Kamala Lopez on her new documentary ‘Equal Means Equal’
Who says that actors can’t effect change beyond the movies that they produce Kamala Lopez is the talents star of projects like Star Trek: Voyager and This Is Us, and now she’s leading the charge to guarantee women’s equality in the United States. Lopez has recently produced the documentary Equal Means Equal, which highlights the struggle to get the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution ratified.
Most U.S. citizens don’t realize that women aren’t guaranteed the same rights as men in the Constitution, but Kamala Lopez is helping to change that. With her documentary and activist work, Lopez hopes to raise awareness of the ERA and eventually get it ratified. We spoke with Lopez about her recent work, her history as an actor, and what drives her to work so hard day in and day out.
Tell us about your history as an artist. How did you start your journey?
I started acting as a child growing up in Caracas, Venezuela. In my first production, The Sound of Music at the Caracas Theatre Club, I forgot to take the gum out of my mouth before going onstage and so, when it came time for my one line, the wad of gum was stuck to the roof of my mouth and created the biggest lisp imaginable. The audience howled with laughter and I was hooked. I believe I was seven years old.
Who were your biggest filmmaking inspirations growing up?
When I was very little in Venezuela, I became obsessed with a British film called Melody and saw it twenty-seven times, in the movie theatres. My poor mother. She would have to drive me wherever it was playing, and, for some time, she actually sat through the film over and over. Towards the end, the lone print they sent to Caracas was completely falling apart, missing huge chunks, scratchy, reels being played out of order– but I didn’t care. I can still sing you all the songs. The soundtrack album for the film featured the Bee Gees, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Barry Howard of The Aces. Melody was written by Alan Parker and was an epic love story between two eight-year olds of different social classes in England who get married and run off together on the railroad tracks. Their classmates distract the teachers while the marriage ceremony is taking place by blowing up the school. It features a very beautiful couple of young boys who I was crushing on really hard at the time – Jack Wild and Mark Lester. Melody was the follow-up to Oliver, in which the duo found fame playing the Artful Dodger and Oliver, respectively. They were definitely instrumental in developing the yin and the yang of my taste in boys.
Kubrick, Cronenberg, Lynch, Greenaway, Gilliam, Seidelman – I didn’t have very mainstream tastes in film growing up. I remember being fourteen and going to see Eraserhead at a movie theatre in the Village – David Lynch’s first feature. I was an extra in the seminal punk film Smithereens at about that time and used to hang out at Max’s Kansas City, the Mudd Club and CBGBs with my laughable fake ID sneaking in to see the Ramones, the Dead Boys and the Clash, even Lou Reed & the Velvet Underground. I’d climb out my bedroom window, take the D train into the city from Flatbush, riding between the subway cars over the Brooklyn Bridge smoking Kools and watching the city come at me like pure potential. I’d run around New York all night – it was teenage Disneyland. On the weekends I would dress up as Magenta and hang out on line for hours outside the 8th Street Playhouse off St. Mark’s Place before the midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Scores of us were there every Friday and Saturday night, drinking 40’s out of brown paper bags, doing whippets and the Time Warp on the sidewalk.
You’re best known for your acting roles in Born in East L.A. and This Is Us. Did you always have a desire to move behind the camera?
Yes. I really love the painterly aspect of filmmaking as well as working with actors. I considered a degree in film, but when I was a student at Yale there was no film studies major. There were some good individual courses and some hands-on filmmaking/editing classes from the great Michael Roemer but there was not really much of a film department, per se. I ended up double-majoring in Theatre Studies and Philosophy but did a senior thesis film called Ligeia (based on the Edgar Allan Poe story).
I remember that a classmate of mine, Bob Simonds, who was already gearing up for a big Hollywood career, had started University Pictures as a Yale freshman and gave me $800 in funding for my film. Bruce Cohen was also at Yale while I was there, and we collaborated on a film about a punk outsider at Yale called “Camala.” Jodi Foster and Jennifer Beals were also there at the time, so it was actually pretty happening, in terms of film culture. One of my on-campus jobs alongside dishroom and custodial services (I was a full scholarship student) was projectionist at the Yale Law School Film Society along with fellow director, George Hickenlooper. I saw lots of weird films there like 2000 Maniacs and Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!
