I don't know what I was expecting from Travis Stevens's Jakob's Wife, but it wasn't an at-times-heartbreaking study of a woman in late-middle-age, coming to terms with her mortality and given a second chance at the rest of her life in the unlikeliest of places. I like everyone involved with this project, and there's no question that knowing Barbara Crampton (who plays the eponymous preacher's wife, Ann) and her co-star Larry Fessenden (Jakob) personally has flavoured how I see this film. Sufficed to say that Jakob's Wife is clearly an emotional autobiography for Crampton--an intensely personal picture that's not coincidentally home to her best performance. She kills me in this. I don't know if she knows how good she is; I don't know that she'd ever really been given a chance to show it before this.
Though most of the reaction to the film after its premiere at this year's SXSW was positive, few of the early returns did more than touch on how Jakob's Wife confronts the matter of growing old with someone and the work of love over the natural course of a lifetime. (Those anticipating another Re-Animator should expect something more along the lines of Only Lovers Left Alive.) The thing I lament most in our new age of accountability is the loss of nuance and complexity: Personal politics are never as clean as the lines drawn around morality by popular social movements; things are seldom clear-cut in the bedroom or around the dinner table. Jakob's Wife is about how forging an identity within a marriage can be...messy. Vampirism here becomes a metaphor for compromise in a relationship or lack thereof. Jakob's Wife is for grown-ups. You get it when you do.
I talked to Barbara Crampton as one usually talks to veteran actress, fledgling producer, and married mother of two Barbara Crampton: with her in the eye of a hurricane. Jakob's Wife opens in the midst of a career resurgence for the '80s splatter icon that began with a winning turn in Adam Wingard's exceptional You're Next. Indeed, when I spoke with her for this piece, she called me from her car. We began with the subject of marriage.
BARBARA CRAMPTON: Oh, well... I don't think it's about giving up a part of yourself--though there are maybe elements of that inevitably in any long-term union--but that it's about compromise. And respect. An idea that you see your partner in a relationship as not just the person you married, but the person they are now after twenty years, after children maybe, after a couple of moves, and the incredible highs and the incredible lows. There's a line in the movie that I asked for them to put in about how feelings come and go, but commitment stays the same, and I think that's the heart of the entire movie.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: One of the best things I heard about marriage is that you're not marrying one person, you're marrying all the hundreds of people that one person is going to be.
See? That's it right there. I've been married twenty years and my amazing husband and I occasionally disagree--we're both very strong-willed people--and I look at him, and I'm sure he looks at me, and I think, "Jesus, is this who I'm going to have to spend the rest of my life with?" But other days I look at him and say, "Oh, I'm so glad I'm with him--what an amazing partner." Our feelings come and go, but we can't make decisions based on how we feel or don't feel at either extremes, how things wax or wane--and that's maybe what's so beautiful about marriage is that ideally, rather than lose yourself, you find the security, the grounding and confidence, to maybe explore who you are.
A safety net.
More than that, though, right? Your biggest cheerleader, your greatest ally, your best friend if you're lucky. So you become a vampire (laughs), or what if you change jobs? Or you have kids and now everything is different. So many things come into play over the course of a long union, and what is it that holds you to this person through all of these changes? That's really what I wanted this movie to explore if we could.
What a perfect partner for that in Larry Fessenden.
Larry, my gosh. Not only is he obviously an incredible performer--really just a legend in our field for all of the things he's done in front of and behind the camera as a director, writer, an incredible producer. But what really drew me to Larry for this project was that in addition to all these things, he's also been married for a long time. He has kids. He gets it. We talked so much about marriage. The ups and downs, how it affects us and alters how we see the world, how we make decisions, how we keep going when someone else wants something different from you and how you persist instead of just saying--as you might do when you're younger, or when you're not committed to making something work--okay, that's it, I'm leaving.
You have to learn to fight differently, don't you? When I was younger and even more of an asshole, my fight strategy was essentially: "Okay, I'm out." When you find the person you want to commit to in a different way, now you have to grow up when you have a disagreement.
You have to be able to embrace all of it. Speaking for myself--professionally, as a woman, do we... Did I put myself off to the side a little bit in this relationship? I know I have. I know at various times I've made myself not the priority, my career...and that's complicated by this industry and its hostility sometimes towards women as they age. I mean, it made it easier for me to prioritize my family or my husband's career when no one was knocking on my door. In my thirties, it all just kind of stopped for me. 35? 36 to 39? The phone just stopped ringing. So it was easy to fall into this thinking of, well, sure, we'll move for your job and sure we'll do this, and I didn't have it in me to keep going in my career, to keep fighting.... And, look, I don't want to paint the wrong picture. My husband is wonderful, I love my life, I love my family, and I wouldn't do it differently. But I'm back now and he's taking the attitude of support now. It's a give and take, it's always a give and take. If you get comfortable seeing yourself in just one part of that symbiotic dynamic, it can be very scary to try to assume the other side of it.
