This week’s portrait, Halo Rossetti, is a writer, director, and performer set to change the world. According to their bio, among other things they are “worldbuilding positive futures in the husk of the capitalist experiment. In their work, through the production of film, video, and performance, they practice worldbuilding as a means to convey their belief that decolonizing, queering, and regenerating are linked processes.”
Sounds like a tall order, but Halo has the creds to deliver. They were Temple University’s nominee for the Tribeca Film Institute/Sloan Discovery Student Award 2020. They are a former artist-in-residence at The Shandaken Project and at the Prattsville Art Center and Residency. They have been interviewed in Adult Mag, GO Magazine, cinéSPEAK and The Temple News, and have contributed writing to HuffPost, HuffPost Queer Voices, The Establishment, Luna Luna Mag, RENDER, artforum.com, The Brooklyn Rail, and The American Reader, as well as various artist catalogues. Halo gave an artist’s talk at Parsons, and currently teaches media arts and screenwriting at Temple University. What you won’t experience from reading this is the lovely hint of an accent during our conversation.
I hear that you’re from Australia, how old were you when you left there?
I was 19.
Ah, so most of your formative years were spent there. Tell me a little about that, where you grew up, what it was like…
I grew up in Perth, in a very suburban area. We lived 10 minutes from the beach, and it was kind of a bush-like environment outside of the city. The city was a regular metropolis but it felt a little like an overgrown country town.
Philly used to feel like that.
Yeah, it was the same size as Philly when I lived there. They both had about 1.6 million people, so it’s really similar in that way.
What don’t most Americans know about Australia, and do you get a lot of comments about dingoes?
(Laughs) Yeah, a lot! Younger folks don’t know the reference, but older folks are always like, “Dingo!!” And I’m just like, “Yup, okay.” It’s a beautiful place, but I think the tyranny of distance is really real. I mean it’s close to Asia, so I don’t want to be a white supremacist and say it’s far from the world because it’s far from Europe, but we’re a European colony who committed genocide on the indigenous population, and you can feel both the distance and influence from Europe. Also, Perth is basically a country town on the edge of a desert which is three times the size of Texas so it’s the most isolated capital city in the world. So that tyranny of distance is real and psychological and I think it does something to people. And as much as Australians are fun loving people, the toxic masculinity is prevalent there too, the racism is real, the colonial mindset is real too. We have a lot of the same issues that you have here but sometimes we’re treated as magical happy-go-lucky folks who skip around the world, but we have our own issues.
Describe your family…
My family is Italian-Australian, my mom’s father was Italian and her mother was half Lebanese and half English. She was born in Australia but my dad was born in Italy. He came over on a boat with his mother when he was seven. His father had already come over shortly after my dad was born. So on my dad’s side I’m a first generation Australian.
I know there’s a big Greek population there. My ex was Greek and I met some of her relatives. Greek with Aussie accents.
There are a lot of people from the Mediterranean there, because when Australia had negative population growth in the ‘60s there was a big push to get Europeans folks to go over. A lot of Mediterraneans took them up on it because there were better opportunities there than in western or northern Europe. So there are a lot of Italian, Greek, and Polish people, refugees from Yugoslavia, Croatians, a lot of people came after WWII. At one point in our history, around 1 in 4 settlers in Australia were Italian.
I learned something new. Go on…
Well, back to the family, I have one sister and a small number of cousins there and extended family still in Italy.
What were you like when you were young?
I was bombastic and neurotic and anxious, tightly wound, and hyper-sensitive. I really liked my N-64 gaming system, I loved The Legend of Zelda, I loved Mario, I loved the Animorphs books, I loved “The Simpsons,” I loved “Futurama,” I loved “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” I loved My Little Pony and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, I loved Batman and Gargoyles, and I was very performative and creative and a smart kid.
What were some of your creative endeavors?
I played a lot of make-believe with my sister. I also used to participate in a “Make Your Own Storybook” competition and in the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades I got 2nd, 1st and 3rd prize! I would write the story and draw all the illustrations, so we were creative like that, but it started to wane once we got really good computers.
What do or did the parents do?
