Actress, playwright, stage director and filmmaker Adrienne Shelly made a big splash in the small pond of eighties American indie cinema as the offbeat lead in The Unbelievable Truth (1989), which introduced both Shelly and filmmaker Hal Hartley to audiences. Their sensibilities were a perfect match and they reteamed for Trust (1990), but while their careers parted after this, they remained remarkably parallel. Like Hartley, she purposely avoided the Hollywood game. Remaining on the East Coast, the diminutive, red-headed actress largely committed herself to idiosyncratic indie films (Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, 1992, Sleep With Me, 1994) with occasional guest-starring gigs in East Coast-based TV shows like Homicide and Law and Order. She had come from the stage and continued writing, directing and performing in the independent theater scene in New York, and she made the leap to filmmaker with her feature directorial debut, Sudden Manhattan (1996), a film very much in the brainy, talking, wryly absurd vein of Hartley, but with a different perspective.
Shelly was poised to finally break into mainstream filmmaking on her own terms with her third feature film, Waitress (2007), when she was murdered in November 2006, the victim of a senseless homicide. The film, starring Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion and featuring Shelly in a sweet supporting role, debuted at Sundance months later to great reviews and landed a major distribution deal.
In 2000 I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing her when she accompanied I’ll Take You There, her sophomore feature as a director, to the Seattle International Film Festival. It was her third appearance at the festival she called her favorite (at least she said so to me: “I just find it to be so friendly and really just about the filmmaking”) and she gave me nearly an hour of her time, talking about the features and short films she directed, her beginnings with Hal Hartley, and her work on the New York stage. She laughed easily and often while remembering details and describing events from the shoot, and seemed genuinely appreciative that someone had invested so much into her films. “Sometimes you write something and you know that there is another meaning behind it and you wonder if anyone is going to get it, is going to see it,” she said near the end of our interview. “It’s nice that you picked up on all this.”
Sean Axmaker: How were you cast in Hal Hartley’s films? You had never been in a film before The Unbelievable Truth.
Adrienne Shelly: It was a freak thing. I sent my head shot to his office. There was an ad in the newspaper called Backstage, this was two months before he started casting for The Unbelievable Truth, and the office that he was using at the time was being shared by several different companies and one of them, I guess they were making music videos, and I had sent my head shot in. It was a fluke. When I first started, I used to send my head shot around. And someone held up my picture and said, ‘Why not audition her?’ They actually put another ad in Backstage that I didn’t see, specifically for the movie, and I never would have sent my head shot in for that because it said, ‘We need a model type,’ and I never thought of myself as a model type. I’m so small and, you know, not a model type. So I never would have gotten the part unless I had sent in my head shot in for this other thing, for this music video.