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Best Supporting Actor, An Interview with Andrew Sensenig of 'Upstream Color'

In a film so full of meaning, fascinating ideas and a unique use of image and sound, Sensenig’s performance becomes perhaps the film’s most haunting element.

Upstream Color

Director: Shane Carruth
Cast: Shane Carruth, Amy Seimetz, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins, Frank Mosley, Carolyn King, Myles McGee, Kathy Carruth, Meredith Burke
Rated: NR
Studio: erbp
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-04-05 (General release)
UK date: 2013-03-01 (General release)

As we enter awards season and start getting bombarded with glitzy ads, dirty PR and more glossy-looking contenders than we can shake a stick at, it’s always a good thing to look back at the year that was and remember the films that made the previous ten months turn 2013 into a truly banner year for cinema. One of them was Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, which kicked off the year in great fashion by winning a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. With its labyrinthine, cerebral plot, challenging structure and its complex sound design, it was easy to become too impressed or overwhelmed by the film’s aesthetics and miss out on the fact that it featured one of the best ensembles of the year.

A few weeks ago, voters at the Gotham Awards seem to have noticed and rightfully included the film among its five nominees for Best Feature and also nominated Amy Seimetz for Best Actress. In the film she plays Kris, a woman who is trying to put her life back together after being subjected to a strange procedure by a man simply known as The Sampler played by Andrew Sensenig. It’s testament to his talents as an actor that in a film so full of meaning, fascinating ideas and a unique use of image and sound, Sensenig’s performance becomes perhaps the film’s most haunting element.

Following a long cinematic tradition of villainous scene-stealers, his Sampler is one of those characters that creep under your skin without making too much of an effort. Because he is a cipher in more than one way, The Sampler can be either seen as a divine figure or a demon sent from hell, with Sensenig aptly disappearing so much into the character that he allows us to project our biggest fears and wishes onto his character. We talked to him about his post-Upstream projects, his process and what it was like to create one of the greatest supporting characters of the year.

The first time I became aware of Upstream Color was when I saw someone tweet the long lines of people waiting to see it outside the IFC Center in NYC. It's rare to see people wait patiently for anything nowadays, so I said to myself "this must be something special". Can you take us down the year you've had since the film came out?

To say it's been an overwhelming ride would be an understatement. I first saw the film at Sundance and was simply blown away, even though I might be a bit biased. From that moment, it has simply been a whirlwind. I've been in touch with so many people all around the globe; other actors, directors, producers, critics, writers, and an incredible number of Upstream Color fans. Quite honestly, I never expected anything like this.

I've been recommending the movie to everyone, especially since it came out on Netflix pretty fast, as an independent film actor, what do you feel is the role of streaming services to get your movies out there? Would you rather have people go to theaters or do you think streaming is the way of the future?

That's a great question. The streaming platforms no doubt provide unlimited opportunities for filmmakers to reach their audience. My personal feeling however, for our film, is that the theatre experience is so much better than a small screen and crappy little speakers. As you know, the film is a layered beautiful piece of sound, cinematography, and so much more. Upstream Color is definitely a film that feels and looks better in the theatre.

One of my favorite theories about film is that all movies are about movies. Watching the way in which Shane maximizes the use of visuals and sound in Upstream Color reminded me of this theory and in particular because of how your character is always there viewing others like a camera, I ended up feeling like Shane was actually trying to deliver an essay on the dangerous beauty of creating film. Am I completely insane for having seen this?

I think you are spot on. The Sampler could easily be seen as a filmmaker, composer, and artist that is watching everything; literally to the point that he is forever building a film that captures life in all its glorious pieces.

Your character also reminded me of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey... What's the craziest interpretation you've heard of the movie so far?