My mom’s a screenwriter and a screenwriting professor. When I was little she wrote documentaries and children’s television before becoming a professor, and later she also ran an Airbnb. My dad is a project manager for various mining companies, iron ore, oil, and natural gas.
What made you take the big step to come to the US?
I’ve always had the idea that I wanted to move to the States and make films and do television. In my own circuitous way I managed to do that. Basically, I came to the States for college and stayed.
What was something that surprised you?
So many things. I went to Yale so that was my first culture shock. I was like, “This is America?” and my classmates there were like, “No, it’s not.” I remember my freshman year someone said, “You know that commercial…” and referenced an ad that everyone had seen except me and I had the feeling “I don’t know what anyone’s talking about most of the time because we don’t have the same references.” I also noticed that all of my classmates were going around saying that they were fine, and no one was fine. I realized that Americans really didn’t know how to talk about their feelings. There’s a frankness to Australians that you don’t find here. They do have it a little more in New York where I lived for seven years, but in New England? No.
What was your first significant film project?
I made a film in 2017 called SUNRIDER that was shot on 35mm. It was a science fiction short film that was the keystone of my grad school application, and it played in several film festivals.
It seems that a lot of your films have a little sci-fi bent. Is that an interest of yours?
Mostly I’m interested in worldbuilding. I want to think about positive futures and ways to get us away from the mess that we’re in now. That often looks like science fiction but, well, actually my film PONY, which I’m working on now, does that in a small way, but it’s not sci-fi. It’s more about ways in which we can be better for each other.
Talk a little about the project.
It’s set in 1999. The main character, Zoe, is a genderqueer protagonist. In the movie, they’re just turning 13, and they are working through these gender feelings that are not represented by anything or anyone in their lives, except for their twin sibling, Pony. Pony has passed away, but when Pony was alive they had a connection to a different way of being in relationship to gender. So Zoe is now haunted by the ghost of their sibling while trying to negotiate a relationship with their mother, who doesn’t understand what they’re going through. It’s compounded by them having feelings for their best friend who doesn’t know how they feel either. So Zoe is surrounded by close relationships but feels alone, and doesn’t see themselves represented anywhere, because they are growing up in a time when there were not any accurate representations of the trans experience in the media.
I understand that it’s not autobiographical but that there are some aspects that resonate.
True, I’m trying to play with my own experience being a kid and trying to understand who or what I was. Unlike Zoe, I never experienced the death of a sibling, but I too was trying to figure things out without seeing myself reflected in my environment.
And what inspired the supernatural aspect of the film?
I grew up in a house that was haunted and I wanted to incorporate that into the film. [Laughing] I also have a little obsession with queer and trans siblings and twins. I know one person who is one of six gay sons, and I know a set of trans triplets, and a pair of trans identical twins, and I’m always amazed at these phenomena. My sister was born on the exact same day as me but three years later, so we share a birthday and it made me think, what if Zoe had a twin but one who passed away.
How important is it to see yourself reflected in the media and what happens when you don’t? And how important is it to be accepted once you do come to terms with being trans or enby?
I read a statistic that a trans kids whose gender is accepted by their parents has a 4% chance of attempting suicide, whereas a trans kids whose gender is not accepted by their parents has a 58% chance of attempting suicide. The difference that a family can make in a trans kid’s life is huge. In 2015, The National Center for Transgender Equality did a U.S. Transgender Survey, and 41% of respondents had claimed that they’d attempted suicide, versus 1.6% of the general population. It’s a tough to be trans, and/or non-binary, and/or gender-nonconforming; certainly that’s changed since the 90s, but it’s still difficult to find your way.
When did you start coming into your own as a nonbinary person?
I started using they/them pronouns around four years ago. I began to realize that I was genderqueer about two years before that. I’m not gonna lie, I always felt like a genderqueerdo, I just never had community to reflect that back to me until I was in my late-20s, you know?
What are some of the challenges getting this film made?
We’re in preproduction and getting ready to shoot in September, which is so intense! We have our fundraiser going until September 4th so people can still contribute. We still need to raise $2,124 to meet our goal. Funding has been a real obstacle, along with trying to make a film in the middle of a pandemic. We’ll have a full list of COVID-19 set safety procedures and protocols in place, based on the “Safe Way Forward” document put out by the Directors Guild of America. We’re currently getting our COVID-19 set safety protocols approved by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) so that they can release their actors to us.
