Barbara Niven’s role of a lifetime in ‘A Perfect Ending’ Includes interview
With over 100 roles under her belt on popular TV series (NCIS, Pensacola: Wings of Gold, Cold Case, One Life to Live) and movies for Lifetime and Hallmark, including the portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in The Rat Pack, Niven’s acting career didn’t start until she was in her 30s something unimaginable in Hollywood. When realization hit her in her native Portland, Oregon, that by that age she didn’t live her dream of becoming an actress, she had no reservations to move to Los Angeles as a single mother with a young daughter and make the impossible possible.
She studied acting with the late Milton Katselas at the Beverly Hills Playhouse and soon her career took off, working constantly for over 25 years now. It wasn’t though until she filmed A Perfect Ending when she embraced a truly transformational role that would change her forever.
Written and directed by Conn (Claire of the Moon, Elena Undone), the film explores the story of Rebecca, a bored, middle aged, judgmental and rigid “housewife from the burbs.” A mother of three grown children, she lost herself in an unhappy marriage, forgetting, in the process, about fulfilling her own needs. No passion. No purpose. No love. An unexpected turn of events changes her dull life when she chooses to admit to her best friends, a lesbian couple, that she never had an orgasm. At their suggestion, she hires a high class escort named Paris, played by brilliant newcomer Jessica Clark (True Blood). From here on in, the two women embark on a raw and truthful journey, filled with luscious sensuality, as they face and heal each other’s fears.
While A Perfect Ending is enjoying its successful run in over 23 cities across Germany as we speak, Niven kindly accepted to share some of her deepest thoughts about how intense and life altering this project has been and continues to be for her.
Although she didn’t expect the massive positive reaction from viewers, Niven knew how the movie was affecting her. This project came at a point in her life where she needed to explore herself and the aging process. “What I’ve always done with my acting was to explore pieces of me and work out things that I needed to work out in my psyche to try it on and see how it all fits together at a point in my life. And this movie came at the perfect time for me,” Niven pointed out.
Her experience of working with Conn was the most brilliant gift an actor could get. “Nicole makes it safe to not play safe and go for it and expose everything,” explains the actress. Although they both have tried to work together a number of times in the past 25 years, this film was the one that was really meant to be.
Ironically, the actress accepted the role of Rebecca the day she’d quit acting. “This experience all the way through, even to now, has been everything I wanted it to be when I first wanted to be an actress.” It was a passion project that everybody put their own magic in for a ridiculously low budget ($175,000). They didn’t do it for the money but for the power of storytelling. And that makes such a huge difference to more and more people out there as they get to see the movie. A pure work of art, it doesn’t only serve the LGBT community, but it has massive crossover appeal, something that art house movie lovers certainly appreciate.
Niven recalls how spent physically and emotionally she was at the end of day one of the shoot after giving her all. She almost lost her voice, that’s how emotionally draining this film was. Add to that how nervous she was for having to expose herself inside and outside in love scenes with a woman.
After Kathy Bates appeared nude in At Play in the Fields of the Lord and later in About Schmidt, as did [partially] a glowing pregnant Laurel Holloman in The L Word, I thought no other actress could top that amount of bravery and strength. Niven proved me wrong.
At 58, she dropped her guard and told Rebecca’s truth under Conn’s meticulous directorial vision and thoughtful ability to focus on the visual beauty of female body through the skilled eye of cinematographer Tal Lazar. Even today Niven is still aghast she did the nudity in the film.
“Nicole and I agreed that that’s probably the best thing we’ll ever do, and to top that off with the reaction we’re getting from people that it touches them inside, it doesn’t get any better than that, it’s the perfect icing on the cake,” acknowledged the actress.
She then praised her uber stunning and immensely gifted younger co star. They clicked instantly from their first chemistry read. “I’m not gay, but it shows that that’s not what it’s about. I knew what she was thinking and what she was going to say and we just trusted each other.” Speaking of the central love scene of the film, Niven added: “We just let it happen what happened in the scene and we had a blast. I knew she was going to keep me safe and I was going to keep her safe. That chemistry, when you get it, is such a gift.”