In the mid-nineties, after having worked as an actress in film and TV for quite a few years, I formed my own production company, Heroica Films, with the mission of creating media by, for, and about women, using women both in front of and behind the camera. I have made two feature films, a dozen shorts, a TV pilot and tons of web content. I still have never, however, worked with any kind of respectable budget, which is a sore spot for me. Women filmmakers, to date, have invariably been working with greatly reduced budgets but are judged side-by-side against men’s films that enjoy ten or twenty times the resources. Most female filmmakers don’t even get a chance to make a second feature because the pressure to be critically and commercially successful is so intense as to be insurmountable most of the time.
Did your experiences on these hit shows help you to develop a directorial style?
I think that the experience of having been on set hundreds of times has had an osmotic effect on my directing. As a female director you must project and demonstrate competence, strength and authority to your crew from the beginning or you will not get the respect and cohesion you need to make a good film. I am confident on set, thanks in part to my familiarity with it: I know what is supposed to be going on; when it is supposed to be going on and who is supposed to be doing it. I also know what I want in terms of the shot or scene and I can recognize when I have achieved it. Doubt and prevarication are major liabilities for a director on set, so it is important to be certain, clear and definitive in your communication.
However, being on many high budget sets with lots of large egos has also made clear the kind of set I don’t want to head up: a tension-filled agro stew where everyone is scared they’re going to be yelled at and/or fired. I do not at all understand why some directors feel that this kind of environment is conducive to making art; as an actor I can tell you it is not.
Your new documentary Equal Means Equal, delves into the Equal Rights Amendment. When did you become involved with the ERA and how did your involvement lead to a documentary?
My debut feature film, A Single Woman, was about the life of first U.S. Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, who was elected before women had the vote in 1917. I was showing the film in Washington DC at the Smithsonian Institution in 2008. They were having an exhibit about Women of Our Time and featured Rankin. They had flown me out from Los Angeles, and I was speaking before the screening. It was a big deal, and I was feeling mighty high on the hog that night.
When my husband and I entered the vast lobby of the National Portrait Gallery we saw a woman, dressed in suffrage garb, walking around and interacting with the guests. Being polite and wondering if this was going to eventually be my fate, I walked over and asked her who she was. She turned to me and said, her eyes shining with intensity: “My name is Alice Paul and I’m back to haunt you because you have done nothing to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and men and women still do not have equality under federal law!”
I felt like the ground had cracked open beneath me and I fell into a black void of complete incomprehension. It made no sense to me that what she was saying could be true. Wasn’t I, here at the Smithsonian, as a big-time feature film director, proof that women were equal? That they could be, do and have whatever they wanted in the United States of America without discrimination? That the playing field was level and the only thing standing in your way as a modern woman was your own limiting belief system?
You see that was the Kool-Aid that I had been fed my whole life. And I’m not the only one… 96% of Americans mistakenly believe that men and women are legally equal. The whole fraud of the “empowerment” narrative became revealed to me in that moment and I realized that we were still, essentially, chattel. Voting chattel now, but still not full persons under law. Like the Matrix mythology – once you take that red pill and the veil is lifted from your eyes, there is no turning back.
As a writer and filmmaker, do you find it easier to tell stories that you have a personal connection with?
Absolutely, although I must say that I am able to find connection with almost every human experience that I encounter or hear about. I guess that is my job, really, as an actor.
I don’t think that artists, be they women, LGBTQ+ folk, native American people, Latinx, black or any other category we choose to single out as a group, should be relegated or compelled to tell stories that those in power decide are culturally relevant or appropriate for the group members to tell.
It feels patronizing to me to have a network or studio determine that my skillset, as a writer/director, must perforce be used in “women’s” projects, or Latinx projects or AAPI projects. I understand that it is a sticky wicket; you don’t want to facilitate cultural appropriation, but you also do not want to reinforce artistic ghettos that have historically kept outsiders like me out of the Hollywood power game and the money stream. As previously mentioned, a “woman’s project” is automatically going to have a lower budget, less robust distribution, biased marketing, etc. etc. I would like a chance to play in the same arena and have the same tools at my disposal to create my films.
