Body Modification, Exploitation, And Going Dark With ‘American Mary’ Star Katherine Isabelle [Interview]

For “American Mary” star, Katherine Isabelle, the body modification thriller isn’t a horror movie. “It’s being marketed simply as the horror movie, and I’m like ’Well it’s not really a horror movie. There’s no scary scenes,'” she told me in a recent interview. And she’s right: it’s a hard movie to classify, as is its heroine Mary Grant, med school student-turned-underground body modification pro Mary.

Directed and written by the twin duo of Jen and Sylvia Soska, “American Mary” exists in this weird place between exploitation film and social commentary, sitting uneasily with both. Isabelle and I talked about what Mary means to her, what it’s like working with the Soska sisters, women in horror, and the legacy of Isabelle’s role in the horror classic, 2000’s “Ginger Snaps.”

MTV Geek: What attracted you to the role? What made you want to be Mary?

Katherine Isabelle: I was sent the script and was given a just a very brief—like oh, it’s from identical twin sister writer-director horror filmmakers–I ended up reading the whole script, the whole 180 pages, on my Blackberry twice. I immediately got sucked in.

Being Mary is a very unique character especially, you know, in film and as a female. You don’t often see women in film portrayed the way that Mary is. She has some redeemable qualities, like she’s not ever really nice to everybody, but you still really like her. You know, I think she smiled once. [Laughs]. She’s not the typical charming, sweet character—she’s dark, she’s weird, she’s funny. I don’t think they try at any point in the movie to force you to like her—you either do or you don’t.

Without her having to be all sunshine-y and that was something that I found intriguing because as a woman, and a woman in film, there’s often a few stereotypes that you can fit into. To have a character that’s that unique and also with the script itself being so original and well-written and of course once I met the girls, we became instant best friends. So there’s no way I couldn’t [Laughs].

Geek: That’s kind of an interesting element to Mary. She’s in this weird place between being an exploitation character and also a victimized character, but she’s neither of those things really. She seems to own her experience pretty early on. What did you think about that? Just that ambiguity to her that’s not neither here nor there. She’s not out for revenge exactly, she’s not out for…

Isabelle: Well exactly, she’s pissed that she allowed herself to be, sort of and somewhat, victimized. That’s why it’s hard to describe the movie in general. It’s being marketed simply as the horror movie, and I’m like “Well it’s not really a horror movie. There’s no scary scenes.” There’s nothing really all that gory and there are some horrific elements definitely to it—but it’s the same thing with Mary. It’s hard to describe her as as a revenge character, or the movie a revenge story or any of those things—and that’s what I think is really intriguing. She doesn’t easily fit into a box. It’s rare to find characters like that these days in film. So I mean obviously it was something that I was thrilled to find [Laughs].

Geek: You talk about being fast friends with the Soska sisters. What was that collaboration like on the set? How did they help you find Mary’s voice and how did you help define the character for them?

Isabelle: It’s interesting–It can be difficult sometimes to work with directors that have written the script. Especially since they are so attached and so close to the characters like Jen and Sylvia were. It can sometimes be tricky because they know what they want and are so close to the character, but they have a hard time giving the character to you and really trusting you.

The girls were absolutely a thousand, million percent giving, generous and trusting with giving me their character Mary and just completely—no matter what I did—being so enthusiastic, supportive and encouraging that I ended up being more confident day after day, which then helped me to bring out Mary. In a way, I didn’t want to disappoint the girls, obviously, and I really didn’t want to disappoint the character of Mary who is so rare and so unique. The girls were so charming and so funny and so enthusiastic and supportive. They just allowed me to have her and just trust that everything was wonderful all the time and that they were super happy with it—and that made me happy.

Geek: You got me thinking about that scene in the film where they show up and they hand you the drawing and they say that it’s kind of hard to explain.

Isabelle: Yeah, they say it’s hard to explain but here’s a brief blueprint and do what you will. That’s kind of what they allowed me to do. It helped. I got the script nine months before we actually went to camera—you know, shooting an independent film it’s always iffy if you’re ever going to make it or not. I had it and when I first got it I was obsessed with it, then I kind of put it on a shelf, because I wasn’t sure if we were going to make it or not.

Those nine months kind of gave me some time to process it a little bit. I felt like we were talking about it about all the time and developing it. It just sat there forever. By the time we go to shooting, we had 15 days to shoot it and I had just come off of three other shows. There was no prep, there was no rehearsal time, there wasn’t nothing. It was like bang, flew in the next day. Done, started, do the fifteen days, finished. That was a bit stressful because I was concerned about having the time to make sure I wasn’t f**k it up but. Thankfully, the girls are still talking to me.

Geek: In that nine months that you had to think about the character and think about the story, one thing that I’ve been coming back to is –I keep returning to the idea that it kind of is an exploitation film but it’s not that. Do you feel it’s at all isolated from being accused of being kind of exploited and violent towards women because women are kind of at the front of this and responsible for making this film?

Isabelle: I don’t know if the reaction would be different if men—you know—two guys made the film. I don’t know if that would make a difference. I don’t know if people would have a different reaction to it, if they would be offended more so than they are with just the girls. The thing is, when you’re making art of any kind, you should be blind to who made it. You should take the film for what it is. I don’t see it as exploitative as maybe some people do.

This s*** happens to people all of the time. This kind of story happens to people a lot. Maybe not so much with these extremes that happened with Mary, obviously and what happens to her and what she ends up doing. When you’re writing something like that, I don’t think you can be concerned about whether or not people are going to be offended, whether or not it’s going to be accepted more so because you’re a female or not. Art is art. It’s whatever it is. People can take it however they want. I’m sure some people would be horribly offended by this movie and I’m sure this movie will totally inspire younger girls to be stronger people.

Geek: Have you had any reaction at all from the body modification community?

Isabelle: They’ve been really really supportive. That was due to how respectful the girls were to body modification. It’s a community that has been marginalized and pointed at and made to feel a bit freak show-y sometimes. It was really generous of them to come on and help us. We’ve had lots of people all over the world. When we do screenings everywhere, there’s always a few that come up and are really enthusiastic to see a part of their culture shown on screen in a respectful and artistic manner instead of a freak show kind of way.

Geek: The majority of depictions of the body modification character is usually the serial killer or usually the crazy person.

Isabelle: Yeah, or the weirdo or creeper. And in this movie, everyone else is weirdos and creeps and they’re totally normal and happy.

Geek: In the last minute or two that I have with you here, I want to use this article as a chance for some of our readers that may not be familiar with “Ginger Snaps,” to kind of get familiar with the first movie that I saw you in. Reflecting on that so many years later, that excellent, excellent film, do you feel like there’s any continuity between Ginger and Mary in terms of these very strong and outgoing characters who, for lack of a better word, snap and embrace this thing that’s in them already.

Isabelle: Yeah, I think they definitely have similarities in their stories. Especially, something happens to the both of them and they both have to deal with that in the best way that they can. They definitely both snap in a more violent manner than you would hope.

“Ginger Snaps” was one of the Soska Sisters’ favorite movies. They were mocked at school and called “The Fitzgerald Sisters” and they didn’t know what that was. Then they went a rented the movie and was like “Oh f*** yeah, you can call us that all you want!” Those are the two best characters that I’ve ever been given. Both Ginger and Mary. I’m so glad that people responded so enthusiastically to Ginger and so far, hopefully continuing, to Mary. Those are roles that I was obsessed with and totally fell in love with that I felt honored to be trusted with them. I’m always excited to see characters like that and really excited to be doing characters like that. I hope in the future that more people write roles like that. Strong, independent female characters that overcome shit that don’t conform to the normal and that don’t fit into the box, that don’t necessarily feel like they have to be shiny, sunny and charming all of the time but are interesting and cool people, that affect the people around them and the people watching the characters on screen. I think Mary and Ginger both do that and I’m happy for that. Both of those characters are due to how well they were written and get on them [Laughs]

Geek: Is there anything you wanted to (can’t understand word) before you go? Are there any projects that you’re working on that you want people to know about?

Isabelle: I just really want everybody to really give Mary a chance whether or not you’re a horror movie fan. I don’t necessarily think it’s a horror. My mom has seen it and there’s a lot of people who are a bit sensitive who have seen it and go “It’s not nearly as upsetting as I thought it was, but it was deeply affecting.” I really want people to give the movie a chance and support it.

If you like it, tell all of your friends, take all of your family, take people and support it. The better this film does, the more people will fund interesting and cool independent films like this and the more we will be able to enjoy it.

“American Mary” is available now on DVD and Blu-ray from Xlrator Releasing.

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