“Becks” Is Like Your Life, Set to Music – Interview with Lena Hall

It is a universally acknowledged truth that lesbians love what can best be described as “lesbian folk/rock”—Indigo Girls, Bradi Carlile, Catie Curtis, Melissa Ferrick, Ani DiFranco, etc. A woman on a stool on stage with a guitar is like lesbian catnip.

“Becks,” a new movie coming out in theaters and on Video on Demand on 9 February, rewards viewers with a double bonus: a lesbian singer/songwriter protagonist who performs multiple songs throughout the course of the movie, and a realistic portrayal of a woman struggling to get out of the rut her life has fallen into. It’s a movie tailor-made for a lesbian audience but with cross-over appeal to a broader audience that enjoys character-driven storylines.

“Becks” is the story of a lesbian, Becks (short for Rebecca, obviously) who moves cross-country to be with her girlfriend (Hayley Kiyoko), only to discover that within the space of a few days apart her girlfriend has already cheated on her. Adrift, she ends up moving in with her former nun mother (Christine Lahti) and lying on the couch eating junk food. Eventually, she starts singing for tips at the bar owned by her high school boyfriend and meets Elyse (Mena Suvari), a quintessential married WASP who takes an unexpected and not entirely platonic interest in her. The movie is partially based on the life of Alyssa Robbins, a singer-songwriter who collaborated with Steve Salett to create most of the songs sung in the movie, which grounds it firmly in reality without risking any creep into melodrama.

The best part of “Becks” is its soundtrack. Lena Hall (formerly known as Celina Carvajal), who plays Becks, is a Tony award-winning Broadway actress (for the role of Yitzhak in the 2014 revival of “Hedwig and the Angry Itch”) who has also fronted a rock band called The Deafening, making her an ideal casting choice. Many viewers will find themselves immediately Googling to see when they can buy the soundtrack (answer: TBD). The second best part is the relatability of the script: all of the characters are people who could have been plucked off the street, particularly Becks herself. A hilarious scene between Becks and the other small town lesbian, Amy (Rebecca Drysdale), about living in a heteronormative society and lesbian terminology (“Lesbian sounds like…a mad lizard. Or a Hogwarts house that no one wants to be in”), will ring particularly true.

Overall, “Becks” is an enjoyable combination of music, character development, and realism. Last week, Lena Hall graciously agreed to talk to AfterEllen about the movie and what went into making it. Let’s talk about casting. How did directors Liz Rohrbaugh and Daniel Powell pitch the story and character to you, and what drew you to that story?  

Lena Hall: The woman whose story “Becks” was based on saw me perform. They were looking to cast the role and she mentioned she had seen me and said, “What about her?” So they sent me the script and I talked with them about the movie, the tone of the movie, the character arc, and what I could bring to this film. What was really important to me was that I could bring a sense of authenticity to the character as far as the performance quality goes, the life issues go and basically for me when I read through storylines, scripts, or a character, I don’t always clock there is a same-sex thing going on. What’s more important to me is the character herself. Does the character have a good arc? What do we learn? What does the character go through? I’m very drawn towards the anti-hero or someone at odds with their surroundings and I like to play the underdog type of character. The fact that this character is a lesbian kind of helps with the underdog-type quality but to me the character goes through anything anyone goes through regardless of their sexual orientation or their gender or whatever. This movie is very broad. I think that the message is universal. Everyone goes through these same emotional things, the same emotional growth. And that’s what I connected to the most.

AE: Let’s talk about the “love story” going on in “Becks” because it’s complicated. Becks and Elyse both say “I love you,” but Elyse also wryly characterizes herself as a bored housewife just looking for some excitement and there’s always a looming sense of temporariness. So how do we ultimately understand their relationship?

