Stephanie Beatriz of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" goes dark in "The Light of the Moon"

The comedic star takes a turn as a dramatic actress — and producer — in a raw, uncompromising tale of trauma

Published June 9, 2017 6:58PM (EDT)

Michael Stahl-David and Stephanie Beatriz in "The Light of the Moon" (Jessica M. Thompson)
Michael Stahl-David and Stephanie Beatriz in "The Light of the Moon" (Jessica M. Thompson)
In the searing, provocative drama “The Light of the Moon,” "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" star Stephanie Beatriz plays Bonnie, a Bushwick architect who is raped by a stranger on the way home from a bar one night.

The attack prompts her to want to be the “exception to the rule” and not feel like a victim. Bonnie so desperately wants her life to return to how it was prior to the attack that she is reluctant to talk about what happened with anyone other than her boyfriend, Matt (Michael Stahl-David).

While Bonnie does meet with a lawyer (a scene-stealing Catherine Curtin), the film is notable for placing the emphasis less on her pursuit of justice and more on the psychological effect the trauma has on Bonnie.

Beatriz gives a very raw, interior performance in the film, far removed from her work on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” During the recent Greenwich International Film Festival, the actress chatted with Salon about “The Light of the Moon.”

What attracted you to playing Bonnie, who is sympathetic but not always likable?

I’m always drawn to stories where the female characters are complex and as fleshed out as the male characters. What I liked about Bonnie was her “unlikability.” As the actress, I’m behind all her choices. Seeing her lash out at Matt and other people trying to help her through this healing process seemed so real to me. Once you are wounded or hurt, the people around you can feel it and they try to help you.

It’s difficult for people to ask for help. It feels weak, or you are betraying your own abilities or saying to yourself that you don’t have things under control. I saw a lot of myself in her defensiveness and how she pushed away people who have her best interests at heart because of her own suspicions. What are the strings attached to the help you are giving me? I can’t possibly be deserving of this help. I can do it myself. It’s like a kid struggling in front of the adult who wants to help them. I am like that. Bonnie is like that.

What research did you do to understand rape victims and how they process trauma?

I have a very dear good friend who is an incest survivor and I’ve watched her process that trauma. I’ve seen her struggle and grow and fight. Someone at the screening we had here said, “It’s not a linear healing. It’s liquid.” Yes. It’s a part of you and it will never go away. Watching my good friend heal herself and go through a lot of therapy and being open about it — once she decided she wanted to talk about it, was hard.

I felt a lot of what Matt and the audience feels: What would I say or do? I listened to my friend’s pain. Humans are so fucking amazing and so damn strong; the human soul is an incredible wondrous thing. I don’t understand it, and sometimes I can feel the heat of it, and that’s why I like acting — feeling that humanness in characters.

My research was reading a lot of stories from survivors, which was hard and painful. I’d cry and cry. Some of them have healed and some have not. I tried to put myself in the brain space of what it feels like to not being in control of your life and holding on and white knuckling it, trying to use every tool you have to regain control. Bonnie is unable to allow herself to talk about it or accept it because that’s not the version of her life that she saw. It doesn’t compute. She rejects that. “It’s not who I am,” she thinks.

What can you say about Bonnie’s mindset after the attack?

Bonnie is living every day and making it through the day, and that’s the hardest thing. One of the stigmas is “You’re the girl who got raped.” There’s a deep refusal in Bonnie to be labeled. No one is going to label her except her. Not even her mother. She’s an architect in a male-heavy world and the lead on a job. No one is going to tell her what she’s gong to be — and then someone does. A lot of rape survivors say they are survivors trying to have a full and beautiful life even though this horrible thing tarnished their existence. 

How did you process the issues of guilt and shame, denial and pity that Bonnie experiences?

I was a sensitive child and I grew up in a tumultuous household. I learned quickly how to read people and the adults around me. I learned if it would be a good or bad day based on how they moved into a room or put a coffee cup down or what they said. That’s partly why I wanted to be an actor — to explore how humans respond in an environment. Humans in pain share their pain and make others feel it. The rape changes Bonnie. It changes something in her and she becomes defensive in a way that she wasn’t before.  

What I thought was particularly interesting was how Bonnie initiates sex with Matt. Can you talk about your approach to playing these scenes?

I think Bonnie has a healthy sexual appetite and wants things to go back to the way she and Matt were. She thinks of herself as strong and a badass and wants to push through it. She tries to have sex as they used to and Matt can’t and that’s frustrating because she doesn’t want the rape to affect everything in her life. She says something mean and aggressive because he’s treating her as a fragile thing he doesn’t want to break.

You co-produced the film, which is directed by a woman and has a large female crew. What observations do you have about women being more visible behind the camera?

I want to make stories about and by women because I’m a woman and I love seeing myself represented in art. I connect in a different way with female-focused films. I saw “Wonder Woman” yesterday, and I felt like a child because there was someone saving someone in danger and they were a in a skirt! There was something so powerful to me about that. I was so moved by it. The last time I think saw a woman save a male character in a film was [when I saw] “The Little Mermaid,” where she saves Eric from drowning.

I’m a grown-ass woman and the heroes of most of the films I watch are men. But I love female protagonists. The more [women are] telling and pushing those stories through the pipeline, the more we will see, and maybe one day, half of the films will be directed by and star woman.

As an openly bisexual actress, do you feel an obligation to be inclusive of the LGBT community in your projects?

Happy Pride Month! I do feel a responsibility that the stories I’m interested in telling are inclusive. I’ve lived some experiences that give me insight into what it feels like to be bisexual because I am bisexual. It’s like stories by and about trans people. I’m excited that trans actors are getting the work they deserve because they are the best equipped to tell those stories. I’m not against a gay actor playing straight or vice versa.

On screen, a bi character is usually the butt of jokes. It would be so great if there were more bi characters. There’s a stigma we should just choose a side. Or you like one [gender] more than the other. Or that we’re promiscuous. But just because I’m dating a guy doesn’t mean I’m not into boobs.

As a Latina actress, what are your thoughts on race and representation?

Try to imagine watching TV and all the characters are brown — Latinos, with brown hair and eyes. And everyone looks like that every show and on every channel. How would you feel? What would be your images of beauty? Or measure of success? If you think, They don’t look like me at all; where do I fit in? Should I try to be like that or accept that I’m not and will never be important?

What is your hope for the film?

The most important thing this film can do is begin conversations: Has that happened to you? Or do you know someone it happened to? There are not enough conversations about rape culture and rape survivors. They need to hear “I’m going to listen to you and it’s not your fault.” There’s so much shame around rape and being a survivor of rape. It’s hard to talk about it. When my incest survivor friend talked about parties, it would shut things down. But that was part of her healing. For Bonnie, it was “I’m not gong to talk about it ever,” and that’s dangerous. I hope the film plants a seed in the audience’s mind that whatever way they deal with it, it is part of their healing.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

MORE FROM Gary M. Kramer