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Grimmfest Christmas Horror Nights 2021: An Interview With Skyler Davenport, Lead Actor in See for Me

Randall Okita’s See For Me was the film in this year’s Grimmfest Christmas Horror Nights programme that impressed me most when I had the chance to review them. It’s about the visually impaired Sophie who has to defend herself from three burglars while cat-sitting one night, working with a remote app operator to manage the situation. Skyler Davenport, who plays Sophie, is legally blind, too, and they were a fascinating person to talk to. (Note that Skyler’s insights do touch on one or two very minor spoilers.)

I started by introducing myself and my background and mentioned that after just over fifty interviews so far, this was the first opportunity I had to interview another non-binary person. “Got a bite!” they laughed. “We’re really out there; we just hide.”

The character of Sophie is Skyler’s first lead role in a film, as most of their acting career has been made up of game and anime voice-over parts. I asked what it had been like to move to a more visible kind of acting. “It’s two totally different worlds,” they said. “Obviously, you’re still acting when it’s voice-over, but you’re usually planted in one spot (you can’t move because of microphones), and if you’re dubbing something, you’re matching the screen. I really can’t compare the two. I like both of them, for different reasons though. Voice-over is nice because when you’re done, you just go home—it’s easy. With film, there’s so much more; the days are ten times as long, you go to a hotel, sometimes in a different country.”

I confessed to being quite ignorant about what life or acting can be like for a person without sight. I asked Skyler if they use Braille to read a script. “No,” they said. “I can see a bit. I’m legally blind, which means I can’t drive. It’s sort of a spiteful thing actually: when I had the stroke, the doctor said, ‘You need to learn Braille and get a live-in assistant because you’re probably not going to be able to do much.’ So sort of like an F-you. I did not learn Braille at the time. It’s difficult in LA, not being able to drive; I’m not going to lie, that’s probably one of the most challenging aspects. Although now, with this COVID situation, all these auditions are on Zoom anyway, so that’s kind of been taken out of the equation, so yay! As far as scripts go, you don’t usually need to memorise for voice-over, but I did because I couldn’t read the script while looking at the screen for dubbing at the same time. So I’d need to be able to look at a line, memorise it in a second and have it come out.”

What’s really interesting is that the gender side of things, not identifying as either […] that was a very troubling part of my life up to about two years ago. And now in casting calls, they’ll actually say ‘female presenting’ or ‘male presenting’ instead of ‘female’ or ‘male’; so that’s just like amazing! It never bothered me because I understand that I look female to the world. It’s a weird issue, but it’s becoming less and less so. If people call me ‘she,’ that doesn’t bother me. It’s just a word, just a term that doesn’t have to mean anything unless you let it.

Sounds like a lot to process, especially for someone whose eyes work extra hard. “Yeah,” said Skyler. “I just had to learn to memorise very well, or otherwise I wouldn’t be able to work. Everybody has something they have to deal with, and that was something I just had to do.”

But what about watching films, I wondered. When I talk to people like this, I’m used to asking about their film influences or favourites, and I don’t know what that’s like for those with limited sight. “I don’t watch much films,” Skyler said. “I try not to use screens too much in general, saving my eyes for auditions and when they’re really needed. I do watch movies, though, but obviously it’s a different experience for me. It makes me sad that I don’t really remember what it was like to watch a movie with normal eyesight, but you know, that’s life. I have faves, though. I like sci-fi and superhero movies. When I was in and out of the hospital, especially the first two years, I was wearing a blindfold most of the time because my vision was so distorted that I would bump into things, and I was dizzy all the time, but I’d listen to Marvel movies.”

Curious about Skyler’s gender experience, too, of course, I asked what it is like to be asked to play female roles. Is it just another aspect of acting, or does it feel a bit off? “It just feels like another character,” they said, “because I feel that every part has a different space in my brain: there’s Sophie, and there’s Skyler, and there’s this other character. So it doesn’t feel off at all. What’s really interesting is that the gender side of things, not identifying as either—and I don’t, I had a mastectomy for gender purposes, not for cancer or anything—that was a very troubling part of my life up to about two years ago. And now in casting calls, they’ll actually say ‘female presenting’ or ‘male presenting’ instead of ‘female’ or ‘male’; so that’s just like amazing! It never bothered me because I understand that I look female to the world. It’s a weird issue, but it’s becoming less and less so. If people call me ‘she,’ that doesn’t bother me. It’s just a word, just a term that doesn’t have to mean anything unless you let it.”

