Get to know ‘Galaxy 360′ director/star Anna Fishbeyn
Actress, comedian, writer and film director Anna Fishbeyn is best-known for her comedy web series Happy Hour Feminism. Her boundary-breaking new feature film, Galaxy 360: A Woman’s Playground, which Anna directs and stars in, is out soon. She’s won an Award of Recognition for Leading Actress for Happy Hour Feminism, as well as Best Director and Best Drama awards for her short film Invisible Alice. The pre-release of Galaxy 360 screened to packed houses at the Cannes Film Festival and The Big Apple Film Festival. Anna is the founder of XOFeminist Productions and Anteriya Films. We asked her about how she came up with the idea for her satirical new film.
Tell us about your history in acting. How did you start your journey?
I had been a child singer and actress in Russia, but like many immigrants in America, my family wanted me to have a practical career. It was only after the birth of my children, after receiving a Ph.D. in Philosophy and a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing, that I gathered the courage to get up on stage. During my second year at the writing program at New School University I began performing in small NYC venues and wrote a bunch of comedic essays called, “Conversations with My Breasts.” A manager at Cornelia Street Cafe in New York City said to me: “With a title like that, you can have your own solo show” and with that one sentence changed my life. After sending a short video of my performance to small theaters in NYC, the prestigious Flea Theater offered me an opportunity to have my own show – “Sex in Mommyville.” There were a dozen feature stories in the news about me before the show opened. It was going to be my first time on a real stage since my childhood in Russia – it was terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time. On opening night, the audience was filled with other moms and they welcomed my first joke about dishes with boisterous laughter – at that moment I was struck with a sense of urgency to follow this path no matter how hard it might be. After “Sex in Mommyville” finished its run, I started taking acting classes at HB Studio with Austin Pendleton, and Seth Barrish at The Barrow Group Acting School. During that period, “My Stubborn Tongue” was born, a personal journey into my family’s emigration from Russia to America and our hilarious attempts to assimilate into American society. “My Stubborn Tongue” opened off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater to great recommendations from the New York Times and Huffington Post. One of the highlights was being invited to perform an excerpt of the show on Fox TV, which totally sold out the theater. “My Stubborn Tongue” went on to play at The Soho Theatre in London – where we were recommended by the London Evening Standard, and got other amazing reviews. It was in London that I truly gained confidence in my acting ability – performing in another country, sharing a story that was totally unfamiliar, and yet somehow the British audiences responded with laughter and connected to my story. My theater experience fortified me with the confidence I needed to transition into film.
Who were your biggest influences growing up?
Actors, filmmakers, and writers influenced me enormously. I was an avid reader- Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Henry James, Dostoyevsky and of course, Shakespeare all had a huge influence on my writing and imagination. I was deeply moved by the films, “Ordinary People” directed by Robert Redford, and “The Piano” directed by Jane Campion. Meryl Streep, Demi Moore, and Angela Basset are extraordinary actresses – each woman starred in a movie that left an indelible mark on my psyche and raised me into the feminist that I am today. Meryl Streep’s performance in “Sophie’s Choice” was true genius – in every expression, tone, movement, Meryl Streep captured all of human suffering. Demi Moore as the star of “GI Jane” was fearless – her body, her shaved head, the inner strength she brought to the role. Her performance embodied the story of a woman fighting for equal footing with men. Angela Basset’s performance and Tina Turner’s true life story in “What’s Love Got To Do With It” left me in total awe, awakening my first realization that abusive relationships are our prison, and that a woman must always choose and fight for her freedom.
You wrote and directed the short film “Invisible Alice” prior to helming “Galaxy 360: A Woman’s Playground” Do you feel like your experience on Alice helped to prepare you for a feature?
