Real and Unrehearsed

photo by Olivia Grider

photo by Olivia Grider

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Northeast Alabama native Sandra Lafferty often portrays rural women on stage and on the big screen.


I have no personal experience with acting. Unless you count the time in kindergarten I spent sweating on the cafeteria stage with plastic rabbit ears clamped to my head. Was that acting? Yes, according to my parents. I  certainly didn’t know what was going on. Bright lights, farm animal suits, people with cameras, singing. It was all part of some bizarre ritual, I concluded. But allow a bit of time and a high stack of Criterion films to pass  before my eyes and a slightly better appreciation of this “acting” thing has come to me.

Still, when I sat down with Sandra Ellis Lafferty, a Fort Payne, Ala., native and resident who has been cast in more than 40 film, TV -series and commercial roles, I had a novel curiosity.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]“There is a debate about whether you should call acting an art or a craft, and I don’t think it matters really,” Lafferty says. “The end result should be the same. Good acting is what brings the playwright’s or the screenwriter’s work to life in an exceptional way.”

Lafferty’s roles include “Greasy Sae” in film adaptations of dystopian trilogy “The Hunger Games,” Mrs. Milland in crime thriller “Prisoners,” and Maybelle Carter in the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line.”

She has experienced success in the acting world, but many people who are interested in the profession are discouraged by its unemployment rate –around 90 percent, according to the Actor’s Equity Association. Naturally, I wanted to know what persuaded Lafferty to pursue the performing arts.

“Logically, you wouldn’t,” she says. “But there is a passion about acting that supersedes reason. Someone  once said, ‘Don’t be an actor unless you just can’t help yourself.’ I guess I’m in that category. When you are very young, there is an adrenaline rush that you get. That rush never really goes away, but as you get older, I think it becomes more about being part of an event that can bring something into the lives of other people.”

Working is the best part of being an actor, Lafferty says with a laugh. “I wish I could work more often, and I think every actor feels that way, except for maybe those few who have so many scripts handed to them that they can’t handle it all.”

Lafferty got her start in front of the camera at the relatively late age of 51, though her passion for acting has been with her since she was a child. “I was always a performer,” she says. “I think I was acting as soon as I was walking. I just always wanted to perform for people – the people I was close to.” she often acted out movie scenes. “Then I started writing scenes and asking other kids to participate in them,” she says. “I remember getting frustrated because I didn’t feel like they could follow the storyline the way that I wanted them to. I guess that was the director in me.”

That drive intensified with her first exposure to professional theatre during a class trip to Washington D.C. her senior year in high school. There she attended a performance of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Long Day’s Journey into Night” (a production she would have a part in 30 years later at the Denver Center for Performing Arts).

“That made a huge impression on me,” Lafferty says. “I was in such rapture at the theatre.” Until that year,  Sandra had prepared to become an engineer, setting her sights on Georgia Tech. “I was truly bitten by the ‘bug of theatre’, as they call it, when I was in the senior play,” she recalls. “I played and Irish medium in a play called ‘The 13th Chair.’ It was such fun.” At the time, Lafferty was attending Bradley Central High School in Cleveland, Tenn., where her family lived while her father helped construct a paper mill in Charleston, Tenn. Her parents moved back to Fort Payne in 1964. Lafferty earned a bachelor’s degree in theatre from the University of Tennessee and used her minor and electives to obtain certification in speech pathology.

She says people often want to know if acting is a “natural talent” or if it is about technique. “I think that it is  inherent in a person, the ability to act,” she says. “I think it is probably 80 percent talent that you are born with and 20 percent technique. I know that other people would argue that point, but Picasso once said you learn everything you can about technique and then you toss it away. I think what he meant was that you never lose your technique once you have it, but it shouldn’t be that obvious.”

Lafferty’s career spanned several cities and stages prior to her work in film. She was married by her senior year of college and soon moved from Tennessee to New York to be with her husband, Ken. For years she was involved with community theatre productions in Staten Island. Her work there included posts as both director and artistic  director in addition to acting.

