Isabelle Fuhrman Brought Blood, Sweat And Tears To The Novice, And Still Had Plenty Of Fun [Interview]

Movies about obsessive geniuses perfecting their craft are aplenty, perhaps because there's something so naturally magnetic about someone fueled by passion. "The Novice" takes the best of this sub-genre and adds a couple of dark twists: namely, a mysterious protagonist who isn't so much a genius as she is willing to push herself to the absolute brink for success. Why? Because Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman) likes a challenge. That's more than enough reason to kickstart a cinematic, psychological descent into the world of collegiate rowing.

As Alex sets out to make varsity, no matter the cost, "The Novice" creates a world that's gripping, lonely, and deeply unsettling — none of which would be possible without Fuhrman front and center as Alex, delivering an absolute powerhouse performance. Or as /Film's own Hoai-Tran Bui put it, Fuhrman is "a force of nature, ripping through the dark and intense sports drama-meets-psychological thriller." Turns out that's not an accolade easily won, and took some good ol' fashioned blood, sweat, and tears for Fuhrman to earn.

She began her crusade by first securing the role: immediately after reading the script, Fuhrman went above and beyond by submitting an extra scene and penning a letter to writer-director Lauren Hadaway about her connection to Alex. And then Fuhrman really kicked into gear. The film follows the journey of a novice rower and her obsession with the sport so naturally, Fuhrman dedicated hours to training as a rower. "I went from not knowing anything about the sport to training for six hours a day in the marina," Fuhrman told me. 

"My hands were bleeding. I was getting my blisters infected. I was so sore. I was exhausted and I was doing weights after I would go rowing for six hours. And it really helped me develop this understanding of falling in love with this sport and becoming obsessed with it." 

No kidding. All of this ultimately helps Fuhrman deliver an impeccable performance, fully immersing us in the mind of Alex. In our conversation, Fuhrman goes in depth on her training process, her approach to the mystery of Alex, and talks through the emotional climax of her character's relationship with her girlfriend, Dani (Dilone). Plus, she even spills a few details on returning to the role of Esther in the upcoming film, "Orphan: First Kill."

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

"I went from not knowing anything about the sport to training for six hours a day."

I wanted to start by asking about your early conversations with Lauren, about who Alex is. How did it evolve, as you went from reading the character on the page to knowing this is the character you're going to embody?

It always changes as you start developing a character with a director. When I read the script, it was very clear to me who Alex was, and I felt very seen by this person who was very driven and ambitious and really wanted to play this role. And I taped an audition and taped an extra scene and wrote a letter to Lauren. And then when we sat down and met in person, we really talked about how Alex is haunted by these naturally gifted people and how she's always attracted to a challenge. And I had already kind of made my own notes as well about Alex. So we just started talking about how we felt like we wanted to tell the story together.

​As we started filming, more so when I started training, it kind of evolved as I was physically becoming Alex and learning how to row. Because I rowed the entire movie. I didn't have a double or anything, and that was an entirely new sport to me. So I felt like my transformation into Alex really happened through my training process because it was just as intense as Alex's training process in the movie that you see. I went from not knowing anything about the sport to training for six hours a day in the marina and my hands were bleeding. I was getting my blisters infected. I was so sore. I was exhausted and I was doing weights after I would go rowing for six hours.

And it really helped me develop this understanding of falling in love with this sport and becoming obsessed with it, and wanting to be so good at it — not just for Alex, but for my own reason as an actor, wanting to look convincing on camera and really becoming obsessive compulsive about how well I was doing. And that really just drove my performance through, I felt. And the exhaustion, that added a lot, a whole other layer to it as well.

Can you talk more about the physical challenge of this role and the process of learning to row and what that was like for you?

It's a really difficult sport. I'm not particularly coordinated. I run, it's the exercise that I do because it's the same thing over and over and over again, you can't really mess it up unless you fall, which I've done many times. But rowing was a whole different kind of technique to learn, and it is cyclical as well. I think my technique was constantly evolving. I was constantly having the coaches that we had on set check it, tell me how I was doing.

Because Lauren rowed in college, I was really lucky that she was able to come over to me when we were filming scenes and be like, "This is what you're missing. You're not having enough connection here," but my whole physical transformation really, it was something I knew I wanted to do. I knew that because I didn't look like a rower like Alex — Alex is not the height of a rower, doesn't look like she could be a rower. I knew that the physical transformation had to be noticeable. So for me, that was gaining 12 pounds of muscle and dropping my body fat percentage and making sure that I looked as muscular as I could be in certain scenes, and looking kind of scrawny in others. And that was actually done with hydrating and dehydrating myself, depending on the scenes we were filming during the day.

