An Interview with Annika Marks
Annika Marks is an actor, writer and producer known for her work on Goliath, Waco, The Fosters, and The Last Tycoon. Annika has also appeared in acclaimed films such as Mona Lisa Smile, The Sessions, The Last Champion, and the upcoming Killing Eleanor. I spoke with Annika about landing her first role, what draws her to a script, portraying Bernadette Davis in The Last Tycoon, and Killing Eleanor.
Did you always want to pursue a career in acting, and how did you land your first role?
I wanted to be a dancer as a kid and gave that dream my all. I was obsessed with ballet. I was the kid who would pass up cartoons to watch an old Swan Lake recording for the hundredth time. And then, at 13 or so, that dream came to an end. I wasn’t developing a ballerina’s body, and it became clear that there wasn’t a future for me in that world. At the time, that was absolutely devastating, and it was something I struggled with for years. But looking back, it was such a gift. Truth was, I was never a great dancer. I don’t even know how much I loved dancing. What I loved was performing. I loved the story behind the dance. Once I wrapped my head around that, turning to acting made a lot of sense. It let me hold on to the pieces of dance that I loved the most, while entering a world where your individuality is your super power. What you are— your body, your brain, your heart— as an actor, your ability to bring those unique qualities to a role is what gets you hired, not your ability to blend in. The freedom in that felt like such a luxury. It still does.
As far as my first role, it was a long road. I attended the Circle in the Square Theatre Conservatory in NYC right out of high school. I was only 19 when I graduated, and I had all this raw, barely formed talent and so much respect for the craft and absolutely no idea how to navigate the business. Needing to make a living and also being incredibly curious about film and TV, which I knew absolutely nothing about, I started doing background work. That path worked for me because I had so much humility. I knew it wasn’t my time yet, and I felt so lucky that there was something I could do to support myself that let me observe professional actors at work. Background work turned into stand-in work, and I actually ended up getting my SAG card through being upgraded on a set. At that time, I was also submitting myself through Backstage for every project I was even remotely right for, attending open calls, dropping my headshot and resume all over town for every reading and workshop opportunity. I did a ton of student films and small theatre projects and made a lot of mistakes when the stakes were fairly low. And I just kept learning.
My first significant role was an indie that I ended up booking because an actress dropped out last minute. The director was panicking to replace her, and I had been putting my work out there so consistently for so long that I ended up being recommended to him by 3 separate people who had seen me in tiny projects. There was obviously luck in that, but it was hard-earned luck. There has never been anything immediate about my path, and at this point, I’m grateful for that. Since I’ve never been someone that the business put on its back and carried, I’ve stayed very active in my own career, and have developed a discipline, partly out of necessity, that I value tremendously now that I’ve expanded into writing and producing.
Is there anyone in the industry who has particularly inspired you?
Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Sharon Horgan. Michaela Coel. Greta Gerwig. Women with unique, strong voices who have empowered themselves as content creators.
You portrayed Bernadette Davis in The Last Tycoon. Could you tell me about your experience working on the show?
That was an absolute dream job! The material, the artistry in every aspect, those vintage dresses— it was an extraordinary experience! It was one of those jobs that was so special, you knew to appreciate every moment, even while it was happening. Billy Ray and Chris Keyser created an environment where every single person, in front of and behind the camera, felt so valued. Billy has this habit of sending every actor an email about their work that day— no matter how small the day had been for them— recognizing their contribution. I never made it all the way home from set without an email from Billy waiting for me. It’s hard to understand how someone so successful and so in demand can make himself that accessible. It sets the bar incredibly high, and once you experience that kind of inclusivity, you never want to go back. It really affected me and the kind of environment I try to create when I produce now. One where everyone feels essential. Because they are.
You play a role in the upcoming Killing Eleanor, which you also wrote and produced. Could you tell me more about this?
Sure! It was my first feature as a writer, and I was lucky enough to create it with my husband, Rich Newey, who directed and edited. Rich and I produced alongside our two wonderful, incredibly committed partners, Angie Gaffney and Richard Kahan, and the greatest executive producers you could dream up, the Chicago Media Angels. The story is a very personal one, dealing with the issues of dying with dignity and addiction. Those are heavy topics, but ones that I wanted to bring humanity to and find the humor in, because levity is how you invite people to lean in. I hope we succeeded in that. As an audience member, the best experience I can be gifted is one where I’m left considering something from a new angle— especially if that ‘something’ is controversial or difficult, and often, getting me to laugh is the fastest way to open up my mind. Stories are vehicles for empathy, and I hope that this one creates a pathway for conversations that people might otherwise be avoiding.
