BERNARDA GOSPIC/THE VARSITY

As Madeleine Bisson cradled a steaming cup of tea at the Aroma Café on Bloor, her eyes lit upon the small, complimentary square of chocolate sitting in her saucer. “Oh look, they give you chocolate!” she exclaimed with a big smile. “I love that.”

Bright and effervescent, it’s hard to imagine Bisson with anything other than a sunny disposition. But her role in the upcoming film Foxfire, a drama based on the novel Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang by Joyce Carol Oates, required Madeleine to immerse herself in some undeniably dark material.

The film, which was directed by Palme d’Or winner Laurent Cantet and will premiere at TIFF in September, portrays a rebellious group of teenage girls living in upstate New York during the 1950s. Frustrated by the almost violently sexist climate of post-WWII America, the group of friends forms a secret, female society. The gang proceeds to carry out a series of gutsy and, ultimately tragically misadvised schemes in an attempt to liberate themselves from the oppressive force of male control.

Bisson, who graduated from U of T in June, plays Rita O’Hagan, one of the founders of the gang. Over tea and chocolate at Aroma, she spoke to The Varsity about U of T’s drama program, the Canadian acting industry, and of course, her role in Foxfire.

THE VARSITY 

What has been your acting experience — professional or unprofessional — thus far?

MADELEINE BISSON  

I’ve been in theatre unprofessionally and professionally since I was about ten years old. I was in this theatre production that was in the basement of a church for four years … I was [also] part of a play at Young People’s Theatre. I auditioned for U of T’s drama program right after high school, and I was one of the lucky people who got in. They audition hundreds and hundreds of people and they only take about thirty. The final year … we [performed] a show called As Five Years Pass [by Federico Garcia Lorca].

 

THE VARSITY 

Did you enjoy your courses at U of T? Do you think that the drama program has influenced your craft?

MADELEINE BISSON  

I’ve learned so much from [my teachers]. We really learned how to do improv and be present and just connect with each other. When I did the Foxfire audition, it was completely about improv … It was an open call audition … Apparently they auditioned 5,000 girls and they took six. So I think I owe everything to the drama program.

Actually, most of Foxfire was based on improv, which was very interesting. It wasn’t really about the script. It was about the story and about [the lead actresses] being present.

 

THE VARSITY 

Can you tell me about the character you play in Foxfire?

MADELEINE BISSON

Her name’s Rita, and she’s the girly one in the gang… She begins as a very timid girl because she’s … been sexually assaulted by men. She’s actually the reason why the gang forms, because a teacher is abusing her. She has her tough moments, though. [She’s] not all about being timid and sweet.

 

THE VARSITY 

The plot of Foxfire — both the novel and the movie — is quite dark, and as you just mentioned, you character is a victim of sexual abuse. How do you prepare for a role like that?

MADELEINE BISSON

In some ways, Rita is very similar to myself in the way that she’s so perky … and she always puts friends first. But Rita goes through some really tough things. It’s really hard [to play that sort of role], but I [would] always think that I want people to know her story… I didn’t let [the role] get to my head and I didn’t get frightened of it, because I want to tell the story. I want to let people know that [sexual assault] happens and it shouldn’t happen.

 

THE VARSITY 

Right. Sexual assault is hardly an exclusively post-war phenomenon.

MADELEINE BISSON

Yeah, it still happens today. And this gang is kind of a pre-feminist movement. The big feminism stuff happened in the sixties … but [Foxfire is set] in the fifties. [The characters] are young girls who are rebellious and revolutionary.

 

THE VARSITY 

What was it like to work with Laurent Cantet?

MADELEINE BISSON

He’s such an amazing man… We were all inexperienced actors when it comes to professional film, so he was the one who taught us. He would direct us [during rehearsals], so we really felt comfortable once we got on the film set. [Being] on the film set was so overwhelming. There were so many people working on the film, there were cameras on your face, there were lights everywhere. It’s an overwhelming experience, but we felt so prepared … because Laurent worked with us so much.

 

THE VARSITY 

Is it difficult to land a part in a major film like Foxfire, especially if you’re just getting started as an actor?

MADELEINE BISSON

I’m so new [to the acting industry]. Getting Foxfire is like winning the lottery. What’s scary for me is that, yes, I have this great movie and [I’ve had] this great opportunity, but I have no background. Casting directors don’t really know me… In Canada, unfortunately, casting directors like to cast who they know. It’s hard to get into that niche.

 

THE VARSITY 

Do you plan to pursue acting as a full-time job nonetheless?

MADELEINE BISSON

Yes! I’m still young, so I might as well go with it now that I’ve had this opportunity. This is my one chance. I’ve always loved acting … but I’ve always said that it’s such a scary job that I don’t know if I could do it. I [used to] say that if a director came to me and handed me a role, I would be set. And that’s actually what ended up happening. I got this role [in Foxfire], and I was just kind of thrown into it. But I’m still young, so I’m going to see what happens in the next few years. If nothing happens, at least I tried.

 

THE VARSITY 

What advice would you give to other young actors who hope to break into the film industry?

MADELEINE BISSON

Just keep trying. I always think that some director out there is thinking of a [role] that’s perfect for you. You just have to find each other. So keep auditioning, especially [when it comes to] open call auditions because … that means that they aren’t looking for the most experienced person in the world. Also, if you keep auditioning, and you do good auditions, casting directors will get to know you and remember you. Eventually, they’ll think of you for a role. So just keep going.

Check out Foxfire’s TIFF page here

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