Yes absolutely. On “Invisible Alice” the crew on my set was almost all men. It was sometimes difficult to be heard. I kept trying to convince the male crew members to set aside their inherent feeling that I was just a novice. In that way I had to learn to be a leader. It would be wrong to chalk everything up to a gender bias because I was in fact a novice on “Invisible Alice” and had a big learning curve. But through humility and being able to ask questions and listen to others I was able to learn how to direct. But there were moments during the filming process when I had to fight for my ideas, when no one else believed in those ideas. When those ideas became vital for the film’s lyrical quality and meaning, I realized that a director must have faith in their own work – which became critical for my ability to direct “Galaxy 360.” In “Galaxy 360: A Woman’s Playground” my vision mattered, even after I got pushback from others. Creating a feature was a far more complicated and involved experience. There were dozens of crew members on set, and altogether 19 actors, lots of moving parts. As the Director I needed to be on top of everything, in addition to being an actress in the film. But the incredible part about “Galaxy360” is that because Illumina, my character in the film, is a leader, a boss, the whip behind the men, I was able to merge the role of the actual director on set with the character I was playing and it worked beautifully.
What was the inspiration behind Galaxy 360?
Our society, the way women and men interact, daily TV commercials and social media telling women to look hotter, younger, thinner. And of course, the Miss USA and Miss World Beauty Pageants which I watched and loved as a child, and was once recruited to be a contestant. But after I got married and had children and awakened to the feminist within me, I realized that in all of these competitions, women don’t have names – they are called Miss New Jersey, Miss Mississippi, Miss America, identified by the locations they are from, their bodies paraded, rated and judged, their looks scrutinized for symmetry, attractiveness and sexual appeal, their talents are added benefits to their looks, and they must always repeat the placating mantra, “world peace.”
The film touches on several relevant topics, including feminism & gender roles. Do you feel a responsibility to incorporate positive messaging in your work?
I feel a responsibility to tell the truth about the world we live in, and to do everything I can to change our world for the better. The truth about the objectification of women in our society comes through the humor of objectifying men in the future. Set in the year 2195, where women have all the power, men suddenly become the ones who are constantly comparing themselves, competing with each other for women’s attentions and obsessing about their looks. It’s hilarious, but it’s also a mirror for the way we women live today: in a constant battle to perfect our looks, to remain relevant to society and to be young forever. We are not allowed to age or to let go of our looks if we hope to have any success in today’s world. In addition to giving birth to the whole world, we are constantly chided for our appearance and under constant scrutiny. “Galaxy 360: A Woman’s Playground” liberates women – the film asks the audience to imagine a world where all that pressure is suddenly placed on men, and the women are free.
You’ve also gained lots of attention for the comedy web series “Happy Hour Feminism” How does working on a series differ from working on a film?
The web series shares similar themes of gender reversal to “Galaxy 360”, but the process was very different. Creating a series was done in a much faster paced environment, with time constraints and less time to explore but that was also great in its own way and taught me a lot about creating television.
Which part of the filmmaking process do you still geek out about?
I definitely geek out about the editing process: mastering Adobe Premiere during the pandemic, learning chroma keys, luma keys, animation and FX. It brings me great joy to be able to be able to say – “Hey you see that pink cloud they are dancing on – I did that!”
You’ve had success as an actor, comedian, writer, and director. Which of these roles do you enjoy most and why?
My favorite experience is being the director/actor – the combination of those two roles. I love the intersection of knowing exactly what I want to express from a creative point of view, and the physical and emotional manifestation of myself as an actor. In combining the roles of actor and director, all parts of my brain are firing – the intellectual, the emotional and the physical, and that is my sweet spot, my happiest existence.
Do you feel it’s easier to play characters that you have a personal connection to?
Because I’ve been the creator of most of my work, my characters have all been personal – from the Russian single mom Hope in “Invisible Alice” to the wildly sexual media personality of Illumina in “Galaxy 360: A Woman’s Playground.” Both of those women are the exact opposites of each other. Hope is insecure, melancholy and sad, trying to get out of a trap, and Illumina is powerful and confident and knows exactly what she wants. Each character lives within me – I’ve been both women, and I love tapping into those aspects of myself to bring them out on screen.
Many actors avoid watching themselves onscreen. Do you like to watch yourself perform, and if not, how do you juggle that with directing?
I watch myself on screen as one of the characters, part of a larger labyrinth of the story being told. It is important to separate myself completely from the art form I am creating, to see myself as part of the ensemble, as a vessel for the message on screen, an inner truth beyond ego.
What is the biggest lesson you want audiences to take away from Galaxy 360?