Holy cow; you'd be amazed at the interpretations I've heard from all over the world. The craziest though? That's hard to say. Here is just a very small slice of some viewers thoughts -- "The film is about the control of Hollywood over the indie filmmaker and the need for artist to "break the cycle". "The Sampler is a broken God; finally going over the deep end when Chris is the first 'soul' to confront him and his reign of control." "Chris is representing a woman in an abusive relationship and she finally is victorious is breaking the cycle of violence." Here's a good one "Chris and Jeff were actually married previously, but due to the control of the Sampler, they don't have memories of their past." "The Sampler is evil." "The Sampler represents all things good." "The Thief, The Sampler, and the Orchid Hunters represent the Trinity." "Upstream Color is making a statement of Big Brother always watching and controlling. It has to stop!" And the list goes on and on. Ha!

In the past you've mentioned that Shane's screenplay was extremely detailed and gave the actors all the directions they needed to play these characters, however a lot of the discussion about the film has focused on meaning, something which the director left to the discretion of each viewer. Do you feel that this has in any way distracted people from the richness of the characters?

You may be correct that the richness of each character may be overshadowed by the layers of the film and the "meaning". But personally, I'm thrilled to be part of a film that stirs so much discussion. I would much rather be involved with something that brings people together with hours upon hours of debate rather than get a slap on the back for a great performance.

How do you prepare yourself for a role in which the character remains a complete mystery to the audience? How do you prepare yourself to convey so much through a silent performance? (Any inspiration, films you watched to prepare yourself etc.)

Now that's a deep question! Rather than bore you with my soapbox on the nature of a true performance, I'd simply say that I always work from the inside out. In other words, deep within my artistic spirit, I visualize the heart of the character rather than worry about anything on the exterior. I rarely pull from other performances or "pictures" as it would begin to turn my own process inside out. In creating The Sampler, it was much more about being in the moment and "listening" to each individual's life story. I never had a feeling of being their creator or controller, but rather simply a man that has been tasked with helping those that can't help themselves through the use of music, medicine, and ultimately our connection to each other.

What were some of the biggest challenges when shooting the film?

The challenges really dealt with physical elements rather than anything creative. While working on the pig farm for days on end, the temperatures reached record lows, and we were shooting long days in the rain, sleet, a bit of snow, and laboring through acres of six inches deep mud fully enriched with pig shit. Now that's fun!

You're a very active Twitter user. How do you feel independent film artists should use social platforms to engage with their audiences?

Twitter is such a dynamic tool that can instantly carry your thoughts, messages, promotion, connections to thousands and thousands around the world. You'd be amazed at the number of notes I've gotten through Twitter asking similar questions. It is such a fantastic platform to connect and share ideas and keep the conversations short and sweet.

As we enter awards season and smaller films get lost among the big studio productions and their huge campaigns, how would you want voters to remember your film?

We can't expect an Upstream Color to compete with the huge studio budgets, and more in particular, with the massive wheels of marketing. At the same time, I just want to keep getting the word out on our film and get it in front of as every viewer possible around the globe. Upstream Color is such a gorgeous journey that grabs each of your senses and hurls you into a world that quite frankly is probably much more realistic than many would like to admit. The sensory response is something that hasn't been seen in film for decades and probably will not be repeated for many many years to come. As I mentioned earlier, I'm probably biased, but this film moves me more and more with every viewing. It speaks to the audience in a language that is new, vibrant, exhilarating, hypnotic, and simply beautiful.

What’s next for you in terms of projects?

Oh gosh, I can barely keep track of what's on the calendar, let alone even know what city I'm in on any given day. At this point, I'm attached to over 15 feature projects shooting between now and next summer, and that's not even looking at all the network and studio projects that have balls in the air. The good news is that my airline miles are racking up quickly! Over the next several months, I'll be in New Orleans, Cleveland, Winnipeg, New York, San Fran, L.A., Raleigh, San Antonio, Austin, London, maybe Sydney and beyond. And over the past few months I've had the honor of portraying everything from the reclusive astronomer discovering faith, the mob attorney running to nowhere Texas to get away from some bad dudes, a crazy purgatory boss, a pastor that abuses and sells his daughter, and those are just the normal roles... Stay tuned, you are going to be truly shocked when you see the range of characters hit the screen, and I am so very excited to be a part of each and every one of these projects. What a crazy business, but I wouldn't be doing anything else!

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