Marianne Jean-Baptiste says 'In Fabric' character is 'a regular woman'

Dec. 6 (UPI) — In Fabric is a horror film about a haunted dress. With a premise like that, you can bet writer/director Peter Strickland explores unusual territory. For the film’s star, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, the most unusual part of the film was her role.

“This script to me was just [a role] that is never really ever sent to me,” Jean-Baptiste told UPI in a phone interview. “So I was intrigued.”

Since her Academy Award-nominated performance in the 1996 film Secrets & Lies, Jean-Baptiste has appeared in blockbuster movies and weekly crime-solving TV series. She said she has never played a character like Sheila in In Fabric.

“[Sheila is] just sort of a regular woman with an emotional story,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I usually get sent characters that are bosses, lawyers, policewomen and FBI agents.”

Jean-Baptiste’s past roles include FBI agents Vivian Johnson on Without a Trace and Bethany Mayfair on Blindspot, barrister Sharon Bishop on Broadchurch and police chiefs Karen Dean in the Robocop remake and Joy Lockhart in the Training Day TV series.

The character Sheila works at a department store at which her bosses keep calling her into meetings to scold her for social faux pas. Her son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh) lives at home, and girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie) comes over a lot.

“Here was just this woman who was a mother, had gone through a divorce, not particularly happy at work,” Jean-Baptiste said. “It was refreshing.”

Then, the dress in Sheila’s store, which she wears, haunts her life. In another horror movie, an evil dress might eat the person wearing it. In Strickland’s style, the haunted dress is more abstract. Did the dress cause unfortunate events or is it just a coincidence? Jean-Baptiste could only play Sheila’s real-world drama, not the horror movie.

“You just have to be doing the reality of the world,” she said.

The dress also changes hands, making In Fabric an ensemble story. Although Sheila is only one component of the film, Jean-Baptiste was aware of where she fit in the larger story.

“I need to see the shape of the piece I’m doing,” Jean-Baptiste said. “Ultimately, if you look at a role on its own, I’m not sure that you ever really get the whole picture. It’s important to read the whole world and understand the whole world and then the part in which the character plays within it.”

For Jean-Baptiste, all the stories in In Fabric relate to the theme of consumerism. The dress itself and other material items bring out the worst in customers.

“What was more fascinating to me was the whole concept of the sale,” Jean-Baptiste said. “You have Black Fridays over here in the United States and the obsession of people wanting to take advantage of these sales, going as far as sleeping outside the shop the night before so that they’ll be the first person to go through the door to claim that television that was going to be sold for half price.”

In Fabric is set at a department store, not a big box electronics store, but customers still get violent over who was first in line.

“That’s what really intrigued me about exploring that whole thing about consumerism and what it was, the obsession of it,” Jean-Baptiste said. “If, for example, you’re going to sell a TV at half price, you’re probably getting it for its real value without all the other charge hikes on top of it. So are you actually getting anything in reality?

“How does it feel once they’ve bought something? How does that make Sheila feel? I just kind of thought we don’t need half the stuff that we get. It made me want to explore minimalism a little more.”

The film gives the dress literal power over Sheila by depicting her in an improved state while wearing it.

“We talked at length about the dress and endowing the dress with the ability to be able to transform the wearer,” Jean-Baptiste said. “When Sheila puts that dress on and looks at herself in the mirror, she feels as if her skin is brightened, her back is straighter. She’s slimmer. Her bust line has much improved.

“In the script it’s like she’s like a six, but the dress is a size two. She tries it on, anyway, and it fits like a glove. It’s perfect. Whoever wears it, it has that effect on them.”

As intense as In Fabric became — with the horror of the dress, the themes of materialism and the personal drama Sheila endures — Jean-Baptiste said the cast had fun making it.

“Half the things that we were doing we’d be laughing about,” Jean-Baptiste said. “The fact that my character’s having to peep in on them having sex and what would they actually be doing in there when she looked in? We’d have a cackle about that sort of thing and what we’ve eaten that day. You find the most mundane things to get excited about and laugh.”

In Fabric opens Friday in theaters and Tuesday on demand.

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