by Elle Morris
photography by Jeff Berlin
There are not many who can put others at their ease over 3000 miles and two time zone changes. Katie Aselton, star of the hit FX series, The League, is one of those people. Her voice is warm and friendly and you immediately get the feeling that she’s actually happy to talk to you. It might have something to do with the fact that it’s her second daughter’s birthday. She is in high spirits as she calls from the parking lot of a Los Angeles Party City.
“I made it a whole year without killing her!” she laughs in triumph. “The first child you do the whole kids’ birthday party… then you’re like, ‘wait a second—they’re one, they have no idea!’ So I’m going to MY favorite burger joint. … I’m celebrating me.”
Though Katie is a native of the small town of Milbridge, Maine, she’s no stranger to cities. She studied acting in New York and journalism at Boston, though the latter didn’t last long.
“I thought I wanted to go into broadcast journalism and then I sort of had the epiphany that I just sort of wanted to be Holly Hunter… I didn’t actually want to be doing the leg-work and the politics of broadcast news,” Katie says of her studies. “I thought I was inspired by all these people—and I was. I was just more inspired by their performances than the actual career path.”
She also may have been doing what all aspiring actors do: avoiding telling her parents. “I was getting as close to the entertainment industry as I possibly could without actually going there,” Katie admits. But when it came time to tell them the truth, “They were surprisingly very cool about it—because I don’t think it came as a shock at all to them!”
Not that she had no performance background whatsoever. After all, she’d done teen beauty pageants. “I did ONE! I did ONE pageant!” Yes, one beauty pageant, singular. This was really the product of a state pageant that happened to be a preliminary for nationals – and nobody told her. She hadn’t even entered for the usual reasons.
“… If I was going to go into journalism, how was I going to get into the best journalism school? My school didn’t have a news station—it didn’t have anything. … And my dad [said] ‘You know, it’s a good experience for public speaking, you should just give it a go’.”
So she entered, not telling anyone outside her family. Even after she won a ridiculous sized trophy that her mother keeps in her old bedroom, she assumed that no one would know … until she was training for nationals. “And I did really well, I think because I had no idea what I was doing.” Natural charm, I suggest.
“I think that’s the only thing I can credit to my degree of success in the pageant. … It’s so funny, because in every interview they’re like ‘so you did pageants’. And God bless the pageant girls—they’re great. It’s a skill. It is not for the faint of heart. … But it’s funny that I get attached to that as a part of who I am.” It is a part of who she is, of course, and Katie credits it with giving her confidence, as well as giving her parents the confidence that there was something about her other people responded to. It also helped her get to where she is today: about to release her newest movie, Black Rock—which she both stars in and directed.
Black Rock, a story of three girls who reunite in their childhood getaway, was conceived because she wanted to make a thriller and the scripts weren’t pouring in. Black Rock is almost entirely hers. Her husband wrote the script, and of course she acts and directs, but the funding came directly from the website Kickstarter.
“Once I feel the need to make something … that’s when I will certainly dabble with other people’s money because doing it on your own time is just frustrating. It’s liberating and frustrating all at the same time.” She laughs, “For some reason no one’s writing me the check yet!”
Did that frustration bleed over to the decision to direct the film? “It was less frustration and more of I get really antsy. … I kind of just was jonesing to do something. And you can sit there and you can put it on someone else and be like ‘well why aren’t they casting me?’ Or you know, you can do it yourself.” Doing it herself meant greater control over the violence inherent in a thriller. “You sort of owe it to the genre to a degree. And so I feel we certainly go there, but we choose our moments to go there… If you’re being bombarded with terrifying noises and images and whatnot from the get-go, that’s less a thriller and more of just an assault, right?” In the last year and four months, America has seen nearly unprecedented acts of mass violence and heard all the same excuses from the gun lobbies as reasons why we shouldn’t be allowed to try and help ourselves. More often than not these excuses involve violence in video games and movies. As a filmmaker and movie-lover, Katie is in a good place to answer them.
“I’m sort of on the fence about that because movies have always been incredibly violent, right? Parents have a responsibility to be involved in monitoring what their children see. That’s just the way it is, it’s the way it always has been. That being said, do we as an audience, a collective audience, need the level of violence that we have? Do we need the level of violence that video games have? I don’t think we need it as a society, I think we have a voracious appetite for more. Always more, to always push it to a greater level.”
Pushing to a greater level is the trend in pretty much everything about movies these days, from violence to realistic special effects. The amount of money it takes to make a movie in Hollywood is another thing that has been pushed to a greater level, and Katie knows it well.
“I think the economy has certainly affected filmmaking and I think it’s been a movement that’s been in the works for a long time now. I think part of that is that technology has gotten much cheaper and you can make a film that looks beautiful for a very small fraction of what it used to cost. … I think it’s much harder to sell a film with no stars in it; I think buyers are more hesitant to buy a movie with no recognizable faces.”
Whether big blockbuster or independent film, Katie loves all movies. True-story sports movies never fail to make her cry, and she loves an epic. The thing she doesn’t like is a movie that takes itself too seriously, or a movie that the Hollywood Marketing Train tells her to love.
“I don’t like to be told by the masses what movie I’m going to love this year,” she says. “But as far as what movies I love, it’s most of them. They just have to hit me in the right mood.”
Unlike choosing a movie, choosing a character to play is not mood based. Katie prefers to go in a different direction every time, rather than picking six of the same characters. It’s why, despite her success with The League, she decided to go with a thriller.
“I went from telling dick jokes to killing people!”
It’s all about the change and the challenge. The League, which is returning for its fifth season, is about as far from Black Rock as can be. “Black Rock was its own beast a little bit. Like that was just an incredibly physically challenging movie and an emotionally challenging movie. The League is less. It’s challenging still because I feel like I am standing in the middle of the five funniest guys I know and having to keep up with them, and I am not a trained comedian.”
She also doesn’t have to direct on The League. “Where acting, you go in, you do your job for a week to six months, if you’re doing like Lord of the Rings or whatever, and then you walk away for however many months, and then you do a press junket, and you’re done with it. That’s it. As a director you never walk away from it, it’s always… it’s part of your daily life until it’s out in the world.”
With Black Rock well on its way to being out in the world, here’s hoping she walks away totally satisfied.