Sarah Sutherland on Like a House on Fire, a film driven by performance

Sarah Sutherland on Like a House on Fire, a film driven by performance
At the heart of Jesse Noah Klein’s Like a House on Fire is an absence. As we enter the story of the film, Dara (Sarah Sutherland) is returning. We only have a vague sense of where she’s been and that her return is unwelcome. Her daughter Isabel (Margaux Vaillancourt) does not recognize her, and Margaux’s father Danny (Jared Abrahamson) lives with another woman. A deep sense of unease sets in as Dara tries to re-integrate after her departure, an event that remains on the peripheries, largely unsaid and unmentionable. Slowly, we piece together that she had suffered from postpartum depression and left to get better — Dara always intended to return.

Like a House on Fire is driven by performance. It’s a movie that hinges on its actors’ ability to translate complex feelings and ideas that aren’t always articulated clearly. Sarah Sutherland (best known for her role in Veep, she’s also Canadian acting royalty as the daughter of Kiefer Sutherland and granddaughter of Donald Sutherland) appears in nearly every scene and has to fill in the gaps for the audience. Speaking to Cult MTL, she explained that the ambiguity was part of the role’s appeal. “I felt attracted to the fact (that what happened wasn’t) explicitly explained in the script,” she says. “There was a lot of room for different possibilities, and I felt like the collaborative aspect of that would be interesting.”

Shot in North Bay, Like a House on Fire is Sarah Sutherland’s first Canadian film. The experience was refreshing and immersive. They lived and breathed the environment and script. Without distractions, she was able to focus entirely on bringing Dara to life. 

Leading up to filming, Sutherland explained that she and Jesse Noah Klein would have weekly conversations by phone about the role. They did not do extensive rehearsals as they seemed antithetical to the process. Dara, after all, was an outsider. “When (Danny) sees her, it’s like seeing a ghost,” Sutherland explains. “And my daughter is not supposed to be familiar with me.” This discomfort and lack of familiarity deepen the feeling that Dara is intruding, furthering her alienation. 

On the other hand, though, Sutherland felt a deep connection with Margaux Vaillancourt, who plays her young daughter. “She looks so similar to how I looked when I was little,” she explained. Working with a younger actor was also a great learning experience. “As an adult actor, you get so caught up in trying to prepare what you’re going to do, so it’s really exciting and new to have that experience where you’re completely actually going off what [Margaux] is feeling in that moment.”

Sutherland has a steep responsibility in the film: she is the film’s emotional core, but her character also struggles to express herself. The script requires many heavy emotional scenes where Dara breaks down and tries to connect with others. One, in particular, takes place in a kitchen after a minor accident involving Margaux. It’s a long and painful scene where characters try to work through feelings they are not comfortable expressing. Sutherland explained that the scene required many takes, working towards a more naturalistic approach.

At first, Sutherland would work through intense emotions and impulses, but they would find the right balance over time. There were times where Sutherland wanted to push things into a zone where Dara could be dangerous or unhinged, but Klein refocused her attention and goals. Klein was clear that Dara was not dangerous — she was repressed.

“This is a character not comfortable assuming herself because she was shut down her entire life by her family and now carries the shame of what she did,” Sutherland says. While those around Dara worried she might be a danger to herself or others, the reality is that it was the world around her that injured her.

In a world where audiences prefer easy to digest moral lessons, Like a House on Fire challenges critics and audiences to dig deeper. Dara, especially, comes across as a complex human being, flawed but well-intentioned. It’s a film built on the decisions and values of a single character who is often disconnected from their emotions and needs. It’s a challenging role for an actor, and Sutherland rises at the opportunity to play a character gripped with uncertainty and regret.

For Sarah Sutherland, this is one reason she was initially attracted to the role in the first place. This central moral ambiguity puts the onus on the audience to come to their own conclusions. Sutherland can’t help wondering where their allegiances will fall. “Will it resonate or infuriate people?” ■

Like a House on Fire opens in Montreal at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc) on Friday, March 26. There will be an opening-night post-screening discussion with director Jesse Noah Klein. Watch the trailer here:

Like a House on Fire starring Sarah Sutherland, directed by Jesse Noah Klein

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