British actor Missy Malek is a remarkably self-possessed artist, one who takes her craft so seriously that even as a teenager she aggressively pursued a life in acting. Becoming a member of the renowned National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, Malek’s dedication and natural skill allowed her to reach an elevated level of creative theatrical expression starting when she was just 14. Adept at manifesting vivid, wholly identifiable characterizations, the multi-faceted Malek is so driven that after completing the script for her award–winning 2017 short Laughing Branches, she felt compelled to personally oversee almost every aspect of the production.
“I didn’t actually intend to write, direct and produce it, but that’s exactly what I ended up doing,” Malek said. “I had a clear image in my head of what I wanted it to be like and didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t go ahead and direct it myself.”
The offbeat project, starring Tom Hanson, Leo Suter and Malek, is an engaging, philosophical comedy-drama with a fantasy/sci-fi twist, and relates the stories of two struggling actors who contemplate—and live out—alternative futures both together and apart.
“It was obviously really challenging—I had no directing experience whatsoever,” Malek said. “But my cinematographer, David Raedeker, and my co-producer, Oliver Page, really guided me. Tom is also a really amazing actor, so he made the acting side of directing much easier. It was a very collaborative process.”
Malek’s sure-footed ambition and audacity gave Laughing Branches a unique depth, one rooted in a very personal experience.
“I came up with the idea at a time in my life where everything seemed to become a lot more ‘real,’” Malek said. “I was barely out of my teenage years and I, along with all my friends, suddenly realized that the choices we were making were very important and would have an impact on the rest of our lives. As a result, I found myself panicking, questioning every choice I was making and tried to control my future as much as I could by not allowing myself room to make mistakes.”
By the time she completed the script, written at Oxford University where she was studying philosophy, the unusual concept had grown into a thoroughly engrossing premise.
“’Laughing Branches’ is primarily about the anxiety of being young and ambitious, incorporated with a philosophical theory about infinite universes that have always fascinated me,” Malek said. “I’ve always been attracted to mind-game films that have an element of groundlessness and irresolution, yet still maintain a sense of heart and lightness.”
That twist of cosmic fantasy enabled Malek, who divides her time between hometown London and Hollywood, to really challenge herself as an actor.
“Out of all my film work, my character in Laughing Branches probably had the most range,” she said. “The element of parallel universes in the film means she goes through so many vastly different outcomes and we get peaks into the most dramatic and intense moments in those universes, so there was quite a lot to do.”
Malek’s training and experience provided an ideal context for such far reaching perspective, particularly her rich resume of live theater— at the Chelsea Theatre, she played Beatrice in Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ followed by Brecht’s ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle,‘ and, at the Burton Taylor Studio, in ‘The Lesson’ and as lead character Myra in ‘Deathtrap,’ along with ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at The Simpkins Lee Theatre—affording her the skill to craft a persuasive series of tangible personae imbued with the full spectrum of nuance, traits and emotion as her character caroms through disparate scenarios.
“I wanted to convey the message that if you’re an ungrateful person, you’ll always look at what you don’t have and nothing will ever be enough,” Malek said. “If you’re miserable in one universe, there’s a high chance you’ll be miserable in any universe. On top of that, I wanted to show how as much as we may try to control our future and make the right choices, it really isn’t possible to do that. There’s nothing you can say and no way of intellectualizing things that will make you happy. Happiness is a perspective.”
Reaction to the film brought everyone involved a great deal of happiness—it took multiple awards at festivals around the globe, taking the Best Short awards at the Mexico International Film Festival, Lady Filmmakers Film Festival and Key West Film Festival’ best short awards and the IndieFEST Film Awards Award of Excellence for Malek’s performance as leading actress.
“The IndieFest award I got for my acting was a huge honor,” Malek said. “Because, at times you really don’t like my character, she can be really vindictive and has a lot of anger and conflict in her. But despite that, at other times you do empathize with her.
Personally, the most rewarding experience of making the film was the confidence it gave me. To receive such a positive response from people high up in the industry meant so much. It’s a big step forward in an artist’s career to get that reassurance, to have people say ‘you’re good, keep going.’ That was the most rewarding thing.”