Plenty of budding actors would kill for a Best Feature win to put on their IMDb page, but as actors Hilly Holsonback and Hannah Weir watch accolades stream in for their eccentric, no-budget film A Ship of Human Skin, they hardly know what to make of it.
“It’s kind of a different world to me, and I’m not really sure which ones are highly regarded, but as it pours in and we get more and more awards, it’s very strange and wonderful at the same time,” says Holsonback, who considers it her first real film role.
A Ship of Human Skin is directed by local poet and filmmaker Richard Bailey and has a Dallas-based cast and crew. It premiered at Dallas VideoFest in February, and since then it has won top honors from the L’Age d’Or International Arthouse Film Festival (India) and Monkey Bread Tree Film Awards (U.K.), and recognition from festivals in Madrid, Los Angeles and New York.
“Just to think that people in Madrid watched it is pretty exciting,” Weir says.
Bailey grew up on a farm in Central Texas and told Glasstire earlier this year that the film draws inspiration from the vistas of his childhood. A bare bones synopsis goes something like this: Two best friends in rural East Texas, Jeannie Tiller (Holsonback) and Saribeth Merton (Weir), are entangled in a dark, drug-fueled world and find themselves doing violent and supernatural things in their quest for higher ground.
But A Ship of Human Skin is also moody and abstract, making its plot difficult to pin down. We asked Holsonback and Weir what words or phrases they might use to describe it in a round of the party game Taboo.
“Supernatural crime,” Weir says. “Poverty. Drugs.”
“Ax,” Holsonback interjects.
“Murder,” Weir combats.
“Levitation,” Holsonback counters.
“It’s kind of like this magical realism, Texas crime,” Weir concludes. “I would definitely include the word Texas.”
“An East Texas painting is the best way that I would describe it,” Holsonback agrees.
Although Weir is a more experienced film actor than Holsonback — she recently moved to New York to continue pursuing it as a career — they were both well-prepared for their complex roles. In addition to being close friends in real life, they’ve collaborated on some pretty unusual creative projects.
Holsonback and Weir are members of the Dallas theater collective Dead White Zombies, which is known for its free-wheeling, interactive performances in warehouses and other nontraditional theater settings.
That’s where Bailey first saw the pair, in the 2015 production DP92. He was inspired to write the film script for A Ship of Human Skin after observing the chemistry between Holsonback, Weir and another actor, Abel Flores.
“We can kind of guess what the other person’s going to do next,” Holsonback says of her dynamic with Weir.
Their characters in DP92 were nothing like the meek Saribeth and numb Jeannie. (Weir describes hers as “an alpha female in an asylum that was kind of abstracted from time and space,” to give you an idea.) But Bailey reached out at the end of 2017 to tell them he was working on a script with them in mind.
Weir and Holsonback had heard of Bailey and seen him at their performances, but he was essentially a stranger when they went to his house to read the script in early 2018. They were impressed with what they read, and despite the work being unpaid, neither actor hesitated to jump on board.
Weir says she is seeking out all the film experience she can get and was excited for the chance to work with Holsonback again, and have something to show for it this time. “Stage performance is so fleeting, you don’t really get much to keep from it,” she says.
She was also attracted to the “stark and desolate” tone of the script and the chance to play Saribeth, who represents a departure from her past roles. “She’s really gentle and childlike, and for a long time I was being typecast as this hypersexed, angry, scary lady,” Weir says. “I get kind of tired of that.”
Holsonback is a well-known local artist but her media are primarily photography and theater, with some music. Her only prior film experience was standing in for someone who’d dropped out of a short, but it’s not out of the ordinary for her to try something new.
“I’m kind of a 'yes person' when it comes to creative projects,” Holsonback says. “I’m so excited to collaborate and jump into something that I have no business being a part of, mostly because I have zero experience in it.”
Both Holsonback and Weir say they have ambitions of making their own films, and they had hoped A Ship of Human Skin — the third feature by Bailey’s production company Tropic Pictures — would provide a hands-on learning environment.
“This was kind of a chance for me to just jump in with film with people that I trusted,” Holsonback says.
The experience delivered, and in addition to acting, they got to help record sound and even write an entirely new scene after an actor dropped out. Holsonback and Weir were as excited for the writing opportunity as they were relieved, because the scene they were replacing called for a drugged-up cowboy to rape Hannah’s character.
“Instead Richard said, ‘Do ya’ll want to write this scene where Hannah can just have a freak out and be possessed by the spirit of a rowdy, insane cowboy,’” Weir giddily recalls.
“Of course we don’t want to do a scene with rape,” Holsonback says. “It was a chance for us to flip the script where she’s the one who’s empowered.”
The filming of A Ship of Human Skin took place over four days in Fairfield in June 2018. Although Flores ultimately wasn’t able to participate, a number of other Dead White Zombies did made it into the cast, along with representatives of other notable local art groups including Avant to Leave This Planet, Dallas Ambient Music Nights and Poets on X+.
The core cast and crew moved from location to location in a rented RV, with locals filling out scenes as needed. “We got to meet a lot of interesting characters, people that were very interested in us, thinking that we’re coming from the big city and we’re these big time actors and stuff,” Holsonback says.
The actors generally provided their own costumes and makeup, with direction from Bailey.
“There were a few scenes where Richard was very much inspired by communicating through color, so if he imagined me in a jewel-colored top or a pink top or something for what it represents, then I would have to look in my wardrobe and find something like that,” Holsonback says.
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Sometimes she couldn’t find something that matched her character, and would use their small per diem to go shopping. “My wardrobe is a lot of vintage and kind of quirky stuff, “ she says. “So I would just go to Walmart and I would pick up something really cheap.”
Both Holsonback and Weir speak highly of Bailey as a director. “He listened to us and how we understood the character to be, versus how he wrote it, which is pretty unique for somebody who’s written something that’s so personal,” Holsonback says. She will be going on the road with him this fall to attend screenings in Austin and Houston.
Weir will be sitting those screenings out, because she’s occupied in New York. When the Observer spoke with her, she was preparing to attend a cast and crew screening of Hustlers, the star-studded new blockbuster in which she has a line.
Somewhat proving her earlier point about being typecast, Weir’s character in that film is a stripper. But at least she’s a nice stripper. “I play a similar character to Saribeth in a weird way,” she says.