Chances are, you’ve seen out actress Michelle Bonilla before (likely in her recurring
role on ER as Paramedic Harms), but you’ve never seen her like this before. Her latest short film, Slip Away — which she wrote, produced and starred in — is currently making a huge splash on the queer festival circuit. It’s a sexy, fresh, balanced piece about a lesbian relationship fraught with addiction.
We chatted with Michelle via email about the raw, true story behind the film, the experience of writing such a personal story, and her upcoming projects.
AfterEllen.com: To begin, you’re obviously best known for your work as a successful TV actress, so tell me how you came to write, produce and star in Slip Away.
Michelle Bonilla: Slip Away is based on true events, which happened at a very pivotal point in my life. It was my first “real” relationship, so to speak, and it was also my first time being in a gay relationship. And, when you add, on top of that, being in a relationship with an addict/alcoholic — well, let me just say, its very stressful, chaotic, and life-changing. So much so that I needed to start writing about it.
It was very therapeutic begin the process of writing Slip Away. It took me about six years to write it completely and get it ready for filming because it was a little too close. As a writer, I had to keep some distance, I had to keep form, and I had to keep structure. So, it took its time to evolve because it was just a really powerful thing to deal with.
I wrote myself playing the addict/alcoholic, because in real life, I was more like the character of Selena — played wonderfully by Lauren Birriel — kind of going through this sort of whirlwind of emotion and misunderstanding — not understanding myself. And, it was also a type of “come full circle” for me to play Jane because, as an actress, there were so many areas I wanted to discover. I wanted to get into that space so that, at the end of the day, I could set the whole thing free — let it go. I also grew to have a compassion for all the Janes in the world.
And, because this happened in my life, and this type of circumstance I found myself in was very experiential, I had to find the right team to get together to help me tell this story. It had to be done, the right way, to be able to pull off the subject matter without hitting someone over the head with a message.
It is a natural evolution one makes, as an actor who continues to create and evolve, to make your own projects and produce. This was that time. The piece took me to the point of stepping up to the plate and making sure that this story was told.
AE: How did you come to work with Tina Scorzafava?
MB: Part of the process of producing and being the creator is finding your other producer and director. I had a few meetings, with different people, who had suggested directors. And, one woman, in particular, kept coming up: TM Scorzafava. She had both elements I needed in a director: someone who had the ability to see the softness and beauty but also is able to deliver edgy and sexy. I saw her work and said “She has it! That’s what I want!”
When Tina and I would talk about Slip Away in terms of mood and tone, she understood, at the very core, what I wanted to say with this piece. And, because of that, I knew that she would help me make Slip Away the gorgeous, beautiful, sexy, fun film that it is.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t immediately tell you about my other producer, who one needs to have to make a project like this hum! I was very blessed, through word of mouth and friend suggestions, to connect with the wonderful Jenn Garrison, who is another fabulous director in her own right, to complete this team. Without these two women, and my wonderful cast and crew, Slip Away would not exist. And it is to them that I owe such gratitude.
AE: As the writer, you packed in quite a bit of drama and heavy themes like drug abuse, physical abuse, co-dependency into 19 minutes. How did you find the balance that you did?
MB: This is why it took me six years! I wanted to make sure I got my message across, was able to tell my story, realistically, without being melodramatic. As a writer one needs to kill your darlings and only tell what is pertinent to the story. And, I believe I was able to accomplish that.
AE: In a piece of this kind, since you have so little time, it’s easy to paint one character as the “villain,” but you certainly brought a great deal of empathy to Jane. Tell me about that.
MB: I will take that as a compliment! So, thank you, very much, for noticing that. My goal was not to make Jane a villain, but to tell her story. Both, as an actor and the writer, I wanted to humanize the addict/alcoholic because they have a story, too. I wanted to break many stereotypes in this film of the gay, f—ed up relationship or Latina story. I wanted to make sure that the universality of the themes that you talked about came through.
In terms of the addict/alcoholic, they are not the enemy. And, I love, love, love to add levels to the characters I play. So, I found many things to grab onto with Jane as an actor and storyteller, and happy you saw more than just the villain — very happy!
AE: Tell me how you approached the project differently as a producer, writer and a performer. Do you feel you had more creative control over the final product, especially in crafting the character of Jane?
MB: I had to approach the project, first, as a writer. Making sure that the actual writing aspect of the piece was up to par. Then, had to put on my producer hat, to help make all of the elements of filming and production come together. Once I had that, I gratefully gave it over to the people I entrusted —TM, Jenn, and my crew — and I put on my acting hat to portray Jane.
I took my time in the writing, was open to learning new things with the producer hat, and was able do what I do with my acting. I took it one step at a time. And, as with all projects you create, on this level, there is always more creative control. However, you want to be able to allow others to shine with their own talents. That’s what collaboration is and that is very exciting. I learned so much with this team of talented women and am very happy with the results.
AE: As for the film itself, what are your plans beyond the current festival circuit? Do you see this story as something you’d like to adapt into a feature film?
MB: First and foremost, I am thrilled that Slip Away is having such a healthy festival run! We will be having our Los Angeles premiere at Outfest on July 11 and want to invite everyone to come down and catch it.
If given the opportunity, I would love to be able to adapt this into a feature. There is so much more to tell and so much more within these characters to explore. This is what took me six years to do: whittle down a feature into a short! I have so many scenes that I wrote, so many more pages, it’s all there and waiting.
AE: More broadly, what’s next for you? Are you interested in doing more with producing and writing?
MB: I am currently working on a comedic web series that I have collaborated on with a couple of fellow artists, Matt Crabtree and Deidra Edwards. It is based on an original idea that I had come up with and it grew into this fun, great, exciting project that will be working under my production company, Soul Arts Productions. I am co-writing, producing, acting, and also directing some of those episodes. I am also still in development on a one-hour pilot that I am writing. So, I guess the answer is yes, I am interested!
AE: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat! As a closing, how can our readers stay in touch with you?
MB: Your readers can always keep up with me on my official Facebook fan page and also on Twitter. I am very honored to such great fans that are willing to reach out to me, support my career, and I do tweet back and write back. So, I invite people to get on my social networking train!
And, as always, they can go to my website to see fun stills from on the set, to view my current work, and/or see the links to my various articles!
Watch the trailer for Slip Away: