Out of the ocean and on to the screen with Animal Kingdom star Christina Ochoa
I’ve been trying to arrange this interview for some time, so finally I can introduce, actress, scientist, producer, filmmaker and environmental campaigner, Christina Ochoa. You may have seen her in the brilliant Animal Kingdom, but here we cover a broad spectrum of film, STEM subjects, the teachings of science and cars that run off the blood of murderers.
Good morning Christina, thanks for taking the time out to speak to us. We’ll start in the present if that’s okay – you’re currently working on a new season of Animal Kingdom?
I am. Yes. We are shooting season four of Animal Kingdom, which is very exciting, and, of course, we're very grateful for the audience for tuning in. We're almost done. We're a couple episodes away from shooting the finale already.
It’s based on the Australian film with the same name isn’t it?
It is. It's basically a reimagining of a wonderful, wonderful film by the same name, written by David Michod, that had Jacki Weaver starring in it, along with Joel Edgerton and Ben Mendelsohn - incredible actors and performances. It was like a very dysfunctional, very dark family. John Wells decided to do an adaptation, because he felt like the stories had a lot of wealth and depth that could have been explored but could continue something like a TV show. It was big shoes to fill. Who's going to take that role of Smurf? Ellen Barkin was the only person I can even imagine taking that role into TV and pushing forward with that. It was an interesting adaptation.
I agree that Ellen Barkin is phenomenal in it (I’m on season two so far).
Her and Jacki Weaver both were. I think it’s got to be very challenging as an actor, to take on a role that has been previously portrayed. Especially when it's been done so well and make it your own. Ellen managed to give it an entirely different lens and color, while still honoring what Jacki did. It was very interesting to see that just from an outsider's perspective and watch her work on that, and get to see what she keeps, what she changes, what she honors, what she adapts, and things like that for herself. That was very interesting.
So far, your acting career has been very varied, you recently did A Million Little Things, and you've done Valor, and you did Blood Drive, which was completely different than anything I've ever seen in my life!
Yes, probably different than anything I'll ever do in the future as well. They are varied. I think that's one of the luxuries of our job, is being able to tap into different storytelling and narratives and genres and things like that.
I think the one common thread that I have found with all of my characters in particular, is not with the shows, per se, but with the characters within, that they have been very strong women, and strong not just because they're tough, because some of my characters are not tough, but in A Million Little Things, Ashley was not tough, but she was strong because she was highly competent. She was very good at what she did. She was very smart. Those are qualities, I think, I gravitate toward. They're also all a little bit damaged, which is also incredibly fun to play.
So, when the scripts come through, that’s what you look for in your character?
I don't go out looking for anything when I read the script. Even halfway through a script, I usually know if I like the character. Obviously, things can change by the time I get to the end of the script - my questions are am I in love with this character? Or with this story, or with this message, or with this environment, or with this something, or with these words, or am I in love with the project? Obviously, it stems more from the character perspective for me, but am I in love with it? If the answer is a rotund kind of very solid, yes, that's what you want at the end of the day.
If I may return to the utterly insane Blood Drive. For those who haven’t watched it, it was a macabre race which involved cars running on the blood of some real nasty people. I watched it all, I hugely enjoyed it. What was it like making it? It looked absolutely bonkers!
I think Blood Drive, as far as experiences go for me and my career, might be the one to beat for sure, because it was so much fun. It was such a family.
We were in a remote location in South Africa which was so much different to being in LA shooting. I think that we just felt like we were out there in the middle of nowhere, getting away with a lot of stuff, thinking, by the way, it's never going to air. We never believed half of what we shot would air. They're going to cut this out, so let's just go for it. The cursing, the action, everyone put blood, sweat, and tears, especially blood into that show. We laughed from day one until wrap - we loved the experience, and I think everyone had a great time. I don't know if we all knew how special the experience would be, but we enjoyed it every step of the way.
Unfortunately, the series wasn’t renewed for another season.
