Getting in on the action

Skyler Davenport on authentic casting, action scenes and See For Me

by Jennie Kermode

Skyler Davenport in See For Me
Skyler Davenport in See For Me

Over the years there have been a number of films made about blind women who face terrifying situations when people break into the places where they’re staying. At first glance, See For Me, which was written by Adam Yorke and Tommy Gushue and directed by Randall Okita, might seem like more of the same, but there are two key differences. Firstly, the young woman in question, Sophie, is not helpless at all. She has the help of a phone app (which shares the film’s title), through which a remote operator can assist her, but she’s also pretty formidable in her own right. Secondly, she’s played by a person, Skyler Davenport, who is actually blind themselves. As a result, the whole tone of the film is different, and it’s a thrilling slice of action cinema.

When I met Skyler to talk about the film, I mentioned that I’m disabled myself and that in my experience disabled people’s lives are full of physical challenges which have great cinematic potential, so it’s good to see a film like this doing something with that.

“Yeah, I thought that that was incredible,” they say. “Also, as someone who's disabled, I couldn't personally think of a film with a lot of action starring someone with a physical disability. I thought that was really, really amazing. I also appreciated that they didn't make her just this gigantic victim.”

Sophie travels to work
Sophie travels to work

She’s not just a survivor, she’s a morally complex character. Did that also make her more interesting to play?

“Yeah, that's what I loved, how human she was. And that you just never quite know what you're going to get. And she kind of decides what's going to benefit her in the moment. And I think we all have a little bit of that, whether we want to admit it or not.

“The way that I interpreted it, and also in the script a little bit, is, I think part of it is the desire to be independent. But also I think there was something about trying to get the money for this Paralympics thing, where she did actually want to go back to skiing. And I don't know if it was just so expensive to have the trainer. So to me part of the motivation was like, ‘I want to find this workaround, I want to be able to do this thing again, I just need the money and I don't know how to get it now that I am disabled.’”

This made them more comfortable about some of Sophie’s ethically dubious decisions, they say, and helped them to find the right point of balance.

“If you get too one dimensional on either side, it's not interesting. You don't want a character who's a complete little shithead all the time, sure, but you also want someone relatable, that you're going to have sympathy for.”

The script was already complete by the time they came on board. “Apparently they had been looking for someone for a number of years before I read for this,” they explain. “The casting process was quite long. I auditioned three times over the course of about six months, with two month gaps in between. Then when Covid hit, they let me know as things were able to open back up. The first time I went, I had about two days there before we started shooting, and then with the quarantine restrictions it turned into I had to spend two weeks in an apartment or a condo there.”

Jessica Parker Kennedy in See For Me
Jessica Parker Kennedy in See For Me

A lot of the time when it comes to films about people with different kinds of disabilities, producers say say ‘Oh, we had to cast somebody who didn't have a disability or they wouldn't have been able to do the action scenes safely.' Skyler does their own action scenes here, so how did that work?

“I do understand that perspective, because it is a little bit daunting,” they say. “My vision disability is such that I can't drive, there's a lot of stuff that I can't do, but I'm a little bit more mobile than someone that, say, absolutely needs a guide dog. So I think it was that fine balance of like, they wanted to cast authentically while simultaneously being super safe on set. I'm sure that was a huge challenge for the producers.”

As noted, Sophie is also a former competitive skier. I ask Skyler if they have any experience with that.

“I'm pretty sure I would die if I did!” they declare, laughing. “The scenes that I did where I'm on skis, I'm basically just ducking out a frame or I'm going, like, two feet, and there's no somebody with a mat or whatever. I had a body double that was actually a professional competitive skier. I don't know if her footage actually made it to the final cut, but I did have a body double for skiing stuff.”

It’s clearly a film which any actor would find physically strenuous. We discuss how they coped with that, and they explain that their neurological illness affects more than their sight.

“I was in Canada three times for about a month and a half to two months a time, because there was a two week quarantine period every time I went back. Yeah, it was physically demanding. I mean, eyesight totally aside, I have struggled with a lot of just bodily pain issues, you know, just neurological issues. It wasn't just the vision – it affected a lot. And so stuff like that is really, really challenging, especially when you've got very long shoot days. The day where I was running, where I was barefoot and in short sleeves and falling in the snow, that was a rough one. I had to get in a hot bath for like, three hours, my muscles were just so exhausted.”

Shut out in the cold
Shut out in the cold

This is, it’s clear, something that they take in their stride, and it didn’t detract from their enjoyment of the overall experience.

“It was fun,” they say, smiling cheerfully. “I mean, obviously, there was pressure. In the back of my mind at all times was like, I just want these producers to get exactly what they want. And I want the writers to get exactly what they want. Especially with Covid, with how much extra shooting time and hours and – I'm sure – money got poured into everything that was in production. But otherwise, it was just fun.”

There were extensive safety protocols involved in every aspect of the shoot, they explain.

“We were one of the first films to jump back into production in Canada. Nothing was shooting in the US when we went back into production, and we were one of two or three films that went first.”

In some ways this was simplified by the fact that most of the film was shot in one place.

“Yeah, I mean, I would say like 85% to 90% of the film was shot in this house, and it was just massive, it was amazing. They got the perfect location.”

Did they have time to get to know the house and get used to moving through that space before shooting?

“No, I actually didn't see most of the house until we started shooting I saw the main sort of living room/kitchen area, because they were doing some extra costume fitting stuff there. The rest of the house I was just exploring as we shot, which kind of helps, honestly, because then it's an equal surprise to me as to the character.”

It’s also an interesting setup because the person they spend most time talking to in the film isn't actually there in the same location. How did they get that chemistry to work?

In the greenhouse
In the greenhouse

“I never interacted with Jessica [Parker Kennedy] through the phone,” they say. “It's either like an AD just calling lines off camera, or nothing, and I'm just reading my lines with space in between for hers, but I'm never actually really interacting with anyone. So the chemistry is all made up, which was funny, because having not met Jessica and not seeing her performance until after the fact, I was so glad that it all jived, because I was like, ‘I hope what I have in my head is matching what she's going to do on the other end.”

Something which people are bound to wonder about when they see them in that role is whether or not they have any personal experience of using apps like that to get around.

“No,” they say. “In fact, I thought that Adam and Tommy had made this concept up. I was not aware this was a thing at all. I was like, ‘This is amazing!’ He [Adam] was like ‘No, no, these apps are a thing.’ And they explained them to me, and I just couldn't – I mean, no-one had ever, in my years and years – I'm going to the best of the best – no-one had ever said anything about anything like this. So that was amazing to me, that these things exist for people. I could have used it between 2012 and 2014 when I was not able to do anything.”

When they were making the film, did they expect that it was going to get a release like this, that it was going to get this amount of attention?

“No, not at all. I mean, my head is spinning with all of the emails and the interviews, this and that, and it's super weird now because everything's over Zoom. So I'm not going to the festival like Tribeca. I'll get tweets and emails about it. I have no idea what's going on until it happens. Distribution really know what they're doing so kudos to them.”

What do they plan to do next with their career?

“Definitely more film and television,” they say. “It’s an interesting shooting process now with Covid. There's, there's plenty of things in production, it's just it is a different world. So I think people that are hoping to go back to sets the way that it was are going to be pretty disappointed for the future. It's interesting, but that doesn't mean that it can't be done, that it can't be fun.”

I ask if there are any particular types of stories that they’re keen to engage with now.

“Oh, yeah. I mean, just sci-fi and fantasy,” they say with a smile. “I’m just a nerd.”

See For Me is in US cinemas and on VoD from Friday 7 January.

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