karena evans on starring in ‘firecrackers’ and directing music videos for sza

The 23-year-old talks about her role in the feminist film, escapism, and subverting the narrative.

by Sarah Gooding
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Jul 19 2019, 11:00am

While Karena Evans might best be known for her compelling work behind the camera for artists like Drake and SZA, the 23-year-old’s latest role in Jasmin Mozaffari’s debut feature film Firecrackers proves she has just as much power in front of it.

The film follows two young girls, Lou and Chantal (played by Michaela Kurimsky and Evans), who are trying to escape their isolated, run-down town and move to NYC. They’re firecrackers in every sense of the word – loud, disruptive, dangerous — and the film shows the lengths they and many other women must go to to attain autonomy.

“While it is a specific story set in a specific town, it is extremely universal to human beings,” says Evans, on the phone from Los Angeles. “Although the story is centered around Lou and Chantal wanting to escape, Jessie [Lou’s younger brother who’s experimenting with his gender presentation], and Mom [who’s struggling to accept her son while working a dead-end job and dating a younger man with addiction issues] also want to escape,” Evans explains. “Lou and Chantal are just unapologetic in that.”

Firecrackers’ exploration of female agency aligns with the work 23-year-old Evans has become known for. Having started her career by texting Director X and becoming his intern, she quickly climbed the ranks. Evans was the director behind some of the most popular music videos of 2018, including four cinematic clips for Drake and one for SZA. She has made it her mission to use her work to elevate women and minorities. Her video for “God’s Plan” saw the project's $1 million budget donated to those in need, while her romantic short film for SZA’s “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” subverted the music video’s omnipresent male gaze by making Donald Glover pine wistfully for the soulful artist.

“The shooting of Firecrackers actually took place a couple of years ago, before I did many of the music videos that I directed,” she explains about her move from behind the camera to in front of it. “So they have kind of been happening simultaneously, but they haven’t been released in that order.”

Evans says she was drawn to play Chantal – a caustic yet kind, spontaneous rebel – partly because of Mozaffari’s atypical approach. “Everything about the process of this film was so different and original,” Evans says. “The audition process was improv-based, I didn’t get a script or anything. It was just like, this is the description of the character and this is what we want to see you do with it.” She sent in a tape, and ended up auditioning in a scene opposite the director, which she found “really intriguing.”

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When she did finally receive the script, Evans found it was better than she could have imagined. “It’s a very important story, and I have been yearning to be a part of this kind of female-centric, female-forward representative story. So that opportunity was just really special.”

Evans took an immersive approach to playing Chantal. Having grown up in the big city of Toronto, she had little in the way of lived experience to relate to Chantal’s small-town frustrations. To bring more realism to her character, she decided to stay in the town that they were shooting the film in. “I wanted to understand what it would be like to live in a small town and feel trapped in that small town, and what would these girls would turn to when they were bored.” Those things were joyrides in shopping carts in empty parking lots, photo shoots on the shore with their cell phones, and drinking, dancing and smoking the night away.

There’s an authenticity to the characters and their shenanigans that can only come from real-life chemistry. Evans admits, “Michaela and I made Instagram accounts for our characters, just to understand how they talk, how they move, what influences their behavior.”

For Chantal, the issue wasn’t just small-town boredom, but its deeply ingrained racism. In one scene, she imitates the townsfolk who insult her in a whiney, affected voice: “Where are you from? How do you get your hair like that? Can I feel it?”

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Lou also faces opposition for being tough and knowing what she wants. She gets close with a guy in his truck, but he seems to get turned off by the cut on her lip that she got from a fistfight with another girl. She seems bemused and tries to placate him by saying, “I’m not trying to date you, I’m trying to fuck you.” He kicks her out and leaves her in the dark on the side of the road.

With the exception of Jessie, whose maturity and self-awareness is positively beaming out of his prepubescent body, basically all of the other males in the film appear deeply insecure. In this way, Firecrackers feels representative of the cultural moment we’re in now, where women have been empowered to take charge and speak out. But the film also feels timeless.

“Both are true,” Evans says. “From my observation, Jasmin approaches writing and directing her characters not through a lens of judgement, but rather the truth that she based these characters off of. They are very much a product of their environment and how they were raised. But I also think that behavioral pattern – that sort of patriarchy – has evolved with time.”

Evans is now back to working primarily behind the scenes. She just directed her first TV pilot for the upcoming strip-club drama P-Valley, which will air early next year, and is working on some other secret projects. “Really, my focus is to be a part of stories that subvert previously definitive statements,” she says. “That could be underrepresented communities, that could be women, that could be black people, that could be LGBTQ, that could be marginalized white folks.”

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“What I’m interested in is representing communities that haven’t had an opportunity to be represented wholeheartedly before. That’s always been something that I’ve been trying to do, even in the music video space – to represent women in a way that they haven’t been for a very long time.”

Watch Firecrackers in select theaters and on-demand now.