CHICAGO – When faced with adversity, the best way around it is to somehow break into song. That is the feeling behind the Brown Paper Box Co.’s “Positively Present: An Uplifting Cabaret,” running April 7th and 8th at Mary’s Attic in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. The event features company member Kristi Szczepanek as host, and presents song stylings by other company members, including Anna Schutz, plus some special guests. For details and ticket information, click here.
Interview: Amy Pietz of ‘Halfway’ to Appear at Midwest Independent Film Festival on Feb. 7, 2017
CHICAGO – Amy Pietz is a Midwesterner made good in her primary role as a working actor. And what better performer to appear at the kick-off of the 2017 Midwest Independent Film Festival, as Pietz’s new film takes place in her native Wisconsin. “Halfway” tells the story of a hulking African American ex-convict (Quinton Aaron of “The Blind Side”) as he tries to rebuild his life on a dairy farm, managed with difficulty by a widowed mother named Beth (Pietz). The new year of the Midwest Independent Film Festival starts Tuesday, Feb. 7th, at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema in Chicago.
Amy Pietz was born in Wisconsin, from modest circumstances, and was determined at an early age to be a performer. After a background in dance, she graduated from DePaul University in Chicago with a BFA in Acting. She headed to Los Angeles shortly thereafter, and landed roles in TV shows like “Star Trek, The Next Generation” and “Muscle.” Her big break came in 1995, as she portrayed the “best friend” Annie in the sitcom “Caroline in the City” – featuring Lea Thompson – through 2000. She has worked ever since, mostly in TV, with character parts on “Ally McBeal,” “CSI,” “The Drew Carey Show” and “The Office,” plus regular roles on “Aliens in America,” “Rodney,” and currently “No Tomorrow,” on the CW Network.
Amy Pietz Challenges Quinton Aaron on the Set of ‘Halfway,” with Writer/Director Ben Caird Looking On
Photo credit: Film Sales Company
“Halfway” is a gritty and redemptive drama, written and directed by Ben Caird, and featuring Amy Pietz as the widowed dairy farm proprietor, in need of the help from her rehabilitating ex-con brother-in-law (Quinton Aaron’s Byron was her late husbands step brother). The character is barely holding on herself, and Pietz turns in a tough, touching performance as a struggling single mother. HollywoodChicago.com caught up to her in anticipation of her appearance at the Midwest Independent Film Festival.
HollywoodChicago.com: What makes ‘Halfway’ such a great choice to kick-off the 2017 season of the Midwest Independent Film Festival?
Amy Pietz: Mainly because it was shot on a farm in the Midwest in Wisconsin, and our director, Ben Caird, has ties to that community. He is British, but has family there, and it was interested to see his outsider observations and insider experience, with that Midwestern sensibility. That unique combination was an interesting point of view for a film set in the Midwest.
HollywoodChicago.com: What were the prime elements or emotions that you thought were necessary for Beth’s character, given her backstory and her journey through the film?
Pietz: I actually brought this up with Ben during the audition process. In my background, my father grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, but left the farm and moved to Milwaukee shortly after high school. He had fairly negative ideas about farm culture and farmers. In being in this film, I wanted to bring in some of those hardships and his point-of-view into the Beth character.
Farming, from an outside perspective, can be viewed as a romantic, free and off-the-grid life, but the constant work of it means a routine you must follow or everyone dies. [laughs] So I combined the two, a romantic vision of how beautiful the atmosphere is as a farmer and my father’s more negative view. Add in losing her husband and the farm’s economic downturn, it felt as close to a ‘Great Depression’ as I could imagine it, and certainly I plugged that in as well.
HollywoodChicago.com: Since you are portraying a Wisconsin farm woman in this film, what did you recognize most about the environment writer/director Ben Caird wanted to convey?
Amy Pietz (right) in ‘Caroline in the City’
Photo credit: Paramount Home Entertainment
Pietz: In my recollection, he saw a lot of beauty in the simple details of farm life. He loved the rustic structure, implements and the wide vastness of the rolling hills – he just loved the look of the entire Wisconsin landscape. Even as what others would view as rundown and ugly, he saw as beautiful.
HollywoodChicago.com: What survival instincts has you observed that Midwesterners have that no one else around the U.S. has, and how does that apply to Beth?
