Hello, Hollywood history! Voicing THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE: an interview with narrator Kimberly Farr

We’re thrilled to welcome award-winning narrator Kimberly Farr to the PRHA blog to tell us about how she approaches an audiobook project, and why she was particularly drawn to Melanie Benjamin’s most recent historical fiction treat, THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE, which introduces listeners to two Hollywood legends: screenwriter Frances Marion and superstar Mary Pickford. Library Journal raved, “Actress Kimberly Farr imbues the voices of Marion and Pickford with texture and color.” Hear how Farr, a self-described movie buff, steps into a role when she steps behind the mic and why her first reaction to the book was: “WOW, this is absolutely riveting!”

Do you have a typical preparation process?
I begin every project with an in-depth read of the book. If it’s a novel, I make notes about each character as she/he appears, stuff like age, nationality, history, notable characteristics, relationships, and point of view. I also look for information about the characters that may come from other characters or the narrative passages. From these notes, I can begin to get an idea of how the characters might sound, and eventually I read passages aloud, to experiment with voices. This is really important if a character speaks in a particular dialect—I like to get the “feel” of that accent in my mouth. If it’s a dialect I’m not terribly familiar with, I’ll make phonetic notes in my script to help me stay on track in the studio.

For a non-fiction title, I pay a lot of attention to the author’s tone and point of view, especially if it’s an autobiographical piece. For instance, is the author’s take on this topic lighthearted? Academic? Intense? Is the author personally involved in the subject matter, or is there a scholarly distance inherent in the writing? Answering those questions is really important, because the answers will lead me to the tone I need to use to best convey the material in a way that reflects the author’s voice and intention.

What was your first reaction to THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE? How did you approach portraying these two women? And how do you stylistically approach a work that takes place in a different era—in this case 1914?

The book is written in alternating chapters, one from Frances’s point of view, then one from Mary’s. It begins in the 1970s, then jumps back to the 1910s, when everything about the industry was new. Mary and Frances got in on the ground floor, when movie companies were literally roaming the streets of Los Angeles, shooting wherever the scenery looked good and they could avoid the police. So my first reaction to the book was: “WOW, this is absolutely riveting!”

I’m a sucker for Hollywood history, and Ms. Benjamin really did her homework. (Her bibliography was fascinating, too.) Her two main characters, Mary Pickford and Frances Marion, each had long, successful careers in the movie business. They also had a deep friendship that lasted decades. That’s what the book is about, their relationship to the fledgling movie industry, their relationship to the men in their lives, and their relationship to each other. It’s also very much about the role women played in the start of the business—there were many women in positions of power—writers and directors as well as actors. Great stuff.

As with every project, I did my best to “crawl inside” the characters’ heads—using the text to ferret out who they were, how they saw themselves, and how they reacted to the world around them.

As for stylistically approaching a piece that takes place in another time, there I defer to the author’s voice. Good writing will do so much of that work for me. Any historically different cadence of speech, or any bit of period detail will be there in the writing. All I have to do is listen to the music of the text, and do everything I can to faithfully recreate it in my performance.

Did you watch a lot of old movies to prepare? If so, which films did you watch?

No, not any specific movies per se. I’m a movie buff and have spent a lot of time watching them, from silents to the current crop of films, so all of those images are stored somewhere in my head.

What are your favorite old movies?

Oh my! How long do you have?

I love the comedies from the 1930’s and 40’s: Bringing Up Baby, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Ball of Fire, The Women, My Favorite Wife, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, The Major and The Minor. I love just about any film by Billy Wilder or Frank Capra. I’m also a huge fan of silly movies, like The Court Jester with Danny Kaye. And Alfred Hitchcock flicks: Rear Window, It Takes a Thief, Dial M For Murder. Musicals: Singin’ in the Rain, Easter Parade, any Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, or Judy Garland film. The Garson Kanin/Ruth Gordon scripts: Adam’s Rib, Born Yesterday, Pat and Mike. Anything with Bette Davis! The Bad and the Beautiful, a great movie about the movie business. And of course: CASABLANCA!!!

How did you approach tackling the voices of Pickford and Marion (or any others)?

I knew that I had to come up with two very distinctive voices for these women. I actually did a Google search, looking for recordings of them. While I usually don’t think it’s a good idea to try to do an impersonation of someone, it’s useful to know how they actually spoke so I can “flavor” the character with a bit of their real voices and—even more important—their specific energies. I didn’t find any audio of Frances, but I did find a perfectly wonderful bit of film of Mary, age 70-or-80-something, receiving her honorary Academy Award. This was incredibly helpful when I was constructing her character.

Frances’s chapters are narrated straightforwardly in the first person, and the author, Ms. Benjamin, uses a tremendously interesting narrative voice in Mary’s chapters—she speaks about herself in the third person. I puzzled over this for a bit, then I realized that the listener can get a terrific feeling for where Mary is, psychologically, because of the use of that narrative voice. (Great writing.) And then I aged the voices a bit, as the characters aged.

And I did listen to some scenes in Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.’s movies, so I could be sure of being in the right ballpark with him—he was an icon and his voice would be recognized and remembered.

Did the book make you think about any of your own experiences as an actress or how Hollywood has (or hasn’t) changed since the early 1900s?

Well, I guess you could say that Hollywood has changed completely since the early 1900s. Nothing in the industry is spur-of-the-moment anymore. I think it would have been fun to sort of make it up as you went along. Sorry I missed that.

One of the specific ways it has changed—in a negative way—is reflected in the position of women in the industry. Frances Marion was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood for several decades, and many, if not most, of her fellow writers were also female. Lois Weber was a top director, Frances herself became a director, and Mary was a founding partner in United Artists Studios. Somehow, over the decades since then, women have been side-lined and demoted from those powerful positions. It might be interesting to explore how and why that happened. I think that’s changing somewhat now, but not nearly enough and not nearly fast enough. Recent news about Harvey Weinstein, et al, only serves to underline how necessary it is for more women to have positions of power in our industry.

Although, now that I think about it, the title of the book, The Girls in the Picture, refers to the fact that in many of the early photos taken of the movers and shakers in the business, Frances and Mary were the only “girls.” So maybe things aren’t all that different, after all…

I don’t think either my experiences or my career bear much resemblance to Mary Pickford’s. Poor Mary became a victim of her own success. She was trapped by her fans in the role of a young child, so much so that she had to hide the fact that she was married! The industry insisted that she play that “Little Girl” role until she got so mature that it became impossible—and then her career essentially ended. When Mary was popular, the fan base wanted to believe that the actors they loved were actually like the characters they played. As a result, they didn’t get to have much range in the roles they took on. I’ve played a great variety of parts—and still get to! In audiobooks, I play roles in which I would never be cast on film or in the theatre. And that’s really fun.

Listen to a clip from THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE: