Written by: Matt Patti | April 16th, 2020
I recently had the pleasure to talk by phone with Celeste O’Connor, supporting actress in director Tayarisha Poe’s Selah and the Spades (which I also reviewed). The film tells the intriguing tale of Selah, ruler of the predominant faction at a Pennsylvania boarding school. O’Connor plays Paloma, a new arrival at the school. Below is a transcript of that interview, edited for clarity.
Matthew Patti: What drew you to the role of Paloma and was this always the role that you wanted to play in the film?
Celeste O’Connor: I think that Paloma is a really interesting character, because she kind of enters this world not already having any preconceived ideas or opinions on what’s going on. And so it’s like a cool way for the audience to follow Paloma and see things a little more objectively than if they were following Selah. I thought that was really interesting about the character. I also think part of what drew me to her is that we’re different in a lot of ways but also similar in that, when I first was reading this script, I was a freshman in college and was entering into this new social space of a new school, trying to figure it out … where I belong and who I am and all of those things. And Paloma was in the same situation. She was entering into a new social space, and trying to figure it out. It was really, really interesting to play her.
MP: What was the audition process like? In a film where personal relationships and the dialogue between each character are so important, was there an emphasis on group auditions and interaction between the potential stars?
CO: So, for me, I did a self-tape and then I FaceTimed or Skyped with Tayarisha and that was about it. I didn’t meet the other cast until I actually got to set, basically. So, it was cool that we were able to do it all online. But it ended up being perfect, because even though I didn’t read beforehand with Lovie [Simone, who plays Selah] or Jharrel [Jerome], we all ended up becoming close friends. So it all worked out in that way.
MP: You’ve already gone into this a bit, but what are the similarities between yourself and Paloma, and any more differences?
CO: As you see Paloma becoming more confident and comfortable with herself, I think the same kind of thing was also happening with me at that time because I was able to be on set for the first time with all of these other young creatives and young black creatives. And that was not an experience that I had had before. And so just by being around people like Tayarisha and Lovie, I heard these strong black women who know exactly what they want and who they are. It was really inspiring for me and was the catalyst for a lot of my own personal development and growth.
And so in those ways we’re definitely similar but also different in a lot of ways. Paloma falls into this manipulative relationship and she kind of derives a lot of her own confidence from the fact that Selah shows her to be the next protégée and that this other beautiful, powerful girl had chosen her to be a friend and to be a part of this. And so I think in that way that was like a toxic relationship in that she derived her own self-confidence from another person. And so, I mean, that’s something that I try not to do. But yeah, there are a lot of similarities and a lot of differences, which was fun to play with, for sure.
MP: One of the more astonishing aspects of the film, in my opinion, is the fact that the members of these underground factions are so cold and calculating and precise, and really mature for their age, even though they’re high-schoolers. With most of the cast, including yourself, being older than their characters, did you find it difficult to portray a younger high-schooler that is at the same time more mature and adult-like?
CO: No I didn’t, it wasn’t that difficult for me because I think that I was in a similar place, maturity-wise, at the time. Like I think I was right out of high school and so a lot of those emotions and ways of thinking were still kind of lingering and were still there and very present in my mind. But then in a lot of other ways, I was growing and maturing. So, I think it wasn’t super hard to play that dynamic because it was also something that I could relate to at that point in my life.
MP: There is a scene in which Paloma is supposed to punish another character in order to leave a message. However, I noticed that director Tayarisha Poe decides not to really show the details of that event and instead shows Paloma directly after the event, which I think is an interesting choice. Was this always the intent or was there a scene perhaps filmed somewhere of Paloma performing that action and perhaps it was cut?
CO: So when we were filming it, I didn’t exactly get to see what the frame looked like, but we did film Paloma actually punching the guy. And I think in at least one of the cuts that I saw, those were kind of like very brief frames that were added in there. And so yeah, I do think it was interesting that she chose not to show exactly what was happening and to show the emotional aftermath, instead. I think that that kind of made the emotion of the scene more powerful, because we got to see how w hat she had just done had affected her and everyone knew what happened. So I think that made it a little more interesting.
MP: Thank you so much for your time, Celeste. I appreciate it.
CO: Thank you. Stay safe.