Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is the fantastical feminist witchcraft film of your dreams. If it weren’t for the modern day cues freckling throughout — iPhones, BMW’s and DNA tests — you’d be forgiven for thinking her masterpiece was a 60s cult classic. The coalescence of old and new, combined with the melodramatic dialogue, patriarchal-smashing ethos, and decadent, kitsch aesthetic renders the film an absolute must-watch for the modern woman.
At the centre of the film lies Elaine — a young narcissistic witch who has fled to the shores of a quaint Californian town after her lover mysteriously dies — played by the remarkable LA-based actor, Samantha Robinson. Driven by a perverse desire to be loved, Elaine (successfully) deploys magic and her womanly charms to ensnare a string of suitors, to tragic ends.
Elaine is a psychologically complex character. She is murderous and deranged, yet always commands sympathy; she holds archaic views on love, yet speaks to the sexually liberated contemporary woman. Bringing to life such a dichotomous character is no easy feat, but Samantha absolutely blew it out of the park. We chatted to the bright young thang about working with Anna to create the character of Elaine, witches throughout history, and the state of Hollywood today, among other things. Get acquainted below!
LF: Through playing Elaine, did you learn anything new about yourself?
SR: Now more than ever, with a movement in Hollywood encouraging woman to voice their experiences with sexual harassment and abuse by men in the industry, it is becoming clear that most women have experienced disturbing experiences with men on some level. Like Elaine, we find ways to deal with those experiences. Sometimes you may even forget as a way to cope. I think many women and men relate to the character of Elaine as they see themselves in her and can even feel empowered by some of her actions. Although the story is ultimately tragic, there is strength in Elaine’s desire to persevere.
LF: Growing up, which on-screen character did you most relate to, and why?
SR: Growing up, I loved the movie ‘My Fair Lady’. I related to Audrey Hepburn’s character, Eliza Doolittle—to her ambition and desire to improve. Despite Higgins’ controlling machinations, Eliza fights to maintain her dignity and identity; she even says she can live without him. Although she ultimately goes back to Higgins, I think Eliza is a modern woman who manages to navigate a sexist society.
LF: What was your initial reaction when you read the script for The Love Witch?
SR: My initial reaction was that it was a fun script with a strong female lead and a unique vision. I wasn’t aware that it was going to be as visually striking as it is or with such a strong feminist message.
LF: How did you prepare for your role as Elaine in The Love Witch? Did you find any similarities between yourself and the character that you could draw on?
SR: I worked with Anna to create the character of Elaine. We decided that Elaine had both borderline and narcissistic personality disorder. I read a lot about these conditions. We also watched classic films with female protagonists who have mental illness. We decided that Elaine had various ‘modes’ that she went into during the film: Stepford wife, manic, bliss, haughty and disassociation. There was a lot that I drew on to create Elaine. I can relate to the feeling of wanting to be loved and needing to create a mask in order to regain some control over the attention you elicit.
LF: I read on Anna’s blog about how collaborative the process was between the two of you, with you helping to sculpt the character of Elaine. What was that experience like, from your perspective?
SR: It was a lot of fun to create such a unique character and to work with a creative powerhouse like Anna Biller. That in itself is a special experience. I thoroughly enjoyed working with a female director.
LF: She also points to the way you “did not think like an actor, but like a director”. Can this be attributed to your diet of classic, noir and contemporary arthouse films growing up? Would you ever consider trying your hand at directing?
SR: That is an interesting comment as I do tend to visualize a piece as a whole. I am trying to think more like an actor though, to focus on being as imaginative as possible and not worry about the complete project. That way I can bring the most creative work possible to the table. I may want to try my hand at directing down the road. Who knows!
LF: I found it quite interesting that, despite being murderous and disturbed, I found myself gunning for/sympathising with Elaine at certain points in the film. Is this true for you? If so, why do you think this is?
SR: Oh, definitively. I always sympathise with Elaine, even when she is being abhorrent, as her terrible actions don’t stem from her being born as a bad seed. She has been through lots of trauma in her life, which has made her the way she is.
LF: Elaine’s character is quite dichotomous, in that she speaks to the sexually liberated woman and pretty perfectly encapsulates society’s fear of female sexuality, yet seems to hold these very antiquated views about men and love. How did you bring these complexities to life?
SR: Yes, that dichotomy is definitely one of the most fascinating things about Elaine. Contradictions are so much fun to play! I explored the different sides of Elaine, her social persona or mask, her true inner desires and self, understanding when delusion and coping mechanisms come into play. I brought these complexities to life the way you would with any other character; realizing that this character is a three-dimensional human with wishes, dreams, trauma and defense mechanisms which help her survive in the world.
LF: The aesthetics of The Love Witch are delightfully extravagant and kitsch. How did such decadent costumes and sets help you to get into character?
SR: It really does make such a difference! Nothing is arbitrary, everything makes sense for the world of the movie. Anna even had a lighter I use in the movie engraved with ‘Elaine’, and although nobody could see it, it added that extra level of specificity and detail Anna is known for.
LF: Did you go deep on the history of witchcraft in preparing for the role? Can you relay some of the coolest witch-related findings from your research?
SR: I read the Witches Bible and other books on witchcraft. I went to rituals and tarot card classes with Anna. We watched movies about witches or characters that might have been witches. I guess the most interesting thing I found out was about Aleister Crowley, Thelema and the counterculture witches’ movement of the 60s.
LF: I recently read a book called Caliban and the Witch, which kind of details women’s role in society throughout history, and the way witch-hunts were used as another means to systematically silence women. I was especially mindful of that during the near-rape scene at the end of the film where an angry mob are shouting “Burn the witch!” How would you describe the correlation between feminism and witchcraft?
SR: Witches have been known to be the original female rebels of patriarchy so it makes sense that they have been persecuted. Witches are strong and independent, and that can be unsettling for men. The idea of the witch was created to keep women under patriarchal rule. There has been a lot of misrepresentation of witches in film and literature. Usually they are the ugly spinsters casting spells on innocent people. Now, however, witches represent female solidarity and empowerment. A strong, independent woman with a mysterious or dangerous side is what I think of when I envision a witch—a part of herself that every woman has.
LF: Outside of The Love Witch, what kinds of roles are you usually drawn to?
SR: I am drawn to characters who find it difficult to survive in this world. I am interested in how they survive, the face they show the world and how it compares to their hidden motivations and deepest desires.
LF: Either through acting, or via another medium, what kind of stories do you hope to tell in the future?
SR: I hope to tell stories of all kinds either on film or stage. Acting is my biggest joy and one of the most meaningful ways to connect to others.
LF: Lastly, what would you like your legacy to be?
SR: I would like to be remembered for my roles in film and on stage — what I hope will become a body of work — and my sense of style. I would also like to be remembered for my commitment to support cancer research.