In one emotional scene in the new film The Surrogate, the main character Jess is having an argument with her mother, Karen. Jess (played by Jasmine Batchelor) is pregnant and discovers that the fetus has Down syndrome. She wants to keep the baby, but Karen (played by Tony winner Tonya Pinkins) advises against it. “Honey, think practically. You don’t have the time. you don’t have the resources,” she tells Jess.
Jess responds with: “That’s eugenics.” And suddenly, The Surrogate becomes a film not just about one woman deciding whether or not to keep a baby, it also hearkens back to America’s racist history and how it connects to the present day and intersects with other communities, such as the disabled community. As Jose of Token Theatre Friends put it on a recent podcast episode: “The movie then turns into this moral study and this very adult film, in the way that movies were being made in the 1970s—where you went to see philosophical argument and existential things, with characters who are also very human and very alive.”
The Surrogate, which was supposed to open at South by Southwest, is receiving a “virtual theatrical release” on June 12, a new invention in the time of COVID-19. Patrons can buy virtual tickets to stream the film and support their local indie film theaters in the process. Below, Batchelor talks about casting mostly theater actors in The Surrogate, and how the movie has opened her eyes to the struggles of the disabled community. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Can you tell us a little bit about The Surrogate and who you play, and also you’re an executive producer. So tell us a little bit about that.
The Surrogate was written by Jeremy Hersh and also directed by Jeremy Hersh. And it is about a 29-year-old woman named Jess who decides to be a surrogate for her two best friends. And they are played by Sullivan Jones and Chris Perfetti. They are fantastic actors. And about a couple of weeks into their pregnancy, they discovered that the fetus has Down Syndrome. And from there on, it’s a dilemma between them and everyone that would be impacted by the birth of this child—to figure out if they’re going to continue with the surrogacy. And if they do, how can they be the best parents to the child, learning about the Down Syndrome community, learning about parenting community, and in that learning, learning about each other. I like to think of it as an odd coming of age story for Jess. Because sometimes, it’s not until you run into something that is so SO challenging that you get to figure out who you are. And so I think that in this movie, she gets to figure out who she is.
I am also a producer on the film. I am an associate producer, and it’s my first time producing anything and yeah, I feel so weird. My job was partly helping throw ideas in for casting. Erica Hart, who is an incredible casting director, got everyone on board from the New York theater scene, and really did her job so well.
Can you tell me about the virtual theatrical release that’s happening June 12 for the film because that’s unprecedented in terms of how these things are distributed.
We were supposed to premiere at South by Southwest this year, but in light of the coronavirus, obviously South by Southwest was canceled. And so for a while, we did not know what was happening. And so about a month ago, Jeremy told me that we’re doing this thing where they are now putting tickets on pre order for actual theaters throughout the United States—indie theaters, that are actually reaching out to independent artists and cultivating a library of incredible and nuanced art. Those kinds of theaters, the mom and pop theaters, the theaters that you go to to see the movies that fellow theater artists really want to see. A lot of those theaters are going to be showcasing the film on Friday. So you can pre-order tickets, and you can order them through those theaters. And I think they’re like $18 each, and you get to watch it from home. But you also get to support your local theater, which is a big plus and a big reason why Jeremy decided to do it that way. So not only are you getting to watch us and support theater artists making films, and support Jeremy’s movie, but you also get to support your local theaters and they need it right now.
So Tonya Pinkins plays your mom in this movie, and I’m sorry to say this, but the scene where Tonya Pinkins is yelling at your character Jess were some of my favorites.
When they said she’s gonna be my mom, I was like, shut up! She’s incredible. And she has such a political voice and she’s so outspoken about the things that she believes in, and she’s not afraid to say what she feels and say what she thinks. And that, as I guess the world is realizing now, for Black women can be a dangerous thing and an unwelcome thing. So the fact that she is so unafraid—who knows if she is afraid, but she is so bold in her approach and her words, as well as her talent is something, it’s something to be recognized. And, you know, obviously Jeremy was like, “Well, that kind of person should be Karen. Because the woman who plays Jess’s mom is unapologetic in how she feels and is very direct, so it makes sense.”
I actually wanted to ask you about just the morality question in this. As really woke liberals, I feel like we really haven’t reached the complex parts of the disability conversation. And so in doing this, did it open your own mind to how inaccessible the world is?
Oh my god. Yeah. If I’m being honest with you, I started thinking about that when Jeremy and I were going through the script. When we would have weekly meetings, every Saturday we would go to like a park or something and talk about the movie or talk about our lives and get to know each other. And he started opening my eyes a lot to the simple things. Like there’s a scene in the movie where Jess walks by a bar and notices that the only way that you can come in are stairs. And I live my life and I am an “able bodied person” as they say, and I never have to worry about that. And the only times that I’ve actually been woken up to things like that are when I’m coming up in the subway (side note, I really missed the subway at this point) with a huge bag or my suitcase. Or I see a mom and her stroller, or I see someone with the wheelchair on the train and they can’t get off at the stop. They have to take another, the longer route perhaps, or take a bus or go out of their way when the shortest route should be accessible to them. That stuff that if you don’t see it, if you don’t experience it, maybe you haven’t really thought about it before.
So I’m really thankful to this movie for just opening my eyes to that and understanding that. Right now a lot of people are opening their eyes to the Black Lives Matter movement, right? And because a lot of them have not ever had to consider the way that Black people look at the world. And now they have to. And so now there’s this great awakening of people reading books and people asking their Black friends what’s going on—people please stop doing that. But in this movie, I had to check myself and kind of do the same thing. I care about this community. So in what way can I use the privilege that I have?
So Leon [Lewis] in the movie, I love that kid so much. There are people and situations, they’re going to be obviously against Leon because of the way he was born. And obviously that is not fair. He has no control over those things because he did not ask for this. And none of us did. We didn’t ask to be born so why do we have to put up with the shit that comes our way? But in thinking about that, I was like, what can I do? He’s a kid right now. He’s a child. He doesn’t know about half of the things the stupid shit that’s gonna happen. But I think maybe get a head start on that. And helping that not happen. Like in some way, he can be equipped to know that he is loved, that he is unique, is special, that he is valued, so that shit doesn’t hurt so much. In the same way that I try to do that for like, my little brother.
Can you talk about that incredible column that you wrote for Talkhouse, “Say Her Name“?
Thank you for reading that. And I gotta be honest, it’s very nerve wracking to publish it. Because pre COVID I might have been like, Oh, what will future employers gonna say? And I also struggled with, is it selfish to publish how I feel in this moment? Because honestly, it’s not about me. But then I reread it and I was like, No, this is important because I might be speaking for someone else who had a similar, or is having similar experience. And I also think it’s important that people realize that it’s not just about one time. And it’s not just about the past, it is also about our future. And it’s also about what’s happening in our lives daily.
I try to balance being an active protester with writing and researching because I think the two for me go hand in hand. And I realized that I protest best with my words and with my brain. And I support the protesters and I also think that people are more important than things. So if you are really concerned with things more than you are concerned with lives, then you need to take a second look at your priorities. That’s all.
Listen to the rest of the conversation at the Token Theatre Friends podcast.