Sophie (Skyler Davenport) tentatively finding out what the strange noise was in See For Me

I had seen Skyler’s tweet about pronouns and that journey in general from December last year and commented that I’d only come to the same realisations myself a year before that. “I would imagine that the older you are, the more time you spend in that difficult period. Because I started having those thoughts at like thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, ‘something is different,’ and I didn’t know what to call it. It went on for ten or fifteen years until it was finally like, ‘This is a thing! There is a word for this? I can change my ID without a massive process!’ When I did that originally, I transitioned to male for a while when I had the top surgery, and I was debating hormones. There was a whole court process to changing your name and gender; it was involved, and it was expensive. And now, here in California, I got my sex marker changed to ‘neither’ for $30, and it’s a sheet of paper. The difference in those eight years is phenomenal. It’s not in all the states—just in a couple of them, so I know I’m fortunate.”

Moving the conversation back to the film, I asked Skyler how they felt about the script when they first heard about it. Similar to Sophie in the story, Skyler has limited sight, so I wondered if Sophie’s situation was easy to relate to. “Yeah, the primary reason I loved the script was about that moment where she kind of sides with the guys who are breaking in, or appears to perhaps? I’m usually pretty good at reading plots as movies too, but that was interesting to me, to have someone with any kind of disability to be like, ‘I’m in, I can work this.’ I related to Sophie off and on in certain aspects, and I had to develop that because I felt that she got very, well, not bitter, but hardened perhaps. She was hurting, so there needed to be a tougher exterior to her than there was for me when I lost my eyesight. I didn’t get angry so much as just depressed.”

I asked Skyler how long ago that had happened: “2012,” they said. “People look at me now and say, ‘You don’t look like you’re visually impaired,’ and I tell them, ‘You didn’t see me the first few years.’ I’ve had nine years to learn how to cross a street.”

Considering how difficult life can be, then, I had to wonder how realistic Sophie’s capability in the film was; she was able to use the home security, find places to hide and so on after just spending a few hours there. I asked Skyler whether they felt this was authentic, or whether Sophie was kind of “powered up” for the story. They answered quite tentatively: “I think it was authentic, but I think it would take a certain personality type for that to be the case. It was not the case for me. I was regrettably asking for help, like, ‘I’m so sorry to be a burden, but I can’t do this and this and this.’ And I felt like Sophie barrelled into her own way of dealing with it, and I don’t think it was unrealistic, but it does take a certain personality type.”

What probably did help was that the house in See For Me was so tidy, easy to get around, and spacious. “That house was a character in itself,” said Skyler. “I think they had a harder time casting the house than any of the people. I got lost in the house, personally. When I first read the script, I thought I don’t really believe that someone could break in at one end of the house and you wouldn’t hear something at the other. They’re drilling a safe! I don’t know if I buy it. But then I got to the house, and, yeah, I buy it. You could be at one end, and you wouldn’t hear anything that was going on at the other end. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy) assisting Sophie in her crisis remotely

Interestingly, all the good guys in See For Me were female (or certainly female-presenting), but none of them were especially feminine. I wondered whether this was deliberate or maybe just my interpretation. “Honestly, I would have to agree with you there,” said Skyler. “I don’t know how deliberate that was; you’d have to ask Adam [Yorke] or Tommy [Gushue]. But yeah, Kelly was ex-army; Sophie is a former sports enthusiast, and now very independent and rugged. Only the homeowner, Debra, was pretty feminine, but not exactly in play very long.”

Skyler had mentioned the writers, and I asked whether they collaborated at all during the production. “Oh yeah, Adam was on set every day while we were shooting, and I talked to him quite a bit. He’s hysterical and wonderful and looks just like Robert Downey Junior. At first, I thought it was just my eyesight, but he knows!”

And what was the director, Randall Otika like to work with? “The best,” said Skyler straight away. “I absolutely got spoiled with this being my first major film. I feel like he can work with anyone; he’s very easy to work with, but also knows how to get what he wants without being pushy about it. He’s very kind and very specific.”

Having read about him, I get the feeling his work is all about intellect applied to art. “He did a lot of photography, and you can see that in the way the film is artistically shot. I know the director of photography plays a big part there, but Randall has done a lot of photography, and we talked together about that. I think that’s why it came out so pretty: he gave out acting notes, but he also gave out shot notes; things like, ‘We want the blue of the trees and then your hand moving up’…he was literally painting the scene to us, and I think that’s why it turned out so beautifully.”

Perhaps it was something about how the film was presented that kept me gripped as well as the pace. “Oh yeah,” agreed Skyler. “There are so many things that can make a film like that not function properly, and he kept it all spot on.”