LH: To me, Becks is desperately seeking some form of validation and doesn’t realize she doesn’t need it from other people yet. That’s her journey: going from a very co-dependent space that she lived in and then discovering that she can do it on her own. She’s been living a certain kind of life pattern over and over again that has to do with the destruction of her life and other people’s lives around her and so realizing that and making decisions for herself to find her own strength to live her life, not needing the validation of a partner, is what she’s going through. I think Elyse may be bored but she finds a love and understanding in someone that she might not have thought and she’s in a very vulnerable place in what she’s going through and her own struggles with the failure that she’s experiencing within her marriage. She’s also looking for a way to get away from that and I think Becks is a perfect creature for her to learn from. Learn about herself. Learn about things she didn’t always know were there. It kind of like opens up her eyes a little bit. What I think is so interesting about that character is that she’s opened herself up to experiencing something new to see if it’s something she wants. And it’s later in her life, too. Her life is already set up for her by her family, by the situations around her and by her environment. Her life is set up for her. But I love that Becks comes in and makes her question if this typical life that she’s supposed to want is actually for her.

AE: There’s a very universal aspect to “Becks.” One could just as easily see Becks being male as female, because it’s about trying to find motivation and even, one might say, maturity. Becks is based on a real life lesbianAlyssa Robbinsin a real life situation, but how does Becks being a lesbian change the story compared to if Becks had been a man?

LH: The way it’s written this is a very realistic love story, very realistic life story. The dialogue is awesome. I love this movie. If it had been cast with a man, I think that the levity of the film would have been a lot less, so simply by putting a woman in as this main character who’s falling apart, you see a different side of a female character represented. If you really broke it down, Becks is very male in how she is and how she goes through life, typically male things, but having a woman play the role opens up the stereotype a lot and gets away from some stereotypical female characters and it blurs the line between the genders. Because if you think about it, the way the character Becks is, is so easily male. Again, the universal idea of it is very genderless. It’s almost like the telling of a tale that’s androgynous. It’s not like a blank slate or anything; it blurs the lines of what we stereotypically see in film. I haven’t really seen a female character like this who’s taken seriously and has such a good arc and goes through real things. A lot of times it’s overdone or it’s a character you don’t get to know a lot about. What’s cool is you get to go on a journey with this character who wouldn’t necessarily get a whole show about them.

AE: “Becks” really leans into being a “lesbian” movie in the sense that we have lesbian in-jokes, a super lesbian, plaid wardrobe, and we have that scene (readers will have to see it for themselves), which is kind of revolutionary in the sense that the only other time I can think of that being shown on screen is in an episode of “Sens8.” Do you think that not sanitizing lesbian sex for straight viewers helps desensitize them to what Hollywood has otherwise treated as taboo?

LH: I was worried that scene would appear tasteless or obscene, and really I have to give props to the cinematographer. The way that she filmed it and all of the love scenes essentially, I feel that there’s a realistic representation of what happens but because of the way it’s filmed you could have filmed the exact same scene and it could look totally pornographic or over the top or you could have just filmed it like we kissed and then it cut. But what I love is that there’s a lot of one-take edits. There’s one intimate scene where there’s no cut to another angle, just one continuous thing from start to finish and it seems very realistic like that’s what would happen in real life. I think it’s because we were very comfortable. It was a largely female crew. It’s easy when you have a female Director of Photography because she makes you feel more comfortable and relaxed and less scared. Less objectified. And also, the tension that the audience feels for that scene, the tension release is that funny moment. You almost feel like you shouldn’t be watching, that it’s forbidden, and then what’s so brilliant about it is you’re able to release that forbidden feeling through laughter, which is like life. I mean, how many times have we gone through something and then had to laugh at ourselves to help relieve that tension whether it’s a good or bad tension? I think the directors did a great job with pacing. Rebecca Drysdale, who is out, was like the lesbian consultant on the script and made sure everything was spot on and represented women well and right.

AE: Obviously, “Becks” is very intimately intertwined with music: from a thematic perspective, it’s what brings Becks and her romantic partners together and is, of course, the source of Becks’ livelihood, but from an entertainment perspective it’s also just fun. Watching “Becks” is like a combination small venue, acoustic music performance with a movie, especially because almost all the singing you do is live and not dubbed. That said, there’s a big difference between the feel of this and, for example, a musical like “La La Land”. What makes the two things different?