So back to you, you write, you direct, you act…
Yes. I feel really called to be a performer. I used to take a very intense acting class in New York called Act-OUT at THE STUDIO, taught by Brad Calcaterra, which is where Laverne Cox used to train, and MJ Rodriguez, and a lot of LGBTQ actors. It was a beautiful community and I really enjoyed my time there. But my visa was running out, because I’m always on a visa, so I decided to take my career to the next level by pursuing my MFA in Film and Media Arts (Directing) at Temple University. I’m so grateful I got into Temple, because I’m here on a full fellowship with tuition and health insurance, etc. It’s a great program and I highly recommend it. I’m concentrating on writing and directing now, but I miss performing, and plan to circle back to it this fall. I did a lot of solo performances when I lived in New York.
I saw some of your work online and you have a plethora of interesting characters. I love some of the names, Crystal the Tinder Mermaid, Cleo the Past Teller, Home Depot and Tormenta.
Yeah, that was fun! I really enjoyed creating those characters and performing as them. It was a wild time and gave me a lot of confidence. It’s funny, before I started doing all those characters, I shot a film in New Mexico, and it was a beautifully shot film, but the character development wasn’t there, so I developed these characters and performed as them to better understand character development and performance. But I kept wanting to make bigger work. I made a one-person show, “BLACK-EYED SUSAN SINGS,” that I performed at Dixon Place, and then I wrote a play, SENSE, that was performed at La Plaza Cultural in the East Village at LUNGS Loisaida United Neighborhood Gardens Festival, but then I thought, honestly, I really want to shoot another film, and break into the film and television industry, so I went to film school. That’s part of my trajectory, all pieces of a grand puzzle.
What was your favorite or most outrageous character?
I had a Primal Scream Therapist, Evangeline Dupree, who would only wear red and would get the whole audience to scream with her. There’s something about doing a group primal scream, it’s the most fucking amazing thing ever. It helped me to connect to and integrate a lot of my own buried trauma. Anger really gets stuff moving.
What were your ghost experiences?
When I was three I had this dream that I was in the garage that was also the living room; they were smashed together in the dream. My mom was there, and I was in a cage that was so small I couldn’t stand up or move around. There was a man there with wispy white hair; he was almost bald and had some damaged skin under one eye and a tattoo on his arm. He was holding a dirty white rag and his shirt was open so you could see the white hairs on his chest. He was walking away arm in arm with my mother and he threw the rag over the cage and they both laughed and walked away from me. I woke up and ran to find my mom. She could tell it wasn’t a normal dream, so she helped me to figure out a way to banish the nightmare so that I could go back to sleep. Because of his hair, she named the antagonist “Whitey,” and she pulled out some white bedsheets and we each ran down a corridor pulling a white sheet over our heads yelling, “White out Whitey!” to get rid of him. I didn’t think about it again for years, until I was around 20, when my parents separated and my dad started dating Cary, his now-wife, who moved into our childhood home with my father while I was at Yale. I came back for part of the summer between my Sophomore and Junior years, and Cary started telling me that she sees ghosts as if they’re flesh and blood, and I asked her if the house was haunted. She said, “Well there is an old man here, he has a tattoo with numbers on it and a dirty rag…” and proceeded to describe him. I wanted to get to the bottom of it, so I spoke to the neighbor across the street who’d lived there forever, and asked her what was up with the house. She said that at one time there was couple who lived there, who were holocaust survivors and they still had the number tattoos on their arms from the concentration camps. Their daughter had lived with them, and as a young woman she had committed suicide in the garage. Many years prior to learning that, my cousins were over once, and we were playing with a Ouija board and we were contacted by a young woman! I guess it was her. It was intense.
Wow! Well, that’s a cool story to end on. If people want to support the film, where can they go?
We have a website, www.ponythefilm.com and they can see a little film about me and the project. And please check our our fundraiser and pledge funds if you can! And you can visit my personal website at http://chloerossetti.com/.