Isabelle Fuhrman "Killed Herself" For Her Role in 'The Novice'
She's equally mesmerizing and terrifying as ambition-obsessed college freshman Alex Dall.
Isabelle Fuhrman puts her entire body into her roles. Playing a terrifying child in The Orphan, we watch her have a memorable, full-body-and-soul meltdown in a bathroom stall. Now, in Lauren Hadaway’s The Novice, we watch Fuhrman as Alex Dall, a freshman in college who becomes obsessed with rowing. Set at a moody fictional college with conifers and foggy mornings, Alex puts her body through a taxing gauntlet of exercise, including multiple bodily and psychic meltdowns, in a gorgeous film that shows how dark and mesmerizing ambition can be.
Alex is one of those people who takes three hours to complete a test because she goes back and looks for all the mistakes she made. She’s someone who decided to major in Physics simply because it’s her worst subject. She pushes herself to her brink to the point of self-harm in a way that brings to mind Whiplash – for which Hadaway worked as the sound editor.
“This movie is a character study of this character that you kind of are at arm's length at for the whole time and she’s the hero of her own story as much as she’s the villain,” Fuhrman tells NYLON. “It really puts the emotion and the anxiety on you as an audience member to live through this experience with her and to see this very human, very primal need and desire to succeed and to ask yourself whether or not it’s worth it.”
Fuhrman is herself a little like Dall. When she was auditioning for the role, she wanted to convey to Hadaway that she understood the psyche of the role – so she included a letter with her audition tape explaining that she’d recently undergone a 344-mile relay race from Santa Monica to Las Vegas with her friends for fun. She landed the role and entered a grueling, six weeks of training to learn to row. She then flew to Toronto to start shooting with actual rowers, who play her teammates in the film. In short – she wasn’t unlike her character, a novice in a sea of experts, grasping to do her best.
“I killed myself for this movie. Lauren and I both did. We talk about it all the time; this was a full-on experience and I had the best time making this movie; I was so creatively fulfilled,” Fuhrman says. “At the same time, I don’t know if my body could take doing a movie like this again.”
NYLON talked to Fuhrman about ambition, about playing Alex made her feel like “an open wound walking around,” and how she understands Simone Biles more than ever.
The Novice is out now.
What initially drew you to the project?
I read the script and it absolutely floored me. You read scripts all the time as an actor and very often, you’re trying to imagine yourself in something and when I read the script, I felt something in my gut screaming, “You have to play this part.” There’s a lot of rejection in this business and that’s a scary place to be when you really want something. So it became about, “How do I show her I'm the right person for this?” I taped an audition just like everybody else, but I taped an extra scene, and I also wrote Lauren a letter because I had run a race from Santa Monica to Vegas, which is a 344-mile relay race. I ran it with some friends and I ran 60 miles of this race. I wrote Lauren a letter, not about acting at all, but just about running and how I understood the physicality that she needed and the dedication this role would take and I wanted her to know that not only emotionally as an actor, I could handle it, but as a human being, I would survive.
As a hardcore runner, do you identify with any of that intensity and competitiveness that Alex has?
My big identifier with Alex comes from competition with oneself. Lauren and I really connected in this way, which is that I’m not a competitive person from outside sources. My parents have never pushed me to be a straight-A student, have never pushed me in this business, have never pushed me in any way – it's just been innate in me that I’ve had this drive and ambition. When I have a goal, I will do whatever it takes to go after it and achieve it for myself, not necessarily for anyone else. An example is that race to Vegas – it’s not a sanctioned race, you don’t get anything for running it, you just get street cred, but I felt like it was a competition with myself. It felt like a challenge I wanted to overcome. It was very much like this movie: You read a script about rowing on paper and it’s like, “Oh, I’ve never read a script about this before, I’ve only seen The Social Network and I have no clue what this sport is like.” And what a challenge to learn a sport for a movie and the competitive nature of wanting to be better than I was every single day.
