Arielle Holmes on the red carpet for the New York Film Festival premiere of ‘Heaven Knows What’
If the acclaimed indie drama Heaven Knows What—which had its American premiere at the 52nd New York Film Festival this past weekend—seems like an especially authentic depiction of the New York City street-kid scene, that’s because its writer and star is an actual New York City street kid. For almost three years, between the ages of 17 to 20, Arielle Holmes was part of the city’s homeless population, sleeping on sidewalks, park benches and the occasional crash pad. What little money she had was spent feeding her drug habit, heroin being her high of choice.
These days, the now 21-year-old Holmes is clean and sober, having gone through a stint in rehab after production of Heaven Knows What wrapped earlier this year. But the film — which she shot while still homeless, and features several of her friends as extras — vividly recreates that period in her life, and is based directly on writings that sibling directors Josh and Ben Safdie commissioned for the film and subsequently used as a road map for the screenplay (co-written by Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie). Those writings grew into the roman-à-clef novel Mad Love, which Holmes hopes to publish next year, when the film will also go into general release from Radius-TWC.
Both the book and movie capture the experiences of Holmes’s alter ego, Harley, as she roams the city attempting to find both a place to crash and her next fix. It also depicts the tumultuous romance with her real-life then-boyfriend and fellow addict, Ilya, played in the film by rising star Caleb Landry Jones. And while Heaven Knows What has been praised for its immediacy and realism, for its lead actress, it feels more and more like the past. “It hasn’t been that long, but I feel like I’m already removed from that person,” Holmes told us. “I see her more as a character now.”
How did the directors, Josh and Ben, find you?
I was homeless, but I was apprenticing with this guy in the diamond district. I was walking to the subway one day, dressed up nice, and Josh approached me and said, “My friend and I are making a movie [about the diamond district]—are you interested in being in it?” And I was like, “Oh yeah, sure.” We exchanged numbers and met up once a week at first and kind of felt each other out. I realized that he seemed pretty genuine, and that I should probably be honest with this guy who might be my director. I also thought he’d probably think the truth was a lot more interesting than the story I was giving him, which wasn’t a lie, but it was covering things up. I told him, “Listen, I’m homeless, and I have a heroin problem. He said, “Okay.” Eventually, he met a couple of my friends and fell in love with that world. We’d all meet up, and he’d sometimes hang out for a bit and have some drinks. Right before we started filming, he came to the park with me and met a bunch of people there. That’s where we got a lot of extras for the movie.
At what point in the process did he encourage you to start writing what became the book, Mad Love?
He knew he wanted the movie to be about my experiences, so he commissioned me to write about them to help develop direction and ideas. In the writings, you get to see more into my character’s head, the thought process and how she sees these characters. I go into a lot of detail about all of that. I started writing what happened this day, and this day, and eventually it went into a narrative about Ilya, because our relationship is really complex, so I backed up and wrote a whole thing on that experience.
The movie makes the interesting choice of omitting the characters’ backstory. Do you delve more into your past on the page?
No, I never went that far into my past; the furthest back I went is three years ago. I guess it came about that way because of how in-the-moment I was, and still am. It kinda f—ks me up a little bit, especially living on the street and everything. You’re always right in that second. So I guess the past wasn’t even a thought in my head, really.
It can be a challenge to accurately depict drug addiction onscreen. How did you get into that head space for the film and the book?
I was still kind of living that lifestyle while I was writing, and while we were filming. I went to rehab right after it, so it’s only been a few months.
You wouldn’t get high before a scene, for example?
No. I was on a methadone clinic at the time. I still did heroin, but I couldn’t do it before scenes, because then I wouldn’t be there [in the moment]. But I guess it wasn’t that far away. If I [appeared] really high in a scene, I either was high earlier that day, or would be later that night, or the next day.
You play yourself, but Ilya is played by a professional actor. Was that helpful in crafting your own performance?
It really helped that, when I met Caleb, we just got along so well. The real Ilya and I would always hang out with him, on and off set. If Caleb and I hadn’t gotten along, it wouldn’t have been the same movie. I saw him as a friend, so I wasn’t nervous or anything. I kind of felt level-to-level with him; I felt like I fed off his energy and reciprocated what he was doing. ,
How did the real Ilya feel about seeing Caleb’s version of him?
He just saw the film for the first time, as did a lot of my friends who were either in it or had characters based on it. They all loved the film, and I asked Ilya what he thought, and he was, like, “You know, it was great. It was funny at sometimes, but I didn’t do all the things that he did!” And I was, like, “You didn’t do all of those things, but it’s not exactly what happened.”
The movie does a nice job presenting the way that these addicts inhabit a kind of small universe inside of New York. They’re part of the city, but exist in a separate world.
That’s how I felt in reality, living that life; no one knew what was going on in this circle of people. I always found that interesting, even before this movie. Things like that exist, and they exist everywhere — you meet little cliques and worlds. I think I’ll always see New York that way, especially the Upper West Side, because of the people I know over there, or the people I’ll see sitting on the sidewalk. Even though I don’t want to be a part of that life anymore, I still love everybody that is there, and I want to help them in any way I can, when I’m able to. And they’re all just really supportive [about the movie], and feel good about it. I think it does give them hope. They’re just happy that at least one person made it out of this.
After this experience, do you have the desire to keep on acting?
Completely. There’s another movie I’m doing to do, but I don’t know when it’s going to start. And there are a couple of scripts I’ve been reading that I really like. Even though the characters in those scripts are completely different from me, they contain a part of myself that I can relate to. By doing those roles, I can explore a part of myself and learn a lot, and also communicate that to the audience. I could also see myself directing eventually. One of my all-time favorite films is A Clockwork Orange.
What do you hope that audiences take away from your experience as presented in Heaven Knows What?
I feel like there are so many people that can relate to it, in one way or another, whether it’s the drugs, or the relationships, or if it was a friend who had this experience. So many people have come up to me, and told me about a story in their life that the movie reminded them of. A lot of times, when people pass a young homeless kid on the street, they think of him as part of the background, or think they were born homeless. I hope this makes them realize those kids have an unspoken voice that’s not heard in the world, but so much is going on with them, whether its drugs, or family problems, or a disaster like their house having burned down. A lot of these kids are also talented and intelligent artists. They draw, or they paint, or they write, or they’re musicians. I think the way to help them, is that someone needs to believe in them, and invest in them. Because that’s what Josh and Ben did for me.
‘Heaven Knows What’ directors Josh and Ben Safdie in a Q+A session with NYFF festival director Kent Jones
Photo credits: @NYFF, @Getty Images