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With her first film, ‘Suncoast,’ Laura Chinn digs into her emotional past

Mark Meszoros – The News-Herald, Willoughby, Ohio (TNS)

Just released to Hulu, the semi-autobiographical “Suncoast” is the feature debut from Laura Chinn.

Chinn, to this point best known for appearing in episodes of several television shows, also has written a memoir, “Acne,” which she is considering trying to adapt for her next project.

“I am also interested in never talking about myself again,” she says during a recent video interview.

“Suncoast,” from Walt Disney Co. subsidiary Searchlight Pictures, is a coming-of-age tale inspired by Chinn’s experience as a teen when her brother, near the end of a battle with cancer, was admitted to the same Florida hospice facility then home to Terri Schiavo, whose end-of-life saga captured much of the nation’s attention roughly two decades ago. The film stars young actress Nico Parker (2019’s “Dumbo”) as Doris and prolific actors Laura Linney, as Doris’ grieving and overbearing mother, Kristine, and Woody Harrelson, as Paul, a devout Christian who has come to the facility with others to protest efforts to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube.

In a conversation edited for length and clarity, Chinn talks about fact and fiction in “Suncoast” and what the trio of actors brought to this personal film.

Q: “Suncoast” is described as being semi-autobiographical. How does your real experience compare with Doris’ in the film?

A: The Terri Schiavo part (is real). — “What are the chances that I’m going through this while that is happening?”

That’s the autobiographical part. I was 18 (when) my brother was moved into hospice, and there were protesters outside, and my mom and I were realizing, “Oh, I think we’re in the middle of a massive media storm.” That happened.

The characters are all kind of based on emotional ideas … the feelings that I went through while I was dealing with this with my brother, but there’s no one that’s exactly this person. And Doris is not exactly me.

Q: OK, well, we had to wonder what your mom thought of the movie considering how Kristine often acts toward Doris.

A: My mom’s amazing. I wrote a book, too, called “Acne.” It’s very autobiographical, and I talk a lot about what it was like to be a preteen kid with a sick brother and many different aspects of preteen life, and I get very candid about my mom.

She’s just amazing — her ability to kind of laugh at herself and be OK with who she is. She’s just an incredible person.

Kristine is much more harsh and flinty than my mother.

I think for the movie, my mom was really able to separate herself because I wasn’t Doris. I was partying. I had friends. I was living a different life from Doris, who was at home taking care of her brother all the time. Doris is a much better person than I was.

When she watched the movie, I think she got a lot of catharsis out of going through that experience again, but she’s not watching it and going, like, “That’s me — how dare you!”

Q: Given that Kristine’s a sympathetic antagonist and that the viewer needs to feel different emotions toward her, how happy were you when you got Laura Linney to sign on the dotted line to do this movie?

A: Beyond — I mean, beyond — because Laura is impossible not to love.

In her performance, you just see her goodness — she just oozes goodness. And I think everyone on set was enamored of Laura Linney — you know, the idea of Laura Linney. Everyone’s like, “Oh my God, Laura Linney’s here!” But then she’s the most grounded person.

With Kristine, the producers and I knew when we were looking to attach people, we needed to find a genuinely good soul who could be in these challenging moments with her daughter and we’d still love her and we’d still root for her.

Q: You’ve said you wrote the part of Paul with Woody Harrelson in mind. Why?

A: I wanted everybody in the movie to be empathetic. I wanted everybody in the movie to feel like a human being that you could root for. And so with Paul, no matter what you believed about the Terri Schiavo case or what side of it you feel on, I wanted you to be able to see Paul’s humanity and to care about him as a person.

And so writing him — because I’m not a man and I wasn’t a protester at this event, I just was like, “How do I tap into this person’s humanity even though I didn’t know them?” — because I write a lot about personal experiences. It’s easy for me to write (when) I have an understanding of this personality type, (when) I’ve lived near this person or I grew up with this kind of person. With Paul, it was different.

Woody was helpful in that I watched all of his movies and his interviews and just, like, got under his skin and his voice to make Paul feel like a real person we have all known our whole lives.

Q: With both Paul and the friend Doris makes at school, as a viewer, you can’t help but fear for the worst-case scenarios, but you avoided those. Was that something you consciously had in mind?

A: I had it in mind because tension is never bad, right? Tension is good. And I had people advise me, “You know, you want to make sure right away that everybody knows that these friends are nice and that all is nice.” And I was like, “I’m not going to take that advice.”

I never wanted you to be actually horrified or terrified of Paul, but I do think that, as a woman, when a man is being nice to you, you’re always like, “Why are you being nice to me?” But that’s just part of it, right?

As the scenes go on, you feel more and more comfortable. Doris feels more and more comfortable. And he turns out to just be a genuinely good man, which I believe our planet is full of. (Laughs.) Like, there are really nice men in the world. I know that’s not a topic we’re talking about often, but I have experienced really wonderful men in my life.

Q: How was working with Nico Parker? OK, she isn’t playing you, but she’s kind of playing you.

A: I think because Doris and I are not the same person, the questions from Nico were more about death; they’re more about, “What is it like to lose someone? What does it feel like?” I was in the room when my brother died. It was, “What was that like?”

The other elements of Doris she could easily tap into because she’s 17. She’s a very observant person. She’s a very aware person — like Doris is.

But I think the death stuff was new for her because she hasn’t had a significant loss, and so she asked a lot of questions about that.

Q: What was the biggest challenge of making the film?

A: Every day, I would show up in the morning and I would be like, “This is the greatest job I’ve ever had. I’m using every element of my brain, and I’ve never been happier. This is what I’ve been put on the earth to do.” And then right around 4 p.m., you’re like, “I’m never doing this again!” (laughs) because you’re running out of time and you’re losing (daylight). When this stuff creeps up on you, it becomes this impossible job. You’re trying to protect the movie, but there’s also a budget.

A lot of the time, personalities can be challenging, but on this movie, I really do feel like we were super-super blessed. Every single person involved was a good person who really wanted to tell this story.


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