Remembering Katrin Cartlidge

The director of "Gas Food Lodging" and "Things Behind the Sun" shares her memories of the greatest British actress you've never heard of, who died unexpectedly in early September.

By Allison Anders

Published September 30, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

"British Actress Cartlidge Dies Suddenly" was what I read by chance on IMDb, a small headline that ran Sept. 10. Not many details: She got sick, she died, she was only 41. It was shattering and so sudden. Her voice was still on my answering machine.

The night I found out that my friend Katrin Cartlidge died, I had a dream. We were on the bluffs in Carpinteria, Calif. This is a spot the coastal Chumash Indians considered holy. They felt blessed to live here for thousands of years, and I feel blessed to live here now. In my dream I was there with Katrin, and any time spent with her, as everyone who knew her felt, was blessed time.

It was just the kind of dream you'd have when someone you love has died suddenly -- we were talking, nothing special, just talking. We walked fast along the bluffs. The waves in the ocean were surreally close and high as we sped along, so fast that our feet were off the ground. We were flying close to the sand as we talked. We didn't speak of the big things. We talked like we had all the time in the world.

Before I met Katrin, I was a fan of her genius, and she really was a genius. (I can hear her laughing right now, like I'm so over the top by saying this about her.) The first time I saw her, I was stunned by her performance in Mike Leigh's "Naked". If you've seen the film, you know which one she was: the Goth-clad rocker girl, Sophie, who makes the bad mistake of coming home to her flat to uninvited houseguest Johnny, played by David Thewlis. The next time I saw her, she was an entirely different energy as the compassionate, quiet Dodo McNeill (the nurse, sister-in-law of Emily Watson's character) in Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves." I was smitten with her versatility and penetrating depth on the screen -- it became my dream to work with her.

But I never did get that chance. Instead I had the extraordinary privilege of becoming her friend. We met by blessed chance at one of my favorite film festivals, in Locarno, Switzerland. Katrin was serving on the jury, as I had done the year before. My friend and mentor, French director Claire Denis, was also on the jury and introduced us. Both Kathryn Bigelow (who would later direct Katrin in "The Weight of Water," which is due out later this year) and I were invited back after our jury stint together to bring our favorite films: I brought a Douglas Sirk movie, "There's Always Tomorrow," and Kathryn brought "The Wild Bunch." Even with her heavy load -- and no one knew better than Kathryn and I what was expected of you on that jury in terms of watching movies -- Katrin came with her boyfriend, the South African actor Peter Gevisser, to see these films that had inspired us.

My last image of Katrin in Locarno was of her walking to the pool one moonlit night with her beloved Peter, and how happy they looked together. They were holding hands in matching terry-cloth robes from the hotel. They were everything to each other in that image: lovers, best friends, brother and sister, kindred souls. Me -- I was undoubtedly, as always, nursing some bordering-on-masochism affection for someone who could not return it. I wondered how she did that: She found him, he found her, and they were happy.

I realized when she died that Katrin knew nothing of my love life or sex life or what was in my heart and head for which man. We never talked about it because Katrin had the love of her life; she didn't need to have that girl talk about her relationship. It worked, and if it ever didn't, I have to imagine she was able to talk to the person to whom it mattered -- Peter. I could have revealed anything to her, in all the gory, sloppy, embarrassing details, and she would have accepted me whole (although she would not have indulged me!). Luckily for her, she managed to be spared what all my other female friends have not.

It was when I saw Katrin in Lodge Kerrigan's amazing "Claire Dolan" that she exceeded whatever we regard as an actor's talent. However great any performance you have seen is -- she transcended that. There are few of these we experience in a lifetime, and Katrin achieved that in her rendering of an Irish woman forced into prostitution to fulfill a parent's debt. Katrin performs sex scenes throughout the film. When I wrote about the film and her performance upon its release, I worried that people thought I meant her performance was brave because she was an actress having so much sex on screen. That couldn't be further from what I meant.

What was brave about Katrin as Claire Dolan was that she played each tryst, each sex scene, differently and was aware of Claire's complex feeling about each episode, with complete conscious choice in every moment. Sex scenes in movies are the most difficult scenes for actors and for their directors. No matter how much bravado you may have, the looming sex scene is always on your mind when you're shooting a movie. It demands that you direct that much more consciously, and it demands that the actors act more consciously, and it's tough to stay in that purity and not be shackled by your morals, comfort level, self-consciousness and embarrassment.

Often directors and actors give up in the sex scene, stop doing their jobs and just hope that nature will make it look right! Katrin and I had many conversations about her approach to this character, and it was in these conversations that I became aware of what a brilliant artist she was. She talked about how she needed to be sure that each sex scene in "Claire Dolan" was furthering Claire, that each one was needed. She felt she needed to bring something different to each tryst: Sometimes Claire is bored, sometimes scared, on a few occasions she's even a little into it, then catches herself, or even numbs herself with the activity -- she played all of these.

I also became aware in my talks with Katrin about "Claire Dolan" that we directors, even in Indiewood, often treat actors as meat puppets, even at our best. We write these characters and select the person we expect to best manipulate into the performance we have in mind. As high-minded as I had always felt I was in my casting and my work with actors, and the freedom I allow actors (for which I am always appreciated), I had never really let them own their characters until Katrin and I talked about her process. I had always felt deep down that I owned the characters. Much as I adored and cherished the work of my actors, I felt that they were cast to do and be what I could not physically do or be.

