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Ashley Bell & Michael Stahl-David on ‘Love & Air Sex,’ Web Series, And Why All Actors Should Make Something Of Their Own

The stars of ‘Love & Air Sex’ sit down to chat about indie rom-coms, the art of collaboration, and why storytelling should be an actor’s main objective.

Love & Air Sex is one of those rare movies that successfully blends romance, comedy, raunchiness, and genuine pathos into an accessible indie package. Set in his home base of Austin, Texas, director Bryan Poyser (Dear Pillow, Lovers of Hate)’s story of love and forgiveness offers a peek into Austin’s thriving nightlife scene while providing an authentic portrayal of modern relationships. What only adds to the fun is that an several important sequences takes place at the World Air Sex Championship at the famed Alamo Drafthouse.

Ashley Bell (The Last Exorcism) and Michael Stahl-David (Cloverfield) star as Cathy and Stan, a pair of ex-lovers who, thanks to a little internet stalking, happen to be in Austin the same weekend. Though the two are rarely on-screen together, Bell and Stahl-David generate wonderful chemistry that radiates even when one is off  screen.

We had the opportunity to speak with Bell and Stahl-David about the film, working in different storytelling media and the importance of staying creative in between projects.Tribeca: Love & Air Sex marks the first time that either one of you has appeared in a romantic comedy. What were your first reactions to the script? At what page did you know you wanted to be a part of the film?

Michael Stahl-David: Well, the very first scene with my character Stan masturbating  [laughs]  certainly caught my attention. What really struck me was that after he finishes, he reaches for a Kleenex box and when he realizes there’s nothing inside, he just grabs the fitted sheet. That to me was so dark, funny and sad—just real.  I was really intrigued at that point [laughs] and eagerly read the rest of the script.

Ashley Bell: I think it’s the most exciting thing in the world to have a script emailed to you. You just never know what story will be packed inside. It’s so fun to read it without any initial judgments. I feel like I devoured the script because I was so curious. I was attracted to the role of Cathy beside she finds herself walking that fine line between “Should I fall back in love and go back to a way that I know?” or “Should I move on or should plunge into a new relationship?” I also was really excited by her awkwardness—it was something I could relate to. 

Tribeca: It was so interesting to see a romantic comedy with characters with real flaws like real people.

AB: Yes! Michael you said something so wonderful yesterday. Love & Air Sex is not your trite studio romantic comedy. The film features interesting characters in real-life situations. Some story lines work out and some don’t because that’s real life.  

A director who allows actors the freedom to collaborate is the bravest kind of director.

Tribeca: Obviously, the film is very performance-driven, and you both are wonderful. If you had to pick one word to describe Bryan as a director, what would that be and why? Can you talk about the ways that you were able to collaborate with him?

MSD: Joyful would be my one word. It takes so much work to get a movie made. It’s kind of amazing to think about how many hours of a filmmaker’s life are spent on set. Bryan was just so psyched everyday. He had this incredible looseness to him.  Bryan was also so accepting of our ideas and was happy to let us try things and improvise. Some directors can be tight or controlling or anxious when it gets down to crunch time, but Bryan just seemed really happy.

AB: Joyful is the perfect word. Bryan had such a direct vision for what he wanted and how he wanted the story to be told. He beautifully weaved a love story and a breakup story in the Air Sex world. At the same time, he still was open and spontaneous. He would ask us what our character would think and then let us try different things. A director who allows actors the freedom to collaborate is the bravest kind of director.

Tribeca: The main ensemble of Love & Air Sex also includes Zach Cregger and Sara Paxton. Did the four of you bond as a group? How did Bryan help facilitate that process?

AB: Bryan had this perfectly calculated and coordinated group bonding session for a few days before filming. It was like, “We’re going to do crash course and you guys are going to be best friends and have tons of history in like three days.” We played badminton and came up with secret handshakes. He also did a really cool exercise where he had us write break up letters to each other in character, which on the more meaningful side of things, provided a strong subtext for whatever we were going to go through.Tribeca: Love & Air Sex was primarily shot in Austin. Is Austin the new indie Hollywood? What’s the best thing about making films in Austin?

MSD: The locations you can get are pretty special. We were shooting in the airport; we were shooting in all these well-known establishments. There was just a tremendous ease to it all.  We could shoot openly on the street without any gawkers—even on 6th Street, which was chaotic. The fact that we could shoot at will was cool.

AB: I feel like Bryan is so Austin film – he’s so that world. Everybody just opened up their doors to him. Two of my favorite scenes in the film were filmed at Justine’s, which I think is newer Austin, and then at The Broken Spoke, a dance hall that could not possibly exist in L.A. or New York.

MSD: The ceilings were like seven feet tall.

AB: You could just feel the years of dance that have been pounded into that floor. To me, that is Austin.

Tribeca: Love & Air Sex has received an incredible amount of support through the Austin community and beyond. Bryan, producer Trace Sheehan and their team successfully held a Kickstarter campaign to take the film on the road.  

AB: I think what Bryan has done is incredibly inspiring because independent film is a difficult medium. [laughs] Doing anything to promote a dream is difficult, but he made it happen. People rallied behind him. Love & Air Sex is an indie gem, a romcom with spice. Bryan’s an incredible filmmaker and people need to see films like this to really get a sense of somebody’s vision– the characters and situations he’s chosen to put in the film all are there for a reason.

