Melora Hardin, star of The Office, Transparent and A Million Little Things, talks to us about taking the directors chair for a recent episode of The Bold Type, her experience directing her first indie feature film You, and the long process of directing her first documentary.
As a rule, if an opportunity arises to interview anyone involved in the 1986 action film Iron Eagle, I grab it with both hands. If you haven't seen the gloriously 80's tale of a teenager stealing an F-16 fighter jet from the US Air Force to rescue his father from Middle Eastern captors, you're absolutely missing out. If you have seen it, you'll believe me when I say speaking to Melora Hardin, who played the doting love of the aforementioned teenager, was an exciting prospect.
Of course, since then, Hardin has forged an incredible acting career, featuring in shows such as The Office, A Million Little Things, The Bold Type, and recognised with an Emmy nomination for her guest role in Transparent. She's also directed her own indie feature film You, the recent 'Snow Day' episode of The Bold Type, and currently working on completing her first documentary - just one of the things the pandemic has given her time to focus on.
"Well, I have been spending a lot of my time at home with my family, but I've also been working on a documentary for four years, so luckily I've been spending tons of time with my creative team, my editor and story editor, working to make that as good as it can be. It's work that I would have been doing anyway, but it has been fortuitous to have more focus time. Then also having some more time with my 18-year-old daughter, who's just graduated high school, before she goes off to college. It's actually been a wonderful gift in that regard."
Speaking of graduations, such has been the enduring success of The Office, Hardin found herself giving a graduation speech to one class of high school students who remain fans of the show, and her character Jan Levinson. It's a character, and a series, that continues to impact audiences long after its conclusion in 2013, something that's not at all lost on the life-long actor.
"I've been acting since I was 6 years old and until The Office, everything had a shelf life. Once it had been on the air, that was it. It was expired and it went on the shelf. Now with streaming and all of that, The Office has had this opportunity to live on forever and create new fans. I have fans that are in their '60s and fans that are 10 years old. It's crazy."
Currently, Hardin can be seen playing Jacqueline Carlyle in The Bold Type, a series that follows a group of women navigating their professional and personal lives while working at a Cosmopolitan-type magazine. Carlyle is the boss and a character that Hardin was instantly drawn to, as well as the opportunity to be part of a series presenting a different image of successful working women.
"I was very attracted to Jacqueline from the beginning because I feel like it's so important for people to see women in the workplace who are women of power, who are really excellent at their job, but also kind people who have integrity. To see them caring for their employees and not cutting them off at the knees or being manipulative or backstabbing. I think it's really bad for women to see a picture of themselves like that, and I think that's been commonplace up until now.
"I was really happy to play somebody that was blazing that trail because everybody I know in my life, including myself, who are working hard doing what they do and doing it well, are also juggling many other balls. They have relationships, they have families, they have friends, they have hobbies. I'm a firm believer that most people in the world are good people and that you don't have to be a complete disaster in one area of your life just because you're thriving in another. I think that entertainment has relied a little too much on that stereotype to create drama.
"I think there's so much more drama in actually exploring the real challenges of what it is to be a working woman who's also a kind person, who has personal challenges and work challenges, but not blowing up the world over here because they're successful over there. I don't see that often in real life and I think that's one of the really refreshing things about The Bold Type. I get lots of comments from people on the street saying that they love watching Jacqueline because they want to be a boss like her, or they want to have a boss like her. I think that's really wonderful to hear people say that."
Right now, the cultural and political landscape is changing around the world on an almost daily basis. With a show about a lifestyle magazine, it must be a challenge to keep reflecting real-world events and cultural shifts in the story-lines, but it's a challenge to which Hardin believes the series continues to rise.
"Yes, I think that absolutely. One of the cool things about The Bold Type is that we seem to be catching the wave of the current events of the day. I think that the episode that I directed is a little bit of a reflection of what people have been going through with this pandemic. Having to stick it out with people that you may or may not want to be sticking it out with, learning things about yourself, and being confronted with closer quarters and more emotional and personal challenges.
"Then in terms of what's happening here in America with Black Lives Matter, I think that the pandemic has made people sit down, re-calibrate, and take a breath. I think that the two have fed into each other in a really positive way because this is not the first time that people have been killed by police brutality. George Floyd is not the first person to whom this has happened, but having the world's attention switch from the pandemic to his murder has made the potential for change in a real and structural way within police departments, within the culture, within society.
