Tracey Birdsall-Smith has been performing since she was a “very little girl.” Growing up in Burbank, Calif., she was a dancer and a singer. She jokes that she took to the stage and to the camera “like a bug takes to the light.”
“My mother drove me to the Gary Dance Studio for lessons constantly as far back as I can remember,” Birdsall-Smith recalled. “She would sew my costumes, drive me to rehearsals, and support me in my shows. It was in my blood, and my fondest childhood memories were on stage.”
As a teenager, Birdsall-Smith sang in choirs for Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic and Baptist churches, often riding her bicycle to get to the “gigs.”
“When I expressed an interest in acting professionally, prior to my teen years, my parents wanted more for me, and encouraged me to use my brain,” she said. “I was a very bright kid, and that all made perfect sense. As I considered various careers as a teenager, I was drawn towards computer science and robotics.”
However, once Birdsall-Smith landed a Sunkist Soda commercial in high school, her only desire was to perform.
“I continued commercials for more years than I care to admit … back when it wasn’t ‘cool’ to do commercials, but it certainly helped pay the bills,” she stated. “It was my bread and butter while I went to auditions and classes, did print work, and several television series jobs — including the soap opera ‘Loving,’ the host of ‘Million Dollar Showcase of Homes’ and as a special events news reporter for CNBC.”
Birdsall-Smith said she eventually found her way into film as an actress and later as a producer.
“My first feature length film I produced entirely and starred in was 10 years ago with ‘I Might Even Love You’ — also starring Leigh J. McCloskey, Jimmy Van Patten, Allyce Beasley, Meg Wittner and Rita McKenzie – which had a Cannes Film Festival debut,” she said.
Currently, Birdsall-Smith is promoting “Tick Tock,” a movie in which she stars and also produced. (See our review here.) While she makes her way around the film festival circuit, Birdsall-Smith took out some time for an interview with It’s Just Movies.
IJM: How would you describe “Tick Tock” to someone who has never seen it?
Tracey Birdsall-Smith: “Tick Tock” is a dramatic thriller which envelopes the distortions and curves of a constantly evolving society, and challenges the preconceived notions of society in a riveting way. It’s a romantic thriller, neo noir genre, which allows the audience to become involved in the storyline without judging its subject matter at first. It’s meant to tease and seduce the audience in order to get them to consider an otherwise taboo subject matter, and thus broaden their experiences and understanding.
IJM: What attracted you to the story?
TBS: First off, as a producer…
Look how often we as humans have taken on new subject matter, digested it, and then viewed it in new … describable and socially acceptable ways. As our generations change and emerge, we learn to accept that which we could not accept before, to understand that which we have no experience in, and to adapt to our new understandings, our new adjusted moral grounds, and our new perspectives. Oftentimes, those catapulting moments are results of movies and entertainment. As film-makers, we are storytellers. Nothing brings us more joy than having an emotional impact on our audience and making people feel, think, and view something on a deeper level that stays with them even after they leave the theater. “Tick Tock” is meant to bring about one of those times. That said, I felt that “Tick Tock” would either be well-received or possibly shunned … as oftentimes people don’t want to talk about or see things which are not yet socially digestible. I found the risk of finding that out almost as attractive as the storytelling itself.
Secondly, as an actress…
The challenge of building and revealing deep character dimensions in a short period of time is exciting in itself. Once the original basis for the character that I played was set, she unfolded to me and her actions and feelings were clear and succinct in such a psychologically skewed way. I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to let her out in the scenes. I couldn’t wait for the production days, as once I felt who this character was … she was just dying to unfold. As I researched the subject matter and it became clear to me how she felt, how she reacted and why, I oftentimes shifted from producer to actress to feel what this character felt more so than what her lines were … as the lines were just what she would say put in that situation. It was so much deeper than the dialogue. We had become so close — the character Kitty and myself — in a way, kind of like understanding where a friend was after years of discussing their dilemmas and feeling what it would feel like to be them. Kitty now had a voice.
IJM: How involved were you in the film’s production?
TBS: I lived and breathed this film from writing the original story to pre-and-post-production day-to-day. This was my new baby.
