Michelle McLeod, Kate Hallett, and Liv McNeil on Bringing Laughter to the Serious "Women Talking"

WT_07885-07899_RCC5(l-r.) Michelle McLeod stars as Mejal, Sheila McCarthy as Greta,Liv McNeil as Neitje, Jessie Buckley as Mariche, Claire Foy as Salome, Kate Hallett as Autje, Rooney Mara as Ona and Judith Ivey as Agata in director Sarah Polley's film,WO
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Even in the darkest times, there can still be laughter and joy. That's one of the lessons of Sarah Polley's "Women Talking," which used a sprawling ensemble cast to tell the story of Mennonite women who try to move forward together in the face of unbelievable trauma. The movie is nominated for three Oscars, including best picture. Three of the ensemble's younger members — Michelle McLeod, who plays Mejal; Kate Hallett, who plays Autje; and Liv McNeil, who plays Nietje — spoke to POPSUGAR about their experiences on set and why keeping laughter at the center of the weighty film was so important.

The movie, which went into wide release Jan. 20, has an all-star cast that includes Frances McDormand, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara, Ben Whishaw, Judith Ivey, and Sheila McCarthy. Hallett confesses that working with so many legendary actors was "incredibly intimidating." But, she adds, "I was terrified for about the first week, and then you actually talk to them, and they're really, really nice and just normal and chill." They were also really open about giving advice and being parental figures for the younger cast, she says.

For Hallett, getting to have conversations with these castmates was super valuable. "People that understood exactly what I was feeling was something that I had never really had before, because none of my friends and none of my family are really in the business," she says. "It really felt like they were my people."

McNeil agrees: she was originally intimidated by her costars, but things changed over time. "We were all just coworkers, all equal peers. But it ended up being a really, really nurturing environment and really comfortable and really warm," she says.

She adds that Mara, especially, was "such a comforting present" on set with a "quiet warmth." (As Hallett puts it, Mara is "a strong silent type.") The actress had her dog Oskar with her on set, and during breaks between filming, everyone would hang out in the green room together with the adorable pup.

Besides their intimidating castmates, there was also the challenge of the material. The movie is about a group of Mennonite women who learn that some of the men in their community have been drugging them and raping them in their sleep. Based on the novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, the film follows a group of women as they decide if they should stay with the men and do nothing, physically fight back, or leave.

Keeping things light despite the dark content was important to all the actors and to Polley, and it comes across in the movie, which has moments of laughter and joy. Hallett explains, "I remember Sarah saying some things about how one of the things that Miriam really wanted to make sure was in the film is that when Mennonite women gather and it's just women there, it's always a lot of laughter and a lot of physical touching. That was purposefully in there because it's a really important part of their culture."

McLeod says she was full of energy on set, and she used it to make friends with as many members of the cast and crew as she could. "So there was lightness within ourselves, and that naturally transitioned into our acting because we were like, 'Oh these people are open to laughing and open to being silly and are receptive of the lightness of the vibe,'" she explains. Hallett adds that McLeod was one of her favorite people she met during the process. "I just love talking to her because it was so easy, and she's just so open and hilarious," she gushes. "So then when you're feeling sad, you just go hang out with Michelle and feel so much better."

For Hallett and McNeil especially, that comfort was important because the teenagers were total newbies on set. The movie was Hallett's second-ever audition. She got very attached to her character, Autje, during the audition process, only to hear "no thanks." And then, out of the blue, she got an email asking her to do a chemistry read with McNeil.

McNeil describes her road to the film as "iconic." She was a student filmmaker, working on her own short films. "Before I did any sort of acting stuff, I was just posting my films on YouTube," she explains. "One of them, called 'Numb,' it's about the pandemic. It went kind of viral over 2020, COVID time's peak. And it ended up reaching Sarah somehow." Polley commented on the video, and they emailed back and forth a little bit. Then Polley called McNeil in to audition first for Autje and then for Nietje.

WT_05312_R(l-r.) Rooney Mara stars as Ona, Claire Foy as Salome, Judith Ivey as Agata, Sheila McCarthy as Greta, Michelle McLeod as Mejal and Jessie Buckley as Mariche in director Sarah Polley's filmWOMEN TALKINGAn Orion Pictures ReleasePhoto credit: Mich
Orion Pictures

McNeil and Hallett eventually did the chemistry read together over Zoom, and once they met in real life, they felt an "immediate connection," McNeil says. Hallett compares the first days on set to the first days of high school. "I was very intimidated about you at first," she confesses to McNeil during the interview. "Really?" McNeil asks. "Because I was intimidated with you. Oh my God. Because I knew you were older, and I was sure that you had done acting before. Because I had done nothing before." Meanwhile, Hallett had watched McNeil's film, which Polley had told her about, and she was very impressed.

McLeod also instantly fell in love with her character, Mejal. "I had also just come out of a very traumatic, toxic relationship where some of the similarities in this character is what I experienced in my own life," she explains. "So it was actually great timing because I was able to use that life experience in the character." In the movie, there's one heartbreaking moment where Mejal has a panic attack and can't catch her breath. But none of the women know what a panic attack is; they literally don't have the language to describe the trauma she's suffering.

That idea resonated for McLeod. Before her audition, she had her first panic attack. "You feel like you're going to die," she says. "And I went to the hospital because that's what I truly believed at the time, which I didn't really have any education on prior to experiencing it."

"So when I was doing the panic attack [scene], I just kind of remembered what it was like to feel out of control. And also the fight you fight when you're panicking to bring yourself back," she adds.

All three actors say everyone's performances changed a lot between rehearsals and when they actually filmed the movie, and they attribute part of that to the fact that Polley filmed the story in chronological order, which is very rare for films. As the actors got more comfortable in their roles, the characters also got more comfortable speaking their minds.

"If you think about the actual story, everyone is kind of tip-toeing around how they feel truly," McLeod says. As the movie progresses, they become more sure of themselves. "And that comes with a little more confidence and courage. And I think that developed within all of us."

McNeil says that by the end of filming, she realized just how much she related to her character. "I felt so connected with this fictional character that they became one by the end of it," she says. It was a similar experience for Hallett. "Everyone was putting everything into it, and nobody was holding back," she says. "As time went on, I think everyone really got to know their characters better, and just as we formed a connection as people, we also formed a connection as characters. And everyone just learned to love everyone so much more." They all admit it's taken a lot to process working with such heavy material, but it's been rewarding to share their work with the world.

"Women Talking" is in theaters now.