John Cassini is one of the most recognizable actors in the Vancouver screen scene.
He’s been in the business for decades, and his lengthy credit list includes blockbuster fare such as Seven and Alive and starring roles in Intelligence and Robson Arms.
Cassini has played reluctant heroes and villains and scum. He’s poured his guts into unlikable characters, and made audiences care about really bad dudes.
He’s not afraid of vulnerability.
But Daughter — the feature film that has its world premiere this Saturday at the 2019 Vancouver International Film Festival — might be his most vulnerable work to date, and he’s feeling the weight of it.
“I do feel a little — in a good way, and it’s fine, I’m a big boy — but I feel a little exposed in this film,” says Cassini. “I feel like it’s an extended private moment to a certain degree, of which I’m a big fan in the work and the process.”
In Daughter, Cassini plays Jim, a father traumatized by the sudden death of his teenage daughter. Jim is wealthy and, instead of working through his grief with his wife (played by Cassini’s real-life wife, Jenn Maclean-Angus), he deadens his pain with bourbon, expensive hotel rooms and escorts — until one long night, when the escort who knocks on his hotel room door bears more than a passing resemblance to his dead daughter.
Daughter marks the feature film directorial debut of Anthony Shim, a longtime actor and teacher who started writing Daughter in order to jumpstart his filmmaking career.
“I wrote a lot of really bad stuff, but then I started writing this one-act play about a man in a hotel room separated from his family, and it just felt so easy, even though I’m not a father and I’m not a 26-year-old escort,” says Shim. “There was something about these characters that I really liked. I’ve always been drawn to human emotion, human relationships and the drama that exists in everyday life that doesn’t get much attention.”
Shim knew pretty quickly that he had something special with Daughter, and he asked Cassini to read the script and offer his thoughts.
“I responded to the sophistication and the maturity of the script instantly,” says Cassini. “It was undeniable for me, and that’s when I said to him, ‘We could make this film right now.’”
There was something about Jim and the circumstances of his sadness that lodged under Cassini’s skin.
“I really cared about Jim and the first time we did a table read... it was electric. After that reading, we all looked around and said, ‘Holy shit, we have something here,’” he said.
Cassini signed on to star and produce, and the team shot the film on a low budget, careful not to sacrifice production value or Shim’s unique storytelling voice. “I said to Anthony, ‘I want you to make your movie, and I’m on board if it’s your movie,’” says Cassini.
Shim’s movie — which has its premiere this weekend at VIFF’s venerable B.C. Spotlight Gala — gave Cassini the opportunity to play the type of role he normally only gets to play on stage.
“I’ve done some incredible roles on stage, but in order to be the lead of a movie, some of those scripts, if they’re really incredible, are going to go to stars, so that’s where the independent film world can really sustain an actor like myself,” says Cassini. “When I read this, I thought, ‘This is why I became an actor.’ It’s challenging on every level. It challenges me to bring my humanity to the role, to bring my vulnerability places that, if you love acting, you love to go.”
One aspect of Daughter that required extra care from the production team was a storyline involving cyber-bullying and sexual violence among teens.
“There were a lot of conversations with the actors who play those characters, because they’re of that age,” says Shim. “I would ask them, ‘Is it crazy for a girl to be passed out and a guy to take a picture of them?’ And they’d say, ‘No, that’s the norm, and it’s not with evil intent, people see something that looks funny to them and they take a picture.’ But from that moment on, what happens is beyond their control.”
Cassini concedes that it’s heavy stuff.
“Anthony and I always talked about making a film that might be difficult to watch but has a strong resonance when it’s over,” says Cassini. “I love these films that get under your skin.”
Daughter also stars Teagan Vincze, Jordyn Ashley Olson, Ryan Robbins, Gabrielle Rose and Camille Sullivan.
Daughter screens Oct. 5 and 8 as part of the 2019 Vancouver International Film Festival. Tickets are at viff.org.