But Katrin owned her characters. All of them. She may not have created them alone, but she only signed up for the ones who called to her, and called to her intensely. God knows she was not careerist, but she was also not foolhardy or lofty. She was very practical and knew how she needed to live in order to continue to answer her calling. When she got down to the core of these characters who called to her and needed her to bring them to life, she owned them. And then she did what only actors can do -- she gave them away. Directors and writers can't do that, only the great actors can. She taught me this. Imagine being given such a gift.

And what a friend! When I moved to London for a year, Katrin was my godsend: She was English, but also something of an outsider, so she possessed a brilliant, objective, often hilarious view of the city. She understood my frustration when things didn't make sense to me. She would laugh and say, "I know, but Allison, you're in a shitty neighborhood!" (This was Kensington.) "You need to move up where I live." She drove me around Belsize Park, and I fell in love with the place where she had been raised and found a house just blocks away from the flat she shared with Peter.

Katrin also defied being English by being an outrageously great cook. She was proud of the string of garlic she had hanging in her window. In fact, this was how you were directed to her flat: "Look for the garlic in the window!" Her mother is Jewish and had sought asylum in England in the late '30s, which was one of many reasons Katrin always felt somewhat of an outsider in London, even though it was her home. She laughed that when she was growing up her English friends never knew what to make of her because of her mother's garlic in the window. Telling me all this while she's effortlessly whipping up the most incredible, generous meal. She's the first person who taught me how to use vanilla bean -- I always thought that stuff came in a bottle.

She even got my notoriously hard-to-cook-for son Ruben to eat, and then she challenged him to a game of Scattergories. We worked in teams: Peter and I, and Katrin and Ruben. They won. Ruben's 12 now, and when I told him Katrin was dead, young and unexpected, he was especially affected. Before I adopted Ruben his own young mother had died suddenly. He was quiet for a long time and said, "Well, that really sucks. She was so nice."

My daughter Tiffany met Katrin when we took a train to Oxford to see Katrin in Simon McBurney's play "Mnemonic." Like every bit of time spent with Katrin, the evening was special. Tiffany and I arrived in a nearly empty thousand-year-old college town, wowing at everything we were seeing -- and laughing at ourselves. "Geez, Katrin dragged us up here to this insanely beautiful town!"

Her work onstage -- and I'm not a theater fan, I don't get it for the most part -- was so genuine it was as if she had taken all the energy of the room and beyond and anchored herself in it. Her acting was dense and yet at the same time, seemed so fluid and effortless. This is what we always look for in actors and very few ever achieve it, let alone every time. She played a character who was searching for a lost parent (father, in this case). Katrin had been blessed with loving parents but was deeply affected by her father's own parentlessness, and she played every bit of emotion she absorbed as a child of her father's own private sorrow. This was her incredible gift -- maybe it is supreme empathy and the ability to infuse us with it.

Of course at some point I gave her a script for all these reasons. She turned me down, but I now see, sardonically, that I was in great company -- with all the other directors she said no to! This was the beauty of her instinct: It was as if she was channeling characters, and if she felt she was not the right channel she didn't take the role, no matter who the director was or what the paycheck might be. And when she said no, she was so fine with it that she made it fine with me. This can be embarrassing among friends in this business, but Katrin not only made it OK to turn me down, for both of us, but told me what I needed to look for to find the right actress for that role.

With all she taught me about a character whom I had created with Kurt Voss, my co-writer, and who was very personal for me, I was able to find exactly the right person in Kim Dickens, who shares the bravery Katrin had shown in "Claire Dolan." (The role was Sherry in my movie "Things Behind the Sun," which came out last year.) Katrin made me cast bravely for that role, and made me a better director as a result.

We still kept looking for things to do together. This summer I sent her a script by Kurt for a series of short films we planned, even though it wasn't my own project. Katrin returned my call with an enthusiastic "Hello, hello, my dear Allison!" -- the kind of thing that makes your heart jump up and down. She knew how to make you feel missed and appreciated and never very far from her thoughts.

She could handle people who others turned away from; she was a real student of people that way. I often heard her say of someone, "People find her difficult but I get on with her." She never trashed anyone or gossiped, and even when there was someone I didn't think I would like she'd insist, "You're wrong! You'd love her! She's one of us!" I felt so lucky to be in that club that I would tolerate anyone!

Well, she loved Kurt's script, and even though Katrin and I would not be working together, we would be close, and I was so happy that Kurt would get the chance to create this vision with her. She had of course already given him great insight into the character, and our biggest dilemma was finding someone good enough to act opposite her. I was watching a movie on TV the day she died, looking at one possible candidate as her leading man. He was good -- but nowhere good enough, I thought to myself, to be in a movie with Katrin.

I was lucky to have known her. Her impact on my life was enormous. But the world can share Katrin's greatest contributions, her characters: Hannah in Mike Leigh's "Career Girls," Sophie in "Naked," Dodo in "Breaking the Waves," Dark Annie Chapman in "From Hell," of course the entirely unique and everlasting Claire Dolan and so many more.

The tributes to her have been many and varied, from directors Mike Leigh and Simon McBurney and so many other people who loved her. She is not just missed in the theater and film world: Former Smiths singer Morrissey dedicated his performance of "Late Night, Maudlin Street" at the Royal Albert Hall to her memory.

Since her death I have been in contact with friends of Katrin's, and now they are becoming friends of mine. She would have wanted that too. I received an e-mail from Lodge Kerrigan, the director of "Claire Dolan," whom I've never met. He let me know what her funeral had been like and I invited him to come up to Carpinteria next time he's on the West Coast. Maybe we will walk that same bluff from my dream and talk about our friend. It'll just be one more gift Katrin gave us.

Allison Anders

Allison Anders is the director of "Things Behind the Sun," "Gas Food Lodging," "Mi Vida Loca" and other films.

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