'Antebellum' Star Lily Cowles On Learning To Be An Ally [Interview]

It's Lily Cowles' Sarah who gets to say the opening text of Antebellum: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." It's a quote by William Faulkner around which directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz frame their horror film, the idea that racism is as well and truly alive as it was in the Antebellum South. But Cowles' character, despite being a "woke" friend and ally to her Black friends, Janelle Monae's Veronica and Gabourey Sidibe's Dawn, is the one character who doesn't really experience this during the film.

"I think that Sarah is a very realistic real woman," Cowles told /Film in a Zoom interview ahead of the VOD release of Antebellum. "I think that so many people can and will relate to, and I hope that it is a call to action for women, for all for people to open their eyes to the ways that people of color experience microaggressions in a way that you know, white people don't."

Read our interview with Cowles below.

How did you get involved with Antebellum?

Well, my mentor sent me the script. I was originally up for the role that Jena Malone has now, so a very different kind of part. And I remember exactly where I was because it was such a memorable moment when I pick up this I was like, I should probably look the script over and I sat down on the couch and I did not move until I finished the last word, and then I think I just threw it down. It was like, oh my god. It was like a resounding bell through my whole body. I was just shocked and amazed by it and immediately wanted to be part of it.

Now, I think that the role was, you know, I think Jena had been already, you know, they were trying to work out and deal with her at that point. I still put myself on film anyway because I'm just like, if something happens, just so you know. But I guess Gerard [Bush] and Christopher [Renz] saw myself tape and I think they responded in a way they felt you know, maybe this person can be involved in in different manner with Sarah, who's actually a phenomenal character and I'm truly I'm so glad to have been able to play her. You know, what Jena had to go through and face and take on the weight of is something that's very difficult. It's a wonderful challenge for an actor, but it's also you know, it's no small thing to go into that kind of darkness.

My character got to exist in this modern fun, funny, you know, place full of love between friends. So that was a lot less taxing on my soul as an actor, and I still got to be a part of the film, which was a dream come true for me. I remember having a meeting with Gerard and Christopher on the phone when they were, you know, wanting to cast me, wanting  to talk about the character and I didn't know anything about the movie yet, I just knew that I really wanted to be an involved. And they me, "We need someone who can really play ball with Janelle and Gabourey," I was like, "Wait what, with who? With Janelle?" And realizing that it was Janelle Monae and Gabourey Sidibe and I put the phone on mute and was like [makes squealing noise]. Because obviously these are women who you would die to work with. They're so talented and cool, and just the whole project from that moment on was a dream come true. I couldn't believe I was able to get involved with. That was my first feature film, so it was quite something to experience that as the first kind of thing that I worked with in that capacity. And working with Gerard and Christopher was incredible, they were such wonderful guides and collaborators, so curious as artists. They really wanted to welcome in different perspectives and viewpoints. And I remember emailing back and forth with them about the characters...fleshing out this character, who by all accounts was a much smaller, less important part of the film, and yet they were so excited about going through the process with me. The entire film was like that. It was people who were wanting to explore, and discover, and represent the world in a meaningful way.

Were you at all starstruck once you got on set with Janelle and Gabourey or did you fall into an easy chemistry with them?

A little bit of both. I think the moment before Janelle stepped on the set, I was like, "Is this real life?" You have that moment as an actor, when you start to work with certain people, you're like, "It's no big deal, but don't mess it up." But she and Gabby are so warm and open and funny and personable. There was no way that you could be starstruck with them because it was immediately like, "Oh welcome." There wasn't any space to even stand back [and be starstruck]. But it was tricky because you know, you have a short amount of time to establish that kind of rapport. On camera, I'm really proud of how, in the end, it seems like there's this great friendship that just totally sparkles and pops off the screen. And you kind of can't fake that, you know, I think it's, I think there was just a chemistry I think, you know, working with such talents as Janelle and Gabby, they're so generous and open and warm. And the three of us just got along really well from the get-go. Gabby and I would go out and hang out, but poor Janelle, she was so exhausted from what she just had to do. She had just come from working on all of the plantation filming, which was — I can't even imagine how taxing. But Gaby and I went out because we're in New Orleans and...we're having like wild dinners, ate alligator, smoked oysters, and we ate rabbits together and we got drunk and I had a blast with her. So then the next time we came in to work together, it was like, "Oh, I know you."

So your character, like you said, is very much in the modern part of the film. But you still get to be that character that kind of works through some of the microaggressions that the film deals with. Was that something that was already in the script or was that part of what you and the screenwriters are talking about during that process?

No, it wasn't in the script to a degree, and I think we flushed it out a little bit as it unfolded. I think as they were working through it, things became apparent — levels, subtle levels. And these were filmmakers, their attention to detail is on another level. I mean, you can watch that film and go back and watch it again and again, and you'll find these little clues, these little breadcrumbs, they leave you early on. They're so talented and I think as they were working they found space to flesh it out and create new levels of subtlety.