For me, I was like, “I have to master this sport,” and I felt like I did the best I could in six and a half weeks, but for me, Isabelle, I feel like there could have been so much more I could have grown as a rower that could have added to this performance. But we’re an independent film; we had six weeks; I had six weeks to train and then 24 days on set with Lauren, so it really just became about being the best I could be for the time I had and that to me even was a little bit of a struggle because I knew I could have done better if I had more time.
“I love a challenge and I think Alex loves a challenge. She’d rather go through the challenge and achieve something than go the easy way and achieve something she’s naturally predisposed to do. Whether that’s an insane thing to do or not, I think there is something sort of fascinating about that.”
At a certain point, you have to come to terms with being like, ‘I’ve done the best that I can with what I’ve been given.’
Like Alex, you have to be like, “Okay I’ve done a good job and I have to stop, there’s nothing more I can do.” I feel really proud of my performance; I feel really proud of the rowing that I did. I didn’t have a double in this movie. Every single scene when I’m in the boat – that’s me. It really was an all-encompassing experience working on this film. I really got sucked into the world of collegiate rowing in a way that I wanted to as an actor, but I didn't realize I'd literally be in that world for the entirety of the shoot. It was a really special place to be. It made my research as an actor so much richer and easier, because I was in this petri dish.
Because weren’t you working with actual college rowers?
Yeah, the other girls in the boat – the girl who played Jantzen was at Trent University, but all of the rowers in the movie basically were rowers from Trent University or local rowing clubs in Ontario. Chantelle even, who played Highsmith, was a rower in college and lived in the Toronto area. That was the most intimidating part: feeling like I’d come so far and learned so much in six weeks. I leave LA, go to Toronto, and the first day I get in the boat, in the eight, with all the girls to practice and I remember being like, “Oh my god, I am the novice! Oh my gosh, I could flip this boat. I am not pulling my end of the bargain.” I had trained the majority of the time in the single and was very comfortable with that; it really helped. All of these things I felt like I was absorbing like a sponge. Everything really helped my performance, from the initial training to the exhaustion that ensured which I think helped my emotional performance, because I really felt like an open wound walking around every single day, like, just so see-through. I felt like the beginning of getting in with a bunch of people who know what they’re doing and being completely new and realizing that even though I felt like I had done and improved so much, that I had so far to go. It definitely felt like I was getting the same knocks and scars that Alex does being on this team and being in this world.
Why is Alex Dall so addicted to hard work? It’s unclear what motivates her. Is it just some intrinsic motivation?
Lauren and I talked about this a lot. I think when you watch a movie, people like to have a boiled-down reason for why someone is the way that they are, like “There’s this moment when he was seven, this is why,” and that’s not how life is. Very often in life, there’s a compilation of things, like a tapestry of things that happen that create the person that you are and there’s some things that are just innate and you don’t know where they come from. It's something that I related to and something that Lauren related to. I love a challenge and I think Alex loves a challenge. She’d rather go through the challenge and achieve something than go the easy way and achieve something she’s naturally predisposed to do. Whether that’s an insane thing to do or not, I think there is something sort of fascinating about that.
I think we either are these people or we know people like Alex who are like this, who you don’t know why they’re waking up so early in the morning and getting started so early with things and constantly pushing and working, and sometimes it can get to an unhealthy level. But there is this sort of culture, I feel like in our country in America, specifically, this American hustle culture and I don't know if it’s something that Alex picked up on or is within her. These are questions that we kind of loved that you don’t get the answer to – that you as an audience member get to answer this question for yourself. What do you think it is that drives her? What is it for you that drives you?
For me, I know the answer for myself and I know Lauren does for her, but I actually love as an audience member that you don’t really get to know Alex and I think that’s such a human thing to see in a movie. You can know someone for years and not actually know them very well. You’re rooting for Alex as she is the hero of the story and then you don’t even realize when she turns into her own worst enemy, and you’re kind of rooting for her, and you’re kind of hoping she stops. I think that’s what’s so interesting, the way Lauren edited this movie, because it really puts the emotion and the anxiety on you as an audience member to live through this experience with her and to see this very human, very primal need and desire to succeed and to ask yourself whether or not it’s worth it.
In this film, as in The Orphan, there are scenes where you let out that ferocious anger – where does that come from? How do you tap into that?
It’s funny, my sister was laughing about that, like Isabelle in the bathroom again! When we’re surrounded by people in any situation and you need a moment to yourself, the bathroom is this safe haven – at least that’s where I tend to go – it’s a great escape. I think the anger in both of those scenes from Orphan to this movie is pretty simple: It’s anger towards self. Esther is angry she might not have done the best job convincing the psychiatrist she’s the perfect child in Orphan and in this movie, we’re talking about someone who's pissed at themselves for messing up the race and not giving the team and not giving herself the chance to win – but more so upset at the fact that she was too weak she wasn’t strong enough. She didn’t feel good enough and everyone is telling her, “Oh you just started, you should relax.”
I think the mindset of an athlete is very different than in any sort of creative endeavor because there's no subjectivity to it; it’s completely objective. You’re looking at a number and you're looking at very specific things you have to do in order to achieve that number. In that scene specifically what I actually love is I think it shows you behind the lens of when you’re in that situation and when someone is applauding what you deem as complete mediocrity – how horrible that is for somebody with ambitions like Alex. Last year with the Olympics with Simone Biles, I felt like that was something I completely understood just from doing this movie. I remember that news article about her dropping out. Imagine the entire world is saying that you’re the greatest of all time and you’re incredible, and I believe she’s the greatest of all time – I think that’s a unanimous decision around the world – but she’s probably trying to get a little bit together on her spin or a little bit higher on her jump. Everyone's saying she’s amazing and if you’re not able to live up to that, not even for everybody else, but for yourself, that must be an incredibly frustrating place to be as an athlete. And that’s what I felt as Alex, so I can only imagine it’s probably tenfold for her.
“I realized that there was this magical opportunity I had to see the blank empty space between the jobs I do as a positive place to be as a place of possibility and excitement, rather than as a place of fear, as a place of confusion, as a place of frustration and that was very new to me.”
Alex is so ambitious that it ends up causing her physical and mental harm. This relationship to ambition seems to be something a lot of people have reexamined during the pandemic. Is that something you’ve thought about in your own life?
I think it’s definitely evolved. I killed myself for this movie; Lauren and I both did. We talk about it all the time. This was a full-on experience and I had the best time making this movie, I was so creatively fulfilled. At the same time, I don’t know if my body could take doing a movie like this again. I have no clue. I’ll have to see if it’s something I’d be open to doing, but the amount of grit and ambition for me to achieve all these goals I had set to play Alex in this film – really, it was exhausting. I wrapped the movie and I luckily had two jobs right after, otherwise I think I would have crashed. I slept for literally two weeks. I felt like I couldn’t move and then I went on to the next role and I had to kind of close this chapter with Alex. It wasn’t until March when everything shut down here in the United States that I really was sitting with myself and reflecting back on the roles I had just played and this movie just really stood out to me, not only as a movie but as an experience, as a growing lesson. I realized that there was this magical opportunity I had to see the blank empty space between the jobs I do as a positive place to be as a place of possibility and excitement, rather than as a place of fear, as a place of confusion, as a place of frustration and that was very new to me. I started running particularly because I enjoyed it and wanted to get in good shape, but running became to me similar to my addiction to making movies. If I wasn’t filming something, I was training for a race. I didn’t realize that until everything shut down and I was alone with myself and meditating everyday that you don’t have to have a next. So I feel like this movie really helped me close out a chapter in my life. I think I’m still incredibly ambitious. I think I'm still the same person, but I’d say I don’t have the same mental attack as I used to do on myself. I'm more like, “Okay I don’t need to do anything today.” If I wake up in the morning and I do a little bit and I feel kind of like that’s the most I wanna do, then that’s the most I do. And then there’s some days I spend the entire day glued to my desk working on so many things until 2, 3 in the morning because I'm so inspired and the next day I’m like, “Okay, I deserve a break. I did a lot yesterday.” I think it’s done a lot for my mental health, it's done a lot for myself as a person; it’s done a lot for my relationships and it’s definitely made me feel more open and excited about what could be next rather than having to have something that’s next.