Hannah Free rising star Kelli Strickland plays opposite one of the most-celebrated women in television history but the two uber-talented actresses are never in the same scene at the same time. The other phantom actress in this equation is Burn Notice and Queer As Folk star Sharon Gless. Both women will be in the same room at the same time this weekend Pride Weekend in Chicago.
Recently, I chatted with Kelli Strickland about the long-awaited Hannah Free DVD release, her love of theatre and arts education and what it was really like on the set of the monumental film that has won over the hearts of Americans gay and straight.
WCT: Hey Kelli! How did you first learn about Hannah Free?
Kelli Strickland: Well, let's see I was aware of the play for many years because I had worked with Claudia Allen and had directed another one of her plays years ago. Probably eight years ago or something like that. I had her collection of plays in which Hannah Free had appeared in so I knew the story. As for the film adaptation, I received an email from Tracy Baim asking me if I still acted and, at the time, I had been primarily teaching and directing, but I said, "Sure". I really didn't know anything about the project, but when I walked into the room, I saw lots of wonderful faces that I had worked with in the past. Everything from there happened very, very quickly. Within a few weeks it seemed like we were filming and everything was well on its way.
WCT: The filming of Hannah Free was pretty abbreviated.
Kelli Strickland: Yeah, we filmed for 18 days. The location where we filmed was active 24/7. They would film on one set on one floor and then at the same time on another floor, they were tearing down the set and building the next one. Per usual, the actors had a hectic schedule especially Sharon [ Gless ] who was in the whole darn thing practically. The crew was finishing up at 1:00am and people were getting there with breakfast at 5:00am. It was very, very intense but also really high energy and really vibrant. I don't think I actually understood the scope of everything that was happening at the time it was all happening! Everyone put in 110% because it would've never happened otherwise.
WCT: The end product is outstanding. Viewers can most certainly tell that there was a lot of attention paid to the filming and all of the energy that went into it.
Kelli Strickland: Yeah, I think everyone was pleased with the final product. A lot of love went into it. A lot of longtime supporters of Claudia's work and Sharon's commitment to promoting the film even long after her commitment to the set was done she's really just been amazing traveling all over the country to assist in promoting it. I think a lot of people are looking forward to seeing the DVD release and I know many people already have it in their Netflix que.
WCT: What was it like working with Sharon Gless? Obviously, you couldn't be in the same scenes together since you were playing young/old versions of the same character!
Kelli Strickland: Yeah, young Hannah never meets young Hannah in the dream sequences [ laughs ] . We did become pals during this film. She was really generous with me. She shared her time, wisdom and experience. She's fun! She's just a really fun gal to be around. We crossed paths moreso after the filming wrapped during the promotional work. I'll tell you this one story that everyone kind of gets a kick out of. We did a very small rehearsal because between the time she arrived in Chicago and the time we started filming, there was literally no time. The Hannahs and the Rachels did get together prior to the start of shooting and when she arrived in Chicago she had laryngitis and couldn't talk so she was saving what little voice she had for filming. She came into the room and cupped my face into her hands and said, "Oh my God. I see myself in you." We had a kind of immediate connection. I think she was pretty pleased with the casting of her younger self and got a kick out of it and right away we became fast friends.
WCT: What a compliment!
Kelli Strickland: Yeah and she had not much to really base it on except for that I did share with her my impression of the "Cagney Walk" [ laughs ] . One of the things I did during our first rehearsal was watch her mannerisms and try to absorb as much as I could with the little amount of time that we had. So, we were watching each other walk because it was one of the things we were doing and I said, "Here, I'll show you my "Cagney walk" and Sharon laughed and was like, "that is it!".
WCT: Hannah Free circulated over 60 film festivals last year. Were you able to attend any of the screenings?
Kelli Strickland: I think I've been to most of the big ones. I was at Frameline in San Francisco and in New York. Also, obviously in Palm Springs where I met you and also the premiere we had here in Chicago. We've all done some cross-country travel to try to support the film and people's attendance.
WCT: How has your life changed since the release of Hannah Free?
Kelli Strickland: You know, not significantly. I've been a practitioner of theatre in Chicago for, like, 20 years. What I have noticed is that film just reaches such a larger audience. I do notice that when I am out at the gay bars, it's not totally uncommon for people to stare at me for a long time before coming over to me [ laughs ] .
WCT: What's up next for you following the DVD release of Hannah Free?
Kelli Strickland: I am actually on faculty at Loyola so I will resume my teaching and also run an outreach program at the Raven Theatre where we partner with Chicago Public Schools and create arts education in the school system that is woefully short on arts education. That is probably something closest to my heart out of all of my endeavors. I also am working on a play myself so I've been sort of going down that pre-development process. Next spring I'll be back onstage in Chicago at the Raven Theatre again!