"What's that quote? The art we make is the conversation we really want to have with ourselves?" asks Jessie Kahnweiler.
The Los Angeles-based director, writer and actor and I are sitting in her spacious apartment in Atwater Village, a sunny neighborhood on the east side inhabited by a mix of families and trendy singles obsessed with their succulent gardens. Inside, Kahnweiler's white walls are covered in hanging houseplants, and notes for upcoming projects are scribbled on pieces of colored paper. A flat screen sits on top of an old wooden television, while the floor between her work desk and couch is covered in even more papers and notebooks. She is working a lot these days.
Last summer, Kahnweiler wrote and starred in a viral video for Buzzfeed called "Boyfriend Casting Call," where she held open auditions for men to nab the role of her real life boyfriend. Yet, there was a catch: the men did not know they were auditioning to potentially marry the 30-year-old Jewish comedian. "That video was me exploring my own loneliness and desire to connect with men,"Kahnweiler tells me in her frank, witty tone.
Kahnweiler has gone viral lately. Not just because of the Buzzfeed video, but also her Youtube series, "Jessie Goes There" (where she dates a homeless man and tries to fuck a veteran), another short film "Meet My Rapist" (an improbable comedy about rape), and most recently, the dark comedy series The Skinny, which tells the story of her decade-long battle with bulimia. Her writing has been published everywhere from The Huffington Post to The Daily Dot. Self-deprecating and hyper aware, Kahnweiler makes work that is hilariously cathartic.
Kahnweiler grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, then migrated to California's University of Redlands where her love of film developed into a career. She started exploring the meth-ridden desert town of Redlands, spending late nights at gas stations with her camera trying to talk to truckers.
"I had a bottle of Klonopin and some mace," she says. "I'm not trying to sound cool here, that's just what an idiot I was."She talked to whoever she could and realized this is where she wanted to be: listening to people's stories.
After graduating, she and a friend hitchhiked with truckers from Portland to San Diego. She settled there with a boyfriend who cheated on her with "every girl in town," but that's how she ended up in Los Angeles. She landed production assistant jobs on a bunch of Hollywood movies as well as the reality show Intervention, but all the while, her bulimia was a big, shameful, coping mechanism that ebbed and flowed in her life.
The Skinny addresses twisted situations from purging so hard you blind yourself with ranch dressing backsplash to having your wine-guzzling mother tell you you can't possibly be bulimic because you aren't thin enough. And now that the once-independent project is being funded by Refinery 29 (and Kickstarter), Kahnweiler is beaming, but she's also waiting for something to go wrong.
"Jill Soloway [Transparent creator and friend] told me that if I'm not scared to do something, it's not worth it," Kahnweiler says. "Everything I have made, I have been fucking terrified to put out there."
Kahnweiler's whole approach to making a dark comedy about bulimia is fighting the current idea that women are either "strong, confident feminist "or "shallow, self-hating girls" to which she says: "Maybe I'm actually a bit of both?" Kahnweiler figured out that her eating disorder was a symptom of a bigger mental health issue. She was not happy because she never addressed herself. It was easier to throw up than to confront why. Kahnweiler's willingness to publicly confront her darkest moments is exactly what we need around eating disorders and body image.
"My rock bottom was sitting in the car with my friend, telling her about the idea for [The Skinny] and she congratulates me for being amazing. And I go, 'I am amazing.' Then, I get out of the car, come into that kitchen," she points across the room. "And I eat every single thing I had in the house and go throw it up. That is insane. That is when I decided to get into recovery. I could not just write my story. I needed to ask for help," she sighs. "The Skinny is a layered, complicated story of a woman. I am making a show about the most shameful thing about me. I never thought that would happen."
Kahnweiler recently dressed up in a ridiculous outfit and rapped for a friend's series. Camera rolling, she completely spaced and forgot her lines. Years ago, she would have punished herself by throwing up. But today she checks herself and the feeling soon fades.
"Whenever I fuck up, that's the best part," she realizes as the words spill out of her mouth. "Those are the moments when I am not spending all my energy trying to be skinny and perfect. That is what I want to show with The Skinny - what you lose when you are not just being yourself."
Text Mish Way
Photography Ben Colen