While women are finding their voices to speak about many topics, from sexuality to discrimination, the wage gap or violent assault, discussing mental illness remains mysteriously taboo. Actor, writer, and producer Kimberly Rolfs found her own solution to the issue: create a webseries around it. In the latest from Honeysuckle Girl, here’s how she turned her private pain into public art.
By Kimberly Rolfs
When I finished writing the debut episode of what would become Life or Death, Basically, I was sitting in my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house in Minnesota. I’d just completed my three-year college conservatory acting program the week before, experienced a very dramatic emotional breakdown, and headed home to decompress. I edited together a coherent version of the pilot episode in a span of three or four days, knowing that my friend Alex (who later became the director of the series) was interested in seeing it when I was finished. Writing it, I felt powerful. I felt like I was taking back some of the agency I’d lost in the rigor and competitiveness of my acting training. I was taking control of my career, of my image, of my voice, of my story.
The main character in Life or Death, Basically is named Maggie. She’s twenty-one years old, a writer, and diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She has just graduated college, and is reeling from the loss of a codependent relationship. Many writers I know hesitate to say that a character in their story “is” them, or “represents” them, and I know there is a danger to that – I don’t want to have to take credit for my character’s behavior, or have to answer questions from people about whether I actually did that horrible thing that they just watched Maggie do. But Maggie was born, first and foremost, out of my own story. I also have borderline personality disorder. I also have been involved in codependent, unstable relationships. I also have struggled with self-harm, my body, and with my relationship to my own destructive tendencies. People tend to discount the idea of “writing what you know” – afraid that it might make them seem lazy or unimaginative – but for me, my real-life experiences are where my most interesting ideas come from.
But back when I wrote the pilot in Minnesota, I hadn’t told most of the people in my life about my diagnosis yet, and even confession via fictionalization was really scary. When it actually came time to send the script to Alex, I was hunched uncomfortably over my laptop on the bed I’d slept in every night since I was around ten years old, literally shaking from fear. What I had written was deeply personal. I feel like a lot of people in that situation would have just kept the writing to themselves — what good could possibly come out of sharing something that might make people upset?
Playing Maggie, playing a version of myself that was a bit more undone and unstable, someone that closely resembled me pre-diagnosis, required me to face a lot of parts of myself that I hadn’t previously dealt with. It required coming face-to-face with the scariest, most intimate, darkest facets of my mental illness. I had to rediscover a lot of vulnerability that I had pushed down in order to function.
The opening scene of Life or Death, Basically was the hardest for me. It’s a scene between Maggie and Andrew, the guy who she has been deeply in love with and painfully attached to for several years, and Andrew is telling Maggie that he is no longer able to have any kind of relationship with her. This would be a difficult moment for anyone to go through, but for someone with borderline, it is a particularly specific kind of agony. Maggie tries everything she can to make Andrew stay – crying, holding him, trying to kiss him, physically keeping him in the room with her – and she fails. He leaves, and goes back to his girlfriend, and Maggie is left alone.
This scene was one of the first I wrote, and almost everything in it is true. The words that Maggie is saying and the words that are being said to her are from my life. I remember that day we filmed it, lying on the floor of the apartment we were shooting at, breathing, recalling what it feels like to be told by someone I cared so much about that I am too much of a burden to them. And then I had to stand up and live it again, this time in front of a camera.
It’s as torturous as it sounds. We all push certain things down in order to keep moving, and having to return to those moments again is quite literally like ripping off a very old, very firmly stuck band-aid. But when it’s important enough, you do it anyway. And however awful, there is also something magical about getting to show those kinds of moments through the lens of a protagonist. The conversations I based that scene on were times during which I felt like a villain, during which I was faced with my own bad behavior and had to answer to it, during which I was the manipulator, the crazy one, the one doing the damage. Getting to reclaim that moment and show it from my own perspective was very healing for me.
The entire process of shooting Life or Death, Basically was filled with moments like that. I was surrounded by an endlessly supportive cast and crew that made me feel safe and a director who was just as invested in the project as I was, and I had the opportunity to tell my story in a way that was so much closer to truth, and with humor and joy that I hadn’t seen in any other stories about borderline personality disorder.
It is strange to act your own words. It’s even stranger to be acting your own words in scenes that very closely resemble moments that have actually occurred in your own life. There’s no imagination necessary, no time you need to take to embrace the circumstances of the scene. The dialogue is tailor-made to sound good coming out of your own mouth. It should be so simple to get it right. And yet, in a lot of ways, this was the most difficult time I’ve ever had acting a role.
I always used to think it was so ridiculous when writers would say that their characters felt real to them, but Maggie and the other characters in her story feel like real people to me. Now when I script an episode, it’s as if I’m watching their story and transcribing it, rather than trying to make it resemble mine. But it still feels real, because it’s rooted in my own truth. I think that’s the most important thing about it. Sometimes the best stories we have to tell are the ones that live closest to us. And yes, sometimes those are the most painful and desperate and uncomfortable ones. At first, we might feel like all we have inside of us is ugliness. I used to think that if I wrote something angry, that meant it was true. But if we dig deeper, we might discover a surprising optimism and joy that we never knew was there. And there’s nothing more empowering than that.
Kimberly Rolfs is a New York-based writer, actor, and producer. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2017, and is now officially certified to experience the full range of human emotion at a moment’s notice. She wants to continue to create her own content centered around complicated female characters and work to dismantle Hollywood’s ideas about what a leading lady needs to be. In her free time, Kimberly can be found watching any and all television comedies, drinking coffee, and crying. Visit kimberlyrolfs.com and lifeordeathbasically.com to learn more, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram. @lifeordeathbasically
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