Richard Kelly’s New Millennium Psychological Thriller Donnie Darko (2001) celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. We sat down with film and television actress Jolene Purdy about her iconic performance as Cherita Chen, and the enduring appeal of this daring film.
Frida Cinema: Jolene, thank you for doing this. Having a background in musical theater, Donnie Darko marked your first appearance on camera. Since then you’ve amassed an impressive resume of character roles in multi-camera and single camera television. Take us back to the year 2000 and your audition for this film.
Jolene Purdy: I was an undisclosed age when I auditioned. [laughs] I was like two but I looked old for my age. It was funny because we were all in the same “class” right? But the entire cast were insanely different ages. Like, Jake was twenty, twenty one. Joanie, she was like 4 years younger than me. I was closest to Jena Malone’s age.
F.C.: And closer to your character’s age too…
J.P. Yeah. Which, the characters I play today are vastly different ages than what I am.
F.C.: Is that true for Wandavision? Does your character even age in that?
J.P: I don’t know. I don’t know what I am. I can’t say anything about Wandavision. So many NDA’s have been signed.
F.C: How did the role of Cherita Chen find you?
J.P: I stumbled into it, honestly. I grew up doing musical theater and I wanted to be represented by this musical theater agent that I took a workshop with. I asked her to represent me and she said “Uh no. You’re like a weird ethnicity, and you’re overweight. There’s no way I’m gonna be able to find you work.”
F.C: She told you that?
J.P: Oh yeah. And then a year later, my friend’s mom was helping, like as an assistant to that woman. Then I learned she had sent me out for Donnie Darko. So she called me, the agent, and said “hey so we submitted you for this thing. You can use our name and go in on it,” blah-blah-blah. And so I like, I was doing musical theater in high school at the time. So I sent in my high school photo as a headshot and got an audition. So maybe that got me the job because they were like “Wow she’s so authentic”.
F.C: What did you know about this role before you read the script, and how did that change as you read the material?
J.P: My character didn’t have a lot of material. It’s the same phrase repeated. What I did know was that she was bullied. She wore ear muffs to drown out the bullying, so I got this vulnerability of what it was like to be bullied. And growing up, I very much had those experiences to draw from.
F.C: What was the casting search for Cherita Chen like? Were you being considered alongside lots of other actors?
J.P: I think it was pretty extensive. I mean, Donnie Darko was one of the first indie films that became a festival darling, at the beginning of that era where that was a thing. So not a lot of high profile actors were doing these small films like they are today. I mean, they looked everywhere.
F.C: How many shooting days were you scheduled for?
J.P: I think it was 10 days over a two week period. They were shooting fast. So 9 days, but I ended up doing 10.
F.C: This is your first, and to date, only film appearance. It must be difficult to form an opinion on something you did once when you were a teenager, but do you find you prefer one medium or the other? Film or television?
J.P: I love television. It’s my jam. Every week you get a new script and get to grow the character. The writers are creating the story, so as an actor you go through the journey without knowing the ending, the same way the character does. With a film you know beginning, middle, and end. And you design the performance to fit. But on TV, you can’t know what’s happening in two weeks and tweak your performance to compensate. The writer’s know. We’re just their puppets. I just really enjoy tv. Multi Camera. Comedies.
F.C: Tell me about “chut up”. Was that line written on the page like that?
J.P: Yeah. it was written “chut up” with a “c”. So, she had a speech impediment. When I spoke with Richard Kelly about what that was, he told me it was based on a girl he went to school with who was bullied for her speech impediment. And it wasn’t clear which ethnicity she was, if that had anything to do with it.
F.C: When you design a character like Cherita Chen who has so few lines, how do you differentiate between each line reading? Mentally, how were you attempting to differentiate each performance?
J.P: Mentally I was going through a breakdown being that close to Jake Gyllenhaal [laughs]. Cause in the script it was like “he pulls her face up to his” and I was like, “nonononnononono”. This was the second day of shooting–
F.C: The scene where he tells you things are going to get better.
