Roxy Bourdillon meets the stars of YouTube phenomenon turned feature film, Carmilla
BY ROXY BOURDILLON
I’m only five minutes into The Carmilla Movie and I’m already gripped. Laura’s tearing down an old timey corridor, panting in a corseted gown, her heart hammering in her chest and causing mine to do the same, while her 300-year-old ex-vampire girlfriend Carm takes a dip in a literal bloodbath. What the Creampuff is going on?
An hour and a half later, I’m still buzzing. I’ve just watched a loved-up queer female couple onscreen and neither one was killed off. I’ve seen the LGBTQ gang of my #SquadGoal fantasies fight evil while being hilarious and diverse. Heck, I’ve even marvelled at a masked ball attended exclusively by luscious ladyghosts and rejoiced at a romantic sub-plot between two queer women of colour (it’s about time smart-mouthed Mel got some action). From a two and a half minute webisode in 2014 to a full-on feature film in 2017, oh Carmilla, the little lesbian vampire “web series that could”, bloody bravo.
As a fan of the show who has eagerly binged all three series, I can’t wait to jump on a three-way transatlantic call with its Canadian stars Natasha Negovanlis, who plays broody rock-chick vampire Carmilla Karnstein, and her onscreen paramour, Elise Bauman, perhaps more familiar to you as crusading, well-meaning, if slightly tightly-wound reporter Laura Hollis.
“I chose to be an actor so that I could tell stories and connect with other human beings,” Natasha explains earnestly. As Carmilla, she’s been around forever, seen everything and is consequently moved by very little, but out of character, Natasha is far more compassionate. “I feel extremely lucky, especially as an openly queer actor who plays a queer character. That’s really special.” It’s special for viewers too. Watching two out actors portray dream duo “Hollstein” provides an extra frisson and makes Natasha and Elise’s passion for positive queer representation all the more powerful.
Like Natasha, Elise is thoughtful and eloquent when she acknowledges, “It’s pretty revolutionary that the two leads of the show are in a same-sex relationship. To be able to have a story that’s centred around the relationship, but not have it only be about the fact that they’re queer, is still something that is not seen that often.” Natasha nods, adding, “We don’t make their sexual identities the forefront of the story, but at the same time it’s not just subtext. We aren’t afraid to say the word lesbian or have a non-binary character or a queer woman of colour. The fact that our fans can see themselves reflected onscreen as the heroes is what makes the show really unique. I read a GLAAD media report last year that found that only 5% of characters onscreen are members of the LGBTQ community and that’s gotta change.”
These switched-on young actors are in the extraordinary position of embodying the shift they want to see in the world. They’re thrilled when I mention the overwhelming response I received from readers when I posted about The Carmilla Movie trailer on the DIVA website. “Every time that people express their gratitude, I just mirror that gratitude right back tenfold,” declares Elise fondly. They describe the “handwritten fan letters” they receive on a weekly basis about how “Carmilla gave people the courage to come out”. Natasha notes that, “People are finding a community online, which they might not be able to find in their country, especially as some of our fans live in countries where being queer is illegal, which is crazy and so sad.” Then there are conventions like the recent Clexacon, which give them the chance to meet their fans, affectionately nicknamed Creampuffs, and hear firsthand how the show transformed their lives. “I now know to wear waterproof mascara,” smiles Natasha. I ask if they’re planning on appearing at the hotly anticipated London Clexacon in 2018 and they exclaim in unison that they’d “lurve” to. Sounds promising so watch this space, Creampuffs.
Talking to Natasha and Elise, I discover that they both possess the same silly sense of humour the show is known for, but it’s counterbalanced with a certain seriousness, an awareness of the gravity of their responsibility towards their fanbase and the wider significance of the feelgood, campy, adventure-rom-com-romp they star in. “Sometimes it makes me a little anxious because I really care about Carmilla and I really care about our fans,” admits Natasha. “They’re so important to me that I do feel a pressure to be a good role model for the community and I can get in my head about it. But at the end of the day I try to be myself and I try to teach others to do the same.”
Elise is admirably candid when I tentatively broach the subject of her own coming out experience. She confirmed her bisexuality in an interview with Daily Xtra earlier this year and she reveals it was being a part of Carmilla that helped her accept herself. “For the first couple of seasons I was so trying for it not to be real. Playing Laura helped me face that head on. To be completely honest, I’m still dealing with some shame around being bisexual. I remember in high school when I was starting to question my sexuality, I would always call people out for saying ‘that’s so gay’, and I was called a dyke. That really chipped away at my bravery, but part of being an actor is standing up for what you believe in. I want to be the kind of person that’s on the front line and Carmilla definitely helps me with that.”
