A conversation with award-winning actress Kelly Murtagh

Award-winning actress, singer, writer and producer, Kelly Murtagh has worked in TV shows, movies, commercials, and theatre. She recently starred in the Hulu series, Looking for Alaska (adapted from the John Green book) in which she portrayed Alaska’s mother. She was also in Netflix’s movie Tall Girl and her most recent film is The Lovebirds in which stars alongside Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae. She is currently in post-production for her feature film Shapeless, which she also wrote and acted in.

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Kelly Murtagh [credit: Lilly Anne]

You are an extremely creative person. I read that you have done work over a wide range of things including but not limited to sportscasting, improv, singing, fashion, writing, producing and acting. So I wanted to ask you are you creating for yourself or for an audience?

Thank you! I definitely would say I embrace my creativity as a huge part of who I am, so in that sense, I create for myself because it’s what makes me happiest. I have always had an active imagination, and from a young age playing pretend and telling stories was my favorite thing to do. I pursued a career in acting and filmmaking because it feels like I am celebrating what I’ve always loved.  I feel alive when I am creating. I also honor the part of me that genuinely wants to connect with audiences in a vulnerable and authentic way. If my story or my work does connect to others in that way, it feels like a beautiful bonus of embracing the way I intrinsically am. I have always felt deeply and am very empathic so the notion of understanding and connecting with other people feels just as natural to me as my creativity does. In that way, I do hope that I am able to connect with others to bring light and share myself in a way that can inspire others to create, heal, or treat themselves and others with kindness.

Work such as writing and acting draws a lot of inspiration from the self and personal experiences. Is it easy for you share parts of yourself? Do you find you have limits or boundaries when working?

Now it is easy for me to share myself and be vulnerable, but it wasn’t always that way. At the age of 13, I developed an eating disorder in response to anxiety and depression. As my struggles with bulimia followed me through high school and college and even into my professional career, I developed a perfectionistic façade to hide behind while I suffocated in shame.

After my college graduation, I moved to L.A. and found my way to the Renegade Theatre Group led by Academy member and Emmy-award winner, Chick Vennera. It is there where I met my future husband, Robert J. Gilchrist and I finally faced my eating disorder head-on. Acting class is like group therapy. The same blocks and struggles you have on the outside are the same when you are acting. You have to become incredibly vulnerable, get present and get real with yourself in order to express yourself in an authentic way. So the perfect façade I’d built to survive and protect myself from true vulnerability no longer worked. And, (this is a much longer story for another day), I thankfully made my way to the Eating Disorder Center of California. Thank God.

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Kelly Murtagh as “Ms. Novey” in Netflix’s Tall Girl [credit: IMDb]

Real healing came later as I began writing and developing my feature film Shapeless. Producing and acting in Shapeless allowed me to be honest and vulnerable while being supported by the most amazing, primarily female led crew & cast, as well as my dear husband, co-star and fellow producer, Robert. Through this process I finally became comfortable with truly opening up and allowing myself to be honest. That is how my shame lessened and it opened me up to expressing myself more freely.  So now, I find that I don’t put limits or boundaries on myself as I’d done in such a constricting fashion when I was younger. We have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Fallon and she also changed our lives immensely. I never wanted her to struggle in shame and secrecy like me, so I’ve worked hard at facing myself and becoming authentic for her sake too. 

You have trained as well as worked with a lot of famous talent. What are some of the things you learnt from them and what are some things that are impossible to be learnt from them?

-My mentor and teacher Chick Vennera from the class I mentioned before taught me so much. He is someone who really understood and saw me and how I was putting so much pressure on myself to be perfect. He taught us that acting is bringing yourself to the role by being a real person in a real place under imaginary circumstances. And that the way to freedom and aliveness in a scene is by living moment to moment, listening, and remaining present. He also taught me to LTFU which means to “lighten the F**k up!”, haha! That’s one of the lessons I remember the most.  To keep on punching my perfectionism in the face. Nothing needs to be “perfect” – it needs to be real.

-When I worked with Hank Azaria, he really helped me understand the idea of substitution – which is to understand a role and character’s events by substituting something from your own life. I was in a scene from the play Boeing Boeing and my character finds a Lufthansa bag in her apartment, not knowing where it came from as she works for a different airline. Hank redirected me after the first time I performed it, he wanted me to be more disgusted by the Lufthansa bag. 

