Ashley Spillers may have left Austin behind for L.A., but she's still doing plenty to rep her former hometown in this year's feature slate at South by Southwest. She appears in two SXSW premieres – Arlo & Julie, by writer/director Steve Mims, and Two Step, by writer/director Alex R. Johnson – and together with iconic sets and a prevalence of Texas' favorite pastime (drinkin' beer, of course), she brings an Austin feel to both films.
In Arlo & Julie, the title characters start receiving puzzle pieces in the mail. As pieces arrive, Arlo (Alex Dobrenko) and Julie (Spillers) become increasingly obsessed with constructing the puzzle and solving the mystery behind its sender. But don't be misled by the term "mystery"; the film isn't heavy. "We tried to make it fun. That's the first thing," says Mims. "Its ambition is to be a comedy."
Mims filmed in Austin and built many of the sets in the Communications building at UT, where he lectures. But that's not the only reason this light-hearted film captures the capital city so well. The then Austin-based cast played a big part too. "The script I wrote initially for Alex [Dobrenko]. Once we realized who all the main characters would be, he introduced me to Ashley, and she was terrific. So then I began writing specifically for her," says Mims. "It was really written for the two of them."
This made it easy for Spillers to connect to her character. "Our personalities, both mine and Alex [Dobrenko]'s, are very much ingrained in the story because [Mims] wrote it around us," says Spillers. "I didn't have to do anything extra on my part to put my stamp on it."
Spillers calls Arlo & Julie "a love letter to Austin," a title she says it shares with Loves Her Gun, a film by Geoff Marslett that premiered last SXSW. In it, Spillers plays Zoe, a character who suffers from unrequited love. It's much heavier than Arlo & Julie, and it ends tragically. Spillers' performance in it caught the eye of director Alex R. Johnson and landed her a role in his 2014 release, Two Step.
Johnson characterizes Two Step – his first feature-length film – as a "throwback, classic thriller." The film follows James (Skyy Moore), a young man who drops out of college and moves in with his grandmother. Shortly after his arrival, she dies, and James learns that a recently released convict named Webb (James Landry Hébert) had been scamming her for money. When Webb becomes desperate for more cash, things go south for James and others close to his late grandmother.
Spillers plays Amy, Webb's girlfriend whom he physically and emotionally abuses – a very different character from Julie and most of Spillers' previous roles. "Playing Amy was so cool for me," says Spillers. "I'm not yet often given the opportunity to stretch so far from a lot of the characters I play. A lot of the time they're very close to me and who I am. Playing Amy was such a cool challenge."
Johnson originally wrote the role for a different type of actress. "When you read the character description, [Amy] was written as a very thin, blond, road-worn-for-her-age, short girl," says Spillers. "And that's not me." But Johnson didn't cast Spillers for her physical resemblance to the original character sketch. "What I love about Ashley is that she obviously has dramatic chops. She's great in the film," says Johnson. "But she comes from a comedy background. She's got great timing. And I was looking for a little moment in the tension that would surprise me in the performance. And that's what she did."
Adding spontaneity to Amy's character wasn't the only casting challenge Johnson faced. "James was probably the hardest character to cast," says Johnson. "It's hard to find a person of that age – a young man in Austin or in Texas – that has a fragility about them. It's an epidemic. Everyone is trying to get on WB shows – doing far too many push-ups and pull-ups."
Like Arlo & Julie, Two Step has a decidedly Texas feel. But while the former turns a lovingly comedic lens on a young hipster couple, Two Step features a different side of Austin that's harder to pinpoint. "We wanted [the viewer] to not be able to exactly pin down when this is. That meant a decision to not incorporate what's been happening in Austin in the past few years," says Johnson. He offers an example: "We tried very hard when we shot the Broken Spoke to not get any of the condominiums in the shot, which is difficult."
Despite the differences, Spillers finds continuity between the divergent roles she stars in this Festival. This consistency extends beyond the fact that Amy and Julie both reside in Austin. Instead it relates to Spillers' acting methodology. "At the end of the day, whether I'm playing Julie or Amy, they're people. And you have to find the humanity there."
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