When you watch the independent short film “The Beekeeper” you are almost instantly captivated by Michelle Mueller, who plays Robin, a young woman having an affair with her boyfriend’s father. Mueller’s portrayal of a morally ambiguous character who has just come to a harsh realization is the stuff awards are made of. You can’t help but be impressed by a performance that in many hands would be so over the top it would sink the picture. Mueller, however, saves the film.
After watching the film I knew one thing: I had to know more about her and what made her able to handle this character in a way that bordered on sublime.
Mueller, who at the time of this interview was just cast in an independent film titled “Encore,” spends her time between California and Chicago, but her roots are firmly grounded in the Midwest. At the age of seven she started doing community theatre in her hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska and continued acting through high school. Soon after graduation she was lucky enough to land a role in an independent film that was shooting in town. She was cast Deb in “Almost Normal” and that changed everything.
“This was one of my first experiences performing on-camera and I discovered a profound love for on-screen acting and knew I wanted to learn more,” she says. The 18 year-old then auditioned for private conservatories across the country in an effort to hone her craft and ended up attending the Chicago College of Performing Arts Conservatory in Chicago, Illinois. Not satisfied with just doing that, she also completed classes at Act One Studios in Chicago in order to learn more about film and television.
After completing college, Mueller tackled roles (often as extras) in various projects like the “The Lake House”, “The Break Up”, “Stranger than Fiction” and other productions that came through the Windy City. She continued to audition for every film she could, which led to her pivotal role in “The Beekeeper.”
Mueller sent a letter and a headshot to the indie film’s casting department, which got her an audition. “They liked what they saw and asked me to come in for a callback,” she explains. “During the callback, I could tell the director and casting director were looking for something very specific. I listened very carefully to every direction I was given and took my time in the audition. I knew that every body movement, every look, and each thought counted for something very special. With all of these things in mind, I was able to give them what they were looking for and was cast as Robin.”
Those who have seen the movie know that the Robin character is far from your normal dramatic role. She’s a young woman who is having a very serious affair with her boyfriend’s father. It’s not the type of situation every girl finds herself in, and I wondered how an actress would prepare herself for that mindset as Mueller’s portrayal was good enough to tell me that she went above and beyond the standard “read the script, say the lines” performance you get with many actors in such a position.
“When I agreed to the role of Robin, I knew the story line, and I knew that this role would be a new challenge for me since I have never played a character with such rage and emotion,” Mueller says. In order to nail the role she had to “learn everything about her — where she was born, what her parents were like, the first time she kissed a boy, what she ate for breakfast, the first time someone said something hurtful to her, you name it and wanted to I learned it.”
Based on Mueller’s performance, you can’t help but see that she learned the character inside and out. In fact, I would say the entire film hinges upon her performance. Without the character, there is no film, and if she couldn’t sell Robin’s pain and anger, the movie would fall flat. Mueller doesn’t exactly agree with my assessment, however.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Mueller admits, “I never once thought the film solely depended on my performance. I may have done my homework as an actor and knew how she would act or react to most situations, but the other cast members’ interactions with me made Robin come to life. There are times that as an actor you may work with someone that isn’t giving you what you need to get your character motivated. In those cases, you need to create something to make it work. However, in my case, I was working with well-educated and dedicated actors and that made my job easier. I felt that I was able to play Robin the way that I did because the other actors were giving back to me.”
That’s a very diplomatic and safe answer. And based on my interactions with Mueller I would say she believes that. Despite her modesty, however, the role of Robin is crucial to the film. She is the the true center of the film, even though its title and focus is on the man with whom she is having an affair (played by Michael Ward).
Mueller went on to give her co-workers even more praise. She recounts a scene they took to calling the “Robin Leaving Scene” where the emotions on the set were running so high that it was “almost overwhelming.” Says Mueller, “Just the look that Michael Ward gives me in that scene gave me everything I needed to give him the look I gave him back.” It is those looks that prove so fascinating and vital to the film, and the skill it took to pull that off is not something learned off the cuff on the set, either. It seems to me that it is a natural ability to some actors, and it can be honed over time. It also takes a good director to bring it out.
Mueller says that “The Beekeeper” is the “first film I worked on where I was allowed to take my time developing the art of body movement and eye contact,” and she owes all that to her director, Sean J.S. Jourdan. “Rarely have I worked on a film where the director tells me to take my time. I believe that Sean will continue to do very well as a director because he patiently allows an actor’s creativity to shine through and gives the actor time to work within. Granted, if a scene ran too long he would tell us, but this really was the first time that I was able to genuinely take my time, to think, to feel every emotion and thought that came to mind.”
Don’t be fooled by Mueller’s character dissections, however. Deep, traumatic dramas aren’t her only interest. She also has an affinity for horror films, and was actually cast in one called “Loser,” that never got to the production stage. “I never screamed so much in a day’s work,” Mueller relates. “I loved it.” Since then she has been cast in two more horror films that are in the beginning stages of production. One film is revenge themed and the other deals with a serial killer. “I can’t wait to start filming,” she says. “I have been working with Charles Bodenheimer, a writer and director with an emphasis on horror films. We are in the process of writing the script to a horror film that we hope to have up and running by next summer.”
Mueller obviously has plans for films well into next year, but what about further into the future? Nobody knows what they’ll be doing ten years from now, least of all actors. They are in a fickle industry that far too often rests on the whims of trends. Mueller, however, has a vision for herself and where she would like to be a decade from now. “In ten years I hope to have had the opportunity to play at least 20 very different roles in 20 very uniquely different films,” she says. “I hope at [that] point in my life I am doing well enough as an actor that all I have to do is act to support my family, and in ten years I hope that my [film acting] has been able to inspire some great things for the greater good.”
Those aren’t the normal things you hear from someone who enjoys screaming in horror film roles, but then again Mueller isn’t your average actor. She takes every role seriously, and works at her craft nearly every waking moment of her life. The proof is in the work, too. No actress can be as good as she is in “The Beekeeper” without devoting her life to her art. In time, if all the cards play out right, the rest of the world will see this, too. And if not … well, she won’t disappear into the night like far too many other actors. This job is in Mueller’s blood and one way or another she’ll be doing something in front of the camera. Let’s just hope it works out the way she plans. If it does, we’ll all benefit from it. And if it doesn’t? Well, we’ll always have “The Beekeeper.”