“Are you a sports fan?” he asked. “YES”, I responded enthusiastically. I grew up in Louisiana so I am a big LSU and Saints fan. He said, “Ok, imagine that Lufthansa bag is your favorite sport’s team’s biggest rival and do it again.” So I imagined the bag was one from the University of Alabama (LSU’s greatest rival, sorry if anyone is a Bama fan!) and did it again. And then the scene flew 🙂 So simple and so powerful.

How much does recognition mean to you? As you are working on some high-profile projects that will get mass viewership, does it feel like you have arrived or are there milestones to be reached?

I’ve always been a goal-setter, dreamer, and hard worker. Outside validation used to mean a lot to me and be my main source of happiness or acknowledgment I was good enough. I’ve really worked hard at shifting that mentality as I focus on that I already am enough and that I don’t have to do a book a certain gig or win a certain award in order to be happy, because it might never happen. I have dreams and goals I’d love to reach – win an Oscar, work with the Duplass brothers, hug Oprah, have a dinner date with Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi and tell them how much they mean to me – but I realize I can’t wait for those things or a certain amount of recognition as my source of worth. I call myself a recovering perfectionist working hard on shifting my focus on what I am grateful for and proud of in the now, not what I believe to be “missing.” But I also honor that I would love a certain amount of exposure to share my story Shapeless and to continue to do what I love in the way that I’d love to do it.

You wrote and star in the film “Shapeless”. Could you share with us what it meant to you to helm this project? What inspired the writing? Was it important for you to star in it?

 Shapeless is the most important, uncomfortable and poignant work of my career because it is based on me and my addiction: bulimia. Ivy, the main character, is a singer and also bulimic. By her own hand, she ravages the only thing she loves about herself: her singing voice. We unapologetically explore the inside of this devastating addiction. This is not the treatment story. This is one we haven’t seen before: the reality of living with an eating disorder. We’re overdue for an authentic conversation regarding mental health and in particular, eating disorders. Eating disorders have the highest fatality rate of any psychiatric disorder after opioid addiction and it almost claimed me. They do not discriminate. This mental illness occurs in people of all ages, genders, socioeconomic groups, and cultural backgrounds. Shame keeps so many suffering in silence. I can no longer stay silent and Shapeless will hopefully make some necessary noise.

Growing up, I loved singing; it was my belonging and authenticity. When depression pummeled me in high school, I developed bulimia. I became addicted to the control and feelings binging and purging provided. When my mother caught me purging one day, she sent me to therapy where I tried to heal. And I am so glad I was able to go to therapy, but I viewed it all wrong. I deeply believed I was in trouble and was still struggling with crippling perfectionism. When I inevitably backslid, I became so terrified of what that meant, so I pretended to be fine.

In college I relapsed. I weaved a dazzling façade to hide my illness. My isolation escalated and I hit a breaking point, thinking, “What do I love doing? Singing!” So, I signed up for voice lessons. Warming up, I failed to hold and hit notes. Something that used to be effortless, joyous, mine, had disappeared. My teacher stopped. “Something is wrong with your vocal cords. You need to see a doctor.” My heart shattered.

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Kelly Murtagh [credit: Lilly Anne]

And when the doctor showed me footage of my ravaged vocal cords, my soul broke. It wasn’t “severe acid reflux” nor had I “learned to speak improperly.” It was because of my addiction. Unable to face the truth, I dove deeper into illness. And no matter how I tried, I couldn’t stop throwing up. Finally, I went to treatment. But most healing came later when I began writing Shapeless.

I sent the first draft of the script to Samantha Aldana, a film director that I’d long admired and thought would be perfect to direct. She thankfully said yes and we started deeply developing Shapeless. She was kind, curious and allowed me a safe space to open up. The art of collaborating allowed me to be vulnerable, truly vulnerable, which lifted my shame gradually. Shapeless helped me heal. Art healed me and I believe in art’s ability to heal.