It all started out with a great story, an idea, based upon experiences that I was privy to, none of which were my own. Late nights were spent discussing and rewriting — not only based upon where the story would unfold, but also dealing with what my husband and fellow actor, Stuart McClay Smith, and I felt comfortable doing, given the delicate subject matter. It was decided early on that alluding to the relationship and exposing audience to it would be better accomplished by keeping it artistic and voyeuristic rather than blatant. Therefore, when the final reveal happens, people would think about it genuinely rather than from more of a shocked perspective. We wished for people to consider the situation, not be repulsed by it. We treated it delicately, which was appropriate.
As soon as I sent off the script to Kevin Coleman, a screenwriter friend of mine, and David Worth, a director friend of mine, we went into high gear. David was out of town and sent in some brilliant ideas, and Kevin did a re-write that sent chills up my spine. Another friend I had worked with before, Steve Swersky (our editor and associate producer) put together the rest of the crew for me, and besides SAG paperwork and locations, we were basically off and running.
Since production, I have done all of the marketing, much of the design work, website design, festival entering, conversion orders, and research which goes with all of that. Needless to say, although I had produced feature work before, I had to read a lot of books on the production of short film and the marketing of it. I also took on Thomas Ethan Harris, known for his brilliance in the short film festival world, as a consultant to guide me and bounce ideas off of.
IJM: What kind of marketing have you done for the film?
TBS: I have done every kind of marketing I can think of. Most of it, I would call preparation. Although I know many filmmakers are hesitant to get critic reviews prior to screening … that was one of the first things I did. A critic can be very hard on a bad movie, or a poorly executed film. “Tick Tock” was such a gem, and its production values and storyline were so strong, that I didn’t hesitate for a minute to get reviews. I believe that is the most important marketing move a new film can make, as your critics can make a movie or sink it. If you have a good movie, send it out to be judged. It also gives you a good idea of how an audience will react. Needless to say, Sean Gerski and It’s Just Movies really delivered for us, and is in the majority of our marketing materials. For that, we are forever grateful.
I also worked on artwork, stills, screen captures, presentation; basically, how to tell the feel of the movie prior to opening the box. Thomas was so valuable to us in that area, as he came in once the project was completed. He could help us market exactly what we had accomplished from an outside marketing perspective and help us identify our audience, and thus appeal to them directly.
IJM: What festivals have you done?
TBS: So far, “Tick Tock” has played in Kent Film Festival, Conn., where it won Best Cinematography, Canterbury Film Festival, New Zealand, and Big Island Film Festival, Hawaii. We started our festival run about four weeks ago now, and we have several lined up over the next couple of months. We are next scheduled to play at Dances With Films 2010 in Los Angeles, followed by Manhattan Film Festival in July. We are also in the line-up for Action on Film in July, in Pasadena, Calif.
In addition, we have picked up a couple of awards from festivals over the last few weeks also. We found out that we had made the finals in USA Film Festival (an Academy Qualifying festival), and we also received The Golden Palm Award for “excellent and outstanding film making” from the Mexico International Film Festival.
IJM: What has that experience been like?
TBS: Well, you only get one “first” in life, and I’m proud to say that Kent Film Festival certainly exceeded my expectations. I had read such wonderful things about Kent. A couple of other film festivals had written us and told us that we were in the finals, but wanted us to have “premiere” status. Not knowing for sure that we were going to be included in those, we decided to accept with Kent, as an “almost” knowing that a possible festival is never a “yes.” We wanted an audience, and we had our first opportunity, and we took it … fully aware of the “festival strategy mentality.” That is decision that I will never regret. Kent was amazing. The films were top-notch, and I realized at that point that I might actually have competition in this short film market (not even kidding.) I had no idea the quality would be quite that good. The ambiance, the festival directors (Frank and Patrice Galterio are some of the warmest hosts out there), the receptions, the program… was so smooth. I think first and foremost however, was the audience reaction and Q&A session. One would think that in such a conservative part of the country that our film might be seen as controversial. The audience was overwhelmingly supportive and thanked us for taking the risk of making and
presenting this film. I knew, at that moment, that “Tick Tock” had a bright future and worldwide audience appeal. When out of the reach of flashing cameras and crowds, I took a moment and had a good cry. It was a magical moment.