And what I love about Sarah's character is you know how real she is: she is an ally and a friend and she's a an educated, by all accounts, "woke" woman. And yet there are certain things that she picks up on and there are certain things that totally go over her head because she's not aware, you know, she's just still can live in a certain rarefied world where these microaggressions don't affect her and so she doesn't even clock. So, you know, they walk with the restaurant, table and she can sense that there's some wrong about this and she sees, "my friends are upset. They put us in a bad place. I'm going to handle this. She wants to try to get in and, you know, she has a feeling of obligation as an ally to her friends. And they're like, we're going to handle this. And not you know, not much longer after that. They're sitting around and, and Veronica is talking about her hotel room being a mess. And Sarah's, like, totally oblivious, like, Wow, that's so weird. My hotel room is so clean." You know, she, she just misses it. And there's a shared look, you know, between Dawn and Veronica like, yeah, it would be clean. And I think that Sarah is a very realistic real woman. I think that so many people can and will relate to, and I hope that it is a call to action for women, for all for people to open their eyes to the ways that people of color experience microaggressions in a way that you know, white people don't. It's not a part of their everyday life. They just aren't aware of it. But you know, I think that this film is going to change so many people's perspectives because of what it opens up to them.

You've been involved in other genre projects as well like Roswell. So was there any sort of, not regret, but sadness that you didn't get to be involved in the more genre heavy elements of the movie?

Oh, yes. I mean, I would have loved to go back and been able to do some time period stuff, I love that. At the same time, you know, having played a character this season, on Roswell, my character was put through have just some harrowing things. And as an actor, you know, you have a responsibility to go there for the best of your ability. And it's extraordinarily fulfilling work and weighty and powerful and you feel an obligation as an artist to do that to represent those parts of the human experience. But it's painful. And it costs the actor to take themselves to that place. So yes, I am sad that I couldn't. There's also part of me that's like, man, I had a good time. Man, it would've been different if [I had gotten that role]. Because if I had been in that past world, I would have been a bad guy. There was no space for a fun, nice Sarah, on that plantation. So both things, but I agree, I do love playing genre and I love as an actor to explore worlds that are foreign to myself.

So there's obviously a lot of influence of Get out  in this film and then the involvement of Get Out's production company. Was there a sense that you are participating in a new movement of socially conscious horror?

Yes, I mean, absolutely. I think we all were aware that what we were making was extremely timely, and that it was at the forefront of taking a genre that can classically be kind of campy and absurd, and like a slasher flick. This is grounded in reality, and that's what makes it horrifying. Now, the horror is in its truth. And I think we were all aware that what we were making was going to be extraordinarily powerful. I would say that I felt that it was transcending a genre. You know, of course, we were working with the amazing producers of these films, like Get Out, which I think is also is a transcendent. I mean, you could say it's a horror film, but what's incredible about the genre of horror is the way that it's being used to make such social commentary. It's no longer just this genre that can be seen as being some absurd and surrealist kind of campy experience. I think horror films are increasingly frightening because they are true. They're hitting on something very true. Yeah, so I think that we all did have a sense of that, as we were making it, that this was something that was going to be really helpful.

So you shot this film before the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement really took hold with the death of George Floyd. What was your reaction with the timing of Antebellum's release and how it speaks even more strongly to current landscape?

You know, the current landscape is a landscape that has existed for hundreds of years. And it has been an ongoing fight. And yes, this iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement is particularly strong right now. Which is a good thing because so many people are paying attention in a way that before they haven't, but this is a fight that has been raging in our country for hundreds of years. And so I think before, you know, as we were filming it, it felt timely, it felt overdue. And then with the murder of George Floyd and the movement gaining this traction again and being reinvigorated and gaining so much national attention, it felt on one hand, well, of course it's going to be happening like this because...Black Lives Matter is a call that has been sung until the voices are hoarse, for so long. And, you know, it took a repugnant, violent act that was so visible, for the nation to start to really pay attention again. When this happens, and Antebellum was in the final days of post production was being planned on being released. Of course, you can't help but feel that it's just a movie of our times. It was the movie of our times before that happened. It's even more so the movie of our times now, this conversation has been reinvigorated. And it's so important to keep that conversation going. And so to be able to release this film is the most powerful thing that we can do as artists, that's the best thing that you could hope as an artist is that your work will, you know, come at a time and that it will be of use to the culture. And it will define the culture and it is defined by the culture and there's this incredible relationship between art and the world around it. And I think Antebellum is just you know, it's the film of our time, for this moment.

So how would you say Antebellum specifically speaks to current climate and adds to that conversation?

Well, Antebellum does such an incredible job of pointing out the relationship between the past, the present and then indicating towards the future. You know, the film begins with the Faulkner quote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." And I think this is something that rings very true for our country. I think that as much as people would like to believe that slavery was something that happened a very long time ago. That was, you know, a blip, that is not no longer relevant to our current times, that this is really just an untruthful way of seeing where we are at as a nation. And I think it's so important to acknowledge the past and see the way it is actively informing the present, in order to transform the present and move into the future where you can learn from it, and you can move away from it. But if there's no acknowledgement of the past's influence on the present, and if you act as though slavery is this separate and far distant, awkward moment in our country's history, then you are negating the reality of a good number of our citizens' experience. And so long as we as a nation are invalidating our own creed, now that we believe that all men are created equal, this invalidates America as an idea. And so if we're true patriots, then we have to fight for every citizen, we have to fight for the rights, the equal rights of each of our citizens. And I think that that's what it means in this moment to be a true American patriot. If you love your country, then I think the best thing that you can do is to acknowledge the past, to address it in the present, and to transform it so that it is no longer felt in the future.

And I think Antebellum does that so cleverly by tying together the past and the present so closely. Even these jump cuts, you're slammed from the past into the present. And you're just actually forced to see how close these things really are. So I think it indicates to that point with such beautiful filmic poetry, and that's the talent of Gerard and Christopher, they did an incredible job making that connection.


Antebellum hits VOD on September 18, 2020.