We have such a supportive crew and cast of mainly females (and of course my dear husband who co-stars and is our other exec. producer) lending their hearts and talent to the project and movement. I am so grateful for them. Their openness, hearts, and support helped me to feel safe enough to be so vulnerable. And then I met Caroline, my voice therapist, who helped me to sing again. I’d stuffed the grief down of ruining my vocal cords so long ago that I rarely allowed myself to sing or even listen to other female vocalists because it hurt too much. But she helped me redefine what singing meant to me. She is an earth angel and helps women find the power through the voice. I am so thankful for her that now I feel safe to sing and I can sing with my daughter without constantly judging if it is “good enough.” Of course, unlearning my perfectionism is a daily practice.

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Kelly Murtagh as Alaska’s mother in Hulu’s “Looking for Alaska” [credit: IMDb]

It was important for me to play Ivy the lead character because I wrote her, I know her, I am her. It’s as if I’d been doing her character study my whole life, I already knew her so intimately because she is a part of me. It was my most challenging yet freeing role yet. During production, I was so immersed in my character who is living in a deep, dark place, that I developed a sense of paranoia, anxiety, and isolation on the outside. I thought that that wouldn’t happen because I felt so ready but making a movie is difficult and comes with its own challenges and anxiety. It took a lot of rest and meditation to unwind after production, but I am so grateful I was able to play Ivy. It felt so right and effortless as I knew her so well.

As executive producer, writer and lead actress, portraying Ivy is the work I am proudest. My ultimate “screw you” to shame. I’ve lost friends because when they relapsed, shame silenced them. Shame killed them. Shapeless is an invitation to the mental health conversation. We hope to inspire others to have their own uncomfortable, life-saving conversations. Because now is the time to talk about mental health.

Over the years in your career, what moment stands out to you the most? Is there a specific project or training stint or role that changed your worldview career-wise or personally?

-What a great question! I have to say Shapeless. That is the most transformative thing I’ve done as an artist and person. It helped me to shift my focus to creating in my own way, owning my voice, and standing in my own power (with the help of others of course!)

-One of the most moving moments of my life was when we wrapped principal production of Shapeless. Samantha, the director, and I burst into tears and hugged and hugged. I was so so grateful, we finished something that seemed impossibly and definitely unlikely. When I first had the idea to write a movie like this, I stopped myself for years because I was convinced there would be no audience for a film like this. No one would actually watch a movie about what it is really like to have an eating disorder, right? I’m so glad I was wrong.

-I am beyond thankful to all the big-hearted, devoted, and talented cast and crew. We are in post-production now and I pinch myself every day. We’re on the long road, but I know we’ll get there one day. We hope to premiere at a great film festival in 2021. Please consider following @shapelessthefilm on Instagram for the latest updates or my personal Instagram @kellymurtagh.

You also have a movie, “The Lovebirds” coming out, which seems like a comedy of errors. What drew you to that role?

The Lovebirds was a dream come true. I had admired Issa Rae & Kumail Nanjiani for a while and they are two of the most talented, down-to-earth, intelligent, creative and kind people I’ve had the pleasure of working with. I had also admired Michael Showalter’s work and was so thrilled to get to meet him and work with him as well. He is a very talented director and was not only focused and hard-working, but also allowed us to improvise (which is my dream come true). It was entrancing to be able to watch Issa & Kumail work off one another and then to be able to jump in and do it alongside them. It was magic. I studied with Upright Citizen’s Brigade in Los Angeles so I’ve always loved any opportunity to improv. I play Evonne in the film and Michael allowed me to play and expand to find Evonne’s essence which basically is Issa Rae’s annoying drunk friend J  Issa & Kumail are both super cool, the kind of people you just want to keep hanging out with and hope their coolness rubs off on you. I was sad when my role wrapped!

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The Lovebirds poster [credit: IMDb]

How was the experience of working with Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae and Anna Camp? Do you have some stories from the set you could share with us?

I am someone who speaks from my heart and if I admire someone or they inspire me, I tell them. I believe in words of encouragement! Anyway, I absolutely love the film The Big Sick, which Michael Showalter directed and that Kumail and his wife wrote and produced and won an Oscar for. So when I first met Kumail I basically dipped into this rapid, sappy monologue saying something like… “Kumail, it is such an honor to meet you and you and your wife are so inspiring… and I loved your film. I think you are so talented and I am thankful for your work and film and it inspired me to write my feature- don’t worry it’s nothing like yours… but thank you!” (honestly, that was probably much more cohesive than how I said it on the day.) And he could have shrugged me off or called security, but he was so gracious and kind and sweet and I really appreciated that. It made my heart sing that he was so responsive and encouraging to me in that moment.