How did your experience directing Equal Means Equal differ from your previous film, A Single Woman?
Equal Means Equal was a mission project and a labor of love that took many many years of hard work: thousands of hours of research; hundreds of interviews; and over four years writing/rewriting and editing/re-editing. It went from a 780-page script and a four-hour cut to a tight 94-minute film. It went from analyzing 26 different subject areas where women experienced discrimination to just ten. That process was extremely painful but in order for this film to do its job it had to make a tight, irrefutable case, both intellectually and emotionally on behalf of the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
By contrast, A Single Woman was based on a one-woman show written by my cousin, Jeanmarie Simpson. It was completely scripted, rehearsed, shot on a stage where we had various sets pre-lit and ready to go. We shot the whole feature – over eighty scenes – in three days. We had the studio for free for the Thanksgiving holiday and that was it. So, we planned it out like an intricate puzzle and just flowed from shooting one scene to rolling onto the next set while the previous set was re-set for an upcoming scene. Our lead actress also had to go through multiple make-up changes and aging, so it was really complicated. Then, again, the editing process was tedious and protracted and took place mostly in my breakfast nook/edit suite for over three years.
The documentary has tremendous support from celebrities like Paris Hilton, Patricia Arquette, and Mick Jagger among others. How did they become involved with the doc and/or your ERA Education Project?
I showed Patricia Arquette an early cut of my film, it was over three and a half hours long at that point, in my home office and she was blown away. Not by the filmmaking or anything great that I was doing, but by the vastness of the problem I was trying to show and the way it was laid out, showing how this interconnected web of insufficient/discriminatory laws was holding the oppression of women together. The whole thing was such a devastating indictment of our systems when it came to sex discrimination, she felt strongly that she needed to help me get it out there. I really appreciate her for that and for all the help and support having her on as EP gave Equal Means Equal.
Lizzy Jagger came on as International Ambassador through Natalie White, feminist artist, activist and my Vice President at our non-profit Equal Means Equal (www.equalmeansequal.org). Lizzy reached out to her parents, her stepfather, her siblings and her friend Paris Hilton. They were ALL shocked to find out that women were not equal under law, even Rupert Murdoch who, being Australian, thought it was absolutely appalling and ridiculous. Mick Jagger even wrote to the Illinois legislature to help convince them to vote yes on ERA in 2018! Other wonderful supportive artists include Sean Lennon, Taylor Schilling, Niles Rodgers, Kurtis Blow, Aly Hilfiger and many more.
What is one part of the filmmaking process you still geek out about?
I love to edit. I definitely am not a great editor or anything. Don’t hire me to cut your jazzy commercial together, but I can fall into an edit hole for hours and just have the best time. I love shooting too. I love taking photos and video. I also love writing. And directing. I guess I love all of it. Except producing. I am good at producing but it’s kind of a drag – it’s like all the not-fun stuff you have to line up before you can get on that ride down the rapids in your inflatable mattress for three weeks… I suppose if I ever had a respectable budget, why that would be something else entirely…. I might actually enjoy producing too!
But whether women will be given increased resources along with burgeoning opportunities is yet to be seen. All the window dressing and woke-parading aside – the proof is in the pudding. And the pudding is MONEY. If Money won’t put its capital into women filmmakers except once every blue moon, then female filmmakers will never have any hope of competing on a level playing field or achieving real substantive change within the industry.
As someone with a sizable platform, do you feel a responsibility to promote positive messages to audiences worldwide?
Equal Means Equal won Michael Moore’s film festival’s Audience Award for Best Documentary and was a New York Times Critics Pick. Are you pleased with the largely positive response to the doc?
I am so pleased with the incredible response the film receives but most of all I am over the moon that the film achieved its purpose. I made Equal Means Equal with one goal in mind: complete ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
I had tried other avenues to inform and motivate people to fight for women’s equality: PSA’s; college/high school/middle school curriculum; speaking all over the country at universities and community centers, rallies, flash mobs, comedy shows; but I just couldn’t scale up. I didn’t have the means to bring the message to the masses. Film was the most powerful tool I could access. It could reach so many more people than all my other ideas combined – I realized I had to make a film. There really was no way around it.
