Anatomy of Salvation: A Conversation with Harriet Dyer
Attending Catholic school for half my life taught me that salvation meant being saved from damnation by Jesus Christ. The contours of that salvation were difficult to define, though. The very thought that I, an ordinary person, was empowered enough to save myself, let alone others, was overwhelming. Since becoming an adult, however, I’ve been thrust into the role of protector several times. No discrediting Christian doctrine, but it’s equally as important to validate the agency of individual human beings.
With those mature realizations, I also began looking for community in the ideas I let into my brain and heart. Cinema was one arena to garner sophisticated perspectives that wrestled with the difficulty of finding spiritual peace. That’s why watching the psychological thriller Killing Ground (2016) was enlightening. I recognized part of myself in “Sam,” triumphantly portrayed by Harriet Dyer. When I spoke with Harriet about her starring role in the movie, I used the opportunity to collaborate with her on a definition of salvation. I wanted to understand Harriet’s character and why the film resonated so deeply with me. Relatively unknown to American audiences, Harriet’s career has been fledgling in Australia for over half a decade, most notably as “Patricia Saunders” on the series Love Child (2014-2017). Her turn as Sam, however, is a transformative role that showcases Harriet’s unwavering veracity and layered emotional intelligence.
I started by asking Harriet about her method of preparation, readying herself to interpret a script that forced her to confront sexual abuse, the threat of murder, and betrayal by a lover. She attributed much of her ability to the film’s physical environment. Shooting outdoors, without the comfort of a studio, co-stars Ian Meadows, Sam’s boyfriend “Ian,” and Aaron Glenane, the demonic antagonist “Chook,” they cast “were very much in a thick bush land. So there was no real need for imagination there….When you’re tied up to a tree, there’s very little acting required.” Harriet confirmed that the isolation of the desolate landscape provoked a genuine anxiety that she used to drive Sam’s fear. Her unfamiliarity with Glenane also made it possible to submit to Chook’s unpredictability as Sam’s captor: “I didn’t meet [him], until we were on set. There was no rehearsal. So it was pretty easy to go there with him.” Being immersed in terror could have led to unhinged drama. But writer/director Damien Power stepped in to guide Harriet into a nuanced performance.
Harriet credits Power with maintaining the film’s continuity, despite shooting out of sequence, with consistent reminders of each character’s journey. Power’s method maintained continuity as the first half of the film cuts back and forth between Sam and Ian’s trip to a remote campground and a parallel story about a family with two children that drive up to the same space a few days earlier. That second narrative centers around “Em,” played by one of Australia’s biggest up-and-coming performers, model and actress Tiarnie Coupland. When Em and her parents are taken captive, their toddler son is left alone. Sam and Ian find the baby near death a few days later and have to figure out a way to save his life.
Harriet remembers this moment of being thrust into surrogate motherhood as the one that changed Sam, as well as herself. “In order to find salvation, you have to be seeking it,” she ruminated. “You have to be thinking about something other than yourself.” Harriet admits that Sam was nowhere near a time in her life where she was ready for a family, but that becoming the baby’s protector out of necessity was her “higher calling.” That practice of generating compassion for others mobilized Harriet to run to the aid of a woman being attacked on the street in front of her Los Angeles apartment months after the shoot: “I used to be a little more scared. [Sam] made me braver. When you have something other than yourself to take care of, you are your most active.” Harriet clarified that inner strength is the first step toward salvation. Her passionate intuition was impressive. But what gave her the confidence to identify that motivation?
Harriet located her greatest success in practicing a philosophy akin to what performance artist and scholar Allan Kaprow called “lifelike art,” the project of being attentive to everyday rituals, no matter how mundane, and weaving them into the process of art-making. Acting has given Harriet a persistent opportunity to experiment with emotions and ideas that connect her to the human experience. “Work is strength,” she said. “I try to find strength in myself everyday. You’re born alone and you die alone.” She credits that awareness to her inspiring parents that always make her want to push herself toward higher goals. And it’s that perspective of reaching deep down to identify your purest desires that she advises young artists to remember: “If you know, you know. If you’re dabbling…don’t do it. You know inside yourself whether [a career in film and TV is] worth doing. Work hard and don’t be afraid to fail.” With that tenacity also emerges the courage to walk away. Sometimes one’s dreams don’t match up with her or his talents. And that, rather than being debilitating, can be liberating.
Harriet as Sam in two scenes from Killing Ground
When American audiences meet Harriet Dyer in theaters and On Demand on July 21st, the release date of Killing Ground, they will be struck by her overwhelming beauty and undeniable grace on screen. Viewers attentive to detail, however, will observe a performance that reveals humanity’s potential for transcendent virtue. For that reason, a 5 out of 5 hairpiece rating doesn’t do the film justice. Familiar horror tropes are revolutionized by Damien Power’s visionary direction and Harriet’s creative alchemy. That recipe will generate great success for the film.
I’m lucky to interview artists and gain insight into life’s most pressing philosophical questions. Each conversation is a 10 to 15 minute therapy session during which I can negotiate the quandaries that consume me. Harriet Dyer helped me navigate the complicated contours of salvation, and for that I remain thankful. I walked away from the session with an immense respect for her and a joyous envy of those fortunate enough to call her a friend. At least there’s social media for abstract connections. So every time I see one of her tweets scroll down my feed, I’ll feel a little inspired. Maybe that’s one form of salvation.