All seemed back to normal when Jess Weixler returned to her New York City apartment after a whirlwind week in Park City this time last year. The film she starred in played well at Sundance ’07. Her performance got some laughs and she found it comical how some men were a little scared to meet her after screenings. Now she was packing again for a flight to San Diego to film another movie. An actor’s work is never finished. But when she touched down in San Diego something strange happened. A flight attendant came to her seat and in an excited tone told her that she had to return to Park City immediately. Weixler gave the attendant a very puzzled look, a look she often gave in the film that was getting all the attention 750 miles away: puzzlement mixed with curiosity. Then she heard it: “You just won an award at Sundance.” Playing the lead in a film about “vagina dentata” didn’t seem that bad anymore.
[SF360.org Editor’s note: This story appeared originally in indieWIRE on Jan. 17, 2008. The film opens in the Bay Area this week. Look for coverage of Sundance, 2008, at both indieWIRE and here on SF360.org in the coming days.]
“I’m pretty sure I screamed,” Weixler recalls about getting the special acting award from the Sundance jury as she’s curled up on a hotel couch at the Regency Hotel in New York a few weeks ago. “I was on the plane rejoicing all by myself. I got to the [awards ceremony] towards the end, and I figured I’d just go to an after party, but since they were wrapping up they decided to bring me on stage [to accept the award]. It made me feel outrageously cool.”
The film that’s made Weixler the newest “it girl” on the indie scene is Mitchell Lichtenstein’s directorial debut “Teeth.” A horror/dark comedy shot in Austin, Texas, Weixler plays Dawn, a naive high schooler who is the poster child for abstinence in her community. But recently she’s realized being a virgin isn’t the only thing that makes her different from the rest of the girls, and her fears come to a harsh reality after a guy she has a crush on gets too aggressive with her and ends up losing his manhood courtesy of Dawn’s choppers between her legs.
The film plays on the vagina dentata myth with a superb mix of satire and gore, but what really sells it is the performance by Weixler. With great comic timing and the ability to project a feeling with facial expressions instead of dialogue, her girl-next-door looks (which Variety critic Todd McCarthy described as “resembling an entirely appealing cross between Heather Graham and Kate Winslet”) sets the tone for a sudden transformation of young girl to woman and finally to cult superhero in the span of 90 minutes.
Weixler, 27, was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky and caught the acting bug in high school. After school she trained at Julliard before moving to New York City to persue an acting career. “I went and did four years [at Julliard] and became terrified by being out there and alone and you have to prove yourself in something that’s so competitive,” she says. “So I was really scared for a long time and then I got a coach so that I would just have somebody to talk to and help me stay calm and focus on the work and not just the auditions. With a few roles on the stage and bit parts on TV shows like “Guiding Light,” “Everwood,” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” Weixler found herself in the precarious position most actors land in, struggling to pay the rent while keeping a steady hand in their trade.
She got cast in a lead role in 2006’s feature dramedy “Big Bad Swim” about a group of people who join a beginner’s swim class and reveal there’s more to a phobia of water that’s troubling them. Weixler played Jordan, a jaded casino dealer who strips in the evenings to make extra cash and ends up being the love interest to the swimming instructor. “We saw every actress in New York City for the part and I think we saw her last and she just blew us away,” says “Big Bad Swim” screenwriter Daniel Schechter, who hit it off with Weixler and would later cast her in a cameo role in his upcoming directorial debut “Goodbye Baby,” which premieres at this year’s Slamdance. “We wanted somebody who would play the character as someone who deserved better, someone who was smarter than what she was doing and Jess makes the character come off really smart and interesting. She’s always thinking onscreen and I think that’s why she plays [the character] so well.”
Though the film was accepted to the Tribeca Film Festival in ’06 and played a handful of fests, it didn’t catch on with audiences and failed to get distribution. Weixler went back to the audition grind and that’s when she was handed Lichtenstein’s script. “I only read half of the script, I was so freaked out by it, I was like, I can’t do this,” Weixler says. “I’d never done a sex scene in my life and I didn’t know if I was prepared to do one.” She went in to audition instead for the part of Dawn’s best friend, but Lichtenstein knew he had found his lead. “I asked her to stop and please read some of Dawn’s lines and she did and she was great,” Lichtenstein recalls. “We just sat down with her and I just told her the kind of larger visions of the movie and about the myth and she should really look at this more as a discovery of power for this girl.”
“I knew it was risky,” Weixler says with a laugh as she thinks back on inevitably taking the role. “But I got cast a month in advance and I also took the script to a coach to figure out how to map Dawn’s journey. And I thought about who I was and what turned me on and what didn’t turn me on, it gave me confidence in the choices I was going to make. Because if we started shooting a few days before getting cast I think it would have been a disaster.”
But there was no amount of time to prepare her for what the reaction would be like at the film’s Sundance premiere. And after getting over how many people were actually going to see her on screen, she then had to wait for their reaction. “The first screening I was like, oh my gosh they are going to hate this, they’re going to think I’m ridiculous.” But after the first laugh she calmed down and before the evening was through her name was on the lips of everyone on Main Street in Park City, UT.
Weixler says she’s gotten a wide range of reactions from the film — men who won’t even look at her, pumped up college kids who go nuts meeting her. But she’s been most impressed by the reaction she’s gotten from women. “I remember a group of 40 something old women who just attacked me and were like, ‘This movie is great, you’re our idol,’ and I just thought this is not the crowd that I expected to like this and they’re totally into it.”
For the most part Weixler has taken the last year of going from obscurity to indie darling in stride. She admits to never being tempted to try her fate in L.A. after Sundance, saying she was too busy preparing for an off-Broadway play and film role to even think about it. And says the most surreal experience was when someone recognized her on the subway and went up to her to talk about “Teeth.” Seeing outside of Sundance the film has only played at a handful of festivals, Weixler was shocked. “I thought I really knew the person.”
She’s stayed grounded by working. Outside of the cameo in “Goodbye Girl” she also has coming up Kirk Davis’ “Welcome to Academia,” Duane Allen Humeyestewa’s “Periphery” and the recently wrapped Jay DiPietro’s “Peter and Vandy” where she plays opposite Jason Ritter.
This dedication is no surprise to Schechter as he believes she can be a special talent. “She has this tremendously rare gift to exude both beauty and complexity side by side,” he says. “And when I think of that ability, few other actors in that sense come to mind, like Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep.”
When I tell her what Schechter thinks of her, Weixler shines a big smile, composes herself and gives a professional answer. “It’s nice to know people are excited by me and want to work with me and make something special.”
But you gotta think inside she’s as excited as she was on that plane a year ago at what the future holds.
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