Empathy. Empathy between the genders. Equality will only be possible once men truly empathize with women – truly experience being women. Men and women need to work together to form a new better equal society, a symbiosis between the genders, where men truly understand women, and women are safe to work alongside with men and help to educate men about the pain and suffering they’ve endured. Feminism needs to stop being a “negative” word. Feminism must evolve into a triple helix of positivity, unity and equality, a new hope-filled word that incorporates men into its present and future, and brings about a necessary shift in our world. “Galaxy 360: A Woman’s Playground” is a comedy with a vital poignant message, a hilarious ride into gender reversals that utilize humor to bring about self-awareness to both genders and ultimately strives to make a real impact in the world.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
I’ve had great help and advisors. I’ve met mentors at the American Film Market, at the Cannes Film Festival, numerous other film festivals, film networking events, and even through panels that I’ve been on. People are always ready and willing to help young filmmakers, and demonstrating that you are open to their knowledge, advice and constructive criticism is what can set you apart and ultimately help your career.
You’re the founder of XOFeminist Productions and Anteriya Films. What drove you to found your own production companies instead of pitching to other places?
I started out as a writer, as a creator, and I have my own unique distinct vision – to create an emphasis on the female gaze, to merge sci-fi and action and espionage thrillers with women’s voices, to create worlds that don’t exist out there. It’s great to be original but at the same time, people aren’t always ready for big ideas. I had already experienced pitching my projects and being told to either change the content to make it fit in with other trends in society, or that the content itself pushed too many buttons. I knew that to speak my truth, I needed to create my own companies. That was how “Galaxy 360: A Woman’s Playground” was born.
What would you say sets XOFeminist Productions and Anteriya Films apart from similar companies?
I have always been deeply interested in sci-fi, and all you could find in the movies and on the streaming platforms, especially in the realm of sci-fi, did not have the female perspective at all. We wanted to create content that operated outside the male-centric universe, where there was real power through smarts, rather than through force and violence, where women and men defy common gender stereotypes. Sci-fi is vital because sci-fi offers freedom to our imagination, allowing writers to reinvent the world with a female gaze, and gives women the freedom to become anyone they want. XOFeminist Productions produced my plays off-Broadway and On West End, and now that live theater is returning, we will begin producing live shows again. With Anteriya Films, in addition to sci-fi, we are creating new thrillers, an espionage drama, and lots of comedies. Our companies are creating content that is original, outside the box, multicultural, gender-bias free, and would appeal to women of all ages and all persuasions, attract all audiences, and strive to bring a positive change to the world.
What has been your greatest professional achievement?
“Galaxy 360:A Woman’s Playground” is my greatest professional achievement so far. This film imparts an important message through humor and I hope everyone gets to see it.
What about your biggest professional failure? What did you learn?
My biggest professional failure was waiting too long to get started on stage. I only got up on stage after I had children. As a newly arrived immigrant in America, our lives were filled with fear and advice from other people. It took the birth of my children to begin the process of healing and believing in myself. My play “Sex in Mommyville” was about mothers – their worries, fears, insecurities, and sexual frustrations and longings. But it was one thing to write it and completely another to perform the play live and go public with the word “Sex” in my title. In order to not repeat the mistakes of my past, where fear would keep me from embracing my passions, I had to reinvent myself, worry less about my traditional upbringing and think more about who I really am. Since that moment, every time a project triggers my old fears, I know that it’s the project for me.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects you have in the works?
As the CEO of Anteriya Films in the immediate future “Galaxy 360: A Woman’s Playground” had its pre-release screening in L.A. during AFM and will be released in theaters and online this year. We are in pre-production on a feature film, “How To Seduce Your Dinner Guest,” a comedy of errors about Manhattan high-achievers. We are also developing two series for television: “Infidelity Club” a contemporary drama about an exclusive VIP Club for Cheating Women, and the ensemble comedy “Healthy Nuts” about healthy people doing very unhealthy things.
What advice do you have for aspiring entertainers?
Being a female filmmaker is a tough terrain to navigate, so be prepared. Be prepared for the male dominated environment. Stay confident in your vision and forge your own unique style of leadership. If you have chosen this path, it is a calling, a passion, a vision, and it is one of the most challenging careers in world. Do everything – write, direct, perform, hold the boom, learn the editing software and make sure you know exactly what you are doing on set. Ask a lot of questions. Learn every part of the process, and then carry your knowledge in your soul like a badge of honor. With knowledge and confidence in yourself, there are no limitations to what you can do.