"I think the show is great at following that. You see Aisha Dee's character Kat grappling with her own feelings of honouring her instincts and fighting for something that she believes in, and ultimately getting herself fired because of that. I think the show shows that. It's realistic, but it's also idealistic. I don't think there's anything wrong with shooting for an ideal. I think if we can all hold an ideal and continue working towards it, then real change might happen."
Hardin's desire to direct on the show was made clear to the producers from the moment she signed up four years ago. Subsequently, she was handed the reins to the episode 'Snow Day' in this current season, one in which most of the characters were physically trapped together for a period of time. It gave her the opportunity to explore the physical space of a set she knew inside and out, with a cast and crew she'd already been working with intimately.
"That made for a really wonderful working environment for me. I felt incredibly supported. I felt everybody wanted the episode to be great and came together to support my vision, and worked hard. They work hard every day, on every episode, for every director, but I just felt there was a little bit of extra love in there which I appreciated a lot."
And what was it like having to give back the director's chair?
"Yes, I missed it [laughs]. I have to say, I really do love directing, I really do. I have been acting professionally since I was six, and dancing since I was five. I'm also a singer and have taught performance master classes. I've been on Broadway and both my parents are actors. I've had so much experience with other directors and great teachers, even as a teacher myself, and there's just something about directing that amalgamates all of these different skill sets I have.
"I'm one of those people, and I think it is probably the dancer part of me, who loves to feel that feeling of being used. Where I'm being called on to bring everything that I can to a moment. There is something about directing, especially when I'm acting in it as well, that I find to be very satisfying in that way. It calls on all my experience, on my craft, on my intelligence. It calls on my spirituality, on my heart, my soul, my mind, my body. I really love that. I love that feeling of being called on and being used."
It was love that would play a monumental part in the making of her first independent feature film You. It was a film written by her husband Gildart Jackson, also an actor, who created the script during time away from his family while working. The making of the self-financed (and at times self-catered) indie feature would be the product of both a love of filmmaking, and a love of family.
"My husband has written a lot of screenplays. This one he wrote when we'd had our first child and he was off on location working as an actor, and he was missing us. He describes it that he had three days off and he just sat there and cried this whole movie out. When I read the script, I was getting a manicure and I literally had to leave with my fingernails wet because I started crying so much [laughter]. I went and sat in my car and finished reading it, then I called my husband and I said, 'Honey, this is so beautiful. I think I need to direct it'. He said, 'Would you? That’s a great idea'. That's how it happened. I feel like the script was a love letter to me and the film is my love letter back to him.
"We ended up investing a lot of our own money, our own time and got lots of favours, a lot of people stepped up for us. I was on set directing in the morning, doing my shot lists, getting my hair and makeup done, scrambling eggs for the crew so they would have a hot breakfast and nursing my youngest daughter, all at the same time. I'm a grand success at multitasking. It may have almost killed me at times, but I did do it.
"It really was like a family adventure. My mom, my dad, my husband, myself, our two children, lots of friends. I know from all my years on set that if you feed your crew well, even if you're paying them little or nothing, they will be happy. So, I had my good friends bring their signature dish every day at lunch, my friends basically catered the movie. We shot the whole thing in 10 days, and we had 10 days of excellent lunches."
"The story is really about love and loss. What if you lost your soul mate? I'm very proud of it. I feel like it's a real, beautiful love story about the circle of life. It's about family, it's about love, and about healing. Not about getting over something that you've lost, but getting through it. It's life-affirming, and I think it's connecting. At least, that's what I've heard from the people who've seen it, who've been moved by it. They've said that it's inspired them to call the long-lost father that they've not talked to, or the brother they had a problem with, or the ex that they'd been fighting with for years. That's really beautiful to me that it inspired people in that way."
One memory from the set makes for a good piece of advice to young directors when it comes to giving direction to actors. It was a scene in which an actor had to run full speed along a corridor, then turn a corner into a physically tight space which the audience had to believe was not tight at all. With time running out to get the shot, Hardin had to cut corners in her direction. Fortunately for Hardin, the actor in question was her husband.
"There was a scene where I needed him to run around the corner at full speed, looking for their daughter who has run away. I'm time-stressed, we know we're about to lose this location. Then he starts to ask an actor question, 'Why would I-' or 'I'm not sure I would-' Something like that. As an actor, I've certainly started questions like that in my career. I just said, 'Honey, I don't have the time. Just do it.' [laughter]. That's a really awful thing to say to any actor. Actors hate that answer. It feels horrible. It feels like you're not validating them and their concerns. It literally was like, 'Roll, the camera'. Oh my God [laughter].