Niven elaborated on the complexity of Clark’s role: “She honored the work; she had such an intense role. It was her first role and she went places that a seasoned actor would have a hard time doing. I’m so proud of her. I think she’s going to be a superstar. And she deserves that, because she puts in the work and she’s also beautiful on the outside as she is on the inside.”
The element of perfection addressed in the movie was something Niven had to deal herself with as she’d struggled with an eating disorder for 30 years. “This whole quest for perfection and keeping secrets, as Rebecca does in the movie, it rung so true with me, Barbara, because when you’re in such a black hole you don’t feel that recovery is ever possible,” explained the actress.
Now she speaks about it to schools and women’s groups, since women represent the largest demographic dealing with eating disorders, especially women over 40. She does that to help people get rid of the drive for perfection for they’ll never going to get there. “Nobody knows what we’re supposed to look or feel like anymore. We get role models from TV shows; even a five year old kid in America says ‘I’m fat!’ So, on one hand we have people who suffer from an eating disorder of not eating, and on the other hand the spectrum of obesity. The more you’re not comfortable with yourself, the bigger secret you have about it, the more you do it,” explained Niven who also added, “You’ve got to start celebrating who you are.”
That’s one of the reasons why the actress, who just turned 60 last month, made A Perfect Ending. She’s also writing a book where she wants to include other women’s views of where they are at different stages in their lives and what they would share with other women: “Decades are real time markers in our life. That always causes me to think where I’ve been, where I’m going. Am I on track? Am I on purpose? And how can I make a difference better?”
Being an actress in Hollywood, Niven experienced firsthand the way roles are drying up for women over 40. She’s been having a great run getting work, but sadly not so much since A Perfect Ending. “If I dwell on that, my heart breaks. The acting business has changed. The movie stars are taking on TV shows now, which moves now all of us, working actors, down a notch, so it’s harder to get work,” said Niven.
“When you love something so much that’s out of your control to be able to do it as much as you want, you have to pull back to make yourself safe.” That’s when she stepped out of the equation and reinvented herself by becoming Hollywood’s top media trainer. She’s helping people find their own voice by coaching and directing them on how to communicate their own truth on camera.
“I am so blessed I got to do A Perfect Ending,” reflected an emotional Niven, “because it said all my truth and I put in everything I wanted to say. If that’s my one last song, then so be it. I’m proud of it. And I shared it with Nicole and our beautiful film family. What art is supposed to do is make a difference, and that’s what A Perfect Ending is doing.”
When I asked her how much she loves herself now after having made this movie, she paused: “Playing Rebecca changed me forever. It forced me to go a lot deeper and kept me in that raw place that Rebecca was in. I think I’m still working out pieces of my own life. She tidied up so beautifully by the end of the movie, she found love and her perfect ending. I haven’t put all my pieces together yet, but doing it through Rebecca it showed me it’s possible and that’s what I want. I’m still creating my perfect ending. But I also call it a perfect beginning because the movie teaches us that every moment we have a choice, we can wake up. If we’re not living our passion and our purpose it’s up to us to make the change, nobody’s going to do it for us and we only have one life.”
Niven and Conn look forward to working together again. “Something weird happened with Nicole and me that I’ve never had working with another director or on another project. We literally went to another plane, like she was in my head. It was an extraordinary experience and I can’t wait to do it again.”
Besides that, she has a couple of Lifetime movies going on. She’s also going to be shooting some more this year working with Canadian producer Pierre David, with whom she’s done 13 movies so far. “Acting for me is the biggest drug and I just giggle that I get to do it and get paid to play pretend. When I get to do it it’s fun.” Other than that, she’s a mother, a grandmother and a business woman. “So far so good; checking in on 60 I feel like I’m on purpose and I can’t wait to see what’s next,” Niven concluded positively.
‘A Perfect Ending’ will run in Berlin on March 29, 2013, the day the DVD will be released in Germany. The film’s soundtrack is available for download on Amazon and iTunes.