Directed by Amy Jo Johnson (The Space Between), Tammy’s Always Dying tells the story of Catherine (Anastasia Phillips), a woman trapped in a dysfunctional relationship with her suicidal mother, Tammy (Felicity Huffman). Every month, Catherine finds herself having to literally talk her self-destructive mother off the ledge of the same bridge. Caught in the confines of co-dependency, these suicide attempts are Tammy’s selfish way of keeping hold of her daughter and, having been broken by the experience of trying to save her mother, also the only thing that Catherine believes she’s good at anymore. Asked what excited her most about the opportunity to play Catherine, Phillips beams with enthusiasm about the chance to work with such an incredible team of women onscreen and behind the camera, especially an experienced veteran like Emmy-winner, Felicity Huffman.
“At first, I knew that Felicity was already attached,” she beams. “I knew that she would be a total powerhouse to work opposite and that it would be a huge learning experience for me as an actor. So, that in and of itself was exciting. The script was hilarious and dark and different. The character of Catherine was something I had never really seen on the page before. I’d never really seen a woman who effectively doesn’t have a story be at the center of a story in quite that way. So, I thought that would be a huge and exciting challenge. Also, [it was] terrifying because there isn’t quite as much to dig your heels into. A lot of it is reactive. That’s sort of who Catherine is as a human being as well. She’s codependent. She’s lived in her mother’s shadow. So, I just thought it was a really interesting opportunity. That would be the two things that really excited me.”
“I hadn’t worked with Amy Jo Johnson. I hadn’t met Joanne Sarazen, the screenwriter [or Jessica Adams, the young female producer on this], but as soon as I did, I understood that… there was this trifecta of everything that’s promising about Canadian film right now and the strong female voices in it. So, I mean there’s just no way I could say no once I found out they were considering me.
Whenever one gets the opportunity to work with a seasoned professional like Huffman, there is always much that one can learn from them. For Phillips, the experience of working with Huffman challenged her to memorize the entire scene in order to bring the moment to life onscreen.
“Actually, [Felicity] made the request of all of us that we work without sides on set,” Phillips begins. “So, that sort of trickled down from Amy Jo and I liked it a lot. What I learned about Felicity is that probably, because she grew up with such close ties to David Mamet, the Atlantic Theater Company and her husband, William H Macy, being such a prolific stage actor, she has such respect for the written word. She treated this like a play that everyone would have already learned and so the idea was that we would all arrive on the day, cut the strings and free fall together. I think I will never work a different way after having had that experience. In this industry, you really just get out of it what you put into it and, if you’re still concerned about something as silly as, ‘what’s my line?’, it’s so impossible to fully inhabit the character, the role and just the world. She was just beyond prepared and committed and I will continue with that work ethic myself going forward.”
Though the vast majority of their performances stemmed from the Sarazen’s well-written script, there still remain a few moments of improvisation that made it into the final cut.
“I’d say that almost 99% [of the dialogue] is off the page,” she recalls. “I love it. I love Felicity for this. There’s one scene where I find her lying on the floor and I’m trying to wake her cause I think she’s dead. So, I’m shaking her awake and Tammy suddenly wakes up and she says, ‘I’m not dead. Don’t look so excited about it.’ And then she says, ‘I borrowed your underwear.’ That’s a Felicity throw in. It’s so funny and it just adds this button. So, there are a couple of ad lib moments like that Felicity tossed in, which I think are just pure gold.”
While the opportunity to work with Huffman was incredible, another appealing aspect of the film for her was the unique challenge to play a character like Catherine, who is consistently at the end of her emotional rope.
“Ooh, it was kind of scary because I couldn’t rely on any tricks,” says Phillips. “I basically just had to sit in the place of my deepest vulnerability. The place I occupy when my self-confidence is at its absolute lowest. Basically, [I had to] just marinate in all the disappointments in my own life and then I could sort of begin to understand the day-to-day existence of this woman. Rather than building up something, it was kind of like stripping away all of the things [that] I use to protect myself as a human being and then just being that raw thing that remains, which was kind of terrifying. We’re always trying to compensate, right? I couldn’t do that in this instance.”
Trapped within a destructive relationship with her mother, Catherine’s character seems to identify herself based on other people’s expectations of her, a trait that Phillips believes is common within dangerous co-dependant relationships.
According to Phillips, “I think that’s the term ‘codependent’ [means] exactly that… The chaos of living with an addict is so great that one completely abandons themselves and any notion of who they are just to be in crisis management mode. So, Catherine never had a chance to really think about who she is, [or] what she wants. It’s always been just react and respond to the crisis of her mother.”
What’s more, Catherine’s struggle within the film also sends her on a quest to find her true self. In order for Catherine to find peace, Phillips feels that she must work on setting clear emotional boundaries with her mother and learn to put herself first.
“I don’t want to give away the ending of the film, but I think [in order for her to find herself], it’s finally making the decision that she will put herself first, rather than her own mother and in any decision that she makes [that puts her on the road to finding herself],” she explains. “So, in this film, it starts with her deciding to go to the city. It starts with her deciding that she’s not going to be the one to pick up the pieces after Tammy’s life falls apart again. Just that she’s going to put herself first and, in the long run, what that means, it’s probably just as simple as having friendships, maybe a romantic relationship that’s not so dysfunctional as the one that she has with Reggie. It’s just such small stuff on how you honour yourself versus giving up your power to put other people’s needs before your own.”
Given the film’s emphasis on the struggle of emotional health in the midst of co-dependency, Catherine’s quest for happiness is central to the film’s core. With this in mind, Phillips argues that the search for happiness begins by being able to accept your situation so you can properly seek an answer to it.
“I sometimes I think that rumination isn’t the way to happiness, which is what I usually like to do,” Phillips admits. “I think maybe happiness is acceptance. Not fighting the river or trying to go against the current of it, just accepting what is happening at that moment. You know, trying to minimize the resistance that you have towards it so that you can sort of respond rather than react.”
In addition, the film also highlights the fact that, even though there are those who seem happy on the outside, it does not mean that they aren’t broken themselves.
“I like that line of Tammy’s, ‘You can never see what’s broken in a happy person,’” Phillips claims, “but it makes me feel a little bit like suspicious of what the notion to be happy is. [It’s] as if happy is just a state of mind that you choose despite all the other horrible things that are going on in your life. You just choose not to indulge them. You choose not to wallow in them. You choose not to reveal them maybe or project them. So, maybe happiness is just a choice you have to keep on making. You can be happy despite the poor hand of cards you’ve been dealt in life because you have chosen not to be a victim of that, but to allow yourself to enjoy your own life.”
“I really think that Joanne Sarazen, who wrote the script, has these one-line zingers that you could write a philosophy paper on some of them. There’s so many nuggets to unpack and I was very fortunate to be a part of it.”
For full audio of our interview with Anastasia Phillips, click here.
Tammy’s Always Dying is available on VOD now.