J.P: Yes the second day. And I was underage at the time, so my mom had to be on set. I told her “Uh, I think this is when I quit. I think I’m done, mom.” And she goes, “Cool. You signed a contract, so when you finish this you can be done. But right now you kinda just gotta like…you gotta just do it.”
F.C: Good advice that worked out.
J.P: Jake was just so kind and gentle. And just caring and supportive. And everyone knew I was nervous. Of course I couldn’t hide that. But everyone knew it was my first camera audition for anything, so they were all kind…Going back to your question about how to say the same thing but have a different emotion every time. For Cherita, she didn’t have a way to communicate. She had this speech impediment she was terrified about, so this was the phrase that she knew would help with that fear. So as they’re bullying her, she’s saying “chut up” to get them to stop because she’s protective of herself. But with [Donnie], she’s saying “chut up”, but it’s more along the lines of “I can’t hear this anymore”.
F.C: There’s a montage of all of the characters in bed, some are waking up from a bad dream. Cherita seems to be laying down with a book, waiting to fall asleep. What do you remember Richard Kelly telling you about that scene?
J.P: I feel like the book was “So You’re Going Through Puberty”. Or something like that. It had to have been in the script. Richard’s thing was, and I’m totally paraphrasing, he said “You’re at peace knowing that Donnie has fulfilled his destiny, and in fulfilling his destiny he has saved other people”. That’s just what I remember.
F.C: Who did the choreography for your Sparkle Motion dance?
J.P: Marguerite Derricks. She’s actually a huge choreographer. Everyone has worked with her. I was kind of like, “I hope she knows she’s not working with a dancer”. Some of the other kids were dancers who could pick it up quicker. But I remember her being surprised like “Oh, oh. You got it. Oh you can, you got it”. It was fun. It was shot in this auditorium and I think when I shot there was no audience.
F.C: Was that easier?
J.P: No, I think it would have been easier with people there because I come from stage. But I think it was fine. Richard said “You’re trying to win them over. This dance is supposed to win them over. You think this dance is the thing to make them go *gasp* we were wrong about her”.
F.C: Tell me about your first time watching the film all the way through.
J.P: It’s funny. When I’m acting it, when I’m being bullied, or I’m crying, or I’m doing a dance, I am the character. I was so into it that when I went to go see the movie as Jolene, and everyone was laughing at my scenes, I had to go “wait, this is kinda funny”.
F.C: It never felt like a comedy on set.
F.C: What were your conversations with Richard about this character? Did he clue you in to how Cherita fit into this broader sci-fi narrative?
J.P: So, Richard Kelly shopped this around all over for years. He wanted to direct it. He didn’t want any big studio to water it down or turn it into a blockbuster. He wanted the message, his message, to be clear. He fought for me to stay in it, because the studio wanted to cut my character because it was so long.
F.C: Cut you out entirely?
J.P: Entirely. And he fought to keep me in. which I’m so grateful for. He told me “you’re integral to this. And I don’t care if people don’t understand it. You’re an integral part of this
F.C: How much did you and cast interact during downtime?
J.P: Sparkle Motion was sparkle-motioning in downtime. So I just watched them. And I wasn’t old enough to be engaged with like Seth Rogen and Jake. So I was with the kids mostly.
F.C: Cherita doesn’t seem to fit in with her fellow students, but she also doesn’t seem to identify with the adults and faculty either. When or where is Cherita most comfortable?
J.P: At home in bed, reading. That last shot. Unlike most kids in high school that aren’t comfortable sitting in themselves because they don’t know who they are and they don’t like who they think they might be, I think Cherita was very comfortable with who she was. She was just less comfortable and felt unsafe in the world which was so unlike her.
F.C: Any fond memories on set with Drew Barrymore?
J.P: There was a scene that I had with Drew where I’m eating oranges. Time was running low and since I was a kid I could only shoot for so long. They were like “oh we may need to cut this” and Drew goes “no no, we’ll move my thing, I want HER to be in this. I want her to be my eyeline for this.” She was adamant about me being there for her coverage.
F.C: Coverage you’re offscreen for.
