Kelly O’Sullivan: how the rising ‘Saint Frances’ star made 2020’s best indie film

Out of nowhere, the little-known actress from Arkansas has written – and played the lead in – this summer's must-watch coming-of-age drama

Abortion is a subject that runs through the core of Saint Frances, the debut film written by and starring rising talent Kelly O’Sullivan. But until O’Sullivan’s own parents read the press coverage of the film, they didn’t know that their daughter had had an abortion several years ago. So loaded with unnecessary shame is the subject that, even in her early 30s, O’Sullivan had kept this most personal experience from her mum and dad, wincing at the prospect of a confrontation. “There was a part of me that feared I would be judged by the people who I loved most,” she tells NME, speaking on a Zoom call from Chicago.

The superlative reviews are stacking up for O’Sullivan’s debut as writer and star. Saint Frances won the Special Jury Award at SXSW Festival and the press are using phrases like ‘radical’, ‘miracle’, and ‘masterpiece’. It is a touching, compassionate, brilliantly acted film – and yes, radical, in its uncompromising portrayal of women’s lives. It may call to mind titles like Juno or Obvious Child. O’Sullivan’s ever-supportive parents have now seen the film four times and it has acted as a kind of education for them. O’Sullivan’s mother told her daughter that she was the first person in the wider family to have an abortion. O’Sullivan replied, “I think I’m just the first person you know about in our family.”

Saint Frances
‘Saint Frances’ tells the story of a nanny who finds friendship with a six-year-old. Credit: Vertigo Releasing

This is key to the comedy drama’s success: that it simply depicts the lived experiences of women which are often tucked out of sight. Like so many people of her age, 34-year-old Bridget (O’Sullivan) is hoping to find meaning. She is waiting tables – and for life to begin – when a phone call provides her with a necessary sense of purpose: despite being ambivalent about children, she suddenly becomes a nanny to Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), a six-year-old who takes no prisoners. This moment collides with her decision to have an abortion after she discovers that sex with casual boyfriend Jace (Max Lipchitz) has left her pregnant. Saint Frances may indeed be radical in that it presents abortion – among other experiences – as undeserving of stigma, but its themes are found in what O’Sullivan calls the “everyday moments” of women’s lives. The parents for whom Bridget nannies are lesbian, and they deal with postnatal depression and postnatal incontinence in a way that feels as though it is simply happening, not that the film is straining to make a point.

“I watched ‘Lady Bird’ and I knew I wanted to do something like that”

O’Sullivan conflated into one summer two experiences from her life. She had been a nanny in her late 20s and found it to be “a beautiful, complex job”. And, years later, when she had an abortion, she realised how often this experience is either distorted for the screen or only portrayed in one way. In Saint Frances, neither Bridget nor Jace attaches any shame to her decision. In a wonderfully honest scene, Bridget – who has been having blood loss and heavier periods after the procedure – presents Jace with a blood clot in a tissue. The pair examine it and Jace compares it to a rat turd in size. This, not exactly a scene that would make it into the trailer, was a conscious rejoinder to the pro-life activists who liken aborted embryos to cute objects in order to guilt-trip women into taking unwanted pregnancies to term. (“It doesn’t look like a cute baby at that point,” says O’Sullivan. “It looks like a horror show.”) The ‘rat turd’ element was also the biggest point of contention for the film’s investors. “People thought that that was too far,” O’Sullivan says. “But we knew that it wasn’t gonna be played as a laugh line necessarily, and it wasn’t gonna be making fun of the situation – it was going to be a moment of intimacy and connection between these two people.” As an act of appeasement, O’Sullivan and the team said that they would film alternate lines that didn’t include the phrase ‘rat turd’. But they didn’t. And they got away with it.

Saint Frances
‘Saint Frances’ is slated for a theatrical release on July 24. Credit: Vertigo Releasing

This comparative lack of surveillance was the benefit of being a small production – something that may become a necessary sacrifice for O’Sullivan, now that she is having important meetings in LA in which film people talk about quadrants and she nods as though she understands what they mean. (O’Sullivan said in another interview that she is beginning work on her next project, a script about girls in high school.)

The landscape of TV and film is changing, and female-led depictions of women’s lives (Fleabag, I May Destroy You, Booksmart, Lady Bird) are striking so many chords that the sound is resounding across the industry. “I think that gave me, in some ways, permission to say, ‘People might care about this’,” O’Sullivan says of her script. It was seeing the nuances in Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s film about a teenage girl and her relationship with her mother, that prompted O’Sullivan to start writing. “I was so moved by the way that women were written in that film,” she says. “I knew that I wanted do something like that in Saint Frances. By the end of that movie you feel like you really know these characters and you care so much about them just because you’ve been witness to their everyday.”