You learn so much about storytelling by writing and editing, and also by watching all your different takes. I think every actor should make something.

Tribeca:  Love & Air Sex has received a lot of support from the online community as well. As actors, how important is it to maintain a social media presence?

AB:  I think it’s important. I definitely try to use whatever methods I can to talk about projects I’m passionate about, as well as issues like animal rights. Right now, I’m talking about this documentary I’m working on called Love and Bananas about the rescue of aging elephants in Cambodia.

Though, I’ve thought many times about cancelling out my Twitter, I’ve been talked off the ledge [laughs]. If I can share anything about my experiences working with organizations like Cruelty-Free International through Twitter, I’ll feel like I used it for something good, not just for sharing what I ate for breakfast this morning, which was a scone [laughs].

MSD: Social media makes me anxious. That’s unfortunate because I think it is probably really important. I feel like I just haven’t found a way to be myself on there.  I use Instagram occasionally, but I’m always just very self-conscious about what I post.

I have this really conflicted relationship with it where I’m savvy enough to understand but I just don’t like to tweet. I’m also surprised by just how much work goes into it. I’m always so impressed by people who can maintain a constant feed. However, I would like to find a way to make it fun for myself eventually.

Tribeca: You both have had experience working on web series. Ashley, you recently worked on The Walking Dead, and Michael, you were nominated for a Webby for Michael Stahl-David: Behind the Star. Can you talk about your experiences? How important is it for an actor to work in different storytelling media.

MSD: Yeah, I want to know about The Walking Dead!

AB: It was so much fun! It was a three-episode web series with AMC that Greg Nicotero directed based on the show. I actually first met Greg a while ago because he did all the special effects and makeup for The Last Exorcism. When he contacted me to be on the web-series and told me I would be potentially be turned into a zombie, I immediately said yes. I would do anything in the world for Greg Nicotero.  I think he’s just a genius, an artist like I’ve never seen before.

I remember having fake blood put onto my arms to make them look incredibly gory, and then Greg came over and really gave the wounds depth and character… as gross as that sounds. He tells a story in everything he does, which should be the objective of all artists. I really enjoyed working on the web series because it goes everywhere. You can watch it on your phone and on all kinds of different devices from anywhere in the world. That seems to be the way media is going right now. Why not?

MSD: Behind the Star was a transformative experience for me because I realized that what I really want to be doing is making my own stuff. It was also a way for me to process and satirize this weird experience of being in a movie like Cloverfield.The joke of the show is that I immediately assume I’m a celebrity because I’ve been in this one movie. I really wanted to convey an arc of exhilaration and disappointment, which I think can be really funny. People’s blind spots can be really funny.

I was really disappointed with what happened after Cloverfield, or I guess with what didn’t happen after Cloverfield.  It was so nice to get to create art about that experience, and more importantly, to make it a comedy. This summer, I did a film called Take Care by Liz Tuccillo that is playing at this year’s SXSW Festival. It’s a comedy and one of the best offers I’ve ever gotten, and it was solely based on the webseries.

It’s incredibly difficult when you’re between projects. As an actor, you can’t just be validated by who picks you or what projects you’re picked for. You only have X amount of control over that. 

Tribeca: That's awesome!

I’m still not thought of as a go-to comedy guy, but I feel like I learned so much about the art form from editing my web series. You learn so much about storytelling by writing and editing, and also by watching all your different takes. I think every actor should make something. It gives you a different platform and an outlet to try new things. Plus, as an artist, you want to make stuff you care about.

AB: It’s incredibly difficult when you’re between projects. As an actor, you can’t just be validated by who picks you or what projects you’re picked for. You only have X amount of control over that. So if you’re writing or producing or directing in between auditions, you’re staying creative.  You’re staying in that wonderful creative mind space as opposed to just waiting for the phone to ring.

Tribeca: You’ve also both been on the New York stage this year. Michael, you almost done with a run in Commons of Pensacola, and Ashley, you’re currently in Machinal on Broadway. Can you talk about the challenges you face in preparing for a role on stage as opposed to TV/film?

AB: It’s heaven! I’m really enjoying working with [Machinal director] Lindsay Turner. You’re in rehearsal every single day, but it’s so exciting to watch actors work together to build an ensemble. Also, it’s such a pleasure to be able to pick apart a script and ask literally a million questions. Time is a luxury. Film and TV go so fast.

It’s been a unique experience to have the time to really develop a character and be able to think hard about the accent and work with the wig and costume designers. You’re able to take in lots of different ideas and really be part of something special. It’s why you do it.

MSD: In film, you can capture lightning in a bottle. You can just have something happen in an instant. In theater, you’re building something that you can recreate to some degree the same every night – we’re at 112 performances or something at this point. It’s a different sort of challenge. There’s a different audience, a different reaction that you’re getting from night to night. It’s a fun challenge to find a way to stay spontaneous.

Love & Air Show opens tonight at the Village Cinema in NYC. However, if you’re not in the NYC area, don’t fret. Check to see if the Love & Air Sex Road Show is coming to a city near you. Or you can watch the movie on VOD or digital platforms


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