To me, something that would spoil a thriller is if it is full of clichés. Home invasions have been done many times, especially those that use disability as a plot device. I was a bit wary of seeing that, but in See For Me, some standard disability tropes were carefully avoided. For example, disabled characters can often be simplistically written as pure or wicked; but in See For Me, there was some deviation from that, and I couldn’t tell at times whether she was trying to trick the baddies or trying to join them. I asked Skyler how they felt about the various decisions her character went through in the film. “The way that it was in my mind was all about survival,” they said. “Something happens, you react. I don’t think any of it could have been premeditated, so to me, it was sheer survival. And then comes the adrenaline. When she started to give back, that was a weird place to be on set. I would still go with survival though. There’s this part where she runs outside, and Kelly tells her not to, and she goes, ‘Oh no, I’m going to go, I’m going to go.’ You’re not thinking in a situation like that; it’s like a bear chasing you.”

Talking about instincts and morals, I was surprised to see so much shooting in a Canadian film. Perhaps it’s a stereotype from this side of the water, but to me, Canada is famously less into guns than the USA. “Oh that’s so funny,” said Skyler. “They made a huge point not to make it about gore, blood, and a shock factor, and I think they did a good job. But yeah, we fire a lot of guns in this movie! It was fun, but I got nervous, too. When you’re real close to someone, there is a muzzle flash and noise. But I’d not thought much about that! I’ll look some more at Canadian cinema. But I must say the Canadians themselves were very, very friendly.”

Moving the conversation from Skyler’s experience to their opinion, I had to ask about their perspective on the debate around able-bodied actors playing disabled characters on screen. “Oh that question gets asked a lot,” they said, “and I never quite know how to answer it. If you look at films from fifteen, twenty years ago, with disabled roles being played by people without those disabilities, a lot of those films are very good, and I would say for the most part accurate. I do think it brings a little something when the actor himself does have it because there can be moments when you’re like, ‘Hey that’s not actually how it flies in the life of this person.’ Personally, I’ve had the frustrating experience of a major television production doing a big publicity stunt: they were seeking an actual visually impaired actor, went through the whole casting process, and then they cast a name who was not visually impaired. If they want to do that, that’s fine, and the performance was well done, but don’t do this whole ‘we’re going to do authentic casting’ and then not. To me, that’s just the weird part. There are a lot of actors who don’t have a disability who do a great job, but also I think we should give the people who do have physical disabilities a chance, because—I don’t like saying this—for some people the disability is so severe that they can’t play another role. Or maybe those roles should be written, and just cast the person: ‘Oh, you’re in a wheelchair; okay, you’ve got the role, it now requires a wheelchair, and we’ll work around you.’ That’s what I’m hoping eventually will happen. I’m not like angry for people playing characters with a disability that aren’t, if that makes sense.”

So are you saying it’s more to do with the fact that people with a disability have fewer roles they can play, and therefore they should get that chance? More about that than representation as such? “I think it’s pretty equal,” said Skyler. “Because sometimes there are moments on set where the writing was good, but where I would say, ‘Hey this isn’t going to fly, this isn’t how it really goes,’ and they do listen to that. Because if a writer doesn’t have that specific condition or disability, they’re writing from their best intentions and it’s alright, but if you have someone that actually has the condition and has lived with it, they can bring that authentic life experience; and to me, why wouldn’t you want that? There are so many people who can bring real experience to the table.”

Skyler Davenport, lead actor in See For Me
Permission granted by Skyler Davenport

Interesting insights, for sure. I still had another lighter question to raise, though: what would you do if burglars broke into your home? “First of all, it’s very unlikely,” said Skyler. “I live in a very secure building, on the third floor, in a studio apartment. I don’t know why they’d break in in the first place. That is a good question! I’d probably react a little like Sophie, as it comes; it depends what happens. I don’t know if I’d evacuate (or if I could; it’s pretty high up). I’ve got some wasp spray. That would be an ‘in the moment’ situation.”

So what’s next; other films or more animation voice-over? “I’ve got a lot of voice-over going on right now,” they said, “and some on camera, fortunately, but none of which I can talk about; I’ve signed my life away. Some of the voice-over is ongoing, you just wait for like a year and a half for them to announce it. There are some video games, some motion-capture. Unfortunately, I can’t say any more, they’re so strict with NDAs. All fun, though, and I appreciate every minute.”

See For Me will be available in a double bill with La casa del caracol AKA The House of Snails plus two associated shorts on 11 December. Tickets can be ordered here (for UK viewers only).

Looking for more on Grimmfest Christmas Horror Nights 2021? We’ve got you:

“Festival Round-Up: Grimmfest Christmas Horror Nights 2021”

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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