Isabelle Fuhrman knew little about the world of competitive rowing before she was cast in the lead role for “The Novice” — but she was familiar with pushing herself to extreme physical limits for a sport.
Several years ago, Fuhrman and her friends completed a 344-mile relay race from Santa Monica to Las Vegas; she personally ran around 60 of those miles. So in addition to her audition tape for the film, Fuhrman wrote first-time feature director Lauren Hadaway a letter about her experience running. “About waking up in the morning before the sun rises and running for hours and pushing through injuries and pain, and understanding what that feels like,” says Fuhrman. “I wanted her to know that I had the physical endurance, as well as the mental endurance, to do this part.”
They met in person, and bonded over lighter topics — dating in Los Angeles, astrology — as well as the grit and tenacity necessary to succeed in both the film industry and competitive sports. The film’s script, written by Hadaway, was inspired by her experience as a collegiate rower.
Fuhrman stars as Alex, an obsessive college freshman who joins the rowing team eager to rise to the top. The intense film has been compared to “Whiplash” for its portrait of a young adult fixated on perfection at the expense of all else, but Fuhrman notes a fundamental departure stemming from the quantitative nature of sports versus art. “We’ve seen this kind of story before with artistic tropes,” says Fuhrman. “But at the end of the day, there’s room for subjective opinion on art. And when it comes to sports, sports is a numbers game through and through. You’re either good enough or you’re not.”
Objectively — and subjectively — the film has been well received. It won the narrative feature film prize at the Tribeca Film Festival this past summer, and two weeks ago picked up a slate of Independent Spirit Award nominations, including for best film, best director and best lead actress. The winners will be announced later this spring. “I’m really grateful that the film is being recognized because it was such a blood, sweat and tears investment for each and every one of us,” says Fuhrman from her home in L.A., several hours after the nominations were announced.
For the 24-year-old actress, those “blood, sweat and tears” were literal. Fuhrman had six weeks to go from being a complete novice to being able to hold her own on set alongside actual college rowers. “The physical aspect of it was what really got me to find Alex as a character. Because much like she falls in love with the sport, that was essentially what I had to do,” says Fuhrman. Her preparation for the film included waking up at 4:30 in the morning to row for six hours, followed by workouts with a personal trainer.
After their first week of filming, Fuhrman dragged herself to the gym on her day off — despite the exhaustion and the blisters that had bled through her hand wraps — and realized that she had landed exactly where she needed to take the character.
“Looking at the movie, I really am very proud of this performance because I honestly don’t know how I did it. It did feel like a marathon. It did feel like that race to Vegas,” she says. “There were times where I was on these incredible highs. And at times it felt like I was literally about to pass out and I was gonna puke. But that is the movie — and that was the experience that I had making it at the same time.”
While Fuhrman walked away from the film with an appreciation for the sport of rowing, the film also offered her a new perspective on her career as an actress. “Alex is the hero and the villain of her own story,” she says. “No external force has ever driven me, just like Alex. And it’s a big responsibility to be your greatest coach and your toughest critic, but it’s also really important that you remember at times to be your biggest ally and to tell yourself that you did a good job.”
Fuhrman got her start in the industry as a child actress starring as Esther, the titular character in the 2009 horror film “Orphan.” Over a decade later, Fuhrman is reprising that same role in a prequel film, “Orphan: First Kill,” which will be released in late January.
“I think the reason I get cast a lot of the time in these dark characters is I find a certain humanity in people,” says Fuhrman. “What I saw when I was 10 years old and I read that script [‘Orphan’] was somebody who was just desperately searching for love, and was so unable to see themselves as beautiful,” she adds.
And its those internal narratives that Fuhrman turns to when finding the light within the darkness of her characters. “The line between what makes somebody good and what makes somebody bad is very thin. I think it’s really just stories that you tell yourself.”
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