Sarah Hagan is a professional actress who has appeared in numerous television shows and films. She started her career with her role as Millie Kentner on Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s cult series Freaks and Geeks, and has since appeared on Buffythe Vampire Slayer, Boston Public, Grey’s Anatomy, 90210 and NCIS, to name a few. She played the lead roles in the Sundance indie Jess + Moss and the AFI-selected The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had with My Pants On, and a supporting role in the Warner Bros. female comedy Spring Breakdown, alongside Amy Poehler and Rachel Dratch. Her latest film, the psychological horror Sun Choke, is in theaters and on VOD from August 5.
I’m sitting in a small room across from Paul Feig, Jake Kasdan and Allison Jones. It’s a callback with the producers, and my mom and I know it’s really important that I make a good impression. I’ve just finished reading the sides for a character named Millie, and now they just want to chat about how school is going for me. I start by giving them the standard answer, “School is going fine. My favorite subject is…” But before I know what’s happening, I’m off on a spiraling tangent. Now I’m telling them, “I think the other kids like me but maybe they just think I’m funny or funny-looking or weird, or I don’t know … and some of them think I’m crazy because I can get really hyper and they’ll ask me if I’ve taken my medication and blah blah blah.” Yikes.
Twenty minutes later, I’m walking out of the room and my mom is waiting with the usual question: “How did it go?” I give her the standard answer. “It went fine.”
I’m walking to set to shoot an early episode of Freaks and Geeks. One month earlier, I’d been given sheet music for a song called “Jesus is Just Alright.” They want me to learn how to play it on the piano, so I instantly got to work. I’d never really played the piano before, so my friend Jon, who was an excellent piano player, taught me how to play the song.
Now, the day has arrived to shoot the scene, and I am excited and nervous. As soon as I walk onto the set, I spot the piano in the middle of the living room, so I go to it and sit down to practice before we start shooting. I take a deep breath and begin to play, but no sound comes out. Weird, the piano must be broken. This is going to be a problem. I turn around to ask someone about it, when I see, just off to the side of the set, another piano with a woman sitting behind it. And that’s when I figure out what’s going on, why my piano is silent. They’ve hired a professional piano player to play my song. At first I’m bummed, even a little offended. I’d practiced so diligently. But once we start shooting the scene, I have so much fun. All of that practice gives me the confidence to own what I was doing at the piano. But not having to be personally responsible for hitting every single note gives me the freedom to engage with the other actors, to perform. Millie may have been a seasoned piano player, but I wasn’t. I was an actor trying to give it my best.
I’ve just finished eating a delicious plate of French toast, and I’m feeling good. It’s my fourth day on the set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I’m going over my scenes for the day, when … I notice a girl across the room who looks strikingly like me. Like my character, Amanda, actually. She’s even wearing the exact same wardrobe as me. And it hits me like a punch in the stomach: I’m being replaced. After I regain the ability to speak, I ask someone what the deal is with this girl. “She’s your stunt double,” I’m told. First, I feel relief. Then I think, “Stunt double?! I’ve never had a stunt double before. That’s so cool!” And it makes sense, because today I’m shooting a sweet action sequence in which my character gets to kill her first vampire (an important milestone for any potential slayer). In fact, I’ve been super excited about shooting this scene for a while now.
That’s when it dawns on me that I will have to watch the action from the sidelines. For weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about this scene, about the significance of that moment when Amanda slays her first vampire, and I’m convinced that I can bring something important, even necessary, to the scene if I’m allowed to do my own slaying. So I talk to the director and he agrees to let me do as much of the fighting as possible before it seems like it’s getting too risky. In the end, I did every shot myself. I definitely got kicked in the head once, because I didn’t duck low enough, but that’s the risk I chose to take. So, I got back up and ducked lower the next time.
I’m standing in the middle of an unnecessarily large fitting room on the Warner Bros. lot, about to pull a shirt over my head. The movie, Spring Breakdown, is more of an indie thing than a fancy studio picture, but somehow the producers have arranged what is, by far, the most extravagant fitting room of my career. With a pedestal in the room’s center, surrounded by a wall of mirrors, it feels like I should be trying on wedding dresses. Instead, I’m trying on the most unattractive, embarrassingly nerdy clothes I’ve ever seen (which is saying a lot coming from the girl who played Millie). So, standing on this pedestal feels inappropriate. In short, I’m feeling out of my element here.
For privacy, the stylist has been consistently leaving me alone while I change from one hideous top and pair of khaki shorts to the next. So I’m surprised when, half dressed, I hear the door open behind me. I wheel around, bra exposed, to find myself face to face with Brad Freaking Pitt! “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought this was my dressing room,” says Brad. With that, he closes the door. Outside I hear someone say, “No Brad, it’s the room next to it.” Meaning, the room next to my room. I let this sink in for a moment … And then I pull my shirt down over my head, step up on the pedestal, look at my reflection in the wall of mirrors and think, “Looks like I finally made it.”
I’m standing in a fireworks store in Western Kentucky holding a boom pole and adjusting the sound levels for a scene in an independent feature called Jess + Moss. However, I’m not just the sound recordist, I’m also the lead actor, wardrobe stylist and hair and makeup person. It’s my first venture into the micro-budget independent filmmaking world.
Six months ago, my boyfriend and I had decided to make a film together that he would direct and I would star in. It was incredible to be a part of a film from the kernel of the idea until its Sundance premiere two years later. Being so involved with this film throughout the entire process and wearing so many different hats along the way really helped me to become a better actor. Being a part of the creative process in this holistic way changed the way I understood the significance of a performance. It was the first time I was able to see how a whole film could be greater than the sum of its parts.
I’m just lying down to go to sleep for the night when the phone rings. It’s Ben Cresciman, the director of Sun Choke, an indie psychological horror I’m attached to, which is going to start shooting in two weeks. Sun Choke is about a dark, troubled, mentally unstable young woman named Janie, a really intense character. But I wasn’t cast as Janie. At the time of this call, I have already been through a series of auditions and have been cast in the supporting role of Savannah. I like Savannah, I understand her, relate to her. Savannah is a normal 20-something year old. And I am feeling pretty confident in that role.
That’s why I’m so surprised when Ben gets to the point of his reason for calling so late: He and the producers have been talking, and they’ve decided that they want me to play the lead role, Janie. And am I up for it? Almost instinctually, I say, “Yes, of course!” I finish the call and turn to my boyfriend. “What have I just done?” I almost call Ben right back to tell him that I’ve changed my mind, but something stops me. I’m excited about the chance to portray this dark and complex character, but I’m equally terrified. Janie is not like any character I’ve ever played before. This is way outside my comfort zone.
In the weeks leading up to the first day of production, I alternate between intense character research and panic attacks. Looking back now, I can say that portraying Janie was a tremendous challenge. I had to push myself to places I didn’t know I could go, and ultimately, I’m really glad I didn’t call Ben back that night.