This Friday, December 8 at 8/7c, Lifetime Movies is premiering You Killed My Mother, a wickedly twisted thriller that features a breakout performance by the stunningly talented Carlena Britch as Jo Flay. The nerve-racking film also boasts the sublime talents of veteran actor Ashley Jones (The Bold and the Beautiful, True Blood, General Hospital) as Miriam Preston, a hospital administrator at Township Medical Center. When Jo’s mother dies because she was denied a liver transplant, the teen vehemently declares “I’ll make every damn one of you pay” while she is holding a knife to the throat of one of the nurses. The distressing fact is Jo has the means to follow through with her threat… As soon as she gets out of the mental institution, that is.
What makes her character so intriguing is she isn’t actually evil. She’s driven by passion and a personal code of honor. But she’s also damaged. Jo was raised in an abusive environment by two parents who were addicts.
Playing a disturbed teenager, who is likable but absolutely ruthless, would be a challenge for even the most seasoned actor. So, how did a successful dancer with so little working experience in the acting world land such a challenging role?
“That’s actually my favorite story to tell,” Carlena began. “I have a wonderful coach/mentor named Eliza Roberts (Animal House, Doctor Who) — she’s the wife of Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight, The Expendables). She’s also sort of a mom to me. I was over at her house with a friend of mine who is a photographer and we were shooting a few new head shots — I always keep a tripod and a set of lights in my car in case I get a last-minute audition and I have to tape it myself.”
“It was 4 p.m. and we were just wrapping up the shoot when I got an email from my agent saying there was a self-tape audition project and it was due at 4:30. Since that was only 30 minutes away, I figured it would just be a couple of quick lines for a co-starring role. When I opened up the email, I discovered it was for a starring role and it had 11 pages of sides that included large, large monologues!”
Carlena panicked, and pressed for an extension, but the most she could get was till 5 p.m. That gave her barely enough time to record a take or two, upload it, and send it over before the deadline. She decided it was impossible. But when she looked at the character breakdown, Carlena realized Jo was very close to how she grew up. She decided to give it a shot and hoped her instinct for the character would carry her.
“I grew up spending time in the foster care system,” Carlena revealed. “As a young girl, my own parents struggled with addiction, and as a result I experienced a lot of abuse and neglect. I was moved around a lot in my early years, and it was quite a traumatic time not ever having ground under my feet. I really believe that if I hadn’t found dance or some other sort of artistic platform, I’d either be dead or struggling with my own addictions.”
Carlena now shares an incredibly supportive relationship with her father, but to this day, she still doesn’t have a relationship with her mother.
“Losing a mother on screen was very difficult for me because here I am with the possibility of exactly that in my own life,” she explained. “When I did the audition, I didn’t need to know the lines or have proper pronunciation of the names. None of that mattered. I understood this character because I’ve already lived this life.”
Still, when one of the executive producers, Pierre David (Scanners, Videodrome), asked Carlena to come to the office, she was certain he was going to offer her a smaller role or something in another project. When he offered her the lead, she broke down in tears.
“How exactly did you make the jump from dancer to actor?” Entertaining Options asked.
“I always felt like there was more to the story when I was dancing,” she replied. “While I loved being able to portray these characters through movement on the stage, I got to a place where I started to feel as if I was just standing behind other artists when I had my own story to tell. I had just finished touring with Justin Bieber — I toured with him for almost 2 1/2 years — and I got to this place where I thought if I don’t jump now, if I don’t dive into what this next chapter of my life could be, I might never see it.”
So, Carlena started a full-time program at Playhouse West where she studied the Meisner technique. Additionally, she began studying improv at UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade).
“I finally felt like I had a voice. I felt like I was in a position where I could show all of me and have the opportunity to play characters that inspired me as a little girl. I could tell stories for those who weren’t able to tell stories.”
“But, I wouldn’t say acting is harder than dancing or dancing is harder than acting because they are completely different,” Carlena added. “Being able to transcend the character and tell a story on stage in front of 100,000 people is one thing. But having a camera so close to you that a single teardrop falling can ruin the entire moment? They are completely different platforms.”
When pushed, however, Carlena did admit that she believes studying dance first has given her an advantage in acting.
“This doesn’t apply to everyone, but I think if you start as an actress, you are taught that the story is told by your face and your words, and the body is secondary,” she pointed out. “Not being able to communicate through body language can make things a little bit difficult in moments when you have to walk away or walk towards the camera without saying anything. Or perhaps there’s just a close-up on your hand against a window? I’ll never forget that scene in Titanic when Kate Winslet’s hand hits the window of the vehicle that she and Leo are in. That shot told way more of the story than any other moment! It was so beautiful.”
You Killed My Mother is classic Lifetime fare. It is an intimate, yet larger than life drama that is so incredibly satisfying to watch.
“I’m a huge fan of Lifetime movies, especially the ones from the 90s. And anything with Eric Roberts usually gets me because he’s just so good in them! There’s one with him and Anne Heche called Fatal Desire that I just love! Lifetime always takes risks. There’s something sort of fearless and ruthless about them. I remember watching these films as a little girl and connecting with what I saw on screen, so I am really grateful to have something like this at the start of my career. I’m grateful to Lifetime and to the writer [Stephen Romano] for being so bold and fearless.”
Fun Fact: In You Killed My Mother, Carlena plays a young woman who is seeking vengeance on a woman named Miriam. In Season 13, Episode 1 of Supernatural, she played a sassy, badass angel who brazenly attacks Dean Winchester. That angel’s name was… Miriam.
In conclusion, Carlena expressed, “I hope that this film opens doors for a conversation about mental health. Mental health is something that is still not talked about very much publicly. It’s kind of shamed in some ways. The beauty in a film like this is that it shows we all have issues and things we need to work through. We all have trauma and we all have our stories. I hope a film like this will encourage and inspire people to talk about their stories, so they don’t end up in a position like Jo’s character does.”
“It’s really special that this film connected so close to home for me. I hope everyone falls in love with all the amazing moments we got to create on screen. Everything was real, nothing was fake. There were no stunt doubles. When you do a film and you walk away thinking ‘It didn’t even feel like I had to act,’ I think that’s when you’ve done a really good job. I’m really proud of everyone’s performance on it and I hope the audience feels the same.”
Nicol Biesek Photography: website