Role: Mrs. Chevreau
Project: ‘Across the River and Into the Trees,’ a short film

Heidi Philipsen

Heidi Philipsen

Though actor Heidi Philipsen isn’t trying to push her 6-year-old son, Max, into the performing arts, sometimes a movie set is the perfect place for mother and child to share quality time.

Philipsen, an AFTRA member, was cast as Mrs. Chevreau, and Max was cast in the nonspeaking role of a young boy, in the short film Across the River and Into the Trees, about a young man in the 18th century who journeys through the woods to deliver his sick brother to a doctor.

“It’s about making it fun,” Philipsen says. “I thought this could be a great experience to have with my son. But it’s about what he wants to do, and if we can do something together, then that’s the most important thing. So I thought, a colonial period piece, which would take us back in time to learn about history, and it could be mom-and-son time.”

Philipsen was shooting a small film role in Europe last summer when she saw the casting notice for Across the River in Back Stage. After returning to the States, she was invited to audition for the film with Max. The script had minimal dialogue, so aside from reciting some basic French (her role required that all her lines be delivered in French), Philipsen’s audition consisted mostly of observation: between her son and the director and between Philipsen and her son.

“I consider every hiring process a mutual audition,” says director Alex Uhlmann of his audition style. “There needs to be an understanding before hiring anybody, and they need to trust me, especially when it comes to working with kids.”

Uhlmann says he cast Philipsen because she asked the right questions and because, as an actor who also directs and produces, she knew the challenges of independent filmmaking. Max, meanwhile, looked the part and cooperated and took direction at their first meeting. “I was looking to put together a cast and crew that felt comfy,” Uhlmann says, “and keeping it in the family is one good way to do it.”

Philipsen and her son were not cast as mother and child, however, and shot their scenes on two separate weekend days in October. “It was a great experience being there on set for him,” Philipsen says. “I think it made everybody’s job a little bit easier – especially with a 6-year-old on set, because it’s not always easy to have young children on set – to have me there. Now, when he was actually shooting, I had to remind myself to be quiet.” She laughs. “That’s part of letting go.”

“Max was very independent on set,” Uhlmann says. “He talked to me without having to go through his mother and took direction very well.”

Philipsen says Max has become accustomed to his mother’s work on stage and film sets over the years. In 2002, while pregnant with him, she performed Off-Off-Broadway as a pregnant woman in Angry Jello Bubbles, a role she found in Back Stage; as a 3-year-old, Max played a young Indian prince opposite Philipsen as Titania in a University of Michigan production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and Philipsen recently taught drama – improv, theatre games, even history – at Max’s school for a year. “Kids are so awesome when it comes to playing make-believe,” she says. “Those are the tools of an actor. You can’t ask for anything else.”

One of Philipsen’s Across the River castmates, who acted with Max, later told her, “He’s a natural.” Philipsen says she’s very proud of her son, but in the meantime she’s just trying to balance family and career before raising a budding actor. “This is what I love,” she says, “my family and my craft. I can’t compete with an actress who’s in her 20s and doesn’t have children, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to offer.”

This “Who Got the Part?” column was published in the Nov. 27-Dec. 3, 2008 issue of Back Stage and online at BackStage.com.

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