I think perhaps if we had gotten in on the new distribution models like Netflix and things like that, and these new platforms early enough, maybe there would have been a different outcome because I think that that's where it would have found its audience. It's definitely not for everybody, but I think it would've found its hub, its home. That was disappointing at the time because we felt if there were a lot of people who just had access to it, they might actually enjoy it.
Okay, let’s go back a bit, how did you get into acting? Originally, you have a science background, haven't you?
Yes. I sold my soul. I took an amateur theater class a long time ago when I was at university, and just thought it would help me with public speaking because I was starting to get involved in science communication, and some advocacy. I wanted to not be as shy. I was an introvert growing up, and I was shy, and wanted to know how to speak in public. I took this theater class, and I just fell in love. I had so much fun. It satisfied a side of me that I didn't even know existed, and became the thing that was so compelling, I had to give it a shot. I honestly equate it to falling in love.
When you fall in love, it may not be the smartest choice, it may not be the wisest, but if you're deeply madly in love, you can't not give it a go and try it and see what happens.
But you are still involved in science, you're an advocate for environmental projects, especially around the ocean.
Yes, I haven't completely abandoned that other world, and I hope never to have to. Also, a lot of the projects that I want to produce, and that I try to develop, somehow revolve around either scientific backgrounds, or things that have to do with the environment, or things that have to do with the ocean, or a character that are somehow infused with science, as you very well know (*this refers to a couple of projects myself and Christina have worked on).
The end goal is to marry the two and find an alchemy of science and entertainment and put them together in a way that feels gratifying and satisfying to me as an audience, and then to people like me. It's still the goal.
Have you got any environmental projects in development?
We are developing an Intellectual Property (IP) from scratch instead of pre-existing, I am looking at pre-existing IP that I'm auctioning for that maybe I can put a little science into. For the most part, it's a slow process, and the industry is slowly welcoming it in a way that now, with female empowerment and people wanting things to be smarter and better and have a better message and having a social impact. I think now is the time to really get on-board with that and hopefully within the next few years, some of these projects that we have had developing but are maybe dormant, can really start picking up and we can find the right home for that.
I just was going to ask you about that. With the recent changes going through Hollywood following the Me Too movement, have you seen change, or is there still quite a lot of work to do?
We have a long way to go, but every step must be appreciated and acknowledged and built on.
I think that the changes that are happening right now, things like zero tolerance, should just go across the board, and to me, they expand way beyond any kind of Me Too movement, or any kind of search for parity within gender. Because for me, it's just a very simple, don't be a dick. Don't be an asshole, whether you're a guy or bro, whether you're a power or not, whether you're in a position where you have leverage, don't use it for selfish motives. Don't be an asshole. That should go across the board for everyone. I know, it goes beyond that, and of course, I think it's important to maintain that belief in the victims and support towards healing and help. I think that when it comes to systematic changes in the industry,
I think what I see around me, I've never been personally affected directly by the Me Too situation, or by any kind of uncomfortable moment with a producer or director. I think it's important that we all mobilize and get together to try and fix the problems that are there, and remove those weeds out of the garden, if possible.
I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent now, do you do still host your science events?
Yes. We haven't had one in a couple of months, they used to be a monthly event. The way work has been going for myself, and my two other co-hosts, Sean Carroll, and Jean Willot, working just made it practically impossible to coordinate every single month. We do still host them, and we are still very much proponents of you hosting your own events, if that's possible, because it's something we just believe in, should be done, regardless of if we do it or not.
Moving slightly away from entertainment, do you think there is enough being done to get women and young girls into STEM subjects?
I think a lot is being done right now for women and minorities. I'm a big proponent of it. I definitely think that as much as we can do, it’s sometimes preaching to the choir a little bit, because unfortunately, when you reach the mass audiences, you're not capable of sending the same message as some of the conferences that I go to. They know we need more women in STEM, they're already advocates. They're not the ones that need to be convinced or educated on how to get women in there.
