I got to interview the lovely Susan Blackwell a while ago when she was helping to promote Margin Call. This interview was originally up at Filmoria, but that site sadly no longer exists, so I'm putting it up here now. Enjoy!
Susan Blackwell plays an absolutely pivotal role in debut director J.C. Chandor’s riveting financial drama Margin Call. Having worked as an actress in the theatre and on television and film, Blackwell is a chilling delight in the opening scenes she shares with Stanley Tucci. Playing Lauren Bratberg, a woman sent into the offices of an investment bank to facilitate redundancies, it is her cold canning of Stanley Tucci’s character that sets the story in motion.
Her work in theatre on and off Broadway reveals Blackwell to be a talented and incredibly funny actress, writer and singer. She also has her own series Side by Side by Susan Blackwell in which she amusingly interviews Broadway actors in often odd places and with even odder questions. Blackwell is known to lick some of her interviewees’ faces and even interviews some in their beds.
All this makes Susan Blackwell an extremely fun and charming person to interview herself. She is quick to laugh and very personable; willing to talk about her bond with actor and producer Zachary Quinto as much as about the real life experiences that have helped her to play a woman responsible for making people redundant.
You do a lot of theatre. How do you think being made redundant compares to the audition process?
SB: (laughs) That’s an amazing question! That caught me off guard! Typically the distinction is when you audition for something; before you ever even get started sometimes you’ve been made redundant. So before you ever even have the job, you have lost the job. I feel like the difference with the corporate redundancies, especially the ones that are represented in the film is sometimes people have had these jobs for six months, a year, five years, ten years, 19 years of their lives you know? So I think in the life of an actor, rejection comes on a daily basis and for the life of someone who has sat down in a corporate position or even in a company for an extended period of time, it’s a much, much more heightened experience I would say.
You and Zachary Quinto seem to get on very well and he produced the film. Tell us about your relationship.
SB: I did a show off Broadway in 2006 that Zach actually came and he saw and he wrote us this really lovely letter saying how much the show meant to him and it was a really beautiful letter. But back in 2006, I kinda didn’t know how to process things like that so I think we kind of didn’t write him back (laughs) which sounds so strange but we just didn’t know what to do. He was so gracious. We didn’t know how to respond. So I went into this audition and I walked in and he was the first person I auditioned for so I recognised him of course because I like going to the movies and watching television. And I was so surprised when he recognised me. And I later had to cop to the fact that we never responded to his letter. And he was like ‘yeah what was up with that?’ As you can imagine, Margin Call and the show that he saw us in are two very different tones, very different feelings but I did my audition and it worked out pretty well and then we got to work together which was very gratifying. We got to spend some time together on the set and then he came into town to do a beautiful production of Angels in America so of course I had to put him on Side by Side by Susan Blackwell because come on… he’s Zachary Quinto! He’s fun, he makes me laugh! And talented too! And I’m so proud of those guys. I mean he really put together a beautiful movie.
It’s a short but powerful scene and I believe J.C. Chandor wrote it from a friend’s experience. Was there an opportunity for improvisation at all?
SB: It was exactly as scripted and to be honest, in addition to my creative work in the entertainment industry, I’ve been on Broadway, I’ve been in movies, television, I also have an equally successful corporate life where I have hired people, fired people, managed people. When I got the script I was like ‘whoa, this is an extremely realistically written termination scene’ and I found it to be very realistic. So I stepped to the script because in what you call redundancies, what we call ‘notification’… over here, in that process, you literally stick to the script. You have to for legal reasons stick to this very prescribed language. Sometimes no matter what the response of the person who is being terminated which can create very strange situations where you just continue repeating yourself. But it was so realistically and well written and in real life you really do stick to the script if you will. We did not do any improvisation around it. We really stuck to what J.C. had written so beautifully.
In the DVD commentary, the producer called your character Lauren terrifying? How would you describe her?
