Stephanie Turner Does it All in ‘Justine’

An interview with the writer, director, producer–and lead actor

I discovered the deep well of independent movies on Netflix through my younger daughter. We watched almost all of them during quarantine, and that’s where we found Justine. Justine tells the story of Lisa, a single mother who moves cross country to California with her two young children. Lisa’s brittle persona is clearly hiding a deep wound, but there’s no miraculous solution for her. Her father-in-law takes care of the kids while Lisa finds work caring for a disabled child named Justine. Lisa’s deep connection with Justine is at odds with her dislike of Justine’s parents, and it all comes to a head in a beautifully nuanced hospital scene. In the third act, there’s usually this tendency to wrap everything up and give you some sort of conclusion, but there isn’t a conclusion here. Lisa is going to have to go out into the world again and figure out what’s next for herself, with or without Justine.

The movie has an incredibly natural and organic feel, and features a diverse and memorable cast. This remarkable gem was written, produced, and directed by Stephanie Turner–and she also plays the lead.

Let’s start with the origin of the story.

Stephanie Turner: Yeah. So, I would say it’s not a true story, but there’s definitely a lot of truth in it. For example, I used to be a nanny, and I also taught music; I taught choir for many years, and taught a lot of kids who had different abilities. There are definitely pieces of that from my past that I incorporated in the story. It was just the idea of a caregiver who was taking care of a girl who had special needs, but who refused to coddle her or hold her back in the way that certain people in her life did.

That was the initial idea, and I knew that the Lisa character had to be a certain way for an audience to wonder, “Why does she treat her differently?”, or “Why is she pushing for this or pushing for that?” I had to figure out, “Why is she like that?” Then I backed into it that way and I went into like, “Who is Lisa and where is she coming from? What’s her life like?” and then all those other pieces fell into place.

Lisa’s husband was Black. You have a really interesting cast that looks more and more like a typical American family.

I didn’t have this idea of like, “Oh, I’m going to write a story about an interracial couple.” I was figuring out who was Lisa going to be and building out where’d she come from and what type of family did she grow up in, and I went back to my own upbringing and I thought of, “Okay, maybe she was married to her middle school sweetheart or her childhood sweetheart, like a very good friend.”

I thought of my own life and where I grew up, and who were my friends at that time, and who would I have married. I grew up in a pretty diverse setting; I grew up in the northern Virginia/DC area, which is why I decided to have Lisa grow up there. I based it not necessarily on one person, because Johnny is not a character that we really see, other than the photos, and then I thought, “If I’ve thought about this person, then he’s black.”

I never wanted the movie to be about race, but what happened when I figured out who she was and where she lived, and who her friends were, and where she grew up, and all of that, and then it’s like it ended up that she married a black man. After I made that decision, then I realized like, “Oh, these racial things could come up when she goes to work for this family.” People were in denial or telling me that, “This type of racism doesn’t exist in our world.” I would say, ” Everything that I wrote in here that was a racist comment is something that has been said to me in real life.”

Stephanie Turner
Stephanie Turner, photograph by Dana Patrick.

When one character says, “A neighbor said a suspicious-looking Black man was driving around the neighborhood,” Lisa knows it was Don, her father-in-law. Years ago I was house-sitting, and the owners told me, “Oh yeah, have your friends over, make yourself at home.” I was rehearsing with a friend of mine. We were in acting school together. He came by, we rehearsed, he left, and then I got a call that said, “Are you okay? My neighbor said there was a Black man around the house.” That happened in Los Angeles in the early 2000s. I’m white, so they felt comfortable saying something like that to me.

How is it that you wound up being able to do everything? I’ve heard people say sometimes, “I had to write a part for myself because I wasn’t getting parts,” but then you did everything. You also directed. How did this happen?

I wanted to write a part for myself. I had been acting for many years and I was also writing, and I was trying to sell different scripts and develop different TV shows and films and things, and wasn’t really getting anywhere. I would do an episode of TV where I was a guest star, and it would be great, but it’s a week of work. I wasn’t really getting the auditions for a lead in a movie or things like that.

So that was plan A. Then I couldn’t find anybody to make it with me attached. People said, “Oh, this would be a great role for so-and-so,” dropping names. I would say, “Oh no, I want to play that role.” They’d be like, “Are you sure? Maybe you could just sell the script and make some money.” But I wrote this because I want to play this role, and I felt passionately about that.

I wanted a female director and I researched up-and-coming filmmakers, and had some interest from some women to direct it. People asked, “Why don’t you direct it?” I thought, “That’s just too much. I’m going to be this big character in it and I wrote it.” I talked to a friend of mine, Davon Slininger, and I said, “What would it look like if I directed this and if you were the DP? What would our process be like?”

We didn’t have any locations or anything, but I had this visual world in my mind. That was a big confidence boost, just going through that process with him and realizing that I could do it and that I had it in me to do it. Then that was it.

You have such interesting ideas about how to shoot Lisa, like the camera is so close to her when she’s looking for a job. It’s a little bit jarring at first. Then you realize that she feels completely trapped, almost paranoid in a way, like, “Someone’s going to see my secret.”

A lot of the feedback I got was—and most of the time from men—was that Lisa was very unlikeable. I think it is uncomfortable for people to see unlikeable women on the screen because we haven’t seen much of it, or if it is, it’s such a big caricature that it puts everybody at ease. Characters who are operating in this gray area of doing something you don’t like but you also are rooting for them in some way, I mean we see it all the time with male characters. We see they get to play these complex roles, these complex characters who don’t have to apologize.