In order to achieve this, I needed to convince the public at large that: first of all, the ERA was still relevant and important today; two, that ERA was indispensable in order for women to achieve guaranteed equal civil and human rights protections explicit in the Constitution; and thirdly, I needed to motivate, mobilize and activate a new constituency to finally push the ERA over the finish line after almost a hundred years of struggle.
You wear many hats, including filmmaker, performer, and activist. Which are you most passionate about and why?
I think each role I play fulfills a different desire for me. As a performer, you are truly living the experience of the character and that is liberating and moving and feels transcendent. As a filmmaker, you are making a unique and personal argument, be that an academic argument or a human emotional one and striving for your voice to be heard and understood by others. In both cases, you are one step removed from life in the sense that you are either re-creating it or presenting a crafted vision of it. But as an activist, you truly are in the arena – the actions you take have real world implications and applications to people’s lives. It’s not a game. It feels very purposeful and important.
Do you foresee a time where you’re working exclusively behind the camera or will you always want to act?
I will always want to act. Just as I will probably always want to paint. Those immersive experiences are so distinct and truly unparalleled that I would not want to live without them. When you are behind the camera, the analytical part of your brain has to remain on pointe. When you are in front of the camera, the goal is to relinquish that analysis and just enter the experience in the dynamic present. It’s a rush. Probably like what athletes feel like during their matches.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
Yes, I have worked with mentors throughout my career and owe a great deal to so many generous people who gave to me of their time and knowledge.
Personally, I am a big letter writer. I think the outreach needs to be extremely personal, specific and authentic. It goes a long way to have actually researched the person you are targeting as a mentor and show that there is thought behind your request. Why is this person the one you want to learn from? Also, what can you offer this person? Not that everything should be transactional, of course. But this is the film business we’re talking about, right? What you may offer may simply be a fresh POV, a different generational perspective, a great latte every time you meet – who knows – but your contributions have value as well. Generally speaking, be considerate and interested and that will help make you more interesting to potential mentors.
Do you feel your experience as an actress makes you better equipped to deal with other actors as a director?
Frankly, that is my biggest asset. Speaking to actors is a delicate proposition, not one to be taken lightly. Not to say that actors should be mollycoddled, but directors who do not understand the way an actor’s instrument functions, on an emotional level, can be extremely damaging to the performer and the project. Fear and intimidation, while go-to favorites on high-testosterone sets, are antithetical to extracting an excellent performance from an actor and will, in fact, end up costing you more in time and money. Scared actors are bad actors.
What is the biggest lesson you want audiences to take away from Equal Means Equal?
That women in the United States are still not equal citizens under law and that is completely unacceptable.
What has been your greatest professional success?
Oh, it’s coming. :)
What about your greatest personal success?
My marriage. I can’t believe I’m pretty good at it. I was terrified of marriage for much of my life. Now I highly recommend it. It’s so great, if you choose the right person.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
I’ve just written a half hour single camera comedy based loosely on my life in the trenches of feminist activism while working as an actress of color in Hollywood. Think VEEP meets The Larry Sanders Show, but from the POV of the powerless.
My husband, Joel Marshall, and I are developing a sequel series to Equal Means Equal on what has happened with the ERA since the documentary was released and investigating why the amendment has still not been published and adopted.
My co-writer on Equal Means Equal, Gini Sikes, and I have written a dramatic pilot called Lady 8 based on Gini’s experiences living with female gangs and her book 8 Ball Chicks. It’s kind of like if Tony Soprano and his two henchmen woke up looking like Charlie’s Angels and fell into the The Wire.
Gini and I also worked with Helen Benedict (professor at Columbia University, author of seven novels, five books of nonfiction, and a play) to adapt her novel Sand Queen (winner of NPR’s Best War Novel) into a feature film about the relationship between a young American female prison guard and an Iraqi medical student on opposite sides of our largest prison camp.
What advice do you have for aspiring storytellers?
Write every day. Carve out a time and make it inviolable. Take writing classes when you can. Broaden your writing skills; learn how to write different types of things: film, TV, poetry, essays, Op-Eds, journal, memoir, live-storytelling… Build community with other writers so you can lean on each other for notes and to help one another with your careers. Read read read read read.