by Steven Wandling
You have probably never met anyone quite like Tristan Risk. An artist through and through, she’s dedicated her life to creating and performing in as many mediums as she can dive into: burlesque, acting, writing, and now, feature film directing. The announcement was recently made that Risk would be co-directing (with writer/producer Wilson Large) the upcoming feature Strip Craft. Risk is probably best known for her acting work with Jen and Sylvia Soska in their body-horror masterpiece American Mary (2012) and James Bickert’s Frankenstein Created Bikers (2016). She also has a long and storied career in the world of burlesque, and has completed two short films of her own. I was so happy she took the time out of her extremely busy schedule to answer a few questions about her latest project Strip Craft, her work, and a glimpse inside the creative fire that is the life and mind of Tristan Risk.
Creepylovely: Concerning your just announced co-directing/starring roles on the film Strip Craft, how exactly did you become involved with the project? And was it always your intention to both star and co-direct the film?
Tristan Risk: I first became involved last spring, after the Vancouver Badass Film Festival. Writer and fellow director Wilson Large and myself both had feature film scripts in the competition for script development at the festival. My own script was a stoner/stripper comedy, and his was a witch/stripper comedy. Wilson contacted me, asking if I was interested in reading his project. While we didn’t meet face to face for a few months after, I had been offered the role of Hailey, one of the leads. He approached me to to see if I was interested in co-directing Strip Craft, as well as still performing in it. I had just finished shooting my second short film, Reptile House, so I was open to it, but intimidated by the idea of doing double duty in front of and behind the camera. However, we’ve developed a bond over our shared vision of this film, and it’s continued evolution. I feel confident to do both, working in a team situation. I’ve been lucky to spend time on the sets with people who jump back and forth, in front of, and behind the camera , so now, I’m keen to try it myself.
CL: Without spoiling anything, can you give any readers a little taste of what treats we’re in for once Strip Craft is released? Had to ask.
TR: I delight in giving spoilers without context-it’s my preferred form of modern riddle.
“Gather yourself at the Witch’s Tit/You’re bound to have a ball/Where feminine chaos magic grit/Spray blood against the walls.”
Things to look forward to are practical effects, creatures, acrobatic pole performances, and intersectional feminism.
CL: You are someone that wears many different hats to say the least: actress, burlesque performer, director, etc. Is there a significant difference in how you approach these endeavors in your life or is it all just part of a larger creative existence? Also, what draws you to each aspect of performing/creating?
TR: I’d like to think that I can compartmentalize things, but my mind is a messy place sometimes, and my passion and interest for one thing will inevitably color my interest for one thing in other things. I don’t think I’m unique in that. I’ve always considered myself an artist, no matter what prefix I give it. I try to live as creative a life as I can, and I find that if I’m working on a new circus or sideshow skill, I start imagining things that surround that and how to work it into the other facets of my expression. The drive to visit and employ each of these interests has always been strong, and because I had encouragement throughout my childhood, it truly helped propel me forward and gave me the confidence to try new things. All these things too, I would do them, even if they weren’t my bread and butter. I feel like sometimes I have to let the the weird out to relieve the pressure.
CL: Like many, I was first introduced to you through American Mary as Beatress and was totally blown away by not only the film, but especially your performance. I always felt that you helped shine a light on a group of marginalized people in the body modification world and the sex industry. I was curious what research (if any) you did preparing for that role? Why do you think people keep discovering the film?
TR: Thank you. I used to work as a stripper, which I count among sex workers, so I do have incredibly strong feelings about equality and safety for them, as well as people who choose to live outside the norm. In terms of the body modification community, my partner is transitioning into a dragon through selective underground surgery and fleshcrafting. The feelings of mistrust for those who present themselves as squeaky clean, and empathy to those folks brave enough to live their truths are more intense, given my own connection to them. I hadn’t done a great deal of research about body modification leading up to the film. In high school, I had wanted to be a tattoo artist. It wasn’t quite as prevalent in 1998 as it is now, so it was something of a pipe dream, but I dedicated myself to learning everything I could from magazines and the fledgling Internet, pre-social media. So the only thing that was truly shocking was how delightfully grim the Soskas used them in their film as a method of torture.
I think people keep finding the film because there is a disconnect. People are feeling alone, isolated. Almost everyone I talk to has feelings of not belonging and being an oustider. The themes of Mary really grapple with that, and the things we do/tolerate to fit in, versus stand out. As more and more people feel this exclusion, they find this film, and usually they find community with the other American Mary fans who have those feelings. It’s a pretty powerful magnet, and it always is that little, little cinematic treat for when you want to show off how highbrow horror can be, as well.
CL: Having some knowledge of your career from burlesque to stage to screen (on both sides of the camera), what drives you to keep branching out and having successes through a wider array of creative endeavors?
TR: I think that it’s not so much because I’m drawn to it, so much as just driven to it. I loved burlesque for so long-since 2003-but part of my issue with it was when we started bringing more cameras and tech to shows, and people stopped coming quite as often. I still love burlesque and striptease, but my place isn’t as much doing it on stage as it will be showcasing it through my lens in film. I figure that if you have the intention to film a show, inspire everyone watching that screen to go buy a ticket to a live show. Same with sideshow and circus-these are all things that have shaped my adult life that have been wonderful, and I’m looking forward to sharing those stories. I have sketchbooks filled with creatures that I’ve been itching to bring to life, so for the first time, I feel like a full-on creator, and I have a chance to work all these outside elements into one project.
CL: Thinking back to not only your role as Beatress, but also the work you’ve done with WIHM (Women in Horror Month) and also on stage, how do you feel about the current state of the entertainment industry and what do you actively look for in projects that help promote voices that aren’t often heard, or is it perhaps not as conscious of a choice as I’m suggesting?
