Krisha Fairchild is the kind of person who shrieks with infectious laughter as she tells you that one of her index fingers was recently bitten off by “a nasty-ass” dog. Of course, she probably wasn’t laughing about it at the time — 40 years after earning her first professional credit, the actress was only weeks away from shooting the role of a lifetime when she reached in to break a fight between her pit bull mix and her neighbor’s comparatively petite terrier. Suddenly left with a cylinder of gauze where her right pointer used to be, the sexagenarian star-in-the-making called her nephew, filmmaker Trey Edward Shults, and told him that she couldn’t play the part that he’d written for her.
The 27-year-old writer/director/editor/producer of Krisha, however, wasn’t going to let a little thing like distress over a partially missing digit stop his movie. On the contrary, he felt that Fairchild’s injury was only going to make it better. “Obviously I didn’t want my beautiful aunt to lose her finger — I love her!” Shults explains. “But the filmmaker in me was thinking ‘Yes! That’s perfect for her character.'”
It was also perfect for his highly autobiographical portrait of addiction that would rather examine raw wounds under a microscope than pretend that they aren’t still bleeding. Taking “write what you know” to the next level, Krisha not only digs up a tragic episode from Shults’ recent family history — it stars the actual people who survived it. Shot on a shoestring budget over the course of nine days at his mom’s house in Texas and almost entirely cast with the director’s blood relatives , the drama is such an unflinchingly honest exploration that it feels like watching someone perform a public autopsy of their family tree. “He was basically outing the skeletons in our closet,” Fairchild says, “but we all knew that it might help.”
What they didn’t know was how many people would see it. Thanks to Shults’ unflinching vision and Fairchild’s searing performance, Krisha has become an unlikely indie sensation, winning both the jury and audience prizes at the 2015 SXSW film festival, landing a spot at Cannes, receiving the Independent Spirit Award for the year’s best film shot for under $500,000, and earning its director a two-picture deal from A24. Not bad for a home movie.
And despite what the title of the movie might suggest, Krisha isn’t playing herself, but rather a thinly veiled version of her late niece, Nica (Shults’ cousin). A longtime drug addict, Nica died of an overdose in the winter of 2012, two months after a memorably painful family reunion. “I didn’t want to look at her or talk to her,” Shults confesses when asked about the fateful get-together. “It felt like a slow-motion train wreck.”
It wasn’t the first time that someone in the family had been lost or endangered due to substance abuse, but Shults was determined to make sure that it was the last time that he allowed himself to deny what was happening. He began writing Krisha two months after Nica’s death, and — leveraging his experience as a film loader on two still-unreleased Terrence Malick projects (Voyage of Time and Weightless) — attempted to shoot the film later that year. It didn’t work out: “I had an ego problem back then,” Shults grimaces. “I was a stupid fucking kid and totally threw that away.” But he couldn’t let it go. He cut the abandoned feature into a short, and then, after the death of his estranged father (an alcoholic who had fallen off the wagon), summoned the courage to give it another shot.
This time, he was ready.
Reimagining that day as a cataclysmic Thanksgiving dinner, Shults used Krisha as a means of forcing himself confront the tragedy he couldn’t bear to see before it was too late. Told from the title character’s POV, the intensely subjective drama is like looking through the eye of a Category 5 hurricane as it blows through an unsuspecting house. Everybody means well, but it’s impossible to convey the things they need to say to each other over the cacophony of the storm that’s raging around them. “You are heartbreak incarnate,” someone says to Krisha, and the film could be described the same way.
Fairchild, who lives in Mexico with a partner who’s been sober for more than two decades, was eager to make a film that might encourage people to talk about the silent epidemic that has affected so many of her loved ones. “Addiction is a big elephant in American living rooms,” she says from experience. “People tend to cover for the family and friends they’re concerned about losing — they don’t talk about it.”
Fortunately, Shults was able to enlist his family’s help without too much trepidation. “My mom’s a therapist,” he explains. “I would be a mess without her. She’s all about bringing that stuff out and processing it.” (In fact, Robyn Fairchild was so committed to the cause that she agreed to act in the film, reprising her real-life role as Krisha’s sister.)
The openness of his family doesn’t mean that they were impervious to the weight of what they were trying to do, and it was inevitable that certain scenes would blur the line between pretending and reliving. It was particularly difficult for Nica’s mother, who acts in the film alongside the rest of the family. “She started crying in the middle of a shot,” the director remembers, “and that was real. We had to stop and take a break because certain stuff with her hit so close to home. But things like that would happen and we’d just regroup and do it again. We were all on the same page.”
Fairchild, who was asked to carry so much of the film on her shoulders, echoes that sense of solidarity: “We felt that we could bring empathy and comfort to families going through these things; had I thought there were giant holes in the script, I still would have said yes.”
The daughter of a late-in-life alcoholic, Fairchild was eager to share the tragic wisdom that she’s accrued over the years. Her mother cameos in the film as the family’s matriarch, though she’s now too senile to understand that she was starring in a devastating scene in which Krisha realizes that she’s missed her chance to make amends. It’s a radical bit of role-playing. “I’m way less judgmental now than I was before we made the movie,” the actress candidly admits. “I used to be judge-y about self-pity when I heard it in the voices of people I loved. When I climbed inside of the other Krisha, I couldn’t judge that anymore, because I completely understood why she was going to explode if she didn’t cling to one of those behaviors. It doesn’t make them healthy, and it doesn’t make them right choices, but we should have empathy for these people.”
Fairchild, now more than four decades into her sporadic acting career, has never been more grateful for her family, or more excited for her future. She’s already fielded several offers to play villainous characters — and rejected them all. The rejuvenated actress has no interest in wasting time on stock parts, and she’s definitely not going to let a missing finger (which she insists is “much more gnarly-looking now”), keep her from missing opportunities. “I’m old! I have maybe 10 years at best left to act. So I’m saying ‘bring it.’ If you have a character that’s multi-dimensional, that speaks well for women as survivors, and women who look real, just bring it.”