"That's what you come away with from guerrilla filmmaking. You get perspective. I really wish everybody could do everybody's job one time because you learn. Everybody has unique challenges in their job. Sometimes they make the right choice and sometimes they make the wrong choice. That's one of the things I love about filmmaking, it's a team sport and it means we all have to have our eye on the ball. We all have to be working towards the same goal. I think it's so exciting. When I direct I want everybody to feel they're part of a team. I personally love collaboration. Next to being a mother, it's one of my greatest joys in life."
It's some time since her guerrilla experience making You, but Hardin will soon finish work on a new documentary that she's been working on over the last few years. It's a project she had no plans to make that harks back to a series called Thunder she starred in as a young girl.
"It's just happened [laughter]. It's a movie that I'm directing and I'm also in, by accident. That's part of the fun of the story. It's about somebody called Hunter who encountered me through a television show I did when I was a very young girl, about a wild black stallion that came when I whistled and together we would save the day. Hunter invested a lot in the relationship with me that she had built in her imagination. It turns out that, for her, my character on the show and me as a person was reaching through the television set and helping her heal, giving her hope and the feeling like she might have an ally.
"Then 40 years later, we met in person. I was directing the Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter Paula Cole, one of my best friends, for the 20th anniversary of one of her big hits Where Have All The Cowboys Gone? I needed a horse, so I called my producer and asked, 'Do you know anybody in town that has a horse?' He said, 'Yes I do'. It was Hunter. I went over to her house, walked through the door and she said, 'Oh my God, you were on my favourite kids’ show when you were 10. This is the greatest day of my life'.
'We had a great working experience and ended up finding a creative connection that ultimately became a friendship that has facilitated some really deep healing for her. She kind of goes through a rebirth in the film and through friendship and love, she transformed the trauma that was dictating where she could and couldn't feel free in the world. I think it's a beautiful and, I hope, inspiring story about healing, realised serendipity, about what it really takes to heal from trauma, about women holding women up, female friendship and female bonding, and art as a mechanism for healing."
Having had this unexpected experience directing a documentary, I ask if this is format of filmmaking she is now drawn to over scripted filmmaking. Or, if the unique circumstance of this particular story will make it a one-off venture.
"I think I'm pretty turned on by it all. I've loved the creative challenges I've faced making a documentary. It’s been extremely confrontational for me as an artist to have to employ every single bit of my improv training and therapy that I've done in my life. The amount of things I've had to bring to this have been unlike anything I've ever had to before, besides mothering. I think that's been really rewarding, incredibly challenging, sometimes incredibly frustrating, sometimes incredibly difficult, but I like the process of excavating and exploring, and digging deeper. Hunter and I both like to swim in the deep end. I feel like documentary is swimming in the deep, deep, deep end. I really like that [laughter].
Which then begs the question of the deep end of directing is becoming more inviting that that of acting.
"That's a good question. I love acting. As I said, I've been doing it since I was six, so it's second nature for me. I especially love being able to put something out into the world that's good and that it's doing good in the world, that it's meaningful. I feel like The Bold Type does that. I love acting but let's say it's not as challenging for me as directing, especially directing something like a documentary where you're really creating something out of whole cloth, which I find incredibly stimulating, and exciting, and scary, and all those things that turn me on.
"I still feel I have more to learn around directing and what it is to make a film. Maybe it's more challenging and exciting because I'm more of a beginner there, but I'll probably be doing both for a long time. I could see myself being more selective about what I act in, because I do want the fun of the challenge, I want the fun of the stretch, the fun of the chewy centre. Those roles out there, for sure. Yes, maybe that's the answer."
Having embarked on a documentary she had no intention of making, and it being the first she's ever attempted, is there any advice she would go back an give herself if she could?
"Well, one of the things that's been happening in tandem with this film is that I've been creating these collages, these little works of art. One of the most recent ones was called 'Finding Faith'. I would say that would be the thing I would tell myself. To have faith. Faith is different than hope. Hope is hoping something will work out, faith is knowing it's already worked out. I look back now at this film and think, 'Shit, it had all already worked itself out at the beginning'. There was a path for this film that was in play and happening, and thank God I turned on the camera."
You can follow Melora on Twitter: @MeloraHardin