Exclusive SXSW Interview: NCIS: Los Angeles‘ Renee Felice Smith talks about her short film Baby, PIXAR and more.

While at SXSW, Larry Heath sat down with NCIS: Los Angeles actress Renee Felice Smith to talk about her new short film Baby, which she served on as star and Executive Producer. The project, which premiered as one of the shorts in the Narrative Shorts Competition at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of a woman who turns a work trip into a bender, escaping from the responsibilities of life with a weekend of self-destruction. Larry talks to Renee about how the project came together, how important it is to be working on projects like this outside of her hectic TV filming schedule and more…

So tell me a little bit about how this project came together.

Sure, Samuel Aaron Bennett, or as I call him, Sam – he’s been a good friend of mine, we were introduced by mutual friends both from New York and he was directing a lot of music videos and commercials for apps. He had wanted to do a narrative piece and we just over time developed this idea of this young woman who, to quote a Britney Spears song, she’s “… not a girl, not yet a woman,” and so she’s a twenty-something and she’s at this point of her life where her decisions have kind of trapped her in her current reality.

She’s looking to escape that reality and she takes a business trip and we see her spiral into this other alternate reality that she tries to create for herself through the use of alcohol. But she’s running from something, and I think she’s running from adulthood, she’s running from being settled and concrete and making a home. We find out later on that she’s actually had a baby and that she feels shame and guilt for the fact that she’s not much of a mother at this point in the game. I think a lot of young women go through that, I have some friends who have confided in me about the fact that they feel that maybe they’ve had children too early. I’ve talked to my Mum about it a bunch and, you know, by the time my Mum was my age she’d had two kids and I don’t have any kids.

So I think it’s a generational thing and I think that now when people have kids in their twenties they have this idea that “Oh no, maybe I was supposed to wait, maybe I was supposed to climb Kilimanjaro?” You know what I mean? That stuff is still “Maybe I fucked up? Maybe I should have pursued my own thing.” But that’s basically the story.

And it’s told beautifully without much dialogue, you know, the camera’s fixed on your character from start to finish and there really is almost no dialogue. I feel like there have been movies that have sort of dabbled in that a bit, you know you can look at Lost in Translation?

Oh yeah, that’s a great comparison I like that! Sam has a great hand and he uses the visuals to tell the story and I think we both gravitate towards that sort of film making, that style and film making, you know, “Show, don’t tell,” that saying that we hear all the time, maybe in film school you’d hear that. But yeah, I think it works for our story.

It’s something that whether you’re a male or female you can read and relate to that, you know? In my twenties as well I certainly have that feeling of I need to pursue my career not a family. So, you can relate to that character, you can totally understand that.

Yeah, it was interesting, we were talking to a few young men in their twenties after the film and they were like “It’s so funny for me, I felt the whole time like I am this girl, I am going on business trips and losing myself and kind of running from whatever adult realness there is circling my life.” So, yeah, it’s about the baby but I don’t think that’s the centerpiece, I think the centerpiece is kind of feeling bound to something that you maybe necessarily don’t want to be.

How important is it for you to be doing these sorts of projects alongside your TV career? I know TV doesn’t last 12 months a year so in your off time is this the sort of thing that you fit in, in your off time? Or do you try and fit it in during the filming season? How did the process work of making it fit into your schedule?

We actually filmed it over Memorial Day weekend in LA over two weekends. So we planned and did a lot of the pre-production and planning while I was still working. Our show works ten and a half months a year.

That’s almost the full year then, isn’t it?

It is almost twelve months, it is a long haul. So I have to make the most of those breaks and try and be as creative as possible because so much of my time is spent carrying out someone else’s idea. I’ve always been a creative person and I think that now, at this point of my life, I want to try and create my own ideas or at least bring those to life and share them. But we filmed over two weeks in LA and one day we were up for like 26 hours, it was kind of insane.

The drunk scene we actually filmed last and I can’t say that it was like genius producing on my part, we were just pushing it off and pushing it off because we had so many shots that required a lot of planning and presets and things. So we just ended up doing that last and I was a grouch, Sam woke me up from a nap that I took at like 3am while he was setting up the shot and we filmed it then and we had to be out of the hotel at like 11am the next day.

You always want to have more time, especially on a project like this, it was pretty ambitious, we had a lot of locations. But it was a pleasure to work with my friends and make something that I’m really proud of and that’s different. Ten and a half months out of the year I play this one character and this is definitely a departure from that intelligence analyst that I’m normally portraying.

Well this might be what she does when the cameras aren’t rolling on her, you know, she might be like “I don’t want to be a doctor, I just want to get drunk and disappear”

Gosh, Nel Jones unleashed, the unrated Nel Jones, could you imagine? What does Nel Jones do on her weekends? I don’t know, I think one night of this she’d lose it. I don’t think she could roll with Naomi.

I don’t think by the end of the film that Naomi could run with Naomi and I think that’s the point.

Exactly, you can’t keep up that sort of pace and you can’t keep running from whatever it is that needs you, or you need in your life. You have to face it head on.

One way or another. So a project like this, is this leading into other short films for you? Are you directing, are you writing? What have you got going on?

Yes, so I have a really fun, quirky comedy about a break-up that I directed. It stars Tyler Ritter, he was part of the CBS comedy “McCarthy’s” this season and he’s a good friend of mine. We play ex-boyfriend, ex-girlfriend – basically, its kind of a surreal comedy in which the girlfriend keeps popping back into his thoughts and he can’t escape those thoughts. So, the physical manifestation of those thoughts is kind of following him around. It’s kind of fun to see the ways that he tries to lose her.

A little bit “Eternal Sunshine,” I like that.

A little bit, yeah. We tell it in this very quirky, fun way. There’s a scene, my favourite scene, it was very lo-fi, as far as our technical abilities went. Obviously, we produced it all ourselves but we had a flowerpot and my idea for the film, I always wanted to show her growing through his flowerpot. No matter what he does, he tries to plant new seeds but it’s always his ex-girlfriend growing from those seeds and that was kind of a metaphor for the whole film – he’s trying to plant new seeds all around town but it’s just his ex that keeps blossoming from those seeds.

We physically show that and so, I’m like kind of emerging from this flowerpot and my face meets Tyler’s face and it’s this great moment – I have dirt all over my face and I have this crazy, like, my Mum’s actually a hairdresser so she designed this wig that looked like a stem, a root and then a stem growing out. So we got really creative with it and it’s kind of told in a very stylized way, but it’s fun. It’s kind of like a fun house, his apartment turns into a Peewee Herman funhouse almost, and I’m a big kid so that appeals to me.

That’s cool. So with “Baby” are there any plans to have screenings outside of SXSW? Where’s it headed next if there are things on the schedule already announced?

We actually do not have anything on the schedule. We’re hoping to screen in LA and in our original home state of New York at some point. I mean, LA Film Fest would be amazing.

It’s always hard to find the ones that have the short film component. Sydney Film Festival often show a short film before the main film, which I really love. I was just with the Pixar guys before talking about how much I love the fact that they still show short films before, I think it’s brilliant.

I think that was my introduction to Pixar – with a short, in my childhood, the short with a lamp. So they’re very inspiring. So hopefully LA Film Fest or New York so I can show my friends what I do with my spare time – they’re like “What are you doing?” and I’m like “Well, I’m making this thing,” and they’re like “Okay, cool…”

“Why aren’t you coming out and drinking with us this weekend? We know you’ve got it off!”

I know, luckily most of my friends are kind of creative types and I get to work with them, which is kind of the best part about it.

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Baby screened at SXSW.