Columbia is currently home to a successful screen actor—and this time it isn’t James Franco.
Sarah Steele, CC ’11, has been quietly working on set and stage while balancing her Columbia career. Steele’s new movie “Please Give”—also starring Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Amanda Peet, and Rebecca Hall—opens this weekend after successful runs at both the Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals.
Steele plays the angsty, pimple-ridden daughter of Keener’s and Platt’s characters, both of whom are going through their own mid-life crises. Keener obsesses over giving to charity while Platt furtively chases a younger woman, and both anxiously await the death of their elderly neighbor (whose grandchildren are played by Peet and Hall) so they can expand their living room into the adjoining apartment.
The film is touching in unexpected ways, and successfully captures the emotional complexity that comes with being a New Yorker—the shallow tendencies of city dwellers combined with a sense of responsibility and community. “This was a movie we all did for very little money. We didn’t have trailers or anything. It was something that everyone on that project did because they loved the script,” Steele said.
Steele’s character Abby is the stereotypical acne-obsessed, insecure girl, but she also defines the upscale New York state of mind—her ultimate goal in the film is convincing Keener that a pair of $200 jeans are a necessity.
Steele captures the anxiety and superficiality of adolescence flawlessly, and she admits to relating to her character in some ways. “I think that every girl can relate to a time in their life when they just felt like ugly and unwanted, and not being pretty enough is the biggest deal in the world, you know? I think that’s relatable to almost every girl,” she said.
The film’s sensitivity, according to Steele, has to do with the work of director Nicole Holofcener (also known for “Friends with Money”), who is a Columbia School of the Arts alumna.
“I think women have an eye into emotion sometimes that men don’t, and especially women’s emotions, and I think that’s another reason why you don’t see that many movies with the types of real women. ... It’s because they’re written by men, and it’s really hard for men to understand all of that stuff,” Steele said. “I think my character could not have been written by a man. It could not have been written by anyone but a woman who went through that as a kid—that pain is articulated in such a great way in this movie.”
Holofcener certainly doesn’t shy away from female pain. From a pimple-popping session to a montage of mammograms, she never lets the viewer forget from whose side the film speaks.
While Platt is an important force in the film, the relationships between the women—mother to daughter, sister to sister, granddaughters to grandmother—form the emotional center. “What was more interesting to me was the women. Catherine is older than Amanda, and Amanda is older than Rebecca, and then I am at Columbia, a totally normal kid for most of the year, just happened to get this movie and did it over the summer—maybe I’ll do this when I graduate. It was just funny because it was women in these different stages of doing this as a career,” Steele said. It is this sense of understanding between the women, and acceptance of their differences, that truly makes the film shine.
“Please Give,” however, is far from Steele’s first introduction to the world of acting. She is a veteran of both film and stage, having started her career as Tea Leoni and Adam Sandler’s daughter in 2004’s “Spanglish.” Since then, she has appeared in two off-Broadway shows, including Roundabout Theatre’s successful three-person show “Speech and Debate.” “I did ‘Speech and Debate’ my freshman year, so I was doing eight shows a week while being a full-time student here, and after that I was just like, ‘Whoa, OK, I can’t do that again,’” she said.
Steele admitted that maintaining the balance between getting her Ivy League education and her career has been complicated. “It was just way too much energy and time, and so after that I really decided, let me do school and then be an actress later, because it’s just too hard to do them both at once. But having said that, I still did ‘Please Give’ during that time over the summer,” she said.
If Steele’s acting in “Please Give” is any indication, she’s handling the pressures of both worlds extremely well. “I’m more proud of the finished product than I ever have been—making the movie was one of my favorite experiences on film,” she said. And it shows—both Steele’s performance and the brilliant ensemble acting of the cast as a whole create a tender and insightful look into the neuroses of New Yorkers.