The movie is anchored by the performance of a lifetime by the tremendous Jenny O’Hara, who I wrote the role of Eleanor for. I describe Jenny as my mentor and my muse. She’s one of the all-time greats and it’s probably the thing I’m proudest of— having written her a role worthy of her talent. I can’t wait to share her work with the world. It was an incredibly ambitious shoot. I didn’t write a script thinking “indie”, I wrote the story I wanted to tell and then refused to compromise in order to make it easier to shoot. Rich started in music videos where he wrote, edited, produced and directed on limited budgets with time constraints, and he’s a brilliant problem solver on set. Despite the fact that these days he works primarily on big budget TV shows, he’s just as scrappy as ever, and we pulled this movie off because of his preparation and passion. His partner in that effort was Jennifer Wilkinson, our dear friend and 1st AD, who is very in demand, and was generous enough to make Killing Eleanor her passion project as well, giving us the immeasurable gift of her presence and expertise. Rich’s other secret weapon was Jessica Young, our kick-ass DP, who Rich has been shooting with since film school. She is so committed and tireless in her effort it's hard to describe. I couldn’t have asked for a better team to pull off what should have been impossible— 30 locations in 17-days with 31 characters. But, we had a blast making the film, and I’d like to think that translates— that you can feel the love that went into manifesting this project. Every member of our cast and crew were so generous in how they showed up, with so much love and integrity and grit. I’ll never be able to thank them all enough.
We premiered recently at the awesome Savannah Film Festival, where we were honored to win Best Narrative Feature, and now we’re looking at which distribution strategy it best for the project. At every step this has been the steepest learning curve I’ve ever been on. Before making Killing Eleanor I’d made a few short-form pieces, but this passion project has been a life changer. It cleared the road blocks — all the things I’ve always told myself about what’s standing between me and telling my own stories— it dismantled that narrative and left me with a choice to make: embrace the expansion or shy away from it. I’m working every day to embrace it.
What draws you to a script?
Truth. Doesn’t matter the genre or the medium, I’m looking for the truth. As complicated and varying as plots and characters may be, in the end, if a story is told with truth, we will recognize ourselves in it and it will bring us closer together. I’m always looking for unique voices who root their work in the ugliest, funniest, most impossible to ignore truth.
How has acting influenced your work as a screenwriter?
Again— truth. Actors are lie detectors, because our whole job hinges on the ability to exist, moment to moment, in a character’s skin. So, if we can’t connect a beat or a thought; if we can’t remember a line because it doesn’t track— our instrument is making it clear— something is false. I think when you approach writing from the film school track you have a ton of advantages. I’ve had to teach myself structure and I still struggle with it every time I sit down to write. Everything I’ve done as a writer has been by osmosis and feeling first, and the discipline of writing second. But, the advantage of beginning as an actor is that you never lay anything down on paper because it’s convenient for the plot— because you need it to get you from one beat to the next— if it doesn’t ring true. You just can’t do it. It makes your skin crawl. Also— vulnerability. No one is more vulnerable than an actor. You can’t do your job if you’re not willing to expose the softest, most sensitive pieces of you. It’s easy to hide behind your computer as a writer, but an actor who becomes a writer doesn't know how to hide, so we pour ourselves into our work in a way that can be startlingly personal and vulnerable.
Can you tell me about any other projects you're currently working on?
I have a lot of writing projects on my plate at the moment, very few of which I can actually talk about. But I’ve optioned a few pieces that are in development and I’m working on an adaptation as well. Several of my upcoming projects are in the TV space, which I’m so excited about because I love the team sport part of content creation, and nowhere is that more prevalent than television. And in the meantime, I’m continuing to write features that Rich and I intend to make together, one of which should be announced soon. As my journey continues to evolve, the greatest part is that Rich and I have been able to manifest this dream together, and I can't wait to get back on set with him!