VIFF Interview: Clark Backo on her starring role in ‘Happy Place’

Clark Backo is a star on the rise. Known for her roles in Letterkenny and Supernatural, she makes the jump to lead actor in Happy Place, the new adaption of Pamela Sinha’s play.

I spoke with Clark on Zoom about her experiences making Happy Place.

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Note: This interview discusses sexual assault. Additionally, this interview contains spoilers for Happy Place and has been edited slightly for clarity.

Matthew: I was just looking at your IMDb, am I right in thinking this is your first like lead in a feature?

Clark: Yeah, it was!

Matthew: Congratulations on that!

Clark: Thank you! pretty wild first movie to have as being the lead. But we got there. We did it.

Matthew: How was the experience of being the lead for you?

Clark: I felt comfortable in that position. I really enjoyed how being number one allows you to have so much responsibility in bringing a film together, you know? Building your characters, wardrobe, hair and makeup, just every step of the way production is asking you your thoughts and I found that to be really wonderful, and so creative.

And I just love collaboration so being higher up allowed me to collaborate more than usual, which was really cool. But also it definitely had its challenges as well, because of responsibility. It’s a lot. You’re carrying a film, seemingly on the outside, it looks like you’re doing it by yourself. But thankfully I had so much support from cast and crew. That makes the job a lot easier.

Matthew: how was working with Helen Shaver, who is kind of a big deal Canadian prestige TV and now feature director?

Clark: it was an absolute honour, and pleasure, and it was a dream. Honestly, she is –apart from being an incredible storyteller as an actor and director– just as a human being is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life, and one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met, and most powerful people I’ve ever met, so getting to work with her on a film was just that much more incredible.

She taught me so much, and more than anything, she held me through the film, which is… I mean, you’ve watched it, it’s a really heavy film, but she was there for me personally and workwise, from the moment I signed on to today.

Matthew: I am going to, come back to the intensity of the film in a moment, but I just wanted to ask what was it like working with all the other actresses? In particular, Sheila McCarthy and Mary Walsh

Clark: Honestly, at first I was really nervous because these are Canadian legends. Every single woman that’s in this cast as a friggin’ legend in their own right, And being the youngest to come on I just was really nervous. I just wanted everyone to like me, and I wanted to make people proud. But as soon as I met them, every single woman opened themselves up to me and helped take care of me and we took care of each other.

Every day on set, I learned something different from each of them, and honestly, one of the best things I learned from working with these incredible women was that all of the fear and insecurity that I hold inside, specifically as an actor, they all share the exact same fear and insecurity. And they’re all established storytellers. That was just really enlightening for me to just see that it kind of never goes away.

But there’s relief in knowing that we’re all in it together. And that’s really a theme for the movie, is women just all being in together.

Matthew: My experience was with these women supporting each other, that there’s a bit of a universality their characters. Like, for me, I feel like there’s at least one character in this film that literally anyone, man or woman could relate to.

Clark: Totally, I think that’s one of the big things that drew me to the movie. The first time I read the script one character says something, and I’m like, “Oh, my God, I feel seen”. And another character says something else and I’m like, “Oh, my God, I feel seen there as well.”

And I think, both script-wise, and in real life working with these women, it became clear very quickly, that we all share pain, there’s like a universal pain that man or woman we’re all feeling. Women’s pain tends to be more along a similar line and we tend to be not heard or supported, and I think the film is all about how, although women might be it might be ingrained in us from a young age that we should compete against each other and not support each other, it’s through find sisterhood that we can truly heal. It’s just opening ourselves up to each other.

The cool thing to me is that the vulnerability of the women on the set cast and crew was so strong and so beautiful that I actually noticed behind the scenes that more men were willing to open up to us because we were brave enough to be vulnerable, and so everyone, in the end, was able to share experiences with each other, which I think is really cool.

Clark Backo / Happy Place
Clark Backo / Happy Place

Matthew: Your character, Samira, her story is at least in part, is autobiographical for screenwriter Pamela Sinha. How did you approach bringing that to the screen?

Clark: I think Pamela made it very clear from the beginning that it was her story, but I was not her. Which I think is quite incredible because she’s being, or was and is being, so vulnerable in bringing this story to screen, in bringing her own story to screen, but also understanding as a storyteller, if I’m playing the story, she just wanted to give me the most amount of freedom to be able to bring whatever I can bring to the story as well.

So again, we were all bringing her story to life, but there’s a reason the character’s name is Samira and not Pamela. I think it was very helpful to make sure that the movie felt as universal as possible, even though it’s based on a true story.

I had a conversation with Pamela very early on where we talked about her specific assault, and she told me that I didn’t need to know exactly what happened because I could use my imagination for that because that’s my job. So from then, I was very clear on creating my own version of it. It was challenging, but I had the support from Pamela the whole way through.

Pamela and I had a lot of conversations and what I was most interested in was what her life was like afterwards. I wanted to know how her brother interacted with her afterwards, how her parents interacted with her, just how the world changed around her, so that’s where a lot of our conversations were and that’s more what I use.

I also read an essay that she wrote after the assault, I read her two plays that she wrote, and I just did as much research as I could to make sure I understood what it would be like to go through a trauma like that.

