“Imagine if you had a nightmare… but it wasn’t contained in sleep. You’re walking around during the day and you are having a nightmare, but you have no idea that it’s a nightmare because you’re awake. So, you think it’s reality. That is what schizophrenia is like.” — Anna Schafer
Anna Schafer is the phenomenal actress who delivers one of the most visceral performances you’ll ever see on screen in Vincent Sabella’s potent perspective-altering masterpiece, Elizabeth Blue. It is the story of a determined young woman who is fiercely battling to regain control of her mental stability so she can move ahead with the plans for her wedding. The film also features Ryan Vincent who plays Elizabeth’s fiancée, Grant, with heartwarming enthusiasm, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Suicide Squad) as the driven Dr. Bowman whose unwavering devotion to his patient’s health just might prove to be the key that allows Elizabeth to distinguish between waking nightmares and reality. Additionally, the legendary Kathleen Quinlan (Apollo 13) plays the pragmatic Carol, Elizabeth’s mother, whose insistence on not giving her daughter false hope for a normal life makes her a domineering antagonist.
Earlier this year, on June 28, Elizabeth Blue screened in Washington D.C. as part of the national convention for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). On September 22, the film is set for a limited 10 city theatrical release.
“With schizophrenia, you cannot tell if something is real or if it’s just a hallucination,” Anna continued. “That explanation really hit me hard because sometimes I have these very vivid dreams that I wake up from and I am a complete mess! There was one dream that took me an entire day to get over — it was about me being in a plane crash. It really shook me.”
Anna went on to talk about a recent fight that her sister had with her husband. “He woke up mad at her because she cheated on him in his dream. My sister said, ‘You can’t be mad at me for something I did in your dream,’ but he responded, ‘You don’t understand, the feelings are still there. I know that it was a dream, but the feelings are real.'”
The insight that Anna was given on how someone with schizophrenia perceives the world came from Dr. Bowman. Not the character played by Adewale, but the real Dr. Bowman. Vincent’s doctor. The story of Elizabeth Blue is rooted in Vincent Sabella’s own daily struggles to find balance and be able to distinguish between his waking nightmares and reality.
“Somehow, I could relate to every scene in the entire script, or at least see in my mind how it would play out, how I would be Elizabeth in those moments. The only scene that I could not see in my mind was the train scene.”
The scene that Anna was referring to involved the crescendoing sound of a train that only Elizabeth could hear, and her frantic reaction to the overwhelming noise.
“I didn’t get it,” Anna confessed. “I just couldn’t relate to it.”
However, when they were still searching for the actor who would play Elizabeth’s fiancée, something happened that made the actress understand.
“During the chemistry reads — I think it was after the fourth guy who tried out for the role of Grant — I was sitting on the couch talking to Vincent and Joe Dain. [Joe is both the producer and Vincent’s husband.] All of a sudden, he looked at me and asked, ‘Do you hear that?’ I’m thinking that I did hear this weird dripping water noise in the next room, so I tell him that. He just looks right past me and says, ‘Do you hear that? Did you hear that?!’ and starts pacing the room looking for the source of the noise. Joe instantly knew what was happening. He jumped out of his chair and said, ‘Vince, look at me! What are you hearing?!'”
Vincent pushed Joe away and continued searching for the source of the noise. In his head, the noise was getting louder and louder and he was becoming more and more manic. Joe grabbed Vincent’s medication, forced it down his throat, and then took him out of the room.
“Ten minutes later, they both came back and Vincent was completely fine,” Anna continued. “He looks at me and asks, ‘Did I scare you?’ ‘Yes, I was terrified! It scared the living sh*t out of me! If Joe wasn’t there, I don’t know what I would’ve done.’ Until you see it, you don’t know how it looks. You don’t know what to do, you don’t know how to act, and you don’t know how to help.”
“The silver lining is I could now see the train scene in my head.”
That episode is part of Vincent’s life, so he made it part of the film. It’s what he lives with every day. He can manage it, but he’ll never truly be cured.
“When we were finally shooting that scene, it really felt like I completely lost control of myself and my body. I was manic,” she recounted. “When they called cut, I fell to the floor and started hysterically crying. They ran over to me and asked if I was okay and I told them that I was fine. That happened both times we did the scene — we only did it twice because it was so intense. The next day, I had bruises all over my hands from banging on the walls so hard.”