The Lovebirds filmed in New Orleans in 2019 and Mardi Gras took place while we were in production. Issa & Kumail had never been to Mardi Gras before and were quite intrigued and inspired by how serious New Orleans takes Mardi Gras. Since I grew up in Louisiana, I became the resident “Mardi Gras expert” answering questions from what a King Cake is to what parades should they check out while in town. I even gave Issa & Kumail this local Mardi Gras guide filled with tips, parade routes, and insider info!

What kind of stories move you and excite you to get to work?

-I’ve always been an avid reader and the fantasy genre is my favorite. I love projects with a surreal element (and of course a little magic!) I haven’t been able to really do this, but maybe this is me trying to manifest it! I would love to play an older Princess Zelda in a mini-series adaptation based on the series of Nintendo Games The Legend of Zelda and my husband would love to play Link. In fact, we love The Legend of Zelda so much, the song I walked down the aisle to at our wedding was a beautiful string version of Zelda’s Lullaby – an iconic song from the games.

-Other than that I love a story that feels new, unique or untold before. I love characters playing all sorts of roles – comedy and drama. I also love characters who seem like a villain but are misunderstood have complexity. Like Meryl Streep in Big Little Lies – she is always incomparable, but GEEZ that role? So delicious.

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Kelly Murtagh [credit: Lilly Anne]

-I also love any opportunity to improvise. A dream role for me would be to play with Larry David in an episode of Curb your Enthusiasm or a role in a film by Mark or Jay Duplass who a lot of times use outlines instead of full scripts to facilitate improv to find the meat of the story.

-I also LOVE working with female artists, directors, producers, writers, show-runners, filmmakers etc. It is so inspiring and empowering for me and I love being able to collaborate and support other women too.

Who are some people you admire? Why? They can be actors or non-actors.

-There are so many people I admire. I admire artists and non-artists alike who are sincere, authentic, kind, vulnerable and work hard. I’ve always been someone who sees the good in people and appreciates when people use their position or exposure for shedding light in this world.

-Portia de Rossi, Ellen DeGeneres’s wife, is someone I’ve long admired and hope to meet one day. She wrote a very authentic memoir called Unbearable Lightness about her struggles with hiding her eating disorder and sexuality while rising to fame as an actress. It is beautifully written, searing in vulnerability, and the book that inspired me to write Shapeless. She tells it like it is and is the first time I encountered someone being so honest about what it was like on the inside of an eating disorder. I felt seen and understood when I read her story – she helped me to feel safe enough to talk about my story. I’m also very inspired by Ellen and her honesty and bravery for owning her truth in such an unforgiving climate. She finds joy so effortlessly and I can’t wait to hang with her and watch a Saints game and talk about New Orleans together.

-I love Brené Brown and her work. She is a qualitative researcher who studies things about humanity like shame and vulnerability. I’ve always been a sensitive soul and leading with my heart feels most natural to me. Through her research and work, she teaches that vulnerability is the bravest emotion and the path to true creativity, empathy, innovation, and joy. And I believe it, I think she’s right. I wish I could make everyone in the world read one of her books or watch her Netflix special The Call to Courage. She is incredible.

-I am endlessly inspired by people and artists who are willing to do the inner work and look at themselves to create truly original and authentic work like J.K. Rowling, Issa Rae, Kumail Nanjiani, one of my dearest friends Tenea Intriago – actress and writer who is so beautifully inspiring, Jameela Jamil, Jordan Peele, Bong Joon Ho, Oprah, my husband, my daughter, the people who believed in and are a part of Shapeless – I believe in lifting each other up and sharing our stories. This list goes on and on. (Truthfully, I could list people I am inspired by all day!)

-Because as Brené Brown says in her book Braving the Wilderness, “It’s the sharing of art that whispers, “You’re not alone.” That. That, I believe in whole-heartedly.