The Laffetys had four children and eventually relocated to Kansas City, Mo., where Ken worked for TWA and Sandra got her master’s degree at the University of Missouri– Kansas City. There she joined the Missouri  Repertory Theatre and had her first experience with professional acting. “I knew I wanted to [continue my career in acting], but after working a summer with Missouri Repertory – and having four children at the time – I realized that I couldn’t be at home with my children and do this, because it demands a lot of your time,” she  says.

Lafferty resolved to put her professional career on hold until her youngest was out of high school. She managed to stand firm until his senior year. The family had moved to Colorado, and Sandra began a five-year tenure with the Denver Center for Performing Arts. When the Denver Center didn’t have work for her one  summer, Lafferty went to Seattle for a job. She was cast in two additional roles and ended up being there for a year. It was in Seattle that Lafferty got her first film role, in “Dogfight.”

“My agent got me an audition and I got cast in the part I went up for,” she says. “It really wasn’t a speaking part. I was designated as ‘crying woman.’ The scene was the day Kennedy gets shot.” As her film career was just getting its start, Ken was diagnosed with lung cancer and died five months later. Lafferty was cast in a few more small roles before deciding to move to Los Angeles.

“I said to myself – which might have been unrealistic – if I can’t make a living in L.A. just being an actor, then I’m not going to stay,” she recalls. Lafferty got work immediately. She was cast in national commercials and then started to get guest roles in TV series including “NYPD Blue,” “Melrose Place” and “Boy Meets World.” She also was cast in horror films including “The Prophecy” and “New Nightmare,” part of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series.

Lafferty says it’s important for actors to know the rhythm of a play or film and how they fit into that rhythm. “Every time you read the script you get new inspiration, new ideas and nuances that you think of, character  relationships and so forth. The end result will hopefully seem real, unrehearsed and believable.” The way an actor relates to roles evolves as he or she ages, Lafferty adds. “I think when you get to be my age range, the approach changes somewhat because you’ve had so many life experiences that fit into who your character can be.”

Lafferty drew roles steadily for awhile, but then came a writers’ strike followed by an actors’ strike. At the same time, Lafferty’s family was urging her to return home. She left L.A. behind and came back to Fort Payne in 2000. (Her brother Jerry Ellis is an award-winning author who also calls Fort Payne home. See an article about him in our Fall 2013 issue.)

“I moved back here not just because of my family – certainly that was a big part of it – but I moved here because I love it here,” Lafferty says. “I love being a part of nature, so I love the surroundings. That has always inspired me and given me a reason for being here.”

Her relocation does not seem to have hindered her ability to work in the film industry. While L.A. and New York are hubs for major movie production companies, many projects are filmed in the Southeast. This part of the country has natural features that translate to good cinematography and financial incentives that draw the  attention of producers. Lafferty was cast in some of her most well-known roles after making the move back to Alabama. “Walk the Line” was filmed in Tennessee and released in 2005. “The Hunger Games” films, released in 2012 and 2013, were shot in North Carolina. Lafferty plays a vendor at the “hob,” a sort of village black market, and gives main character Katniss a symbolic mockingjay pin to wear. The remaining films (the last novel in the series has been divided into two parts) are still in production, and Lafferty cannot comment on her possible involvement for contractual reasons.

In these roles and in others, including “Ordinary Woman,” an account of Anne Ellis’ (no relation) experiences  living in the mining camps of the Rocky Mountains during the late 19th century, and a rendition of Romulus Linney’s “Heathen Valley,” she has portrayed rural or Southern women. I ask her thoughts on why she is often cast in this type of role.

“I guess you could say that I’m a child of this part of the country,” she says. “It is in my heart and soul. That is probably why I’ve often been cast as rural women. I have had a lot of directors say that I have ‘an earthy quality’ about me and that my work is ‘very grounded.’ I consider that a big compliment because I think grounded work is the best. I believe I get that from being from the South and always wanting to be outdoors.”

Lafferty has roles in several films currently in production. “Finding Harmony,” “The World Made Straight” and “The Purity Code” are set to be released later this year. You can see her in 2015 as Phyllis Jensen in “Selfless,” a sci-fi thriller already stirring on “most anticipated” movie lists.

Sandra Lafferty is represented by The People Store Talent Agency in Atlanta and Panorama Public Relations in Birmingham, Ala.[/s2If]