J.P: Yeah. So she’s over there acting and I think “what am I going to do?” So I’m like, literally just eating oranges in that scene.
F.C: Fear and love is a major topic in the film. What did you think about the Fear and Love videos that were in the film? What did Cherita think?
J.P: I thought it was hilarious. I thought the videos were so funny. “Im not afraid anymore!” I mean that’s funny. But, as my character, I think she was taking it in very seriously. She was learning things. Like, yes I have a lot of fear, but I want to act out of love, so how do I? Y’know. It’s school, so she’s following the protocol and the rules, the program. She’s learning, she’s not judging it at all. I was [judging], because I thought it was funny. But she wasn’t.
F.C: It looks like it was fun to shoot.
J.P: So fun. I remember them saying “Wait till you see this, this is hilarious”
F.C: How often do you get recognized for this movie?
J.P: I remember when I first started getting recognized for Donnie Darko. I was at a diner, maybe eighteen at the time. And there was this adult couple, and they were looking over at me, looking over at me. They were like rocker kinda people and, I’m musical theater [laughs]. But I have an edge. And so, I was telling my friend with me “what are they looking at”. So I just look over at them and I’m like [makes face] “What are you looking at? What?” So the girl comes over and she’s like “Were you in Donnie Darko” and I started laughing and I go “Oh yeah. I thought I did something and you were mad at me.” She’s like “No I just couldn’t tell that was you. That was so cool.” And I was like “Oh, so that happens.” It still happens all the time.
F.C: In addition to an impressive supporting cast of film actors, Donnie Darko features a standout performance from the late Patrick Swayze as motivational speaker and pedophile, Jim Cunningham.
J.P: On set, you get a call sheet everyday, right. With your sides on it. My mom looks at the call sheet and goes “P. Swayze. Hm…if that’s Patrick swayze I’m gonna die.” Cut to, we open the trailer door and he’s walking by. And she goes “I think I’m gonna watch today”. We watched Dirty Dancing growing up, so for her it was a big *gasp* moment.
F.C: Did she get to meet him?
J.P: No, he just came in, did his thing. very nice. I got to see him dance, that was fun.
F.C: On set?
J.P: Yeah so when he’s doing his speech thing the stage he was on was shiny black, and he had to wear medical booties on his shoes – this was before covid. So it’s kinda slick. So he’s sliding around, doing pirouettes and I was like “this is amazing”
F.C: Did you ever get to talk to him about acting?
J.P: No. He kinda kept to himself. I think things are different now with how communal actors are. But then, most actors just went, did their thing and went to their trailers.
F.C: He probably was in a weird headspace considering his character.
J.P: Right. He did not want to do jazz hands with Sparkle Motion if he’s playing a pedophile. So he stayed away from us kids [laughs].
F.C: This film premieres at the dawn of a new Millennium and almost immediately finds a cult audience. Twenty years later that cult following is beginning to crystallize into a fixture of mainstream culture. What do you hope people take away from this movie, twenty years on?
J.P: I feel a bit disheartened by social media and how this generation has taken to instant gratification and popularity of things without substance behind it. I think this film has substance and is enduring. And I just hope that future generations are as focused on having substantial messages as they do lots of likes…oh, that was mean [laughs]. But just the underlying message of when you’re watching someone else be bullied, you yourself are too scared. You’re living in fear. And it doesn’t allow you to love that person. So that’s the fear and love. It’s scary to love people. It’s sacrificing yourself…The coolest thing was the last day when I wrapped. Jake came to me and said “You have to think about the message that you just created. It’s so much more than a movie. There’s gonna be a kid that’s sitting there and they’re gonna identify with your character and feel seen and feel represented by you. And not feel so alone because they see it happens to other people. But even more so there could be a bully that hasn’t even fathomed the repercussions of their actions. And maybe it might make them question the next time they bully someone. So your reach has so much more than a credit. And of course it was Jake who’s so wonderful and nice. He said it way more eloquent than what I just said.
Donnie Darko plays Saturday, February 20th at 7:30pm at The Frida Cinema Pop-Up Drive-In.