Backstage Heroes is a biweekly column by gal-about-town Hiya Swanhuyser spotlighting the many movers and shakers working behind the arts scenes to make magic happen in the Bay Area.
On a recent fall afternoon, I found myself seated on a casting couch -- but in Michelle Maxson’s airy living room in Petaluma, I found the inversion, or the evolution, of that icky backroom stereotype. Maxson is the local casting director for the upcoming independent film Burn Country, directed and co-written by Sonoma County-raised filmmaker Ian Olds.
Burn Country, which stars Melissa Leo and James Franco, finds an Afghani war zone “fixer” arriving, safely away from home, at a fictionalized but highly realistic version of small-town Northern California. After its star, Dominic Rains, won Best Actor at the Tribeca Film Festival, the project was picked up for distribution by Samuel Goldwyn Films — this small film has hit the big time.
Success only makes it more interesting to note the commitment director Olds and his producers maintained to casting local talent: not only filling the background with extras from the Bay Area, as with, say, Gus van Sant’s Milk, but pushing the limit of how many featured and speaking roles could be populated with North Bay actors.
On that mission, Olds’ captain was Maxson, an accomplished actor and organizer whose deep knowledge of the local acting scene helped make the film into a well-reviewed, complex piece of art.
Maxson’s waist-length blonde hair grays at the temples, giving her the mien of a wise surfer-girl. It’s a look so awesome that if she were to appear on the cover of a magazine, she might set off a fierce new trend in feminist glamour. While she offers me sparkling water, I mull the industry in question, and figure we’ll talk about herding starstruck Bay Areans at “cattle calls,” or how to battle actor egos.
But after admitting she’s nervous about sounding dumb -- an actor, nervous? -- Maxson proceeds to speak, quickly and with perfect enunciation, for 30 minutes, about art. Far from the power-plays or squabbling of my preconceived notions, the casting director describes the day-to-day of her work in terms of empathy, cooperation, observation -- and email.
“When I was first learning acting, I was told that the most important person on stage is not you, it's your partner,” Maxson says. “And it's your job to make your partner as good as they can possibly be. I’ve always made it a priority to champion my fellow actors.” She stresses the importance of “reading” actors as an actor, not just as a passive voice flatly providing responses during an audition.
Rains, the spectacular star of Burn Country, tells me Maxson delivers. “I was very fortunate to work with Michelle,” he writes in a Facebook message. “What struck me about her and informed my character even more was the compassion and care she brought to the reading. She is one of those rare individuals who connects at the heart and once you're in tow, all you have to do is let go and go on the ride. She is a magnificent soul with kindness and empathy vibrating at her very fingertips.” There were no cattle calls.
Maxson, who also served as associate producer and appears in the film, lives in Petaluma with two young daughters and her husband, fellow actor Gabe Maxson, who also appears in Burn Country; his semicomic turn as an inquisitive, philosophical, and deeply inebriated thespian leavens the film at a crucial moment. During production, both parents juggled their jobs as theater teachers at the University of San Francisco an hour away, and shared childcare duties. Several times during our talk, one or the other of the two girls interrupts us, and Maxson gently scoots them back out, her calm responses to their requests always involving the word “sweetie.”
“As a casting director -- well [as a child yells in next room], this is what it was like!” she says. The children, who are friendly, bright, and confident, seem to have come out on top in the deal.
While Burn Country as a whole is on a high, and primed to “break” Rains and director Olds, Maxson tells me there have been interior victories as well. The role of Carl, played by Tim Kniffin, is a big juicy plum for local casting. The result is a dyed-in-the-wool Northern Californian artist, with focus and skill to spare, in a complicated, challenging role. Onscreen, playing an ersatz cult leader literally writhing in pain of his own creation, Kniffin is clearly eating his own character up with a spoon; he’s great, and the role is great. But how did he get there? A classic Michelle Maxson operation, apparently.
“Tim’s part was a bigger part, the kind where typically, you’d try to get a ‘name’ for that,” she says, with a subtle, steely glint in her eye. Working as she did from a pool of “people I had worked with, people I had seen in plays in San Francisco,” Kniffin’s name just kept surfacing.
It was mid-production, down to the line for shooting this character’s scenes, and an actor hadn’t been cast yet. Olds was entrenched, and couldn’t get time to rent a space and hold the ensemble-type auditions he sometimes does. So Maxson summoned Kniffin into the very room in which we sit, and made do with the digital equivalent of a Super-8 home movie.
“He came here, and I got out my flip camera, do you remember those? They existed for like five minutes before everybody got cell phones. And he was amazing. Ian agreed, and the producers agreed, and he came on board.”
Local casting directors don’t always get “broken” into a world of greater opportunities when their films explode, the way directors or actors might. But while Burn Country -- which is currently earning comparisons to Twin Peaks and Fargo -- looks ready to detonate, Michelle Maxson seems unfazeable. She's a grown woman with a job and a house and a family and a rich community. That’s how she got here in the first place. That’s why she still wants to talk about what theater means and why she needs to make art at all, as opposed to name-dropping.
It's obvious, actually, that theater is still among her favorite topics, as she recalls her first foray into acting: “It was a way to transform all of that pain, whatever difficulties and challenges we have as human beings, to turn them into something really beautiful," she says of falling in love with the art form during her first acting class. It's clearly part of what keeps her going in the industry. "That could possibly be life-changing for other people, as it was life-changing for me."
“It’s like fertilizer,” she says. “It’s like sh-t. You take it and you spread it on the ground and beautiful flowers grow.”