Megan Stalter & director Hannah Pearl Utt on the comedian’s turn playing a chaotic musician in Cora Bora
Within the past few years, Megan Stalter has made the leap from internet star to TV breakout to movie star. The actress/comedian made her claim to fame producing hilarious internet sketches that made the girls and gays fall head over heals for her, and eventually left from our phones to our TV screens in her scene-stealing supporting role in HBO Max's Hacks. Now, Stalter is making her feature film leading role debut in Hannah Pearl Utt’s sophomore film Cora Bora, a funny and poignant character study of a bisexual musician returning to her hometown in an attempt to win back her partner.
Set in Santa Monica, Cora (Stalter) is a down-on-her-luck musician stuck in a rut. Her only solace is her long-distance girlfriend of five-years, Justine (Jojo T. Gibbs). The two share an open relationship, but are somewhat on the rocks. When Cora sees another woman’s bra on her partner’s chair in the video chat, she decides to go all the way back to Portland, Oregon in an attempt to save the relationship. Upon arrival, Cora realizes that Justine is smitten with her new partner Riley (Ayden Mayeri) — and tries her darndest to win Justine’s love, come hell or high water.
Displaying her comedic range along with a set of pipes and effective dramatic moments, Cora Bora is a showcase for Stalter, who proves to stand her ground as one-to-watch. Following the film’s SXSW premiere, AP sat down with Stalter and Utt to chat about exploring the unseen side of Stalter as a performer, the musical element of the film, and more.
Megan, how does it feel to be at SXSW and premiering your first film leading role?
Megan Stalter: I feel really emotional because I feel really lucky. Everybody that made [Cora Bora], I'm so in love with and are just the best — crew, director, producers, cast. It's the most earnest thing I have ever gotten to do.
I was really worried before we started. I believe in myself a lot. I'm delusional about it in a way where it's helped me being your own biggest fan. But even though I believed in myself, sometimes when you do something earnest, when everyone knows you for your weird characters, online videos, your stand up, you're worried that someone's going to be like, "Wow. You should stick to slipping on banana peels." Everyone believed in me and I'm so thankful for Hannah. It's like a life changing project to have someone believe in you to get you the lead in something like this.
Hannah, what was the inspiration behind picking Cora Bora for your sophomore feature?
Hannah Pearl Utt: My producer, Mallory Schwartz, who is my creative right hand, [and I] had been developing a much bigger movie, a queer rom-com. [Cora Bora] came out of nowhere. My friend Tristan [Scott-Behrends] sent [the screenplay] to me as our co-producer because he thought I would respond to it. His friend Rhianon [Jones] had written it. I read it really quickly, and fell in love with Cora. She reminded me so much of a couple of my favorite people we'd never seen represented on screen before.
I sent it to Mallory and she was like, "You really like this person?" As I started explaining why I liked Cora, I realized that I was picking up on some heaviness in her. It was about the relationship. I was like, "She’s carrying around this thing that she can't let go of. She's not even aware that this thing she's hanging onto is gone." That really was great for Mallory. She was like, "It would be great for the people who aren't naturally drawn to chaotic folks, if that could be made a little more explicit in the script." We brought that to Rhianon and Tristan and pulled out the elements of the script that were already in there, because it [was in the] subtext.
Then getting to put Meg — who everyone knows is a comedic genius — to sit up at the center of that role and show this deep vulnerability that I felt like had to be there, to embody the character she does with such specificity!
Megan, was it difficult to explore the dramatic facets of your character?
Stalter: I'm really dramatic. Not saying I'm an amazing dramatic actor in real life — I'm really dramatic. I love that about myself; I'm very sensitive and I'm very earnest. I know that people know me as a crazy character girl, but I think even more than being a comedy person, I'm very frightened. I've always wanted to do something like this.
During some of the minor or sarcastic moments, the reason they were, to me, so like her is because she's been very hurt and sensitive, even though she has this hard shell. You can tell, even though you don't know what's going on, that she's lost something really big. I have a lot of love for her. I hope that comes across in the movie.
When it came to exploring the facets of the queer open relationship, what was it like finding the right tone?
Stalter: I think there are some people that probably truly can't see themselves in monogamous relationships and it doesn't work for them. I think there's also people that want to try an open relationship because they're not ready to let go of the person that they're with. I don't know if Cora is meant to be in a fully open relationship because she was trying to push herself to hold on until [letting] go. I think sometimes a really big act of love is letting go. You love this person; you're not supposed to be together or it's not working for either person anymore.
Utt: Their stakes are so high that none of them are able to fully say, “This is fucked up.” Cora is so scared of losing Justine. Justine is so scared of hurting Cora, and Riley is so scared of losing Justine. So watching, figuring out how to balance that dance, and make sure that all understood where each of them was coming from. Then any time two women were on screen together, there's a horrible thing where the third one would be behind [the] monitor [watching].
Stalter: I felt how she felt in the moment where I was like, "I can't believe they're doing this to her. I can't believe that they're basically cheating on her in front of her own eyes." Then Ayden [Mayeri] felt the same with me and JoJo [T. Gibbs]. Like, when we had a scene where we were connecting, Ayden felt left out and it was because we're close to our character now.
There are a handful of musical scenes in the film. Megan, how was it to display your musical side on-screen, opposed to being on stage?
Stalter: Sometimes on stage I'll sing a little joke song, but I always think it's funnier to have an okay or really bad voice voice and act like you're amazing. I like my voice, but I'm not an incredible singer. I think if I was really bad, it's like, "Oh, she's in a sketch. It's funny because she's so bad." But I think when you're just okay, that's even funnier.
Utt: Mia Folic did all of the original music to [the screenwriter] Rhianon's lyrics, and then we licensed a bunch of songs. Mia also played Daisy, her old bandmate, who you see in the beginning, so that we could have Daisy kind of haunting the movie or ushering Cora in a way, and Meg's voice was a big part of all those motifs.
It was a very big relief the first time I heard Megan sing because we cast her and then sent her one of the songs that Mia had written, so that we could be writing to your voice. I asked you to make an acapella.
Stalter: There was one time you didn't need me to sing, and I sang the whole thing, and you're like, "We didn't need that one, but it's still nice. That’s not one you’ll have to learn on the guitar."
Utt: But she had a great instrument and you could hear a real emotion in her voice, so that was exciting.
Stalter: It’s so funny to get used to "fake performing" because I'm so used to live performing and being obsessed with the audience reaction. [In the scene with] that big song we did, I got really emotional because all of the extras were at work, they weren't at the show, so they didn't care. They cared about the scene, but it wasn't like a comedy show of mine where they were so excited to see it.
Utt: It happened that the hardest song Meg had to sing was also being shot in front of our biggest group of extras we had on set.
Stalter: There were some new lyrics that I didn't really fully know on the guitar, and I started crying and Hannah had to comfort me — didn't have to, but did an amazing job. I was like, "Oh, yeah, we can do this." It's really a beautiful scene. The actors were amazing. When we were rolling, they were very engaged. I wanted to do a perfect job in front of them on the first take because I'm a live performer, too, but I was like, "We're trying to get the scene right." It was hard for me to fail in front of an audience.
Megan, what other genres would you love to play outside of something that's comedic or dramatic?
Stalter: I really would love to do something really scary or a psychological thriller. I feel like the luckiest person in the world. This movie was my dream. I also want to do a lot of gay movies. We're still so starved for them and that's one of the reasons why I was freaking out over this script, too.
Utt: I want to see her in a romance.
Stalter: I would love that. I think those are some of the parts that I love about the movie — even though Cora is going through a breakup, there's so much romance and her loving herself.