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Despite the age-old trend of real-life couples teaming up for films, actor/director Ryan Piers Williams insists that wife America Ferrera wasn’t the obvious choice as the lead for his film X/Y.
“I didn’t write the role with her in mind, and I didn’t know whether I wanted to cast her, honestly,” says Williams of his second feature film, following 2010’s The Dry Land. “When America expressed interest in playing the role, I was really surprised and excited by that.”
Ferrera — who recently starred in biopic Chavez — adds that when her husband of nearly three years first showed her X/Y‘s script, she didn’t connect with lead character Sylvia. “I judged her and I didn’t like her,” says Ferrera.”But I realized that if someone wrote the facts of the worst things I’ve done in my life, I might not come off as likeable. I wouldn’t want to be judged by that. So I saw this as an opportunity to work with Ryan and create a character who brings humanity through the hurt, and really examines her inner life.”
Their collaboration produced a story about young people — caught between “generation X and generation Y,” explains Williams — who struggle to forge and sustain relationships amid the dual hurdles created by modern technology and societal conventions. Williams co-stars as Sylvia’s ex-boyfriend Mark; the cast also includes Melonie Diaz, Amber Tamblyn, and Common.
According to Ferrera, the greatest challenge wasn’t simply funding the film, assembling a cast or even organizing the logistics of a quick-and-dirty five-week shoot in New York City — all of which lead to a decided lack of sleep and a reliance on takeout. Instead, she says, it was the emotional toll of leaving behind her happy marriage to portray an onscreen relationship between troubled characters.
“Some of the intense fighting scenes our characters had to go through were difficult,” confesses Ferrera. “I also found that some of the moments where Sylvia is alone were tremendously sad. You have to put yourself in such a vulnerable position to convey those sorts of things and really feel them, which made sitting in these characters day after day really kind of hard.”
Williams — who wrote the script in just three weeks — says he found both playing opposite and directing his wife “natural.” After all, he notes, they first met when he cast her in a student project of his at the University of Southern California. Still, X/Y opens with a sex scene between the couple, which Williams said did present “big risks.”
“It’s not about us personally so I didn’t worry about it too much, honestly, but it is a vulnerable moment,” says the El Paso, Texas native. In fact, he found his greatest challenge was directing and acting simultaneously.
“I would never put myself in a movie or even take on an acting job where I didn’t feel I had something to offer, and that goes on with directing as well,” says Williams. “I can’t say I prefer one over the other, because it does come down to the material and what it requires of me.”
Still, William’s’ experience had dissuaded Ferrera from embarking on a similar acting-directorial effort any time soon.
“Watching Ryan direct and act at the same time made me realize that only crazy people would do that,” says the 30-year-old. “I would like to direct a project eventually, but if I do, you won’t see me at the camera at the same time.”
Take a look at an exclusive clip of X/Y below. The film premieres at Tribeca on Saturday.