Matthew: Did you get a chance to see either of the plays?

Clark: I actually never did, I read them, but I never watched them.

Matthew: Yeah, I never got to either, but now I want to.

Clark: Me too, but they weren’t still on by the time I came on for the movie.

Matthew: How was working with Pamela as an actor as well? She’s obviously in the film as Rosemary.

Clark: Yeah, kind of trippy! It was really fun. Working with all the women was so much fun. And working with Pamela truly was just a trip. We didn’t have that many one-on-one scenes together, but the one that I can think of off the bat, the one in the laundry room, it was so easy, and so fun, and so connected. So yeah, I really loved working with Pamela as an actor, and I hope to work with her again.

Matthew: I seem to be predisposed to films that are based on plays. Like this type of film that is basically two rooms and lots of people talking. Do you find that to be more challenging than the other kind of work you’ve done on shows like Supernatural or Letterkenny?

Clark: All jobs have their challenges, but Happy Place has definitely been the most challenging job I’ve ever done, to date, just because the content is so personal. Even if I didn’t go through the exact same thing as Pamela I have my own pain that I’ve been healing as well, so it almost was like crash therapy doing the film.

I’m not an actor who believes in bringing my own personal experiences to a character, I’d rather keep them separate, but this one really challenged that for me. Other jobs might be more difficult like Supernatural might be more physically demanding. I had to train a lot for that, with Letterkenny the dialogue can be really tricky because it’s so clever and witty and the timing is so important, but Happy Place was just a total mental game. I had my first panic attack filming Happy Place. It was just a great reminder that our bodies know more than our minds know sometimes, and to listen to yourself and be kind to yourself, so it was challenging in a way that I never really had experienced before.

Matthew: You had a panic attack leading up to the filming?

Clark: I had a panic attack in the middle of filming. I think it was after the shower scene that day at night I had a panic attack in my room, but Marie-Eve [Perron] who plays Celine, she helped me through it.

I almost fainted on set another day. But again, I was so supported that I never felt like I couldn’t talk to anybody about the experience I was going through or how challenging it was for me. Everyone was so aware and everyone was just so there for each other. So even though I was having a really challenging time, I just always knew that I was safe.

Clark Backo / Happy Place
Clark Backo / Happy Place

Matthew: That feels a little bit like art imitating life imitating art.

Clark: That’s totally what it was. Absolutely.

Matthew: You said before that you don’t generally like to bring your personal experience to the character, but I feel like one of the more powerful things about this film is that it does really feel Pamela using her art to process her trauma. Was anything that you sort of got out of the processing of that trauma? Did it help you in any other way?

Clark: It definitely helped me. It helped me realise that I wasn’t as healed as I thought I was in some of my own personal traumas. Samira specifically taught me that healing, and letting go, and moving on is a choice that you have to make every single day. A hard choice and a courageous choice, and so I’ve been doing that ever since, and that asking for help is okay.

But the only reason I say I don’t like bringing my own experiences into it is because I find that that can be unhealthy and dangerous. For me personally, as a storyteller, if I’m bringing a trauma that happened to me into another character’s life, I think it just muddies reality for me. So I’d rather create completely new experiences that I know my body will believe because my imagination is strong enough but, definitely, with Happy Place that kind of was impossible to do, I think Happy Place required all of us to bring our pain to the table and just like kind of show our cards to each other.

Matthew: Please say no to this if it isn’t okay, but is it okay if I asked about that pain?

Clark: Yeah, I won’t go into detail about it, but I was sexually assaulted when I was 18 years old and it’s been something I’ve been very quiet about. I mean, there are people in my family that don’t know this, some friends don’t know this. But this movie came to me at a time where my agent and I had decided that I wouldn’t audition for anything that had sexual assault because I wasn’t prepared to go there myself.

Then this movie came along, and I read the script. And for the first time –it absolutely terrified me– but there was something about the script that I felt would be a shame if I couldn’t be a part of bringing the story to life. There was something so pure and so true about it. So I just was very open and honest with Helen from the beginning about my fears and my past and where I’ve come from, so again, I was able to feel safe in my personal healing and Samira’s healing throughout the production.

Matthew: Obviously, the assault part of the film is very autobiographical, is the is the part in the care centre as well?

Clark: Through conversations with Pamela I got the impression that the part at the centre is all different pieces of Pamela’s life. All characters are kind of a mishmash of either people she’s met in her life or experiences she’s been through. So the character that she plays Rosemary is still her. And Samira is her.

It’s kind of a mishmash of what she’s experienced through other women at the centre, she actually went to, which wasn’t similar to what we created. She didn’t go to the institute that was like the one we portrayed. We took some creative liberties.

Matthew: It does feel like each of the characters is some facet of Pamela working through what’s going on, which is just fascinating to me.

Clark: Fascinating, and I don’t know how she does it. It’s absolutely just so brave. It’s so brave for her to use her pain to help other people confront their own pain and hopefully heal. It’s so courageous.

It was a fantastic experience speaking with Clark Backo about this film, and I hope that you all get to see the movie soon. Happy Place is streaming online as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival through October 7th. Clark can be seen next in the forthcoming season of Letterkenny filming next year, and the upcoming sci-fi thriller No Running directed by Delmar Washington.


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