But that's just more aesthetic wise. The whole physical transformation really came from learning the sport, and that was hours and hours in the water. It was six weeks of six hours of rowing a day, doing weights three to four times a week, doing yoga and stretching. My hands were completely cut up and bleeding. I literally would just take scalding hot baths at the end of the day, just to remind myself that I was here on this planet and I was okay and I'd be fine.

"It just kind of felt like my life was bleeding into Alex's."

Which adds that meta layer of... you're doing exactly what Alex is doing in the movie.

It just kind of felt like my life was bleeding into Alex's at times. And we're very different people, but we have the same ambition and drive. So it was fun to play with this part of myself that I think I would consider a darker part of my personality that I don't always like to look at or talk about. Because, ya know, I live in LA. People who are ambitious, people don't really like them. Everyone's kind of blase, like "Oh, it just happens. I wake up and it just happens." And I'm like, "What do you mean it just happens?"

So it was nice play with this part of myself that I think I don't really allow myself to play with very much, and to really see where I could take this part of myself and bring it in, discover it through this other person and also really understand it on a completely different level that I've never had before.

It's funny that you mentioned all the gruel of learning how to row and the blisters and all of that, and also in other interviews... I've heard you describe the filming experience as fun. Can you talk about that little clash there?

Much like the movie is a love story between Alex and this sport, I felt similarly about the film. I had such a huge crush on the script when I read it, and so loved it. Met Lauren, was like, "Oh my gosh, this would be so great. I hope this works out." And we ended up working together, and throughout the entire shoot, I was so energized every single day to go to set.

I think it's because this movie is a role that any actress would die to play. To really dive into something, not just mentally, but physically, and to really transform yourself and to be able to be on set every single day and be not only, I guess the lead of the movie, but to be a creative collaborator with Lauren, who is probably my favorite director I've ever worked with. I loved working with her every single day.

It really felt that not only she and I were on the same page, but our DP, Todd, all of the other actors, everyone on the crew had read the script. We were all aware of the movie that we were making and it felt like we were in this creative Petri dish making this magic every single day. And even though things were obviously going wrong and you're making an independent film in the freezing cold in a boat for goodness sake. There's 12 boats circling around, the city opened the dam, all the boats are dragging down the stream and we're trying to row in the opposite direction so we can just film the shot.

But at the end of the day, I had such a great time and not only was it because I loved the project ... but because I made a conscious decision that I wanted to set a tone, that we were going to have a fun time making this movie. And when you're the lead of a movie and everyone's watching the monitor and staring at your face all day, which everyone had to do for the whole shoot, I wanted everyone to be able to feel like I was having a good time. So, you had this sort of excuse to be like, "Even if things are falling apart, at least Isabelle's having a good time." And I really did.

"The movie is Alex. It is her character. You really kind of step into her mind."

Alex's character, especially at the beginning of the movie, she's very much a mystery to us. We don't learn her name at first, we don't know why she's going to this practice. And some of those questions never really get answered explicitly. For you, do you think that the answers are there in the script or do you think they don't need to be?

I think there's certain answers for certain parts of those questions, but not for the entirety of it. Lauren wrote it, but I loved the fact that in this movie, you don't answer this question of why she's there. And for Lauren herself, she rowed in college and she always says she got a flyer and it just seemed like more of a challenging intramural than something else that she could do. And she liked a challenge. So for me, it was really capturing this sort of fascination and obsession and kind of love for the sport, not understanding why, and how that leads to the goals that you set for what you want to achieve. And I think for Alex, it changes all the time in the film. And I love that you don't really get to know so much about her.

I feel like you live in her head in the movie and the way Lauren directed and edited the film and sound and everything. The movie is Alex. It is her character. You really kind of step into her mind, and you're like, "What is happening?" And I don't think we as people often have the answers to the questions like "Why are you doing what you do? Why do you love this job or have this passion?" And sometimes it just comes from something inside of you that you can't really explain. And I love that our film poses that question without answering it.

With this role — and maybe also with others — when there are questions that aren't explicitly answered in the script, do you fill in those gaps for yourself? Or is something that you can leave up in the air?

It felt pretty answered to me, but not because I tried to. I didn't know anything about rowing and from the moment I read the script, I was fascinated and interested and intrigued and curious. And as I was rowing to prepare for the role and even throughout the movie, I really felt like I loved the sport. I lived and breathed it. I enjoyed it. I loved having one of those workouts where you literally felt like your vision was tunneling in and you were falling apart, and how you felt afterwards after achieving something like that and pushing yourself.

