationship, or by a reputation, or whatever it may be. Feeling aimless and unhappy, I’ve felt those things at times.

I think Fran takes the easy way out when she feels that, and just tries to escape. Which is a long circular road back to square one in some ways, but ends up being a necessary (slow) 180.

Regarding her sarcasm and dislike of most everything – I think that would be me in a much sadder parallel universe. I can be pessimistic, but on the whole I’m much (much) happier than she is.

Bob and I also watched things that played into making Fran in some small way or another – Barbara Loden’s Wanda was relevant to me in making Fran, and Bob also recommended the Fleabag series with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, among other things, which felt really pertinent as well.

Q: The film takes place in North Platte, Nebraska. How much did that setting effect you as an actor and the shoot more generally?

A: Quite a bit! We were there for three weeks, give or take, and it did make me a little stir crazy. But it was also interesting in that it made me feel isolated along with Fran.

There’s a scene in the movie where an older couple exits a store, and Fran is sitting on a bench out front, and they stop and stare at her for what seems like 30 full seconds? That just happened organically. They weren’t sure what to make of the camera, and just stayed in the shot. It was amazing. But in that moment Fran and I were very much fused, because we were trying to shoot a scene about her being an outsider in the town.

Making a movie in North Platte definitely made us stick out. That was an unusual thing to be doing there. It also helped us put our heads down and focus on the movie because that was all we had to focus on. It was kind of like going to a film boot camp or something. In Nebraska.

Frances by Carmen Hilbert
Kaley Wheless in ‘Frances Ferguson’ – Image by Carmen Hilbert

Q: Do you have any fun or standout memories to share from the shoot? I’m sure you weren’t short of laughs with the likes of David Krumholtz, Martin Starr and Keith Poulson around.

A: Those three are truly incredible. I mean David just comes in and lights up the room and also grounds it with his talent, and it’s an overwhelmingly impressive combination. Keith is such a giving performer and so easy to work with, and so talented.

The girl who plays my daughter – she was terrified of us generally, me included, and somehow Keith managed to draw her out of her shell so much that she invited him to go bowling with her! Which was great. Martin as well is just effortless, generous, hilarious, easy to be around.

My mother in the movie, the lovely Jennifer Prediger, and I laughed so hard we cried and absolutely ruined many, many takes.

We also shot in an actual, active prison, so we were milling about with the actual guards and prisoners, wearing the actual prison clothing, etc. We sometimes wouldn’t change before leaving and they told us that people would probably call the police if they saw us out and about so we changed that pretty quickly.

There were also moments of improv, so I think that’s one of my favorite things when watching the movie – seeing those pieces that just came out naturally and stuck in the final edit.

Q: The film is doing wonderfully on the festival scene. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it picked up by a streaming service like Netflix, NOW TV or Amazon Prime soon. What have you taken away from the experience of your first lead role in a feature film?

A: Thanks for the kind words, first, and second – for me, I think it’s now knowing the feeling of working on something that you care about, and that you truly, totally don’t know how it will be received, but feel proud of it. It’s a very specific headspace. I think experiencing that here on Frances and knowing to follow that in the future, because that’s ultimately the most creatively and personally rewarding way to work.

Also, sleep. Make sure you sleep. Sleep as much as possible.

frances by zefrey throwell
Kaley Wheless in ‘Frances Ferguson’ – Image by Zefrey Throwell

Q: You also recently had a role in John Lee Hancock’s ‘The Highwaymen’ with Woody Harrelson, Kevin Costner and Kathy Bates. How did being on that big Netflix set compare to the indie work you have done so far?

A: Different in many ways, but lovely! Every detail was completely in period and thoroughly researched. The costume designer and HMU ladies had full pitches for how to present and style Jean, based on what they knew about her from the script, and it felt collaborative and carefully curated.

It was inspiring to work with such a talented crew. And the sets were stunning. Working with Woody was fantastic, and he is obviously talented through and through.

My indie experiences have typically been the most collaborative by nature, and in the most recent things I’ve done, the script was written about the same time as I was brought on/ first discussing the project, so I usually then have more say in the character. And it’s typically been cast with people who the director already knows and has worked with before, which makes for a different kind of environment, and allows for collaboration there too.

Both were incredibly fun and valuable experiences, and challenging in productive ways.

Q: I heard you mention Hitchcock’s ‘Marnie’ in another interview. From what I’ve seen, I think you would have made a perfect muse Hitchcock. Are the lead roles in Hitchcock’s psychological thrillers – like Tippi Hedren in ‘Marnie’ and Kim Novak in ‘Vertigo’ – the type of characters you would love to sink your teeth into?

A: Ah, yes! I do love Marnie, sad as it makes me.

Thank you so much, I’m very honored by that! I definitely am drawn to watching psychological thrillers, and the Hitchcock icy blonde archetype speaks to me (unsurprisingly if you’ve seen Fran, I suppose). Hitchcock was obviously able to pack a lot of complexity into his plots, shots, characters, etc., and I’d love to be part of films that provide that challenge for the actor/audience.

Generally, I’m interested in not-traditionally-likable ladies.

Q: It is refreshing to hear you say that. Why are you drawn to these not-traditionally-likeable characters? What do you feel it says about you?

A: I’m drawn to unlikable ladies because I think we don’t see them, as far as general women characters go, nearly as frequently. I can think of a lot of male protagonists who aren’t all that likable, and are even unlikable (Dr. Gregory House comes to mind, Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, etc.), and I think we’re remarkably forgiving of that.

A big response to Frances is people thinking she’s a horrible mother – I don’t think she’s a good mother, but I don’t think she’s horrible to her child. But there are movies where dads are bad or totally absent – and although Keith Poulson’s character, my husband, in Frances is a semi-attentive dad he’s also clearly having an affair – but we don’t really penalize them as much. Like it’s definitely not great, but I don’t think we have as much of a negative emotional response to it. I’ve had people say to me Frances is “the worst” in regards to being a mom.

I also just think it’s part of being human. We’re all not likable all the time. Even for years at a time, depending on what’s happening in our lives! So I think that’s real, and makes room for greater complexity we don’t always publicly allow women, especially with female characters.

From an acting standpoint, it’s also more of a challenge to bring the flaws to the forefront and also still want the viewer to empathize on some level. I’m naturally sarcastic but I don’t think I’m mean – that’s a balance that doesn’t always come across, tragically, so I suppose you could say I’m experimenting with that challenge personally, too!

Q: What is next for you? Where do you go after ‘Frances Ferguson’?

A: I’ll keep you posted! I’m not sure yet – currently doing the festival circuit with Frances and auditioning. And excited for whatever is around the corner!

Title image by Carmen Hilbert

Leave a Reply