I just read a great piece, it was an interview with E.O. Wilson, that talks about one of the things he thought was a mistake when trying to encourage younger generations, be it men or women. One of the mistakes that we do is we try, say a kid is interested in bugs, we automatically say, well biology is mainly chemistry. You should start studying chemistry too and then maybe you should also have math, because chemistry and science is all down to math, we should get you into a math thing as well. You should learn that in order to understand what's happening, physiologically, or whatever. His point was, let children fall in love with just a part of science, who cares? If they fall in love with that, they will eventually evolve into wanting to understand it in a different way, but it's about letting them.
I was always in love with sharks when I was a kid. I was in love with sharks, I was in love with the ocean. That was my thing when I was a kid, and my parents let me buy books that were highly, highly above my comprehension levels, but just because I liked it, and I fell in love with it.
We forget that kids are already practicing the scientific method, and people forget to just let them enjoy it. When you put water in your bathtub, and you put your hand under the running water and see if it's hot or cold. You're carrying out a scientific method. You're populating a hypothesis, you're saying, "Okay, I think the water's warm. I'm going to test it by putting my hand under it." You're now finding the empirical evidence to support your hypothesis, and you're drawing a conclusion. Then you're adjusting. That is the scientific method.
You don't have to go beyond that to teach someone how to think scientifically. Let them fall in love with a part of science or all of it or whatever it is that they gravitate towards, encourage that, enable that, help that, support that. The mind will continue to expand because it'll continue to find problems to solve. We don't want to give people the solution before letting them think about the problem. Let them think, let them marinate with that idea in their head and figure it out.
I could have discussed this topic all day, however, I bring it all back to Exit 6. You wrote, starred and produced Stay With Me. A short film co-starring Arrow's Stephen Amell that won a few awards. How did it come about?
It was born, I think the way a lot of shorts are, out of necessity. I wanted to learn a lot of these behind the camera functional elements of filmmaking. I wanted to work, I wanted to shoot something. At the time, I wasn't booking work, and I wasn't shooting anything. I was just auditioning, and I wanted to put something together, tell a story. I got together with some friends, and it was done with literally $900, I think, over two days on a weekend with all favors.
I begged, borrowed and stole for that shoot. Then we made something that turned out to be very different from what we imagined, also much better than what we imagined we could probably do.
We really lucked out and we got this phenomenal, phenomenal DP, Roman Jacobi, He was a friend of mine and he stepped in on the 11th hour and was like, "I'll do it, I'll help you out." That changed the game for all of us. I got crew signing on just to work with him, and who would be willing to bring their equipment and do it for free. It turned into an entirely different thing, and then it won some awards. We were very, very lucky. That's the project that I just remember being like a crash course in filmmaking because I didn't know before what a gaffer was, and what exactly the DP was doing. It was really helpful.
Have you got any plans to go behind the camera writing or directing?
I don't know about writing. I think just the language barrier alone intimidates. I think I can maybe come up with stories, but I don't think I have a grasp on the English language, which is what I would probably want to write in. I don't think I have a grasp on it that strong enough for me to feel proud of what I'm writing.
When it comes to potentially one day directing, maybe. I'm definitely very interested and compelled to produce and put together teams of people that are very good at doing what they do. I like doing that. I think I have a skill to recognize talent. I don't know what to do with it just yet, except put it in a room with other talented people and say, "Go for it. Make something brilliant." [chuckles] I think that the scale, that hope to be a producer can hone in and I can grow and learn, try to continue to tap into.
What can we look forward to seeing you in next after you've wrapped on Animal Kingdom? Have you got any plans?
Well, there may or may not be a return to A Million Little Things for Ashley. We will have to wait and see how the season progresses. There may be a little surprise in there. We have a couple of projects that we are moving around. I have a couple of pitches and treatments and meetings that hopefully will prove fruitful. Very slowly, but very surely, I hope to have better news in the coming week. This season of Animal Kingdom has some interesting surprises, and really interesting developments for every single one of the characters, my own included, so I feel very grateful.
You can follow Christina on Twitter: @Christina_Ochoa