Besides Dr. Bowman’s explanation and experiencing Vincent’s episodes firsthand, the other element that allowed Anna to play the role with such authenticity was a bit more personal.
“This was my first film back after I had a baby. She wasn’t a baby anymore — my daughter was two years old when I shot this — but it was the first time that I had to leave her,” Anna recalled. “I would leave the house before she woke up and I would come home after she was already asleep. Becoming a mom has been life-changing, and leaving my daughter for the first time, really helped put me in a not so great space mentally, which was great for the film.”
Kathleen Quinlan related, “It was a privilege to witness Anna immerse herself in the persona of Elizabeth. It takes a certain courage and vision to enter into the deepest shadows of our human psyche and still have the consciousness to tell a specific story that can reach us on a human level. Anna accomplishes this seamlessly.”
Although Anna currently only has nine credits on her IMDb [something destined to change once Hollywood sees her work in Elizabeth Blue], she has been blessed to work with some incredible talent. Rumer Willis, Katey Sagal, Kate Beckinsale, Vanessa Redgrave, Nick Nolte, and Kevin Spacey, to name a few.
The actress humbly commented, “I think it’s timing and luck and just doing the work. Kathleen was so great to work with. It’s funny because when I heard she got the part, I watched I Never Promised You a Rose Garden where she plays a young schizophrenic girl. She was around 16 at the time, so it was really interesting seeing her career come full circle from playing a schizophrenic to playing the mother of a schizophrenic. I think the material really attracted her because she had a history with it.”
When asked if there were any other scenes that might have given her a little trouble, Anna revealed that she did have a hard time getting emotional over saying goodbye to a hallucination that happened to be a raccoon sitting in her bathroom.
“The raccoon was adorable, but I couldn’t work with it because they get spooked so easily,” Anna explained. “They had to shoot the raccoon first and get him out of there. So, when I was saying my emotional goodbye, I was saying it to a toilet! It was an empty space, but the toilet was my eyeline,” she laughed.
Understandably, Anna was having a hard time accessing the emotion she needed for the scene. So Joe had a little trick to nudge her into the space she needed to be in for that moment.
“Joe said, ‘You have a dog, right?’ I said, ‘Yeah, Honey is 12 years old.’ He asked, ‘Do you mind if I talk to you while we are shooting? I’m going to put something in your mind.’ I knew it was going to be bad, but I said, ‘Okay.'”
When they called action, Joe started talking to Anna. He said, “Honey is very old. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not in a week, maybe not even in a year, but somewhere in the near future, imagine you’re going to have to put her down.”
“That’s all he had to say because he saw my eyes well up. That was exactly what it was like for Elizabeth, she’s saying goodbye to an animal that was like a pet to her, a pet she might not ever see again. What Joe said, it really did the trick. I looked at that toilet and I envisioned my dog and her big eyes and I said my goodbyes. As soon as I got home, I apologized to my dog for doing that in my mind! But it really helped me understand what that goodbye meant to Elizabeth.”
In closing, Entertaining Options asked Anna, “What was it about the role that attracted you?”
She replied, “I fell in love with the script and the story. I loved how human it was and I loved how true it was to someone who has schizophrenia. And I loved the love story. There were certain elements in there that I think anyone could relate to. We’ve had a few screenings now and I am so overwhelmed and touched that these people that I don’t know come up to me and fully open up about their struggle with mental illness. They feel like they can open up to me because they connected with Elizabeth… And to me, that’s everything. For these people to feel confident in being vulnerable with me and telling me their story, it’s a complete honor.”
Although the film is a powerful, eye-opening look at what life with schizophrenia is like, as Anna mentioned, Elizabeth Blue also works as an intimate and intensely beautiful love story. It has elements that have a way of connecting with everyone. Elizabeth embarks on a remarkable journey from the opening scene to the film’s conclusion, and, like that dream of being in a plane crash that stayed with Anna, Elizabeth Blue is a film that will have a profound and lasting impact on your life.
Kathleen Quinlan concluded, “It was a pleasure to work with Vincent. He has a high sensitivity, focus, and is unafraid of the emotional waters he is asking you to jump into. In the film, he gives us a firsthand experience into the world of mental illness and weaves a visual and experiential journey that helps to educate us all and dispel the myth that our loved ones are simply ‘making things up.'”