IJM: What awards has the movie won?
TBS: “Tick Tock” is a new film out on the circuit, but it has garnered several awards already in its first month:
BEST SHORT CINEMATOGRAPHY: Kent Film Festival, Conn.
AWARD OF MERIT, Short Film: Accolade Film Awards
AWARD OF MERIT, Best Leading Actress: Accolade Film Awards
THE GOLDEN PALM AWARD: Mexico International Film Festival
FINALIST: USA Film Festival
IJM: How does this role compare with some of the work you’ve done previously?
TBS: “Tick Tock” is a “no-holds-barred” kind of acting job, actually, a dream job. Acting in film, especially playing a character with so many levels of darkness and a lifetime of disturbing circumstances, allows you to communicate with intricacy the feelings and emotions of the character. You can go to the psychological depths in a much quicker period of time, and nobody is going to stop you. The director steers you, but doesn’t limit you. I particularly enjoyed playing a character so different from myself, where I could feel what it would be like to be her, and how she would unravel. Acting in a performance like this is a lot like having a dream or experience — more so than playing a television character with parameters and boundaries that you can’t go past (due to restrictions on character, interacting with large casts and preconceptions of the television series by the audience.) It also wasn’t a romantic comedy, which I used to get so easily cast for. Don’t get me wrong, romantic comedies are fun and challenging in their own way, it’s just that the depth and passion and angst that I felt performing in “Tick Tock” was a pure endorphin rush. I don’t think I’ve ever been given an opportunity to be dark, distasteful at times, and without reservation on emotions. It just whets my appetite for wanting deeper, darker, and more challenging roles. It was an absolute endorphin rush … a taking off of the seat belt. It was actually much easier to perform as it was a total immersion in the character which is such a natural form of acting. It’s no longer acting, as much as becoming.
IJM: Is there a moment from your career that stands out as particularly memorable?
TBS: I’ve truly enjoyed working with great actors such as Dennis Hopper, Sondra Locke and Joe Penney (“The Prophets Game”). On the set of “Hearts are Wild” with Ricardo Montalban was very memorable. Working with, and having a great friendship with, the late Sammy Jackson (“Casino”) is a memory I’ll always have as a dear one. I’ve had the privilege to work with great directors, of which David Worth has been my favorite so far. I had the joy of growing attached to cinematographers such as the late Roger Olkowski.
Obviously, “Tick Tock,” although it is the first short film that I have performed in, was particularly memorable as I was able to play opposite my husband. It was really exciting to see how our characters unfolded together so naturally in a way that was so different than our interactions in real life. When you work with an actor that you don’t know previously, you don’t know how they will react — and thus you have no expectations. When you work with an actor that you know so intimately, it’s even more fascinating as you’re working with someone where you are used to knowing how they will react – only they aren’t who you expect. It increases the drama and the excitement level is really amped up. The familiarity in the actor portraying the character is gone, and the familiarity with the characters was actually enhanced. When Jeff (the director) yelled “cut,” it actually took a while to remember who the person was that was playing the character your character was playing opposite (you may have to read that twice.) There’s an unspecified time of confusion while you reorient yourself. It was really an amazing and unexpected experience… a life experience of insurmountable proportions.
IJM: What other projects do you have lined up?
TBS: “Tick Tock” was written as a short. It was written as a powerful short. Obviously, it has been really well received. The audience response has
been overwhelmingly consistent in questioning how this relationship started, and how it continued. I’m dedicated to tackling the difficult and delicate subject matter brought up in “Tick Tock,” and am taking steps to furthering it.
I truly believe there should be more great cinema in the present day. Watching “Chinatown” again recently overwhelmed me (again) in how the cinematography, acting, directing, locations and story all blend in to have a moving moment of brilliance… which lasted for an hour and a half! I want to be part of cinematic brilliance in the future. “Tick Tock” has the subject matter and story necessary in order to bring about a feature of such brilliance.
Besides that, I’m looking for the next great role that can take me to even further limits. I’m ready and prepared for the next great role. I’m convinced that it will find me.
. . .
Follow Sean Gerski on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DoubleDown44.