After three years in the writers’ room for “Orange Is the New Black,” Sian Heder has written and directed her first movie, “Tallulah.” It was inspired by a job she took as a hotel babysitter when she was new to Los Angeles and trying to make ends meet.
The title character, played by Ellen Page, is a bohemian vagabond who lives out of her van and eats what she can scavenge. One night she’s scrounging for leftovers in a hotel, and a guest mistakes her for a hotel employee. The guest is there to have an affair, and she convinces Tallulah to take care of her baby. After the mother comes home drunk, Tallulah impulsively decides to kidnap the baby.
Kurt Andersen: When you were working as a hotel nanny, did you encounter some people who were as terrible as the mom character?
Sian Heder: Yeah. For the most part, people were great, but I also did witness a kind of neglect that was occurring at this high level of society. People were staying in the penthouse suite that was $4,000 a night, but these people didn't know how to take care of their kids. I had a particular night with this very strange woman. She had come to the hotel to have an affair. She returned at the end of the evening and she was drunk and passed out on the bed and I really desperately wanted to steal that kid. I didn't, but I ended up writing about it.
Fiction writers take material from their lives all the time. Rarely are they so frank and transparent about it.
This is a wish fulfillment moment. I had a total lack of resources at that point. All my furniture was from the trash. I really wrote this movie from a place of judgment: this woman should not be a mother and not all women were meant to be mothers. And then, in the course of making the movie, I became a mother. I re-wrote the film after I had my daughter because I had sympathy for my villain. Suddenly it wasn't such a clear "this is the villain, this is the hero" kind of story. It was much more complex.
You were an actor getting parts in the 2000’s. At what point did you decide that what you really want to do is direct and write?
I think when I got raped on TV for the third time. As a woman, you come in and you're the victim and you have bruises on your face and you cry and tell some horrible story. I think it was a frustration with the kinds of roles that were available to me. But more so, it was my interest in telling the whole story. I was always interested in narrative and writing and storytelling. Had I stayed an actor, it would not have used the best part of me.
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