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An Interview with Actress-Producer Camille Mana

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October is going to be a busy month for actress-producer Camille Mana. First up, she has a supporting role in the feature film Norman, which opens in theatres on October 21. She plays Helen Black, a unique high school classmate who has a crush on Norman (played by Cougar Town‘s Dan Byrd). Secondly, she will appear in actor/playwright Jesse Eisenberg’s new Off-Broadway play Asuncion, which opens October 27 at the historic Cherry Lane Theatre (directed by Kip Fagan and produced by The Rattlestick). To mark the launch of these two latest projects, Mana was kind enough to do an email interview, where we also discuss her plans for new projects allowing her to pursue additional writer-producer opportunities as well as her additional upcoming film releases. 

How many pages did you get into Talton Wingate’s script for Norman before you realized you wanted the role of Helen Black?

I’d say that within the first 5 to 10 pages, I knew I would love to be a part of the project. I think you always know within the first 10 pages if you’re attracted to a piece. Just like first impressions in life- you know early on whether or not you’re hooked on something. All good screenplays establish tone and the world of the story in their opening beats. I remember writing my agents, saying I loved the screenplay, because this is exactly the kind of movie that I love to watch!

What was it like to work with director Jonathan Segal?

It was great. Jonathan was very approachable. He was open to collaboration from his cast, and yet had a great sense of how he wanted to tell this story. That’s a great balance. I am so impressed with how the film turned out, and grateful to have been involved.

Would you agree that Norman is a darker-edged comedy than your typical comedy? Is dark comedy harder to pull off as an actor?

I think that on the page, the screenplay for Norman reads as a dark-comedy for sure. It has many quirks. But upon seeing the completed film, I would say that because the performances are rooted in something so heartfelt and emotionally dark, the film is a drama that has a hefty amount dark comedy peppered throughout. I think different audiences will have different responses to the film, some will see it as very dramatic and others may take it in as a dark comedy. I’ve seen it now with 3 different festival audiences, all of whom emphatically enjoyed it, but in one screening- everyone was crying, and in another everyone was laughing! I think that’s a testament to the film’s success- that it is so multifaceted and three-dimensional that people can relate to it on many levels.

I think perhaps the difficult thing about dark comedy is that it confronts elements that are taboo or a little scary for people to deal with. I love broad comedy as well as dark comedy, so I am happy performing both. But there is a level of intellect and perhaps of risk for danger that dark comedy is not afraid to tackle, whereas farce is often just plain fun.

What were the most enriching aspects of working with a talented Norman cast that includes Dan Byrd, Emily VanCamp and Richard Jenkins?

I am just thrilled to be part of casts like this. The work that Dan does in this film is on a completely different level of artistry from what most actors have been able to do in careers twice as long as his. Richard Jenkins is great in pretty much everything he does- I admire him so. I was excited that he was nominated for an Oscar a few years back because The Visitor was my favorite movie of 2008. Adam Goldberg is such an indie film icon, and Emily is so sweet and likeable onscreen and off. I am excited for people to get to see this film. It is really a gem.

Have you had the pleasure of sitting in the audience at certain film festival viewings of Norman, if so, can you talk about what it was like to soak in people’s reactions to your character?

I have actually, which is always a weird experience. I hate watching myself onscreen, and the first time seeing something is always the worst. People have been very kind to me, and have said some ridiculously flattering things. It’s always a little uncomfortable, and yet I am happy that I was able to add something to the film that people enjoyed. I have some really fun moments of awkwardness and levity to contribute some of that “quirk” factor to the film. I love that I get to do that.

Did I hear correctly that you were asked to join the cast of Jesse Eisenberg’s Off-Broadway play, Asuncion, without an audition–but rather based on your talented reputation?

Yes, you did hear right. Sometimes, I even question it myself (laughing)! But yes, I was offered the role of Asuncion from Jesse, and even more exciting is that it is quite a departure from the awkward “Helen Black” type roles that I’ve been exploring for the past few years. I am elated at the opportunity. I haven’t played a character quite like this before, so this is really opening up a whole new chapter of my career I think- I am getting to play a three-dimensional woman, rather than a girl.

What kind of themes are explored in the play?

The play explores the difference between knowledge and experience. It revolves around these two highly educated and progressive young men who have read a lot about the world, and then essentially are confronted by the world itself- in the physical manifestation of Asuncion - when she shows up on their doorstep from the Philippines. It deals a lot with the ways we use our experiences in life to justify or exploit our beliefs. There’s a lot of fascinating elements in it.

Is there a certain sense of immediate gratification when working in live theater (as compared to your film work)?

Yes, I think the closest thing to theater that is done onscreen is the multicamera sitcom format, which was actually my first big break- so in a way that was similar. But even sitcoms are only shot partially before a live audience, and there are multiple takes, then edited by multiple people.

Whereas, there is something exciting and tangible about live theater. I remember when my parents took me to see Phantom of the Opera when I was 10, I was so affected. It’s almost electric when something right in front of you is being created and speaks you on an emotional level. There is always also room for error, just like in real life, things can spiral out of control and you just have to make it work.

In addition to acting, you produced Equal Opportunity which won NBC’s Comedy Shortcuts Festival and was a hit at HBO Comedy Festival and dozens more, as well as the feature film The Things We Carry? In the future, do you hope to produce more projects?

Definitely. I’m collaborating with a new partner whom I love! We’re writing a screenplay together, and teaming up to develop a few other projects to produce as well. As soon as Asuncion closes, I am excited to get focused on that. Writing is a completely different beast, and one I find more challenging than acting or producing, if simply for the fact that it is completely isolating. I am a people person by nature, so having to chain myself alone to a desk can be really daunting for me.

What else is on the creative horizon for you in the next year or so?

I’m very much looking forward to High School hitting theaters. (Yes, it is true. My resume includes both College and High School. And not even in the correct order).

It was an audience favorite at Sundance. It has a cast of thousands, including Adrien Brody, Colin Hanks, Michael Chiklis, and Michael Vartan…! It is a really fun film, and visually edgy. Not your average teen comedy, though I think some people don’t get that the “high” in “high school” is a drug reference. I think adults might actually enjoy the film more than kids. It is somewhat in the vein of 80s teen comedies, it has that kind of timeless vibe. I play one of the straight-laced students that gets stoned along with the entire school populace when the two leads essentially inject weed into the all-pervading brownie supply.

I get to have Yeardley Smith as my homeroom teacher. How cool is that? Adam Goldberg, Yeardley Smith, and Dennis Quaid have all “taught” me. If only all school were this fun!

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