The teen drama Contest takes a unique look at the hot-button topic of bullying by presenting both sides of the coin in an innovative way. The story centers on Tommy Dolan (Daniel Flaherty), a high school kid who is constantly picked on by the swimming team, particularly Matt Prylek (Kenton Duty), whose latest prank has some unforseen consequences. Matt is forced to join Tommy's team on a cooking contest, where the winner gets his own reality show. In the middle of these unorthodox friends is blogger Sarah O'Malley (Katherine McNamara), who learns the real truth behind this forced partnership. I recently had the chance to chat with Katherine McNamara over the phone for Contest, which debuts on DVD December 17. Here's what she had to say.
Can you first talk about your initial reactions to the script? This is a very different kind of high school drama. Was there something in particular that really piqued your interest?
Katherine McNamara: The producers were actually friends of mine, from my work in New York on Broadway, and they approached me with the script and said, 'We have this really great story about a kid who is bullied, and how all the people around him deal with that, and all of that.' I read the script and I really fell in love with the characters, but even more so, the way they presented bullying, in a very realistic and true to life sense of what kids go through in high school every day, all over the country and the world. Every character is humanized in the script. The bully is not just some big bad villain who shows up a couple of times. You really get the back story of every single character, and understand where they're coming from. It doesn't excuse it, but it explains it. What we're trying to do with the film is open the door up to discussions for families to talk about these issues. It's always talked about in schools and programs, but you'd be surprised how many families actually sit down and go, 'Hey, what's going on in your life with bullying? Are you being bullied? Do you know kids who are being bullied?' That's really how we need to start the conversation.
It really tackled the issue in a grounded and intriguing way. Most of these movies, the bully is this guy who can't be stopped, stuff like that. It was refreshing to see a different view on that.
Katherine McNamara: It was great. Danny (Flaherty) and Kenton (Duty) are good friends of mine, and I enjoyed they're characters. They're such rich characters. The writer-director (Anthony Joseph Giunta) had huge back stories, and each of us really understood our characters, inside and out.
How much time did you actually have to shoot this, and did you have a lot of time to get into the character? She's a blogger and there are all sorts of different aspects to this character.
Katherine McNamara: Yeah, we didn't have a ton of time on set, but I had the script for a month or two before hand, or different versions as they'd come out, and I'd just read it over and over again for a couple of days, just to get it in my head and really understand the ins and outs of a character. Every time you read a script, or watch a movie even, you notice something different, a different point of view or maybe something happened that day and you could relate to another aspect. It's intriguing how that develops. On set was one one of my favorite experiences. Our director, Anthony, would let us do our own thing for the first couple of takes, just let us come in and do whatever, and he'd come in and add a thought or a layer or a line change that would completely change the direction of the scene. It was more like a workshop than a film shoot. We were able to play with the scene, and really have our own artistry in it as well. It was great for all of us.
I read that a lot of the cast members were involved with anti-bullying campaigns before even signing on. I was wondering if that was the case with you, and if there was anything new that you might have learned about bullying during the production?
Katherine McNamara: Absolutely. I was actually an ambassador for Stomp Out Bullying (StompOutBullying.org) before I was even approached about the film, which was one of the reasons I was so drawn to the story. I was bullied a lot growing up. I was always the different one, and when you're different, kids can sometimes pick on you. It's not right, and it's rather horrific. Bullying is such an epidemic in our society, and it's something that needs to be stop. I'm of the mind that we're almost preparing kids to be bullies, instead of going and finding the problem at the source, and using the resources we have to change it from the start, instead of preparing kids to go through this hardship.
What kinds of reactions have you gotten from high school kids about the film?
Katherine McNamara: Yeah, the film aired on Cartoon Network a couple of times during October, for National Bullying Awareness Month, and I got so many tweets and letters and responses from kids, about how much they loved the film, and how it really changed their opinion and opened the door for them. I even heard from a few kids who said that said this movie helped them realize that they were being a bully, and that they were going to change how they were going to act towards others. That's more than we could ever imagine. Even through the musical aspect of the film, and my single "Chatter" that was released with a music video and everything, there was such a strong response from teachers, kids, parents. Everyone is really loving the film, and we're getting the message across in a way that is making a difference. It's more than we could ever ask for.
I read you shot this in upstate New York. Can you talk about filming in that community?
Katherine McNamara: We were shooting in this town called Liberty, New York. It's upstate, a couple of hours, and we had the absolute best time. The town really embraced us and welcomed us with open arms. We had such a good time. We stayed at this bed and breakfast that had these little cabins. When we'd all get home from set, we'd all build a bonfire and a fire pit and grab out guitars and sing. One of the actors was a violin prodigy, so he'd bring his violin, and other people had guitars and harmonicas. We'd just get together and sing and make music and have fun. We became this huge family, and it was so wonderful.
It looked like it was shot in a town that hadn't been seen on film before.
Katherine McNamara: It actually fit the film perfectly. It was the kind of town we were trying to find, and we couldn't have found a better place to shoot. A lot of the kids in the town actually got involved in the film as well. They were extras in the cooking competition, or part of the audience or kids in the classroom. Everybody who was involved in the film, had some experience with bullying, either they had been bullied or knew someone who had been bullied, so everyone involved felt really passionate about the cause and the project. I'm of the mind that's one of the reasons the film turned out so well, and is doing so well.
Is there anything that you're working on now that you can talk about?
Katherine McNamara: I'm getting ready to start a new show on MTV. It's a really fun project. It's about all these people who live and work at a theme park, so everything looks so perfect and like a fairy tale, but you go behind-the-scenes and it's utter chaos. There's really dramatic, soapy plot twists and love triangles, but it also has really smart comedy. Our creator, Ben Epstein, we love him dearly, and he's one of the funniest people I know. We're in very good hands with him, and we're very excited. I play Harper Monroe. She is the best friend of Bianca A. Santos' character. She's a fun, flamboyant girl who isn't afraid to speak her mind. She's trying to figure out her relationships, and who she is as a person.
Katherine McNamara: It's such an important movie for people to see. It covers bullying in a very realistic sense and it's also appropriate for families. It's got great musical elements, it's got fun moments, moments where you'll laugh, moments where you'll cry, moments that will move you. It shows you what bullying is from every perspective, and what can be done about it. It's got something for all ages, so families will enjoy it. Everyone should check this film out, and the soundtrack.
Great, that's about all I have. Thanks so much, Katherine.
Katherine McNamara: All right. Thank you.