If you don't know Zoe Levin yet, you probably will soon. With roles in The Way, Way Back and Palo Alto under her belt, she's quickly racking up a resume of interesting, critcally acclaimed films, including the Tribeca breakout Beneath the Harvest Sky. Set in northern Maine, the coming-of-age film tells the story of two best friends, Casper and Dominic (Emory Cohen and Callan McAuliffe, respectively) who are desperate to find a way out of their tiny, rural town. We sat down with Levin to talk about the film and her character, Tasha, the culture shock of rural Maine, and being drawn to characters that are "deeply insecure."
You have this and Palo Alto premiering at Tribeca, this has got to be an exciting experience for you. Yeah, it was really crazy because they both went to Toronto and then both of them got picked up by Tribeca, it was like “Oh! Okay.” Fun.
Is there a certain way you're going about finding projects, and are there things you're particularly interested in doing? Or do you just want to try a bunch of different things? Well, I was really lucky because right off the bat got cast in these two really great movies with really great directors, and I did Beneath the Harvest Sky first, and it was such a good experience for me, because we did a lot of improv, and the way Aron [Gaudet] and Gita [Pullapilly, the directors] worked was just really eye-opening to me and after that, I got to do Palo Alto and we did a lot of the same stuff. Just a lot of character work and playing the space and both directors created such great atmospheres for us and I really would love to do more films like this [one] that are passion projects for people. You’re always gonna get those auditions for like, Divergent, and stuff like that – and that would be great, that would be so fun, I’m so into that – but there’s something special about being on these sets that are passion projects. It’s just inspiring.
And then, right after Toronto, I did a play, and now I’m doing a TV show, so I’m kind of experimenting and trying to do everything I can. My philosophy is “If I like something, I’m gonna do it.” I don’t really care if some people are like “Oh, so-and-so only does this type of movie” and “so-and-so only does TV.” I don’t think you should just be labeled down to whatever. It’s about having fun and doing good work.
Is there anything specific about Beneath the Harvest Sky that made it particularly interesting to you? Was there something about the story or the directors that drew you? The place that we filmed was so special. And Aron and Gita spent seven years or something writing the script and picking up all those details that made it so authentic, so that was really fun because we got to just dive in and immerse ourselves. I was telling someone else how, at the end of the shoot we realized that I had been there for a month and I shot for three days. Because being a small crew, we could just nail out all the scenes we wanted in one day, so we shot all my stuff in three days, but I spent three weeks just kind of hanging around town, being a bored Van Buren kid. I went to school one day with Casper a.k.a. Emory, and it was really fun and just culture-shocking.
Are you from a different kind of town? I’m from Chicago. The smallest town I’ve ever been in before that was [when] I went to a summer camp in Wisconsin, and that to me was small town. And then when I got to this place, I was like “Okay, this is small town. I don’t even know what I was talking about before.” They didn’t have a McDonalds, they had a Tasty Food. That’s what it was called. Tasty Food. It was weird, it was kind of French, kind of Canadian, and American at the same time.
The accents in this movie are unlike anything I've seen in a movie, or anything I've even heard before. It took me a long time to get out of the habit of those accents after we were done. I was like, [in accent] “You know that, don’t ya know that?” It was this weird tic that I had for a while. Some people really nailed it. Others, like myself, just kind of steered clear. That was the beauty of it: some kids in that town sounded completely normal, no accent at all, some kids had heavy French-Canadian accents, so I was like “I’ll go the American route,” basically.
You mentioned before that you guys did a lot of improvisation. Do you have any background in improv?I did a lot of theater in Chicago, that’s where I started, so that trial and error thing really helped me, because during rehearsals, you do the scene a million which ways, and that was really shocking for me, when I went into film that it wasn’t that. You just do the scene. So this was so great, because it felt like I was doing a play, almost. We were rehearsing and messing around and getting to play off of Emory was really fun, and we had a great time figuring our stuff out, and it was just really fun.
What was it about Tasha that was so interesting to you, and through the filming process, was there anything you then brought to the character?I don’t know, it’s just sometimes when I read scripts, even if it’s just the crazy girl, there’s just something that is so humane about her at the same time, and so sympathetic, even though you really hate her and I always love those. For some reason, I’m always drawn to those girls who are so deeply insecure and they need to be loved in some way that they reach out in different ways. Emory and Tasha are just so insecure, but they deal with their insecurities so differently. Tasha is just fun, Tasha was just really fun, and it was an interesting town and an interesting script, and there was something about it that was magical.
I think in a lot of big movies, especially movies that focus on male relationships, the girls are often handled in a way that is sometimes undercutting or sexist. Yeah, like degrading almost? But I didn’t read Tasha like that. And she’s not the girl next door, she’s not the sweet girl, she’s also not all that. Nobody’s just black and white. There’s a lot of grey.
She definitely brings a lot of life to the movie. Even when she makes regrettable choices, she's definitely a fun character. She’s desperate. She just wants to be loved.
I was wondering if you separated her from a lot of the problematic ways that filmmakers treat young women in stories like this. That was also the beauty of working with Aron and Gita, because it was a male director and a female director, so they were both on the same page, but Gita would sometimes take me aside and just point things out that – she was really good at bringing the honesty out in the characters, and the vulnerability, so it was really great to have her there, talking me through it and reassuring me, so that was a cool experience because it was a woman director and a man director. It was a great combination.
You can catch Beneath the Harvest Sky on VOD, Amazon and iTunes.