Photo by: Emma McIntyre. Disclosure: Noah R. Taylor has a small part in Diamond Tongues.
Leah Goldstein didn't know she was an actress until she was cast as the lead in a movie.
Almost two years ago, Leah Goldstein (or Leah Fay, as she's known in her band July Talk) was at TIFF's Festival Music House party at Adelaide Hall in Toronto, about to go on stage to sing with July Talk, when a couple of filmmakers introduced themselves and told her she had to be in their movie, Diamond Tongues. Initially, she didn't take it seriously. She had never acted before.
“In that space of half an hour before a show and half hour after a show, you meet people and you just completely forget about it," she says. "Your body is doing what it has to do in order to perform on stage and not mess it up. It’s like a different state of body and mind."
"For them to come up and be like, ‘we need you to be in this film’? I was just kind of like ‘yeah, okay, sure. Send me the script, I guess?’ Is that what you say?”
Leah Goldstein had no screen credits to speak of, unless you count her appearance in July Talk videos, but directors Brian Robertson and Pavan Moondi saw something in her that had eluded them while trying to cast a lead in their new film. This is the kind of thing you imagine happens often at festival parties but never materializes into anything. Young artists meet each other, have some complimentary drinks and talk about all of their future collaborations that may or may not ever materialize. In fact, this is exactly the kind of interaction that Moondi and Robertson satire so aptly in Diamond Tongues.
Diamond Tongues would be Goldstein's first acting gig ever. And it wasn't an easy one. She’d be playing Edith, an aspiring actress who turns to petty sabotage when things don’t go her way. She would be in literally every scene and have to simulate everything from masturbation to tripping on acid.
Where’s your humanity at? Don’t leave it at the door, bring it with you and let it be barfing out of you from your eyes and your mouth and your nose and your ears at all times.
It was fortunate that Peter Dreimanis, the July Talk yin to Goldstein’s yang, also happens to be a very talented cinematographer and was brought on to shoot the film. Goldstein says the trust and familiarity that came with having her collaborator and great friend behind the camera helped her transition to this unfamiliar territory.
With the band’s busy touring schedule, there wasn't much time to prepare for the tight twelve day shoot. Goldstein was barely able to rehearse with the other actors, but had several meetings with Robertson and Moondi where they discussed Edith’s motivations and helped her understand where this character, who in many ways was the total inverse of herself, was coming from. On the surface, Edith may not display very many redeemable qualities, but Goldstein and the filmmakers tapped into something that everyone can relate to, whether they’d like to admit it or not.
Goldstein recalls a story her mother told her that reminded her of Edith’s behaviour in the film: “When my mom was 4, her mother took her to the ballet, and she turned her back to the stage and refused to watch it because she was so jealous of the girls on stage. Jealousy is a really confusing, all-encompassing emotion that affects people in the weirdest ways.”
Edith’s turn may not be this literal, but jealousy certainly causes her to turn her back on reason and friendship multiple times in Diamond Tongues. As much as the film is primarily a character study, it also paints a painfully accurate picture of Toronto’s sometimes cutthroat independent arts scene, from theatre to film to music.
Though she plays an actress, Goldstein's character spends much of the film watching other people perform. Anyone familiar with this aspect of the city is bound to see some familiar faces. She attends an Islands concert, watches her friend Nick (Flanagan) perform stand-up comedy and has a date with a performance artist played by Austra’s Ryan Wonsiak. Most of these performers are not doing what she aspires to do, yet their accumulated effect begin to feel like a personal attack on her insecurities and lack of creative legitimacy. Their success is mild at best, but not to someone who has none.
Goldstein was not alone when it came to inexperienced actors on set. In addition to the aforementioned performers, the film features several people from Robertson and Moondi’s social circle who had not really acted before. This includes other musicians and comedians but extended in some cases to people not in the performing arts at all. Even yours truly shows up in a couple scenes as another aspiring actor co-starring in Edith's roommate’s play (I'm not an actor either).
It also happens that the filmmakers' social circle extends into the Canadian music community. Broken Social Scene's Brendan Canning is an executive producer on the film. His original score, along with songs by Emily Haines, Lowell, Timber Timbre, Sunset Rubdown, and Islands help drive the narrative, most notably in several montages that emphasize Edith’s loneliness and isolation, even when walking through a crowded metropolis. Islands' Nick Thorburn also notably appeared as an actor in Robertson and Moondi's previous film, Everyday is Like Sunday.
“The way we work allows the actors to bring themselves to these roles, so in theory, nobody will be bad for a role if we're willing to adapt the role to them,” says Moondi. “The most important thing is that they actually have a personality of their own that they can bring to the role.”
The filmmakers kept the actors’ experience in mind when making the schedule for the film. The first thing Goldstein shot was a short film within the film, where bad acting could be permitted, as that performance would belong to Edith. The more emotional scenes, including several that required Edith to break down in tears, were wisely scheduled closer to the end of filming.
“That emotion was available to me because I was so exhausted during the whole shooting process," Goldstein remembers. "Stakes were high and emotions were high across the board for everyone. I’m also a person who cries at touching things, like Canadian heritage moments and bank commercials.”
To other filmmakers, casting people at a late night party several days before going to camera may seem ill advised, but that’s the kind of production this was. “It’s not that he’s never been told ‘no you can’t do this’ or ‘no you shouldn’t do this,’” Goldstein says of Moondi, “but it’s like he just doesn’t give a fuck.”
It worked out for Goldstein. After the success of her performance in Diamond Tongues, she now has an acting agent, though July Talk is still her primary focus as they get ready to head into the studio to begin work on their second album.
Strangely, playing the lead role in Diamond Tongues came naturally to Goldstein. Though she has nothing in common with Edith on paper, she brings a lot of herself to the role. Unlike Edith, Goldstein is a very present, warm, supportive, and confident person. She also has an incredible ability to relate to people. She was able to connect with Edith, relate to her and even sympathize with a seemingly unsympathetic person. This, combined with Goldstein’s background in music and performance art, is why she succeeds in this role.
“Which is really just being a human,” Goldstein theorizes. “It’s the same thing in July Talk and I think it’s the same thing in performance and the same thing in great theatre and contemporary dance. Where’s your humanity at? Don’t leave it at the door, bring it with you and let it be barfing out of you from your eyes and your mouth and your nose and your ears at all times. As long as you can be present enough to do that, then you’re theirs for the moulding.”