SB: She’s more of a badass to me! I can see on the outside how it looks terrifying. Other words I’ve heard people use are antiseptic, chilling, cold which makes me laugh because I think of myself very differently. You’ve seen Side by Side by Susan Blackwell so that is actually more true to my personality. But on the inside that’s not what I was thinking at all. First I was just trying to remember my lines accurately of course but I was also… you know when you’re playing Iago, you don’t think of yourself as being the villain. You think of your actions as being entirely justified and motivated. So I was thinking something very different from what you actually see on the outside but I think it worked out pretty well! I’ll take terrifying! I’ll take chilling! I’ll take antiseptic!
I got a sense that Lauren might enjoy what she does a little bit.
SB: (laughs) I would not say that’s so and I’ll tell you why. What I was bringing to it honestly is that terminating someone in my own personal experience is one of the most stressful, anxiety provoking, upsetting and haunting experiences because you know even if the termination is justified, it’s for a cause, it’s not a redundancy, even if it is totally justified by the person’s poor performance or bad behaviour, you still are keenly aware of the fact that you are really rocking their world and this is something, an event from which they are going to have to recover. And I take no pleasure in it and actually I sort of felt that way when I was doing the scene. It was pleasurable to have a great job and be on that set and work with really world class actors and a really terrific director. That was all very pleasurable but actually doing it; I actually took no pleasure on behalf of the character in doing it. Though it’s interesting to me that that may come through.
So you work in HR currently?
SB: Currently I don’t exactly work in HR. But I do work in the Greater New York area. I work in an executive search firm and we specialise in the placement of HR executives. So I am around HR all the time. I do a little bit of hiring and firing still. Not as much as previously but I’m around HR all the time.
It must be nice to get out of the office and do great films and Side by Side and things like that!
SB: I enjoy both so much. There’s a part of the corporate work… I like structure, I like being able to pay my mortgage on time, I like owning real estate. And there’s something about project management and running an office that I really enjoy and I also am wildly creative and I like getting out in the dog park with Zachary Quinto and appearing on Broadway and shooting films. It’s a very dynamic life but I feel like the two parts complement each other very well.
How was working with debut director J.C. Chandor?
SB: Working with J.C. Chandor was absolutely 100% a delight. I found him to be very, very bright. I think he’s really talented. I think he’s a dynamite writer. Typically on set it’s the old ‘time is money’ and people are under enormous pressure, the director is under enormous pressure to deliver very quickly. He’s making just so many decisions very quickly, handling these big name actors and it can be very stressful for people and the way that J.C. bore that, I have never in my life seen a director who seemed so genuinely happy to be making a piece of film. He was absolutely like a kid in a candy store. He was delighted and delightful and he was wonderful. I can’t say enough good things about him and honestly I can’t wait to see his next movie. I think he has such a promising future.
And how about acting opposite Stanley Tucci?
SB: It was very exciting. I’m sure… he has no idea who I am so it was just another day at work for him but it was really thrilling to get to sit so close to someone who is so excellent. So I spent most of the time just doing my work and trying to act well and do a good job and there was this other percentage of the time where I was just sitting across the table from him going ‘wow, look at Stanley Tucci go!’ Stanley Tucci is really, really good. Sometimes because I work in the corporate world as well, I think this is… a great vantage point to see someone who is at the top of their game doing such good work. So part of the time I’m doing my own work and part of the time it feels like a great adventure where I get to watch Stanley Tucci act.
You have a tendency to lick the faces of your guests on your Side by Side by Susan Blackwell show. Did you get to lick any of the stars’ faces on set of Margin Call?
SB: (laughs) It was a lick-free film set. I didn’t want to get thrown off. I’d just like to note that I never licked Zachary Quinto. He licked me sir! He beat me to the punch!
If you want to see Zachary Quinto licking Susan Blackwell’s face, watch this episode of Side by Side by Susan Blackwell below: