Unlike most actors, Holly Stevens never thought she would be an actress.
She grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada, and always did everything "right" - got good grades, got involved with her community, enrolled in university. Until something terrifying struck her: she suddenly asked herself "What if I did everything right and I was still unhappy?". She decided to become an actress, and started to make her new dream come true ("Now I’m happy and in the life that I want to live").
Recently, Holly won Best Performance of Fest at the Actors Awards, for her lead role in Aliens with Knives, a Canadian independent feature film.
In this dark comedy, Holly plays Neila, a discontented pregnant woman is prescribed some rest at a cabin in the woods with her unstable husband. When a creepy stranger, a mysterious doctor, and some space aliens show up, Neila has to embrace her survival instincts in order to save not only her unborn child, but all of humanity.
In the following interview, Holly takes us behind the scenes of Aliens with Knives, and reveals how it was like to play the challenging role of Neila ("I’m a relatively high-energy, silly person who loves to laugh. Neila is living the exact opposite").
Holly, you're currently based in Vancouver, Canada. Did you grow up there? How did you become an actor?
I lived in Vancouver for about 7 years, but I’ve actually recently relocated back to Halifax, Nova Scotia, which is where we filmed Aliens with Knives and where I’m from originally. I moved out to Vancouver to study acting and pursue a career in the film industry, so I find it amusing to find myself back home after all this time. Deep down I think I always believed that to be successful, I would have to leave what I love behind. But here I am working and living as an actor in the province that I grew up in, and I am thoroughly loving every minute of it. It feels good to be home.
I can’t say I feel like I was born an actor. Rather, it feels more like being an actor was just the skin I was given and that I’m finally starting to grow into it. Life story wise, I did everything “right” growing up: I got good grades in high-school, helped in my community and eventually went on to university to study biology. But I was in my second year when something terrifying struck me: what if I did everything right and I was still unhappy? The concept of a mid-life crisis was frightening to me; living your life only to realize it wasn’t the life you wanted. So, I decided I would just skip it and do whatever that was, now. But then I had to figure out what that was. Ultimately, if this wasn’t the life I really wanted, what was? I figured if I were to ever look back and wonder - Could I have done that instead? - it would be acting. So, I decided to, first, finish the degree and then, secondly, move to the “big city” of Halifax and pursue a career in acting. If I couldn’t make it as an actor in five years, I would go back to the biology. Sensible, right? It was my fool-proof five-year plan. Unfortunately (and fortunately) I just readjust it every five years. It keeps me real and on track, but the bonus is that I’m happy and in the life that I want to live.
You've gone through a lot of acting training: Linda Darlow's Audition Technique, David Smukler's Voice Intensive, Trish Allen's Voice and Speech Training, Linda Darlow and Henry Mah's The Performer's Mastery, to name a few classes and workshops. Would you say training is essential in order to become a qualified actor?
Wow. Good question! It’s hard to say what someone else requires, but I think that training was (and is) essential for me. Being open and vulnerable in front of a crew of people with someone else’s words doesn’t come naturally for a lot of people (including myself). On top of that you must follow the other conditions that come with being filmed: find your mark and eye line, manage props, and ignore everything else that is not part of the scene. So even if you’re in touch and competent with yourself as a person there is still all the technical aspects of acting. I can’t imagine doing it without a hefty training background. In fact, when I was first getting into acting, I did so for all the wrong reasons: I didn’t like who I was and wanted to be someone else. I didn’t know that then, but I know that now, looking back. The hilarious thing is that you can’t really be someone else (not convincingly, anyway) until you know and accept yourself. Otherwise you end up playing your personal judgements and triggers instead of the truth of the character you’re portraying. You’ll always color a character with your own personal palette, but you never want it to mask their identity or take it in a dishonest direction
What are some movies that inspire you? What kind of content do you enjoy watching the most?
I think that the movies that I find the most inspirational are the down-to-earth stories that connect you to your own humanity. I love watching a film and feeling invested in the characters, their choices and what happens to them. I really love the classic epics like Star Wars, Indiana Jones and The Lord of the Rings. The music plays a huge part in the memory of these films for me, but I also just love the battle of good against evil and watching the hero’s journey play out as they find their inner power and strength.
Your performance in Aliens with Knives was absolutely fantastic! How did you prepare for the role of Neila, who is a pregnant woman? What was the most challenging thing about her character?
Thanks! Neila was definitely an interesting role. There were a lot of physical challenges, as with being pregnant, but there were a lot of stylistic challenges in the acting as well, simply because of the genre of the film. I absolutely took some time with a pillow under my shirt, learning how to sit down and stand up “pregnant”, but a lot of the preparation for the role was in learning why the character existed the way that she did. I’m a relatively high-energy, silly person who loves to laugh. Neila is living the exact opposite. She exists in a very still place, almost as if she’s watching her world move around her without the motivation to influence or change what’s passing by her. The most challenging thing about her character was living in that space; accepting unhappiness is a very lonely place.
Aliens with Knives - Trailer
Have you previously worked with directors Struan Sutherland and Nicole Steeves? What was it like working with them?
