Writer/director David Perrault’s Savage State is a fascinating and unexpected Civil War-era western. Part family drama, part war drama and part adventure tale, the film tells the story of a French family living in Missouri at the onset of the Civil War. When things in the city become unsavory, the family patriarch hires Victor to escort the family to the East coast so that they can escape to Paris.
Traveling through a war zone is no easy feat but things get even more complicated for the party when Bettie, Victor’s former lover, tracks the group for reasons that are not immediately apparent.
Kate Moran plays Bettie. While her character doesn’t have as much screen time as some of the others, Moran’s performance is particularly notable and a constantly menacing presence, particularly throughout the film’s second half.
I recently had a chance to speak with Moran about how she, an American actress ended up in France, why she chose Savage State and why the character of Bettie appealed to her.
Marina Antunes: Where did you passion for acting start?
Kate Moran: I grew up in the Berkshire’s in Massachusetts which is a very small area. And I started with ballet. There was a community theater in the town where I was growing up when I was around 9 or 10 and the theater was around the corner from my dance studio and it was an adult theater company. They were doing David Mamet and Sam Shepard and all these really cool playwrights and I just realized that they just seemed to be having way more fun than the dancers were so I sort of started to become more and more immersed in that, that theater scene and less and less loving being in a dance studio. One just sort of one morphed into the other. But the movement aspect of it, I don’t think has ever left me because I still love to dance and I think that that’s even still at the heart of my process when I’m finding a character within the movement.
Antunes: Can you talk a little bit about leaving Massachusetts and the choice to go to school in New York.
Moran: I did go to Tisch, which is a ridiculously expensive school. I have student loan still because I decided to go there but I chose it specifically because I really liked the aspect of academics twice a week and conservatory training three days a week, because I wanted an academic education as well, a university level education which is as enriching sometimes as theory or acting and movement class. And so that’s why I chose that kind of a program, a university versus a straight conservatory. And obviously New York is one of the best cities in the world. I mean, I went there for the first time when I was eight and I don’t even remember this, but the legend is that I went to visit New York with my aunt. And when I came home, I said to my parents, I actually live in New York and I’m just staying with you until I’m old enough to leave the house.
Antunes: How did you end up in France?
Moran: While I was at Tisch, I went to a studio called the Experimental Theater Wing which was great for exploring the entire aspect of what it is to create a performance, the writing, the technique, – everything that goes into it. A French theater director and writer came to the Experimental Theater Wing to create a show in the hopes of finding a few performers to become a part of his company to do a show in France at the Festival d’Avignon, which is a big international theater festival in the summer. And I was one of the people who was chosen to go over there. There were four of us from that semester. And from there I did some work with his company and you know, work kind of begets work and so I started meeting other artists, filmmakers and theater directors over here, choreographers and work kind of started piling up. And I realized I was going back and forth more than I expected. That was in 2000 and over 20 years later, it’s still sort of the rhythm.
Antunes: Having done both film and theatre, I’m curious about how you make decisions on the projects that you take and what was it about Savage State that appealed to you?
Moran: I’ve been really lucky because a lot of the work that I’ve done has actually been with artists, filmmakers, theater directors that I respect who have sought me out. For example, with Savage State, David, the director, had seen me in another film and liked my performance in that and actually just sent me, I think I was in LA at the time, sent me an email with the script saying, I have this character, Bettie. I would like you to be her, tell me what you think. And then when I got back to Paris, we had a coffee and I told him “I love the script, I love this character. I’m in.” And he said, ”Great, I’ll let you know when we’re shooting.” And that was sort of how that came about. In terms of how I pick my work… I mean as an actor, you’re sort of beholden to the desires of others for better and for worse. I think that a lot of my trajectory has obviously been the people who I meet and the kind of work I do is obviously because it’s something that I’m drawn to, but there is also the aspect of being chosen and people wanting to work with me.
I’ve done a lot of different stuff and think my heart is still on stage in a theater but I’m learning little by little in film work and in TV. That aspect of my career has really come from people seeing me on stage and asking me to be in their stuff. Um, I never really expected onscreen to be quite as much as it is actually in my career.
Antunes: What was it about the character of Bettie that spoke to you? She doesn’t have a lot of onscreen time but her power is everywhere, particularly in the second half of the film.
Moran: Thank you. I mean, she’s such a great character. I love these kinds of characters where you don’t know what she’s really like. People act like she’s a bad guy and I’m like, no, she isn’t and if you’re asking [if she’s a bad guy] it’s because you’re not sure either. I like that, that she’s a complicated person. There was something that was very touching about her because she’s very much like an animal, a wild animal. And I liked the fact that being in her skin, I was surprised by her even reading about her on the page, I kind of got this vision of a wolf or something like that. She can’t be contained. She doesn’t care about the codes of a civilized society. She’s out for herself and yet still has this instinct of love and caring that she’s capable of. But at the end of the day, that survival instinct takes over. There’s this quality about her that I even sometimes I wasn’t sure of when I was inhabiting her. Is she going to bite or is she going to kick? And I like that fine line that she sort of walks all the time.
Antunes: Was a lot of that written on the page or did you have room explore and create the character that felt authentic to you?
Moran: David wrote a great script and you could see already the qualities of the characters on the page, but obviously it’s something that I brought my own take to the character. For me, part of what I really liked, something that I found in Bettie that I liked is that, because she had this kind of animal quality, she didn’t really yell. She’s very feline in a lot of ways and I find that much more scary – when I hear somebody speaking low than when they’re yelling and being very exuberant. And so I sort of liked that quality about her. That wasn’t necessarily written on the page but that’s how she speaks and that’s how she moves. That’s something that I kind of proposed and that David and I sort of found together directly on set during the moment.
Antunes: How was the filming? Was there a specific scene that was difficult to shoot?
Moran: I mean, we were in the mountains in Quebec for all the things that are in the snow. I wasn’t there as much as the other women in the film so they definitely had longer days than I did, but there were a couple of days below 16 degrees. I’ve never felt that kind of cold before. I mean, cables were frozen that’s how cold it was. It’s so cold that you almost like become desensitized to it. But that was a great experience. And then, you know, it’s a Western.
A lot of my scenes were of me with my horse and even the guys who played my gang, they all have these masks on all the time. So I didn’t really have a lot of time when I was with others. I mean, obviously afterwards I would hang out with the other actresses who were wonderful, but as far as like in the moment on screen… for Bettie her closest companion is her horse and that was great. I’m not necessarily a big rider or anything but to spend so much time with this beautiful stallion was really cool. I really enjoyed it. His name is Mino and he also was a very great character in the film.
Savage State is now available on digital and on-demand.