Images courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories 

meet helena howard, breakout star of 'madeline's madeline'

As a disturbed teenage actor in 'Madeline's Madeline,' Helena Howard gives one of the most haunting performances of the year. But she has no desire to do Hollywood blockbusters.

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Aug 10 2018, 8:04pm

Images courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories 

Helena Howard has one credit on her IMDB page and the entire film industry knocking on her door. The 20-year-old star of Josephine Decker’s experimental mindfuck Madeline’s Madeline — in which she plays the titular teen acting prodigy — doesn’t act like Hollywood’s Next Big Thing. Then again, she is a mindblowingly talented actor. As Madeline, Howard embodies a moody young woman, a snarling cat, and a stranded sea turtle, all during the film’s first opening scenes. Even her drama teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker) is unnerved when Madeline comes to on the floor of a stage wearing a giant stuffed shell. (“Whose hands are those?” she asks. “Are they yours, or are they the turtle’s?”) Madeline’s best acting is done in a state of disassociation, something Evangeline and Madeline’s mother Regina (Miranda July) are too ready to exploit, regardless of the toll on the teenager. It soon becomes obvious that Madeline has a serious mental illness.

The origin story of Madeline’s Madeline further blurs the boundary between fact and fiction. Howard doesn't present as bipolar, but the film is at least partly autobiographical, a collaboration between Decker and the wunderkid she stumbled across at a drama festival. Howard talks about “becoming” Madeline as if it were unconscious, humbly describing method acting on par with Heath Ledger’s Joker. “As an actor I find that I just become the person that I am, and I just go with it, so the emotions come organically,” she says. “Not that I’m not myself still — I’m the passenger in the car, but Madeline would be driving. When I was going out with people at the time they would ask if I was okay. I wouldn’t notice at the time but it was because I was in her state of being. Even strangers would come up to me and say, ‘You seem really sad.’”

i-D talks to Howard about Meryl Streep, The Mummy, and why she spent Sundance repeat-watching a Titanic VHS tape.

How did you get involved in Madeline’s Madeline ?
Josephine was at a teen arts festival that my high school would go to every year. I was doing a monologue from Blackbird by David Harrower, where Una is standing up to her harasser from when she was 12, 15 years later, and confronting him about the burden that she’s had to live with for even longer. She said it was the best performance she’d seen in her life, and she started crying, and I cried. We exchanged some information and we met up a month or so later. She said she was looking to make a film — another narrative — and it was going to be centered around me. She still didn’t really know what it was going to be about, so she got 10 other actors together and we began workshopping.

How much of Helena Howard did you insert into the script?
Josephine and I would read through different drafts of the script together. I’d be like, “Hmm, no, this doesn’t make sense,” or she’d have her boyfriend look at it. Josephine is all about feedback. I brought elements of my life, from people I interacted with, and things Josephine had told me, because she was going through something in her life with a friend who had a mental illness. The stories that we had created in the workshops were about the spectrum of bipolar disorder and anxiety.

Did you ever dream of be film actor or are you a diehard theatre kid?
I’ve always wanted to be a film actor — ever since I saw The Mummy when I was three years old. That’s the first film I remember watching. My dream was always to be a film actor. I model myself after Meryl Streep. She’s my all-time idol, [along with] Vivien Leigh. My heart will always love theatre but I feel like it’s changed a lot, especially here in America. It’s not like The West End Theatre, where I feel like people respect the art form a little bit more. Here I notice that people shout out when they’re reacting, or they clap obnoxiously during parts where it’s not needed. I went to a show once with a few Europeans, and they were like, “What’s wrong with American culture?”

What was it like going to a massive festival like Sundance?
I didn’t like it there. I didn’t really go out. I watched Titanic five times on VHS. It’s like a mini Hollywood. I stood on line for one party and we didn’t even get in. I can do that in New York and just walk in.

I read a review of Madeline’s Madeline that said you would be cast as X-Man within the next 10 years. Is that something you’d go for?
No! Maybe if it was Batman. No, I’m kidding. I’m not into being in a franchise. I’m not really driven by money. Obviously you need to make money, and really good actors make money — but I’m not going to have action figures made out of me or have to go to Comic Con.

Are you a cat person?
Yes. I have a cat. I’m a cat whisperer. Cats love me.

I need to introduce you to my cats. They need some serious psychotherapy. Speaking of playing therapist, what is your relationship with your mother like? Did you draw on that for the film?
Not really. My mom is like my best friend. But with all parents, you have those moments when you just want to kill them. They don’t know how to say the right things at times, or they think that they’re helping you, and you’re like, “You’re digging a bigger hole, one I’m going to put your body in and just leave there.” I’ve had moments with my mom that I drew on. It’s kind of scary when you can feel yourself going to those places of anxiety. I’ve sort of grown as an actor as far as knowing my boundaries.

What other coming-of-age movies have you seen that really nailed the experience of being a teenager?
Perks of Being a Wallflower. I think that film really encapsulates the feeling of how awkward high school is, especially when you’re socially awkward. That was me! That is still me. I am not a person who has ever really had friends. I don’t fit in. Words people use to describe me are weird, awkward, socially inept. Watching that film, you really feel for the main character, Charlie. He’s so troubled and all he wants to do is have friends. Also, I think Black Swan is kind of a coming-of-age film. She’s been kept as a child for so long and she’s finding her way through this metamorphosis into the black swan. It’s coming into oneself. I think that’s coming of age. I love that movie — I used to watch it to go to sleep, for a year, every day.

Was Natalie Portman’s character in Black Swan someone you identified with specifically?
It definitely was — this idea of perfection, and wanting to please the director.

What was it like working with Molly Parker and Miranda July?
I didn’t meet Miranda and Molly until we started shooting the movie. I did Skype with Miranda a week before we started shooting. I didn’t get super close — I think because I did have that exterior built up as Madeline. The way that the relationship between Miranda and I grew was really important for the film. It was a volatile mother-daughter relationship. The relationship between Molly and I was chameleon-like. In one moment it could be tender and sweet, and if it needed to be toxic, it could. I think it was great that I didn’t know them because I didn’t have any prior feelings or preconceived notions about them coming into filming, like I did with some of the other actors in the troupe.

Is it weird to be becoming more well-known? Do you have to think about what you post on Instagram?
I have thought about that, but I don’t like technology. I really hate my phone — I only use it for work. It’s so hard nowadays. I’m like, “What is aesthetically pleasing? What if I don’t get this many likes?” That’s so stupid to think about. There are so many other things going on in the world. To be honest, all I hear about these days is Donald Trump. If it was between Donald Trump and getting likes on Instagram, I’d rather stress about getting likes on Instagram. I should definitely increase my presence on social media but I get stressed out. There’s so much out in the world. It’s crazy.