I had met and worked with Nicole and Struan on a television project earlier that year and got along with them immediately. But Aliens with Knives was my first experience with them as directors. They were both instrumental in helping me finding and understanding Neila’s character and her choices in the film. I would never have been able to portray her the way I did without them. Some of the scenes were either uncomfortable (‘cause I’m covered in goo) or because of the physical positioning of the take (which is really just the nature of being an actor), but they were always supportive and consistently making sure that I was comfortable with everything. They were really awesome to work with.
What was the most hilarious moment you've experienced on this set, and what part of the shoot did you enjoy the most?
It’s hard to pick just one! I don’t think I’ve laughed so much in my life (and for me, that’s saying a LOT). I think the most hilarious moment was during the scene where I had Mark in my lap on the couch and Bill walks in (you know the scene I’m talking about!). Mark, not realizing it, was making “sucking” sounds during the take and it had Bill in stitches every time he walked in. We laughed so much during that scene; I’m not sure how we ever got a straight take!
The entire cast and crew were fantastic the whole shoot and I thoroughly enjoyed working with all of them. Some of my favorite moments though were just coming in in the morning and sitting down with Bill to run through a scene or work out a tricky bit of dialogue. Bill was an absolute delight to work with as an actor; completely humble and willing to try anything. It was so easy to work opposite him and I hope I have the opportunity to do so again.
You have a lot of on-set experience! Some movies you worked on include The Last Divide, Wisp, Shadow in the Mirror, Creepy Crawling... and the list goes on. What are some of the most memorable roles you got to portray? Do any characters remain with you, from a set into your real life?
Neila is definitely up there! Her character arc is a lot of fun. It’s exciting to see the character change so much in a film and I really enjoyed the transition. The most memorable character I’ve ever played though would have to be Ryan from The Last Divide. She’s the antagonist in the film and it’s not hard to see why. To play the character honestly I had to make sure I wasn’t seeing her as the “bad guy”; she’s doing what she thinks is right. Truthfully, that’s all we ever do as human beings. But she had a lot of trauma and a lot of righteous anger because of it. And that was something I didn’t have a lot of experience with, mostly because I didn’t allow myself to have that kind of anger about my own past. Stepping into that character gave me an excuse to be the worst version of myself and have it be okay. That might sound scary, but what I got to take away from that was permission to feel the way I feel. I don’t need to do the things she does in the film, but there is a lot of power in allowing your emotions the space they deserve. I definitely walked away from that character a lot stronger then I was before.
If you could choose any director to collaborate with in the future, who would it be and why?
Well, if this is a wish then I think I would have to spend it on my older brother, Benjamin Stevens and his upcoming book The Tomb of Nod. He’s directed me in films in the past, but this story is one I’m very excited for. It’s been about 10 years in the making and to say it’s the new “Lord of the Rings” isn’t a stretch. It’s a similarly styled epic with some familiar races, but it’s a new world with new rules and it has a female character driving the story. I love it. I know it’s a book now, but it just HAS to be made into a film, and I know the character I would want to play. If I could choose any director to collaborate with (and any story), this would be it.
Holly Stevens with Paul Andrew in Haunted
Alongside acting, you also work on the series Haunted (created by Paul Andrew Kimball, who also executive produced Aliens with Knives), which you co-host. How did you get into that? Were you always interested in paranormal investigations and haunted locations?
I think most people tend to be curious about what happens after we die; that seems to be human nature. However, I didn’t realize I was invested in thinking about these things until I started working with Paul on the show. Once you have to know yourself enough to explain your thoughts and experiences to an audience, it starts to make the edges of what you believe easier to define. There is definitely more to this world than what we consider normal. Ultimately, I believe that science is fully capable of measuring that world, I just don’t think we have the capabilities to explain it, yet.
What makes Haunted so much fun is that the team is really invested in putting themselves out there to experience whatever activity may be happening at each location. It’s always really interesting because everyone has their own set of beliefs and boundaries, and someone else is bound to challenge or even cross them. Plus, we all have different personalities and backgrounds. This is really important because not everyone experiences the same thing from place to place. We have a running joke that we’re actually the ones haunted, not the locations. Perhaps there’s some truth to that, but either way, there are things that have happened that I have no rational explanation for. That’s both very exciting and very scary.
Tell us about future projects, what's on the menu?
Well right now I’m hosting and producing a new television series with Winter Light Productions which will air on Eastlink TV in the fall. It’s all about the craft breweries, wineries and distilleries around Nova Scotia and the creative and passionate people behind them. It’s been a lot of fun so far and I’m pretty excited to showcase local business. But I’ll be back to filming the 3rd season of Haunted later this summer, which I’m stoked for too! New locations and new stories is always exciting when you’re ghost hunting. I’ve also got my fingers crossed for a feature film this fall. It’s still in the pre-production phase but I’m hopeful; the role I might play would be so much fun and a really iconic character.
Is there anything you wish to add?
100%. If it weren’t for the guys over at Winter Light Productions (Paul Kimball, Ron Foley MacDonald and Jim Kimball), the crew at Eastlink (especially Michael Smith and Brett Smith) and the wonderful folks at Nova Scotia Business Inc., I would not have had the opportunities I’ve been given over the last few years, and I would not be honored now with this award. So, a huge thank you to all of them, and all of you at Actors Awards. I am truly humbled and grateful.