TORONTO — Multi-hyphenate media personality Sook-Yin Lee says most of the stories she tells on air, in her music, or films come from a place of familiarity.
In the case of Year of the Carnivore — her new debut feature as a writer-director — it was her awkward adolescence that served as the diving point for the tale of a sexually curious tomboy.
“I often think fondly about growing up in Vancouver and being completely out of touch with my body — very clumsy,” Lee said in an interview during last year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
“I was this girl with a really tight perm that had no boys interested and was trying to figure out what the heck was going on with me. It was an interesting passage and I really think fondly back on the early learning curves with my very first sort of seminal love relationships.”
Year of the Carnivore had its world premiere at the Toronto festival last September. On Friday, it has its theatrical release in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
American actress Cristin Milioti (The Sopranos) stars as Sammy Smalls, a quirky cancer survivor with a “lame” leg and a big crush on musician Eugene (Toronto’s Mark Rendall). Desperate to hone her skills in the sack, Sammy hastily gets intimate with strangers, including shoplifters she busts on her supermarket-security guard job.
Lee says Sammy was loosely inspired by a stranger she met while shopping a few years ago in her Toronto neighbourhood, Kensington Market.
“She was this gal with a big, crazy mane of curly hair, spunky as all get go, and running around trying all different clothes on,” recalled Lee, a former MuchMusic VJ and host of CBC Radio’s “Definitely Not the Opera.”
“She was kind of this hip-hop girl and she was really, really spirited and had all sorts of opinions and really sparky, but her leg was lame. She was dragging her leg around the store and she was faster than anyone in the store and I just was blown away by her and really loved who she was.
“She’s upfront about her disability, her handicap — it’s not something that was an impediment to her.”
Milioti landed the role of Sammy because she was funny and “beautiful without ever having to try to be,” said Lee.
She was also open-minded about the eyebrow-raising sex scenes.
“To get an actor to do a lot of the things that I asked of my actors, you have to be very brave,” said Lee, who herself has been quite liberal with her sexuality on-screen. She performed non-simulated intercourse in the 2006 film “Shortbus.”
“I had one actor do an audition and he did a great audition but at the end of the audition he said, ’I, uh, don’t really like taking my shirt off so I don’t think I can do that.’ And it was like, ’Oh, gosh, this is tough. We’re going to have to talk if you’re even considered here.”’
Besides acting for film, Lee had also written and directed several shorts before making Year of the Carnivore.
Yet she found it difficult to assert herself at times, she admitted.
“I had to prove my stripes a great deal,” explained Lee, who fronted the art-rock band, Bob’s Your Uncle, in the 1990s before embarking on a solo career. Some of her music is heard on the Year of the Carnivore soundtrack.
“I still have to work on feeling OK about saying what I want.”
Lee will get to work on that skill as she develops her next feature, a supernatural ghost story called Ferrate Is Dead. She said it might be part of a “trilogy of three features that sort of look at love from a different vantage point.”
“I’m very conflicted about love and sex because my parents fought really terribly, like, very dramatically,” Lee added. “It’s never really sunshine and roses for anyone. It seems like so many people I know are baffled by it or have struggles with even just trusting, letting people in, letting themselves go.”