And at the same time, I don't know why I read the script and was interested in doing a rowing movie. I was interested in telling the story of grit and ambition, but at the same time, there are plenty of stories like that. You can find other stories like that, but there was something about this sport that piqued my curiosity, and I don't really know why. There are a lot of reasons you sign on to do something you can explain in your head. I could say, "It's the script, it was Lauren. It was this, it was that." But really there was something inside of me that just sparked from the moment that I picked up the script. And I feel like it was real because I still feel that way about it now. But I don't really know why, it just spoke to me. And sometimes things do.

"We were on the floor crying. The whole ending part of the scene was completely improv."

Can you tell me about the relationship between Alex and Dani, specifically their break-up scene? What was shooting that scene like for you?

Working with Dilone was a dream. I was so excited, because Lauren showed me who we cast. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, you cast her to play my girlfriend. Like, what?" She's so stunning. And she comes on set and it's her first movie and she's just so open and vulnerable and beautiful, beautiful soul. And so generous as an actress. It really didn't feel like it was her first film. We had such a great time filming our scenes together and filming that emotional scene in the bathroom. Obviously I was like, "She's a really amazing actress," but when we did that scene in the bathroom, the scene was supposed to end after that moment where she says "second best," and they leave, sort of thing.

And Dilone just turned towards me and started grabbing at my shirt and trying to pull up the shirt and it completely changed the entire scene. It was an accident that we didn't plan. It was completely perfect. And this scene took an entire new life. We were on the floor crying, and the whole ending part of the scene was completely improv. And Lauren didn't even call "cut" for the longest time. We just sat on the floor crying and hugging each other. And then Lauren finally kind of whimpered "cut." And then she, Todd, our DP, Dilone and I cried on the bathroom floor because it felt like we had captured something real and special.

We tried to do it one more time, but that was not something that you could replicate. It felt so real. And it really was because she made a choice to really push me as an actor, push me as a character. And that's what incredible actors do. You get to know the actor that you're working with and you discover if you can press someone's buttons. I love when someone brings their A game and likes to press my buttons in a movie, because it changes the dichotomy of the entire scene and it changes what you've prepared and it really makes you find something special. And that's a rare thing to do in a movie. I think those moments come along very rarely, and when they do, they really slap you in the face. You're like, "Oh my gosh, that felt like not a movie, that felt completely real."

It's hard to imagine that scene without that moment.

Yeah. And that's because of her, truly.

Which is incredible. 

"There's nothing weirder than seeing yourself as a 10-year-old when you're in your twenties."

I know I'm running out of time, so I wanted to also ask... You're reprising your role of Esther in the new Orphan movie. I feel like I have to ask about it. I saw it when I was definitely too young to see it. It imprinted on me a little bit. Have you always been a fan of horror and psychological thrillers?

It's funny, I don't really watch horror movies at all. I did the first movie when I was 10, so I wasn't even old enough to watch scary movies. And I haven't really developed a taste for them, I would say. But I think this movie is going to be really exciting. I really can't wait for people to see it. I watched it recently and watching the first one doesn't creep me out because it's me, but watching this one for some reason creeped me out because there's nothing weirder than seeing yourself as a 10-year-old when you're in your twenties. It's a really strange thing. I was like, "This makes no sense to me at all, but I know that I did this. I remember it. I have memories of it," but watching it's just very intense. So I can't wait for people to see.

What was it like — not just coming back to the role, but there are all these layers of, you were a kid pretending to be an adult, pretending to be a kid. And now you're reversing that a little bit.

It felt familiar, but it felt like a different challenge. Being a kid and pretending to be an adult, there were different things that I was trying to match. I mean, I was watching Vera Farmiga and my mom and her friends, and how they crossed their legs and how they tilted their heads. How women sit is very different than how girls sit. 

For me, what was really lucky is that in order for us to make the movie, we had to hire two young ladies, Kennedy and Sadie Lee, who were me from other angles. And I just got to hang out with them all the time. And I felt really childlike working on the movie, and I felt like it was a great excuse for me to revisit some parts of my childlike self, because instead of finding moments to seem more adult, I had to find more moments to seem more childlike. It was a different challenge. When I was a kid, I thought about everything a lot and made a lot of notes, but it was a different performance as a kid, because you're not necessarily understanding all the themes that you're trying to address. And in this one, I'm completely aware of everything that's going on, because I'm old enough to emotionally grasp it.

So it was really finding ways to explain to the kids that I was working alongside how we were going to do certain things and how we were going to be the same person. And really learning from them every single day and allowing them to play and dance and do things that I didn't know how to do as Esther and finding ways to make it make sense within the story. And William Brent Bell, who directed the film, gave me complete free rein to work with them on my performance. And I'm so grateful to that because it allowed the three of us to create something special. And I think people will be really interested to see this Esther that is the Esther before the Esther you've seen in the previous film.

"The Novice" is now available on Digital and in select theaters.