Were you scared?
Yes. And sad. I felt sad for this character Ann in the same way. I saw her not speaking up. I saw her fear as my fear and I wanted to give voice to a woman who finds the courage to reinvent herself.
I love that the moment Ann decides she's going to cheat on Jakob is when the Master arrives.
She's the deepest part of Ann, the part that's been dormant. She's the realization that you can make your own choices, your own decisions, you can be your own "master." She's her power, her sexuality coming back to her, her courage to tell her husband "no" and to stop talking over her.
I love how the movie changes tone with Ann.
Yes--you go from the more serious and sombre to the more bright, colourful, over-the-top, and bloody. Energetic. The tonal shift mirrors Ann's life--the world opens up to her. It becomes more colourful, funnier, more dangerous. It becomes messier. That's life, isn't it? You break out of what's expected of you by your sex or by your career or even by what you've always done, and now what? This new you is new. You're going to make mistakes, you're going to live a little bit louder. When the film brightens--when Ann breaks out her red dress--that's just all the colours of a fulfilled, actualized life. It's messy.
"We make more decisions based on fear than we do on love. That makes me cry to even say it."
What happened in your head after You're Next?
A part of me woke up. It took You're Next to reawaken this thing in me--this passion for this.
Like the Master does for Ann.
That's right. Ann is me. I remembered how much I love this job. How much I love creating, acting, and here I was, a phone call from out of nowhere and another chance, from nowhere. I wasn't expecting to get that call, any call, to find a place in this. And, oh, how I wanted to try. I was afraid, but I wanted it so bad. And more than just performing, I met all of these amazing creators, these kids really, and they were all hyphenates. Adam Wingard was a DP and an editor, and Joe Swanberg was a writer and a producer, an actor. Amy Seimetz, an amazing writer, about to be an amazing director, an actor--everyone on that movie was a Swiss Army Knife. When I was doing Re-Animator, I was an actor and Stuart Gordon was the director and we stayed in our lanes. What You're Next showed me was there's a different way of thinking of your life as a creator. I looked at the careers of all this generation of creators, and I started to wonder what part I could play in these young people realizing their dreams. I know that sounds corny...
It sounds rare, it doesn't sound corny--and it sounds like another thing you share with Larry Fessenden.
Larry is the prototype. He cares more than anybody. This movie is about more than Ann changing--it's about Jakob changing, too. His wife is moving on to a different part of her life, and he needs to make the decision as to whether he's going to accept and nurture her in that transformation--or is he going to walk away? My husband, he's been so supportive, and I know it's been hard. I know we get on each other's nerves sometimes. We're both such strong-willed people, but he's given me so much room to grow and to find out who I am. In the course of a union, you find out. You find out. It's so much easier to walk away, and then you find the person you would never leave and hope they feel the same.
Now you're producing.
Yes! Beyond the Gates was one before this, but when Jakob's Wife came my way, I saw myself in it completely. In the course of buying it, and shopping it, and going through multiple revisions in the script--we changed the sex of the vampire from a man to a woman, we took it, five years ago, to over twenty different production companies, and none of them wanted to do it. It's an older couple, no one wants a movie centred on an older couple. Both Larry and I in the last few years have shown up a lot as the B or C players, the background, the flavour of a scene, but not the stars of it. I was told that no one is interested in the story of an old married couple. Until I met [director] Travis [Stevens], and he read the script and said, "Please stop asking anyone else to do this. I love this story." Travis got it. He understood it was about me. He saw how personal it was for me. He said this has to be his next movie, and I burst into tears.
It was worth the struggle.
It was worth the struggle. We make more decisions based on fear than we do on love. That makes me cry to even say it. It's the truth of our lives; it was of my life. To really put yourself out there, to allow yourself to be vulnerable and to fail, is terrifying. To have the courage to heed that voice that's speaking to you and will keep nudging you until you pay attention to it. If you listened, really listened, to what your voice was telling you--that if you accepted that you already know what you need to be happy, to be truly who you are...when you hear it--are you brave enough to do something about it? Because you can't live your life in fear. That's not living at all.
Jakob's Wife is now playing in select cinemas and available on VOD.