LH: The feeling of it being so different is that the music is integrated in to the character herself and so part of the storyline, instead of a story being told where the emotional apex of a scene is busted out into song. This is more along the lines of the music is a part of the storyline and the big emotional apexes aren’t highlighted by me suddenly just breaking out into song in the middle of a scene, which is a big difference. Also vis the performative quality, a lot of the big Hollywood musical movies are overdubbed, so they record their vocals in a studio and then they lipsynch to them on set. “Les Mis” they did it live on set, which is cool. You can see and tell there’s a big difference when you watch someone lipsynch to themselves as opposed to watching them sing live on camera. With “Becks” we were going to overdub, I had already overdubbed all the music that we used on set, and then our sound person mic’ed me and they mic’ed the room and I did live performances and I had the track running in my ear so I had a guide and I sang along because I thought we were dubbing and they kept my live vocals because they liked it better. And I agree, because to do it live brings the audience into it; makes it far more realistic. Almost makes it feel like a documentary. It’s intimate. It’s there and you can feel the raw emotion that’s happening right in front of you because the emotion matches the vocals.

AE: Also, is there going to be a soundtrack that viewers can buy?

LH: Yes, eventually there will be a soundtrack. I know there are negotiations happening, and I know there will be a soundtrack for sure.

AE: So what’s next for you? Where can viewers see you next?

LH: I have my “Obsessed” series that goes out every month for the next year. I have a video at the end of every week coming out with the “Obsessed” album. Those are EPs that are celebrations of one specific artist per month. So this month, it just came out today, celebrating Peter Gabriel in February. It will be another artist in March, etc. I go from Elton John to P!nk. It runs the gamut of all these different artists. I’m really excited. It’s a big project for me. It’s 54 songs for the year. It was all filmed and recorded in 8 days, so you’ll get the sense of the live performance quality in the EPs and videos. That for me is very important because I’m all about rawness and truth in performance and I’m all about being able to experience emotional journeys that a performer goes on when she does something live as opposed to in a studio where it gets all chopped up and produced. I’m all about this raw stuff. Then I’ll be doing a TV show for TNT called “Snowpiercer” with Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs and a bunch of other amazing people. We filmed the pilot and it’s been picked up and we’re going to start filming soon. There are so many things on the burner. I have a show at the Café Carlyle in NY (March 13-17) . I never sing show tunes, ever. When I get to do a concert, I’m like, “I’m just going to do rock songs.” That’s what I’m all about. So finally for the first time I’m going to do a show all about my good auditions that I’ve had and all the really bad auditions. So I’m going to tell stories about all my auditions and sing the songs that correlate with those auditions. Some will be re-enactments. Should be fun! And then at the end of every month I’ll have live “Obsessed” performances to cap off the month. And this amazing movie coming out!

Check out a BECKS exclusive clip for AfterEllen HERE.

***SPOILER*** The following questions may spoil the ending for some viewers. Read at your discretion.

AE: Let’s talk about the ending. Is this a happy ending? A sad ending? What is the take-away for viewers? Is there a lesson learned?

LH: The lesson learned is that nothing really is an end and the end of one thing is the beginning of the next and that scenes are bittersweet. Not everything is so black and white. With Becks, she had to give up someone that she loved in order to find herself and find her strength. That’s okay. There’s a bittersweetness to it, and a melancholy quality to the ending that I love. It’s a triumphant thing that she’s moving on, but sad that she had to let that go. A lot of times in order for us to move on to the next phase of our lives or grow we have to say goodbye or leave behind something that we love or just don’t want to leave because it’s too painful. It’s that fear of just taking the jump and just going to the next journey. It’s so difficult. So I like that there’s that bittersweetness in that ending.

AE: Becks is an antiheroine. She’s not very ambitious, she sometimes behaves selfishly and recklessly, and she appears to be starting to have a drinking problem, like her father. At the end of the movie, however, we see that she seems to have somewhat changed. Maybe she grew as a person. 10 years from now, where is Becks and what is she doing?

LH: I think 10 years from now she’s probably taking her time and grown her career. She probably releases albums under her own label, independently, and tours around a lot and does things she absolutely loves. She’s probably in a 12 Step program and maybe in a loving relationship that is something that is supportive. Something that is slow going that took time to happen. Maybe she became really good friends with someone and they slowly but surely fell in love with each other instead of the quick and sudden falling in love moment that she’s used to. Maybe this time she actually found someone who was her best friend and they fell in love slowly.

BECKS will be in theaters and on demand Feb 9th. You can watch the trailer below and check out an exclusive clip HERE. 

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