Pietz: I think the biggest survival instinct that Midwesterners possess is self deprecation, it’s almost a Buddha-like sense of humor in anything that is difficult to get through. They would prefer to laugh at difficulties, show their mettle through that, and toughen up and have a beer afterward. That’s definitely the characteristic I’ve carried through me, and hope to never lose.
HollywoodChicago.com: Beth obviously had drinking issues. What do you think a person’s relationship with self medication says about their character, in the sense of how they use it?
Pietz: In the midst of filming this movie, and when I was driving past all the farms we were shooting at, I heard this statistic on the radio – based on treatment experts, half of Wisconsinites are considered alcoholics. It’s part of the culture of Wisconsin… if self-deprecation is their survival instinct, alcohol is their coping mechanism.
It’s the go-to escape for anybody who has had a rough day and has no creative outlet. It seems when you’re trapped in a small town, the only excitement is the booze. I think it comes down to a lack of options, which Beth was going through as well.
HollywoodChicago.com: When you were attending DePaul University here in Chicago, did you have a specific plan as to how you were going to start your career, and how did that plan lead to your first performing gig in Los Angeles?
Pietz: I grew up economically disadvantaged, somewhere between lower middle class and white trash – we had stuff in our yard that should be in a yard, things like that. I didn’t have any connections in Los Angeles, but I had a lot of fire. My goal was to make some significant money, because I’d never had it.
Towards the end of getting my acting degree, even though I trained in a conservatory, I found that people liked my sense of humor, and laughed at my quirkiness, even though it wasn’t intentional. [laughs] So I thought I should do comedy. That was my goal, to get onto a sitcom – and I geared everything toward that – and that’s how it happened.
HollywoodChicago.com: I once talked to Lea Thompson [click here], and she told me that ‘Caroline in the City’ was a strange business model, because it was produced by CBS-TV, but appeared on NBC. Did you feel the tension of that situation during your run with the show?
Pietz: Yes, the financial decisions regarding the show were affected greatly by that situation. I didn’t understand the business of how one entity was profiting from the residuals and re-airing of the show, but another was paying for the production. That was the major reason we were affected, pay-wise and the reasoning behind why the show wasn’t picked up – everything trickled down.
HollywoodChicago.com: How have the economics of TV production changed, in your observation, from then to now?
Amy Pietz, Wisconsin Native & Working Actor
Photo credit: Amy Pietz
Pietz: I just read an article profiling Dick Wolf, who produces all the ‘Chicago’ shows [Fire, PD, etc.], and he summed it up pretty well. He spoke about the current TV climate through the example of re-selling his shows. Previously, with ‘Law & Order,’ he was able to charge re-airing fees of $3 million dollars per episode, and now with the Chicago shows the best he’s doing is $750,000.
That will trickle down to the actor’s paycheck, and all the above-the-line salaries – the salaries that are not crew, like actors and producers – could be cut as much as in half at least. In many ways, ‘Caroline’ was the first show to experience the change in TV economics, in how they renegotiated our rates, and now that’s commonplace.
HollywoodChicago.com: What is the weirdest situation you’ve ever experienced when flipping channels and coming across one of your many character roles in TV or film?
Pietz: It wasn’t so much of a situation than a feeling, when I had was the realization – when I look back at my early career – that I was better than I thought I was at the time. I could see why I got work, and I didn’t understand or control that dynamic back then, between my twenties and my forties.
I also spent a lot of time after ‘Caroline’ doing dramas, and missed the feedback of the four camera, live-in-front-of-an-audience immediacy in that type of sitcom production. There was an extra sparkle to a performance when getting that audience feedback. I hope I get another opportunity, now that I’m a little ‘more experienced,’ to get back to the fun of that kind of sitcom.
HollywoodChicago.com: At this point in your career, what type of role would you like to get an opportunity to do, that you haven’t done yet or that casting directors don’t necessarily consider you for?
Pietz: The show that I’m currently doing, ‘No Tomorrow,’ I portray a character with Asperger tendencies, and I developed that characteristic for the role. Originally the show wrote her as a cold, steely bitch, and that was boring to me. I just wanted something more interesting for her, and for the audience to care about her.
If that doesn’t get picked up on the CW Network, I’d like to pursue a similarly and truly fragile character. I’d like to take the elements of my current character into another realm. I’m looking forward to portraying someone like that.