Bhreagh MacNeil chats about lead role in TIFF film Werewolf

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It's rare that an actress' first film lands at a prestigious festival like TIFF, but for Canadian Bhreagh MacNeil, the premiere of Werewolf tonight marks the launch of her on-camera career.

Bhreagh, whose acting background is primarily based in theater, is in Toronto with her raw and riveting film. The movie screens tonight (Friday, Sept. 9, 2016) as part of TIFF's Discovery lineup.

Directed by Ashley McKenzie, Werewolf follows the lives of a young isolated methadone-dependent couple attempting recovery on Cape Breton. Bhreagh plays one half of that couple, Nessa, while her co-star Andrew Gillis portrays her boyfriend Blaise.

Tribute's Matthew Pariselli sat down to chat with Bhreagh about her first feature film role, why dresses and ponytails were important to her during the shoot, how she developed her character, and who she's hoping to cross paths with at TIFF.

Congratulations on a bold and brave performance in Werewolf. How would you sum up your first feature film experience?
It was strange at first because typically with theater, it's just as big as possible all the time. Even with my audition with Ashley, I did my first little scene, and she was like, "Okay, great, now bring everything down 1,000 per cent." I was like, "Oh, cool." I would do things that seemed so beyond the catch of the camera that you wouldn't see them in an audience at a play. Like rubbing my thumb or something, you wouldn't catch that as a huge movement on camera. On stage, you'd have to be waving your arm for anyone to notice such a thing. So it was very weird in that sense, and I often felt I wasn't doing anything. I had to focus on staying in it but not overdoing it. So that was challenging, staying toned down throughout the whole thing. Everything picks up so easily, it's insane.

You play Nessa in the film, who's a very dynamic and complex character. How would you describe her to someone who hasn't seen the movie?
I would describe Nessa as very hardworking. She can’t even account for her situation. It's not even in her brain that she's starting off behind everyone else in life, in terms of where she wants to be. So she perseveres. I grew to love her by the end of the shoot, and respected her on so many levels, like how she dealt with the world around her... She definitely fears authority figures, I think she always has. That was a big thing with her. Whenever we did a scene where there was any form of authority, I completely closed in, I'd become nervous of them... She has a problem with authority, but not in an aggressive way at all. I think she's very strong.

How did you develop the character? What was your point of engagement?
I suppose overall, a lot was observing. It was great that we shot in the area where it's set so we could walk around George Street or Charlotte Street and see how people's bodies moved, how they reacted to people around them, if they made eye contact or not. It was mostly physicality I observed. I noticed posture, how people closed themselves in, how they reacted when people addressed them. After that, it was taking my own experiences where I felt self-conscious or where I felt like I was below what I was used to, and then enhancing them as much as possible.
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A great deal of the narrative revolves around your shared experience with Andrew's character Blaise. How did you develop a connection with him off-screen to create such a poignant and believable bond onscreen?
We were living together, so it was about talking, learning things about each other as people before we learned about Nessa and Blaise. Who's Andrew, who's Bhreagh, how do they get along, what are their shared interests? Nessa had such a dependency on Blaise. She was so tight to him in a strong way. So I'd see Andrew on set and I'd be like, "Okay, that's where I want to go. That's where I want to be." I would try to be around him in general because it made me feel like I was anchored to him. So when we were doing scenes, I always felt like I wanted to be where he was. And when I wasn't around him, I wanted to feel unsafe. Nessa doesn't feel comfortable when Blaise is too far away, especially at the beginning of the shoot. She's also always looking for approval from him. But once the story progressed, I did see myself doing my own thing.

I read that several scenes were improvised. Was that predetermined, or did you coincidentally discover it worked best for you and Andrew?
I had three auditions. For the third one, [Ashley] brought Andrew in. [She] gave me a script, I had it all laid out, and we did things exactly how the lines were. Then we did it with a bit less script. And then we kind of tried it without, to see if it was possible during the shoot to do so many improvised scenes. But it ended up being so natural. I found Nessa didn't talk a lot. I just didn't want to speak, it wasn't that I was nervous to improvise, I just didn't want to speak... It was interesting to see how she really developed through that. It made it happen a lot faster, it gave us a lot of freedom.

The subject matter of Werewolf is heavy and I imagine you had to go to a dark place to portray Nessa. How did you become her, and were you able to detach from her once the camera stopped rolling?
I very much believe in detaching yourself as soon as the day has wrapped. I know Nessa's voice is a lot deeper than how I usually speak, and that was a main point I decided on after the first day. But as soon as we wrapped, my voice would go right up. I'd put my hair in a high ponytail, because she never did that. I'd wear dresses, because she never wore dresses. I'd go see people that recognize me in my life, that talked to me about myself and my interests as opposed to Nessa's. On days off, I did things I enjoyed. For a character who lives in such harsh circumstances, it was important to know I wasn't that person. I found it good to disconnect. I'd call friends and ask how their lives were going, which helped me remember where my connections are... At the beginning of the shoot, Ashley had given me a book, basically a users guide to the methadone program. That helped, showed me what people prepare for, what the side effects are. It helped me realize how harsh a reality it is.

What performances were you inspired by while developing Nessa?
Ashley sent me a couple of films before I started. I believe L'Enfant was one of them, and I really connected to that.

What can we see you in next?
I'm actually in my third year of university right now. I go to Memorial University at the Grenfell campus. They gave me a month off last year to do the movie. I got to do school from a distance. But right now I'm finishing my degree. I've worked at Rising Tide Theatre, that was my summer job. But it's crazy, this is my first film and I think I've found a love. I love theatre, but film is so interesting to me now. It's such a different beast in its own way. It's a whole different skill set and I'd love to do more of it if possible.

Now that you're at TIFF, who is one star you'd like to meet?
I've always loved Chloë Grace Moretz. I think she's amazing. I saw her in Let Me In and it's so dark, and then I've seen her in other things and she's so light. Her diversity is amazing, and she's always been an inspiration to me in a lot of ways. When I heard she had a film in the festival, I was very excited. So hopefully that happens!

I'll keep my fingers crossed for you. Thanks for chatting with us and good luck with the premiere tonight!
Aw, thank you!

Werewolf premieres at the Scotiabank Theatre tonight (Friday, Sept. 9, 2016) at 8:45 p.m. Additional screenings will be held on Saturday, Sept. 10; Wednesday, Sept. 14; and Saturday, Sept. 17.

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