Natasha’s coming out story is “very different from Elise’s”. While Elise was home-schooled with a “semi-religious upbringing”, Natasha studied at a progressive performing arts school in Toronto, “where being sexually fluid was actually cool”. “I first came out as bisexual when I was a teenager and later I found the term queer and pansexual, which felt more fitting as I made more non-binary friends and realised that I could be attracted to all gender identities.” One of the things that drew her to Carmilla was her burning desire to play a lesbian. “I grew up watching shows like The L Word.” I suggest she might fancy a gig in the forthcoming reboot and she assures me, “I have already talked to my agent about that.”
Despite their contrasting journeys to self-acceptance, they’ve both had to deal with prejudice. Natasha is keen to stress, “It’s important that bisexual and pansexual women understand that they are valid and their identity is ok. So often when you are sexually fluid, you receive criticism from the straight community and the gay community.” She recounts being labelled a “slut” when she identified as bi in her teens. Elise laughs bitterly in recognition, remembering a negative experience of her own. “I once had a person tell me that you don’t need to come out if you’re bisexual. I remember that moment feeling, ‘I’m not valid. People don’t think that’s valid’.”
It’s hardly surprising that Carmilla superfans are preoccupied with whether or not Elise and Natasha are a couple IRL. Their chemistry practically explodes off the screen and they’re not averse to fanning the flames of speculation, albeit in a jokey way. They’ve made several “girlfriend tag” vlogs for YouTube and when Natasha won the Canadian Screen Fan’s Choice Award, in her acceptance speech she described her date for the evening, Elise, as “my onscreen love interest and maybe my real life one sometimes”. So how do they feel about all the are-they, aren’t-they gossip?
“I personally don’t read any of the fan fiction,” states Natasha matter-of-factly. “But it doesn’t bother me. If we’re helping people be more creative, then so be it.” Although they insist they’re not dating offscreen, there’s no doubt that they make a compelling couple in front of the camera. After three series of mounting sexual tension between our two leads, the movie rewards fans’ patience with one of the best same-sex love scenes I’ve seen (and believe me, I’ve done the research). From the smouldering Uh Huh Her soundtrack to their soft but urgent caresses to the raw lust in their eyes, it’s sensual, feminine and authentic. I can’t think of many onscreen depictions of same-sex passion that are as truthful or as enjoyable, but what are those intimate scenes like to film? “It doesn’t feel any different than shooting any other scene,” shrugs Elise. “We’ve been working together for so long now that there was an innate sense of trust and support. We would have conversations before those scenes, checking in with each other about what’s ok and what’s not ok.” I’m surprised when Natasha informs me that Carmilla is directed by a man, the talented Spencer Maybee. “He is an example for how other male directors should behave. He gave us a lot of freedom to do what made us feel comfortable and to portray these queer characters how we wanted to portray them. It was really important for him that this film looked like it was directed for women by a woman.”
Although the director may be a guy, the majority of the rest of the team is made up of women. “Having a project created by a queer female producer and a female writer means playing female characters who are more three dimensional,” enthuses Natasha. “They’re more than just pretty or just funny. Side note, I actually once had a drama teacher tell the class you’re either pretty or you’re funny.” I gasp in horror and Elise manages an, “Oof, oh… my… god.” Once she’s recovered, she lifts our spirits by sharing how inspiring it was to see producer, Melanie Windle, breastfeed her newborn baby on set. “Watching her continue to be a boss and get things done and be so loving, and balance all of that within a community of people that just accepted it, completely redefined what I thought my career could look like in the future. I thought that maybe I’d have to make a choice between motherhood and a career and now I don’t think you have to.”
As I get to know Natasha and Elise, I’m struck by their intelligence, their warmth and their constant consciousness of the impact that they and the little web series that bloody well did are having on queer people all over the globe. The significance of their work is staggering, but to me what’s most exciting of all, is that this film isn’t just important, it’s also damn good. It’s funny, it’s sexy and it’s queer as Christmas. So do yourself a favour – download and devour it with the ferocious appetite of a bloodthirsty vampire who has been starved of vampiric representation for way too long. Bon appetite.
This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!
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