Claire Stollery was never interested in anything other than acting. As a child growing up in Calgary, she always had this one passion. As she grew and moved around Canada, what started out as a childhood dream started to become a reality. There is no doubt that Claire Stollery was meant to be an actress, and audiences everywhere know this every time they see her on the big and small screen.
As an actor, being vulnerable is pivotal to opening yourself up to a character. Connecting with the story and allowing your experiences to come through is vital when it comes to connecting with an audience. Stollery knows this well. She starred in the award-winning film Who is Hannah, that she also co-wrote, and allowed the events in her life to guide her character, creating a cathartic experience for the actress.
“This film was very close to me. I co-wrote it with a great comedian friend of mine, John Hastings. We wanted to collaborate and create a great dark comedy, but we didn’t know what we wanted to write about. One night after a show we were sitting in my cold car, a couple days before Christmas. I told him the story of how I had met my biological father in Los Angeles when I was 21. I found his number and left him a message, lying about my identity because I wasn’t sure he’d call me back if he knew who I was. In the end I came clean and we decided to meet up. When he arrived at the coffee shop, he ended up calling me while he was standing right beside me. We had no idea what each other looked like! It was like a meet-cute you’d see in a rom-com. John couldn’t stop laughing of the horror and awkwardness of the situation. We decided then and there we would write a film exploring that scenario and what could go wrong when you don’t know what each other look like,” Stollery described.
Who is Hannah is the awkward and unlikely tale of how one girl meets her dead dad. Stollery plays Hannah, a role that was written with her in mind. Because she helped write the film, she already had the character’s voice inside her. Hannah is a girl who just wants to belong somewhere and know where she came from. She feels lost and incomplete because she’s never known the identity of her father – only known pieces from what her mother has told her. The problem is, she discovers everything her mother has told her about her father is the plot to Indiana Jones. When she finds out that her mother completely lied to her about her father’s identity and that he’s alive and lives in the next town, she has new hope for self-completion.
“I can’t really relate to Hannah’s feeling of incompleteness because I was lucky enough to have a dad growing up. My mom met my father who raised me when I was six months old. But even then, you always wonder what that other person is like. Are you like them? Do you look like them? There are always those thoughts at the back of your mind,” Stollery described. “Everyone wants to know where they come from. We want to know our history; it’s a universal desire. For those people who are searching for their identity, we wanted a film that let them know they are not alone. Since making the film I have had a lot of people write me or come up to me after screenings telling me about their experience or a friend’s experience of meeting a biological parent. There are a lot of those stories out there, but people don’t talk about them that often. There’s a lot of shame in having parents abandon their children. For the kid, it is a terrifying journey seeking out and meeting a parent for the very first time. You’ve imagined and built up this person your entire lifetime. There’s a lot of pressure for fantasy to match reality. It was important for John and me to write a film that finds the humour in such a bizarre but impactful moment in someone’s life.”
Because of Stollery’s deep understanding of her character, the film went on to do exceptionally well at many international film festivals. It was an Official Selection at The Atlantic Film Festival where it premiered last year, and then went on to be an Official Selection at The Hamilton Film Festival, The Toronto International Short Film Festival, Hollywood North Film Festival and The Toronto Independent Film Festival. At the Lakeshorts International Film Festival where it was also an Official Selection, Who is Hannah took home the Cinespace Jury’s Choice Award and the People’s Choice Award.
“When it finally premiered we were so happy people liked it and were laughing. Because we had been with it for so long, we had no idea if it was even funny anymore. And you start second guessing yourself and wondering, was it ever funny? Were we just delirious on set when we filmed it at 4 am?” said Stollery. “And it was amazing to receive the Jury’s Choice Award. They always have such talented and revered people on their jury, so their opinion meant a lot. I’m so tickled when anyone likes something I make. It was a great honour to receive it and even better feeling to receive the People’s Choice award. We didn’t know anyone at the screenings, and to have a room full of strangers resonate with your film was really a special moment for us. There really is nothing better than sitting in a theatre and listening to people laugh at something you wrote and eaves dropping on people saying good things about it afterwards.”
Part of what makes Stollery so good at what she does is her ability to improvise. Although this is sometimes not encouraged on set, the Director of Who is Hannah, Mark O’Brien, was all for it. He knew what Stollery was capable of, and knew what she could add to both the character and the film. His instincts were right.
“Claire is an extremely talented actress and writer. She’s a very open-minded artist who knows how to collaborate well, while at the same time making her work authentic and unique. She works hard, and that is a rarity in this business. There’s a lot of talk in the entertainment industry, but Claire goes out and gets it done. And really, that’s what you want most from someone you’re working with. And she does it well,” said O’Brien. “She’s a very natural actress, very real. Acting is a tough skill that can be improved through training, but I do believe that there must be some inherent talent in the person first. Claire has a foundation of incredible talent that will take her very far. Anyone who has the chance to work with her should count themselves lucky.”
It was more than just the story and character that Stollery could connect with, even the set meant something to her. They filmed in an old, abandoned farm house that the actress had actually grown up in, as well as a hotel that was the first place Stollery went to when she visited Toronto as a child.
“Even though the film is a comedy, it is rooted in real issues. There’s a fine line tonally with dark comedies. You don’t want to make it too comedic otherwise you lose the truth of the situations. But you don’t want to make it too dark, otherwise you lose the comedic release. It’s a balancing act doing those types of films” she said.
But the most important part of the process for Stollery was not the awards, accolades, or why she embarked on the project, it was what it turned into.
“Filming was therapeutic for me. I had just lost my father who raised me a couple years prior, we were filming in the house I grew up in, the story was loosely based on my experience with meeting my biological father. And I realized I never really talked about it with my father who raised me. I regret that I didn’t check in with him more about the whole situation and considered his feelings more. But he was great about it and knew it was something I needed to do. He didn’t interfere. Not to mention my mother wasn’t too happy I was making a film about a man who had left us, even though it was very loosely inspired by him. But that was how she saw it. So it’s safe to say there were a lot of emotions surrounding the project!” Stollery concluded.
Audiences can see Who Is Hannah at the end of this year on CBC.