Or he’s just lovably gruff.

“Oh, isn’t it funny that he’s just so rude to everybody? Isn’t that just his charm?” A tactic that we decided to use was feeling like you were just trapped there with her and forcing an audience, in some ways, to be with her. When we were screening the movie the first few times, in some of those still, quiet moments where we are very tight on her, even members of our crew were kind of uncomfortable. It’s jarring at the beginning because you’re not expecting it. Maybe they didn’t like her, but they understood something about her. I think obviously Glynn Turman’s character (Lisa’s father-in-law, Don) sticking by her side is also a reason that people did like her, because if that guy likes her, then maybe we should like her.

We piece together that Don has known Lisa since she was a child, and he says she’s always been a tough nut to crack. Lisa, even before the incident, probably had a much rougher exterior than most. What is Lisa’s backstory?

She was raised by a single mom. Her real connection with family was through her childhood best friend who ended up being her boyfriend and then husband. There’s one scene where she and Don are talking about “back when you guys were kids.” That is what I had in my mind, is that when she would go home from school and go to Johnny’s house, and she was kind of like their surrogate daughter before there was any sort of romantic relationship between them, and that she just didn’t feel that strong connection with her family.

Her mom was in her life, but always had different boyfriends, and she didn’t have a relationship with her own dad. Then there’s a reason why she moved to California instead of going to live with her mom. There’s a reason why she went with Don, and I think that’s just that that relationship wasn’t great, or there was a guy living with her mom that she didn’t want to be around.

In one scene, Papa Don’s playing Billie Holiday and it seems he connects her to Lisa.

It wasn’t really a direct connection, but I think the feeling of Billie Holiday’s music is just so powerful, and I think that Don’s line of, “She was a sad lady. Can you hear it?,” there was the connection there in my mind for his character to be in touch with his own sadness in that moment and his own mourning and grief. Don’s character isn’t going to go into huge emotional conversation, but I feel like there were these nuggets of him trying to connect and be in touch with his grief.

Do you think Lisa was distant from her kids even before her husband died, or do you think that she had been warmer and more loving with them, and was just now stepping back?

Like Don describes her, she was always a tough nut to crack. She always kind of kept her cards close to her chest, but it was definitely different before her husband passed away. I think that any sort of warmth or connection that she did have with them before, she just wasn’t able to give after.

Lisa is incredibly confident and unsparing with her opinions and advice. But at the same time, she’s also curiously unambitious.

People who are incredibly insecure sometimes overcompensate with aggression or opinions. There’s overconfidence to overcompensate. That’s where the scenes with Justine come about, is that she sees this beginning of a dynamic being created where Justine is going to shrink down because somebody is being mean to her. I think that’s just very common with kids who had to fend for themselves.

That’s really just the core of who Lisa is, and just even being in a relationship with somebody where they were discriminated against, and having biracial kids, and knowing that you can’t let anybody chip away or try to discriminate against you because of that. It makes her spring into action. Those things triggering her and Justine’s family is ultimately the thing that got some of that ambition that. She realizes, “Oh, I’m alive in here. I’m responding to something because I am still in here somewhere.”

The whole movie is just phenomenal, but the hospital scene just gets me every time. Lisa finally reveals what has happened to her husband. Tell me all about that.

It’s really the first time you see her be emotional. She’s kept everything to herself. She hasn’t spoken about anything other than when you see her do those private phone calls trying to get information about the investigation, but this is really when she’s sharing something. There was a little bit of finessing with that; I think we ended up cutting some of the dialogue because there’s always that thing of, you don’t want to have this cliché third act moment where everybody says like, “This is why I was upset.”

When we shot it, all of our takes were very emotional for everybody. Glynn didn’t have any dialogue in the scene, but he knew how important it was that Don was there.

When we were blocking that scene, Glynn he had the idea that he wanted to sit down because Lisa hasn’t shared details about anything with him. Even though he doesn’t have dialogue, just what he brought to that because you just feel his presence there. 

Justine’s dad doesn’t say anything either.

I really wanted it to be two women connecting. I wanted it to be two mothers connecting because as different as they may be and even if they’ve insulted one another, there’s a connection between women and mothers, and there’s an acknowledgement of how hard it can be. I also wanted to show a little bit of that relationship between Justine’s parents, that they’ve probably had some conversations behind closed doors since you last saw them.

Where did you get such wonderful child actors? All three of them are phenomenal.

We looked for the Justine character. We wanted to find an a child actor who used a wheelchair. We put the casting bulletin out for nationwide release, and then we got a tape in from Louisiana. That’s where Daisy Prescott, who plays Justine, lives. Her mom submitted a tape. We got a few tapes when we opened it up across the country, and we just knew.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing/developing my own stuff in TV and film, and then I hope to be able to direct stuff too. Now that I’ve done it, I realize, “Oh, I would love to do more of this.” I’d love to direct my own stuff, but I’d love to direct other people’s stuff. I’d love to direct TV. So that’s been exciting, just exploring all those options.

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Rebecca Kurson

Rebecca Kurson writes about literature, pop culture, television, science fiction and music. Her work has appeared in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Observer, The Federalist and Rodale's Organic Life.

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