Janet Grillo and I are both believers in the sisterhood. There are actually a great number of women in Hollywood who have each other's backs, but you would be hard-pressed to see evidence of this in the media. We are bombarded with images of women behaving badly toward one another: the "housewives" hurling daggers, "mean girls" going for the jugular, Chelsea Handler attacking... everyone. Some of us, in fact I would venture to say, most of us, are hard-working professionals who know how tough it is out there, especially for women of a certain age.
When one of us goes out on a limb with a project to which she is dedicated, we pony up if we can, we talk it up as we should... and by God, we show up when we are asked. That is the principle, anyway. We also have families, jobs, or lack thereof and a host of other struggles that can make it hard for even a true believer to live up to this standard.
When Janet first approached me about playing Jeanne in Fly Away, I knew I could not think about it for very long. Taking the lead role in a low low budget film is a huge commitment of one's time, energy and resources. There is a ton of give and very little take in the true indie world. This is not the glossy world of a movie like The Kids Are All Right with major movie stars and a small but comfortable budget.
Think separate trailers, decent wardrobe allowance, assistants to run errands and fetch the stars to set asking "Do you need anything? Can I bring you anything... anything at all?"
No, this is the gritty indie world of "Can we use your clothes? Can you change in a tent?" Do you mind going pee in a Porta-Potty? I took a deep breath and said, "Yes, of course I will do it," because the story needed to be told, because I trusted Janet to tell it, because it is what a sister says. I got myself to the set.
Janet and her "dream team" of Pavlina and Sandra and the other bright talented women who took up the lead positions behind the camera, and my beautiful movie-daughter Ashley and I in front constituted a real sisterhood. We were all moved by the story of a single mom struggling to raise a daughter who is on the autism spectrum. There were no divas, no raised voices -- the only drama involved ended up on the screen. We gave every inch of ourselves in trying to be true to it. If you have seen it, I hope you can sense our bond. If you have not seen it I hope you will, because this one is straight from our hearts.
There was another woman behind the scenes with us who is a part of the larger sisterhood and also my blood. Laura Broderick was our autism consultant and she was a great asset to the film. She is also my greatest supporter, my biggest defender and my best friend.
Laura is the executive director of two programs offering supported living services to persons with autism spectrum disorder. She has worked with this population for nearly twenty-five years. She has over a hundred employees and the clients she serves have some of the most challenging behaviors imaginable. Nearly eighty percent of the clients receiving support services from Diverse Journeys and Get a Life have been liberated from institutions. Many were locked away for most of their lives. Laura and her partners are undaunted by even the most extreme cases. When the state approached her about Larry (not his real name) a man in his mid-thirties, long hospitalized -- who had poked his own eyes out in a fit of rage, Laura did not bat hers. "No problem," she replied. "We will get him a baseball hat and get on with his life".
Laura and I share a bond that goes beyond sisterhood. Though she is six years my junior, ours more closely resembles the relationship that many twins share. We finish each other's sentences, read each other's thoughts and are keenly aware of each other's mood. What is remarkable about this is that we are not at all alike.
While we share many physical attributes, our appearance has been shaped by the divergent paths that our lives have taken. I have the toned and honed physique of a professional actress. Years of facials and manicures and pilates have sculpted me into the display version of our genetic code. Laura is tall and strong... the practical version... the girl you call when you need to move a refrigerator or plant a tree. She has been carefree in the sun, as her skin bears witness, and her wolf-blue eyes are lined with care. This does not dim her beauty, but defines it.
Laura began this work right out of college. Her very first job was the overnight shift in a group home run by the Jay Nolan Center. This was a long time ago, when we knew very little about autism and often grouped people on the spectrum with roommates who had schizophrenia and other mental disorders.
This led to a very chaotic environment, with most of the emphasis on containment. We shared an apartment then and I was not at all happy to see her come through the door via the emergency room, sporting a large human bite mark on her forearm. She had furniture hurled at her, took punches to every part of her body and, at one point, a young client standing atop a high counter grabbed her by the hair and jumped to the floor, bashing her skull against the tiles.
Her hands and arms still bear the scars of scratches and bites that she sustained during this period. I was not sold on the whole idea. Laura was unfazed. She never saw the behaviors of her clients; she always saw and loved the person inside. She pursued her career with a vengeance, seeking better ways to communicate with and build a life for people on the spectrum.
While Laura was honing her expertise in this field, I was honing mine in the world of film and television. We both worked hard, logging long hours and enduring endless frustrations. I battled with the Hollywood hierarchy and she confronted the status quo of an entrenched bureaucracy. She helped me learn countless lines and visited me on set after set, easing the loneliness of life on location. I listened with intent to her concerns about Melissa's medication or Jimmy's penchant for running away or whether state funding would dry up. Twenty five years have gone by, and we have both come a long way from 800 Park Street and our childhood home. We have lived separate lives, but have never really been apart. I have fed her cats, she has walked my dogs. We have shared the heartache of loves gone wrong, the passion of our politics and the stresses of our oft fractured family. Oh, and innumerable bottles of good wine. We call ourselves the pigeon sisters, a nod to the fact that we prefer each other's company sometimes to the point of fault. We would be worried about it, but we are too busy making plans for our next Scrabble tournament.
Our lives have intersected at nearly every turn, and that is why it was so gratifying for us to work together on Fly Away. It was the first and, most likely, only time our professional paths have crossed. Laura helped us to make the film ever more authentic, and we, in turn, produced a portrait of what so many families with children on the spectrum endure. This is the cause of Laura's life and, in that way, the story of it, too.
The movie was very well reviewed. We received the kind of notices that are a filmmaker's dream. I was deeply grateful for the appreciation from audiences and critics that our little movie managed to reach. It is lovely to have our hard work rewarded, but in my sister's world there is no applause, no camera to record the long days and nights her dedication requires.
Fly Away is a very personal story for Janet, but also for me. It is an opportunity for me to offer a window into a world that Laura lives in unobserved. A world I was reluctant to enter. A world I would not have chosen for her, and yet this world has offered me a lifetime of lessons. Like the joy of celebrating the small moments of endearment and achievement in her clients' lives.
I have learned through Laura's eyes to see difficult behaviors as simply pieces of the puzzle, simple facts of a life, like having red hair or being good at bowling. I look forward to reports about these lives as I do those of my own friends, because her clients are a part of my world now, too. When two of her mostly non-verbal clients ask to be chaperoned on a date and walk the mall giggling hand in hand, it is a testament. Every small advance for one of these people is the answer to a parent's reverent prayer. When a young man, formerly locked away, begins his own recycling business, it is a victory for us all.
These stories are a powerful reminder that while I might make the movies, it is Laura and her colleagues who quietly and without fanfare make the real magic happen.
Thank you Laura and... Bravo!