TR: The entertainment industry is in a sate of flux right now, and I see streaming media upsetting the old ways, the #MeToo movement, and cries for more diversity. Do I think we have more room to offer space to artists who are queer/POC/ female? Absolutely. A large part of the way society views things is that the media and art have been told through one kind of lens, cis/hetero/white/male, for the last century. They have told some great stories, but now we have an insatiable thirst for consumable media. And the ones consuming that media are not just cis/hetero/white/male people. So, I think the table is big enough for everyone to sit at, and I welcome fresh stories.
I still think there is leaps and bounds to go in terms of equal pay, equal hiring/opportunities, and respect on sets. It’s not a fast process, and the only way that I can chip away at it is to enforce decorum on my own sets. But the best part is, I’ve never ever had to enforce decorum, so I consider myself lucky.
CL: Surrounding yourself with great people seems to be something that is very important to you throughout your career and something that anyone should emulate, creative or otherwise. There’s almost a sense of “us against the world.” That being said, how important is it to you to have a sense of family whenever you’re making a film or performing?
TR: I don’t want to waste the precious heartbeats left to me in this life in the company of people who I find unethical or odious. I see no reason to put that stress on myself or my crew. A film set is such a delicate ecosystem and all parts depend on one another. They are highly energy sensitive. If there is a problem, we’ll resolve it, but the holistic approach to film-making has always proved the most beneficial. I’ve never raised my voice once on set, because all the folks I’ve been able to work with on Parlour Tricks and Reptile House were professionals helping me to bring my ridiculous ideas to life. I’m never there to yell at anyone either-I prefer to motivate instead.
CL: Very interested to hear a little about The Caravan of Curiosities. If you could maybe just give our readers a brief rundown of your involvement, and also what are some of your biggest influences in burlesque? What drew you to that kind of classic cabaret expressionism, and what do you specifically find rewarding about burlesque that you don’t find in anything else?
TR: The Caravan of Curiosities is a circus/sideshow collective that my partner and I started five years ago with blade-swallowing babe, Vivianne Oblivion. It’s gone through a number of different casts over the years, and now functions as well as an agency for alternative live performers in Vancouver. We span sideshow, stunts, showgirls, snakes, circus, street performers, and living art installations.
One of my biggest classical burlesque influences would be Mae West (also a writer, actor, director), and Zorita. In more contemporary burlesque performers, I’m fond of watching Lola Frost and Amber Ray. Burlesque always appealed to me because it never took itself too seriously. I’ve always liked stripping (call it the curse of being a West Coast hippie, and enjoying being naked in nature), so burlesque felt like stripping plus theater kid antics. When I started in 2003, there was less than five doing people doing it in Vancouver. Now, there are three burlesque schools, and almost every dance studio offers burlesque classes. It’s become a bit of a victim of it’s own success in terms of over-saturation, but so many underground things I once loved have risen to the surface of the mainstream. It’s partly what fuels my desire to differentiate myself now.
CL: Many of us (to say the least) in the US are dying to see (the Soska Sisters’) Rabid. I’m definitely counting down the days until December 13th. It’s been reported that you’re playing multiple roles in the film. Is that something that you found challenging to do? And viewing the Soskas’ Rabid through the lens as a David Cronenberg re-imagining, did it run through your mind that a torch in Canadian horror has been passed down through one generation to the next? If so, do you have any feelings on that?
TR: I am playing multiple roles! Three, to be exact, but you’ll have to keep an eagle eye out for two of them. I think that there is no so much of a torch being passed, as there is respect that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. A lot of Mr. Cronenberg’s original crew were on set working with the Soskas, and it was really amazing to watch. I am curious if there were any parallels that the older folks drew between Mr. Cronenberg and the Soskas in terms of vision and execution.
CL: I’m a big fan of the film you did a few years ago, Harvest Lake. I recommend that to everyone and think it’s a great psychosexual LoveCraftian film and you were also the standout of the instant cult classic Frankenstein Created Bikers, 70s-style grindhouse exploitation at its finest. Both roles are extremely different in just about every way, yet still feel like they could have only been played by you. Do you consciously try to tackle different types of roles as a challenge or is it more just that if a part feels like something you want to play, you go after it?
TR: Thank you. I’m very fond of Harvest Lake for it’s WTF factor. I don’t really go for one type of role. I usually give what comes my way a read, a chance, and audition. I’d be sort of a boring actor if I could only do one kind of role for every film. I think the goal is to make people who know me watching the film go, ‘Wow! So-and-such is a great character! I love this film’ rather than, ‘I like Tristan, she posts lots of snake photos!’. It’s always a gripe of mine when actors overshadow the roles they play, in the sense that you aren’t watching a character, you’re watching them play a character. It’s distracting as a viewer, so I try to avoid that as a performer.
CL: As your career keeps moving forward and you amass more and more fans while continuing to branch out doing more things, what do you see yourself gravitating toward in the next few years? Would you like to see yourself behind the camera more?
TR: Temperance. Balance between writing/directing/acting. I suspect that I can get to a point where I don’t feel one part eats up the time for another. But I’m no Sibyl, so it’s hard to say. I can’t see what the future holds, but that’s only because it feels so bright.
Thanks so much for reading! Tristan Risk is an actor/writer/director/burlesque performer with many projects heading our way! Be sure to keep an eye out for all the news on Strip Craft, her second short Reptile House, and of course, the Soska Sisters’ Rabid out 12/13! Please share this article with your cinema loving friends! If you would like to write for creepylovely just shoot us a private message or DM on social media! Stay creepy!