We often hear actors talk about how projects have touched them personally, but it doesn't get more personal than Kate Connor's Fort McCoy. The actress co-stars in, wrote and co-directed the World War II-era movie named after the American Army and POW camp in Wisconsin that held captured German soldiers in the 1940's - and in addition to bringing to light this little-known piece of world history, she's also sharing a great deal of her family history. We connected with Kate last week to discuss the journey of Fort McCoy and the film's hopefully bright future.
Originally completed three years ago, Fort McCoy has been quietly traveling the world prior to today's limited domestic release. "We actually fully took the festival circuit ride," Kate explained. "We basically circled the globe twice, which was an amazing experience from Shanghai to Sao Paolo, Milan, Dublin...It was so much fun sharing the movie all over the world. Especially with German audiences, it was very emotional and healing."
Kate co-stars as Ruby Stirn, whose husband Frank (played by Eric Stoltz) moves their family to Fort McCoy in 1944. And it's family that's at the core of the film's multiple storylines: Ruby's Catholic sister Anna Gerkey (Lyndsy Fonseca, Nikita) falls for a Jewish soldier (Andy Hirsch), a pairing encouraged by a family friend (Camryn Manheim) but frowned upon by the local priest (Seymour Cassel). The end result is a motion picture that weaves together the major scale of worldwide conflict with the more intimate stories of individuals, and it's close to home for Kate.
"In the movie, I play a role based on my real grandmother," she told us. "She was a mentor of mine and a hero, and she's no longer with us. What I'm most proud of is getting to portray her. She was this feminist way before her time, and also this cool and charitable, kind woman who after World War II became a Head Start teacher...She was this fearless defender of the underdog. It was my great honor to get to bring her story to life."
"The funny thing is that it's a really unknown story in our history," Kate continued. "We brought over 400,000 German POW's and imprisoned them around the country, and for some reason nobody knows it in America unless they lived by one of the camps. It just hasn't really entered our historical knowledge. So I'm excited for that basically unknown history in our country to get out into the world."
She's assembled a strong cast to help bring that history to life, and she also gave us some insight into what it was like to collaborate with this entertaining ensemble. "Eric ended up coming aboard because we have a mutual friend named J. Todd Harris, who's a wonderful producer in his own right. Todd gave the script to Eric," she recalled.
"It was such an amazing collaboration on and off screen. In the script stage, and besides his terrific acting, he also could have had ten credits in the movie - as his own stand-in, setting props, and in post-production. I gave him every cut that my editor and I made of the movie and he gave great notes. I can't say enough good things. He's an amazing person and I can't wait to work with him again!"
"Lyndsy has like a light that shines from inside her coming out. She's such a delightful, wonderful person and is fantastic in this role. She brings to life a role based on my real great-aunt, who's very similar to her in personality," she continued. "Camryn brought such needed levity to the very intense dramatic story, and is also just a fabulous person. She surprised everyone on set one day with this surprise ice cream social...She is a wonderful human being, and I adore her."
When you're working with so many talented people on something that means so much to you, it's impossible not to succeed. For Kate - whose own taste ranges from Milos Forman to To Kill A Mockingbird to Aaron Paul in Breaking Bad - Fort McCoy has opened numerous future doors. "It's led to some great stuff," she said. "I wrote my next movie that I'm going to be directing called Piggy, that's about a former prom queen that has to save her family farm from a corporate takeover.
"I was just hired to write a true 9/11 story about an Italian restaurant that stayed open at Ground Zero to feed the firefighters and cops. That's going to be a really great project," she continued. "The movie also led to me already being hired to adapt a George Axelrod novel for the screen. Acting-wise, I just starred in a comedy called Gone Doggy Gone. We're also going to start pitching Fort McCoy as a TV series or limited series, because I actually had to leave out so many, many stories."
We'll be hearing a lot more from Kate in the very near future, whether it's her acting work in front of the camera, or her unique writing voice behind it. With her enthusiasm for making good entertainment that also has something to say - "I find that film, aside from being the best medium for entertainment, is the best medium to effect change," she told us - she is one of the multi-hyphenates to watch in the business. Yet no matter where the success of the film takes her, she'll be happy if telling her story with Fort McCoy touches other people's lives.
"The main theme of it is that there's good and evil in the world, and in between, there's a long blurred line," Kate reflected. "World War II was a time that the whole country came together in support of each other. In the movie, the family has to lean on each other and they lean on their community. I guess [I want the audience] to come away with everything you need is right around you."
Fort McCoy is in limited release now. To find out where the film is playing near you, visit the movie's page at distributor Monterey Media (montereymedia.com/fortmccoy).