New York based actor Kathleen Simmonds joins us on Close-up Culture for a fascinating chat about her web series Woe Is She, working on Netflix’s Reversing Roe, the influence of travelling in her life, and much more.
Q: ‘Woe Is She’ follows Jenny as she deals with the fallout of being diagnosed with depression. Can you tell us more about the series and why this subject interested you?
A: Woe Is She is a dark comedy web series that I produced with my incredible creative partners and our all-female production team. Our aim for the series was to shine a light on the daily work of living with and overcoming depression as a woman.
I have struggled with serious bouts of depression over the last decade and believe strongly in ensuring people don’t suffer in silence. So with Woe Is She, we focused on an issue close to our hearts and sought to de-stigmatize depression by showing it in the ways that we have personally experienced it.
Q: I hear your character, Nicole, is a well-meaning bad influence on Jenny. What does Nicole bring to ‘Woe Is She’? And how was your experience playing her?
A: Audiences might see Nicole as flippant and somewhat superficial at first. Her inability to express emotions and her self-destructive nature means she finds it difficult to connect with Jenny’s diagnosis. However, as the season progresses, cracks start to appear in Nicole’s hard facade and we get to see her mushy insides. The deep loving friendship that the two women have is at the core of the show.
In terms of my experience on set, Nicole was a dream to play. Our writer Stephanie Fagan is a comedic genius, so breathing life into her words was easy. And Chelsea B. Lockie, our Director, knows my work intimately (I’ve collaborated with her for over 6 years), so she is able to push me to my limits and knows what buttons she can press to make my work more truthful. It was a relief and joy to take off my producers hat for a while and step into Nicole.
Q: The series is still winning acclaim on the festival circuit. Why do you feel is it has resonated with audiences and juries?
A: Yes, we have had 16 Official Selections, 1 Semi-Finalist nomination, 2 Finalist nominations and a nomination for Best TV Pilot, and the accolades are still coming in!
I think the appeal of Woe Is She goes to the core of why we made the series in the first place. As 3 women in our 30s, we didn’t see ourselves represented on screen, most of the roles we were auditioning for were (to be frank) utter crap, and we had a real story to tell. We were ruthless about sticking to our original goals through every stage of script development, production and edit, and I think that shows. People resonate with the themes, the characters and our passion for the show.
Q: The series is driven by an all-female identifying creative team of yourself, Stephanie Fagan and Chelsea B. Lockie. What was the creative dynamic like on this project?
A: The three of us actually did our Masters of Fine Arts together at The Actors Studio Drama School. Over the course of those three years and the three since, we have become close friends and admirers of each others work.
Our collaboration for Woe Is She came very naturally and from the outset we set a rule that all three of us would agree on all decisions about the project. We laugh a LOT, know how to communicate to each other, and respect the value each brings to the collaboration.
The most essential thing was that we all were and continue to be equally committed to the project. Once you have that as a base, everything else is easy.
Q: As evidenced by ‘Woe Is She’, your work places an emphasis on women’s issues and stories. Has this always been a driving force of your work or was there a specific moment that brought it into focus for you?
A: My interest in womens rights goes way back to the beginning of adulthood. I was a practicing corporate attorney in Australia for 6 years (before coming to New York) and my pro bono practice was focused on providing legal services to women refugees and their families, microfinance loans for women, and homeless youth.
That need to support fellow women has followed me into my creative career and is at the core of every job I decide to do. As an actress, I want to portray real, strong women, who have been given an accurate voice. As a filmmaker, I work to ensure that women are at the core of the stories I tell.
In 2018, I attended the 90th Oscars where I was part of a team that produced a short film on diversity in Hollywood as a response to the “Me Too” and “Oscars So White” movements. My producer credits also include Line Producer, Associate Producer, and Casting Director for Break Thru Films (run by 2 extraordinary women filmmakers, Annie Sundberg and Rick Stern) on documentary features and mini-series for Netflix, HBO, Amazon, and Sundance AMC.
Our film Reversing Roe which looks at the current state of abortion laws in the US, premiered at Talluride in 2018, is currently streaming on Netflix, and has just been nominated for 2 Emmy awards in 2019.
Q: I’m glad you bring up ‘Reversing Roe’. What were your big takeaways from working on such a big project that tackles such a contentious issue in US society?
A: The biggest takeaway for me was how quickly these issues move and how to deal with that in the context of a large budget network feature. In the last couple of months leading up to our premiere at Talluride, the abortion laws were changing almost weekly in some states.
As a Line Producer, that meant juggling creative pressures from the Directors, financial pressures from the Network, lawyer input, post production scheduling, deliverables, and the list goes on. It was stressful but completely worth it to have the most up-to-date film we could when it released.
Q: Do you get a different creative satisfaction from working on a big budget network show compared to something independent like ‘Woe Is She’?
A: For me, the satisfaction is sweeter on my own projects. Seeing something go from an idea over coffee to hearing audience laughter at its film festival screening is truly gratifying. Being on the ground for every hiccup and delivering a finished product (with the added pressure of using your own money!) is something you can only experience for yourself.
BUT – I don’t think I could have made my own series without my experience working on large budget network projects. Knowing how big shows are made, what makes a show “bankable”, casting, working with union crews – all of this made developing my own project so much more seamless because I was able to anticipate problems before they occurred.
Q: Travelling is a big part of your lifestyle. Does it act as a break from your creative pursuits or does it help fuel them?
A: Thanks to my globe-trotting parents, travel has been an extremely important part of my life since birth.
I was an army brat, changing schools every 6 months and travelling internationally constantly. My childhood was spent strapped into military planes or flying back and forth unaccompanied between boarding school in London and my family living in Israel. At the moment, my dad lives in Indonesia, my Mum on the Gold Coast (Australia), my brother in Sydney and I live in New York. We all have the travel bug! I can never stay still.
Travelling has given me a love of street food and fashion, experience living in third world countries, and strong international friendships. All of these things influence or eventually find their way into my work. For instance, I had 3 serious penpals as a child and in Woe Is She we find out that Nicole and Jenny were penpals when they were children!
Q: As part of your travels, you also put on acting workshops at academic institutions. Why do you feel it is important to give back and help actors and filmmakers with the business end of the industry?
A: I didn’t get here alone. Success isn’t just about your talent, hard work and dedication. You need a close-knit support system, you should be constantly building an extensive and genuine network, and be seeking out inspiring teachers and mentors.
I’ve said this in an interview before – Being an artist is scary. We take risks every day and our future is often in the hands of others. We face rejection daily and criticism often. We should be encouraging each other, lifting each other up, fighting for pay equality, referring friends to new opportunities and networking more. I do workshops so that I can pass on what I know.
Hopefully in doing so I can help others to learn from my mistakes or jump a few steps ahead. I want other actors and filmmakers to feel empowered, not frightened, to tell their stories.
Q: Do you set regular goals and targets for yourself? What constitutes success for you?
A: I’m an ex-lawyer, A-type personality so I have lists EVERYWHERE! Daily, mid-term and long-term goals are how I stay motivated, but ultimately there are so many paths to get to where you want to go. I make lists and goals, but if something doesn’t “go to plan” or a door closes, I have to believe that its because there is something better around the corner.
For me, the main goal is to always be true to myself and only tell stories that inspire me or make me grow.
Q: What is next for you? Any ambitions or plans to share with us?
A: I am overwhelmed with opportunities at the moment in both my filmmaker and actress capacities. A lot of these projects are under wraps but I can tell you about a few exciting things that I am spending my time on!
I just finished as Line Producer on a new limited series for AMC / Sundance TV called The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park (watch out for the premiere on November 13). Right now I am watching the amazing submissions in the NYC WebFest and NYC2PARIS Film Fests (I’m on the jury for both) – so excited to meet the filmmakers and attend all of the red carpet events!
I am about to spend significantly more time in Australia (where I have just signed with a new management team). We have exciting plans for Woe Is She (stay turned at @woeissheseries). I am writing a new mockumentary series with another of my creative partners Nicola Quinn.
Oh, and I am taking steps to option a book for a new feature film (which I hope to finance and star in some day)!
Title image by Miguel Herrera (@miguelherreraphoto)