Saint Frances
‘Saint Frances’ stars O’Sullivan alongside eight-year-old Ramona Edith Williams. Credit: Vertigo Releasing

One of these nuances is uncertainty: the uncomfortable feeling of not quite knowing. When O’Sullivan nannied, she was unsatisfied in her acting career. “Is this gonna be all it is?” she asked herself. Everybody else seemed to have it figured out. She has come to learn that, no matter what someone’s facade looks like, everybody else does not have it figured out. “And I think that’s a really scary and liberating realisation to come to as an adult,” she says, “because you start to realise, ‘Oh, if nobody has it figured it out, we’re all just doing the best we can.’”

Acting is an unusually punishing discipline. Does O’Sullivan suffer with feelings of jealousy and comparison? “Big time. Huge,” she says. “And I think we learn that from our society: everybody’s living their ‘best life’ on Instagram and if you feel like you’re not living up to that, it can make you feel very inferior. But I’m starting to learn that that’s not so important – to reach other people’s level of success.” She has friends who were actors but changed career paths to become doctors or senior executives at fashion labels. They came to a “self-realisation”, she says, about the world of acting: that it wasn’t going to give them the life they wanted.

“Nobody has it figured it out, we’re all just doing the best we can”

Her conviction has wavered but O’Sullivan always wanted to be an actor. She grew up in a house with a room dedicated to shelves upon shelves of films on VHS. With cinephile parents, she was treated to a diet of the classics. She remembers watching MGM musicals, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, and, when she was three or four, Singin’ in the Rain. “When you’re young, beautiful music and incredible dancing is undeniable,” she says. It was theatre that stole her heart, and her parents would take her to all the touring shows in their home town of Little Rock, Arkansas. “This is the greatest piece of art I’ve ever seen,” she thought of a stage production of Cats. She started performing in plays at the age of five. As an actor, she discovered, it was OK to be a little strange. “When you do theatre, you find a group of people who enjoy you for your eccentricities,” she says. As well as theatre, she has acted in a number of shorts and TV series, including, most prominently, Sirens, the American adaptation of the British comedy series. Her first writing credit, Saint Frances feels like something on a completely different scale.

But as money becomes involved, and as you become frustrated at your fickle fortune in the industry, this pure vision feels harder to cling to than soap. “The dreams that felt so inevitable when you’re young really do start to shift as you get older,” she says. There are near misses, months without work, and soul-crushing auditions. “I think that’s the really hard thing about being an actor sometimes,” she says. “Our deepest fears, our most vulnerable, mortifying experiences, live on in a tape somewhere.”

“I saw ‘Cats the Musical’ when I was young and I thought it was the greatest art I’d ever seen”

I wonder what keeps O’Sullivan going in an industry as unpredictable as hers. She compares her confidence to a well whose water level she needs to constantly check. When the level was low she decided that she should write Saint Frances. “There are some days when I think ‘This is all I wanna do in the world!’ and then there are other days that I think ‘I’ve completely chosen the wrong career and I wonder if there’s time to re-route’.” It’s a constant negotiation with herself, she says. Has she thought about quitting? “I think about it all the time. And I’m always so buoyed by artists who are honest about that. I don’t really relate to artists who say, ‘I never think about quitting’ because I either think ‘Oh, they’re delusional’ or ‘They’re lying.’ And I have a lot more trust in people who say, ‘It’s so hard I think about it all the time; I just haven’t yet.’”

What helps her and other actors is that a wider range of stories than ever before are being told by a wider range of people than ever before on a wider range of platforms than ever before. When O’Sullivan was watching VHS tapes with her parents as a child, it would have been inconceivable that one would feature a childless woman in her 30s unapologetically having an abortion in the midst of caring for the child of a well-off, mixed-race lesbian couple. Now, the film has found an audience. During her first Q&A at SXSW, O’Sullivan was shaking. She was frightened that someone was going to stand up and call her a baby killer. This didn’t happen. But in Poland, a man stood up and spoke seriously to her through a translator. “I felt the entire audience bristle,” she says, “And I was like, ‘Oh, here it is, here it comes.’” She learned that the man was opposed to abortion and wanted to tell her so. But this felt fine to O’Sullivan because the rest of the audience had been supportive.

Kelly O'Sullivan
O’Sullivan worked with director Alex Thompson on ‘Saint Frances’. Credit: Vertigo Releasing

50 years ago, that Polish man might have been in a majority. Times have changed, and so has O’Sullivan. She remembers being in a dressing room with close friends a year after she had decided to terminate her pregnancy. One of them disparaged abortion and said that they had talked their sister out of having one. O’Sullivan felt betrayed because she thought the friend felt the same way about abortion as she. “But more than anything,” she says, “I felt embarrassed and I felt ashamed and I didn’t say anything.” Today, it is hard to believe that the writer of Saint Frances would stay silent. It is hard to believe she wouldn’t have anything to say.

‘Saint Frances’ arrives in cinemas on July 24

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