Name: Karen Ellen Knox
DOB: March 25th, 1991
Place of Birth: Orangeville, Ontario
Astrological Sign: Aries
Creative Field: Filmmaker, Actor

Wayne

Do you think you can be a good person and a great artist?

Karen

Yes, I do. But I also think that if you never go down the dark rabbit hole, you will never be a “great artist.” The people I find the most interesting are the ones continually swinging between two different states of being, like darkness and light. And it’s the friction between those two opposites that makes someone appealing and exciting to me.

Wayne

As a director, how do you go about that? What if you are working with someone who hasn’t ventured down that “rabbit hole”?

Karen

Honestly, I would never cast them. I just wouldn’t.

I think it’s the artist’s responsibility to be extremely diligent when choosing people to work with. You have to know that you can work with them in a safe space capacity. And if your values are vastly different than mine, then we can’t work safely together.

I think that it’s essential to have some cohesive vision. Be it political values, artistic values, ideological values, even aesthetic values. You have to have some cohesion on it; otherwise, I think working can be hostile, unsafe and deconstructive to the creation of an artistic environment. That’s what I think.

Wayne

When did you start to notice your voice emerging?

Karen

I think when I started making my own stuff. I had directed some plays and had been working for The Storefront Theatre when I came back from London, and I felt like I was still under the mantle of the patriarchy that had educated me. I trained in classical theatre; I did three years at George Brown, which is a classical theatre school, and then I went and did a year at LAMDA for a Masters in fucking classical acting. All Shakespeare, all Molière, all fucking Calderón and like, male playwrights forever. Most of the teachers were men and of course all the schools of acting: Meisner, Stanislavsky, even like Laban, Grotowski, literally everything was through the lens and teachings of men.

So I think I floundered a bit. I almost quit my masters because I got into a huge fight with this guy from the Royal Shakespeare Company about female representation in Shakespeare. I lost it on him in class, like, swearing, and they almost kicked me out. I was over it. And then I doubled down and was like, “Well surely there has to be some value in it, Shakespeare, you know?” I do recognize that he was an amazing artist and talent, like massive. Huge. And has for sure influenced my work deeply; it was the basis of my art for a long time, but I think I found my voice or started the process of finding my voice, when I was like, “I don’t want to tell these stories anymore. I’m bored of them, and they don’t represent me at all, in any way.”

That’s why I think I’m attracted to queer stories, female stories, and stories that involve digital media because they aren’t infected. They’re too new; the recycled tropes, the effects, the impressions – the institutions of patriarchy haven’t infiltrated them yet; they’re all too fresh.

Wayne

Right.

Karen

So when I started working with these narratives in new media mediums, I was like, “Oh my god! I’ve never seen this before!” And that’s RARE because seemingly every story ever has already been told; I’m a big Joseph Campbell fan. But the thing that turns me on the most, as an artist, as a human being, is when I see something that I’ve never seen before. It delights me beyond any other thing in the world. Like, if I see an expression of thought with clarity, or a story, or an idea that I have never seen before, it’s like pure joy for me. Like I was watching Jessica Jones the other day –

Wayne

I love Kristin Ritter.

Karen

Love her; she’s so great.

And there is this scene where this super high-powered lawyer, who’s a lesbian, hires three sex workers to treat her like a stripper. Like, throw money at her and degrade her. And, yes, we have seen that trope played out a thousand times with men, you know, these high powered businessmen hiring women to dominate them, but this was the gender-swapped version of that particular psychological trope, and I bought it. I was like, “of course,” Here is this high-powered woman fighting tooth and nail against the patriarchy all day, and at the end of it, she wants to get her rocks off by role-playing as a stripper. It was so elegantly done; I watched it like three times.

Wayne

I mean, the writers apparently knew what they were doing; drawing from something we’re all familiar with and then twisting it in a smart way that also works commercially.

Karen

It’s one of the hardest things to do! Which is why I have such a deep appreciation for films like Bridesmaids; it’s a fucking banger of a movie. It’s so funny and profoundly commercially accessible yet at the same time, was a huge game changer in terms of what it represented politically for women in film, women in comedy, and how we view female leads in media. I think there is room for all of that, and that is the kind of art I want to make.

It’s funny that the two projects I made last year, Barbelle, which I made with the intention of maximum accessibility; I wanted people to watch it, get it, and love it. And then The Case of the Massey Bodice Ripping, which is the complete fucking opposite. It’s not commercial; it’s completely esoteric, it’s scored with classical music, it’s a period film that is a modern critique of rape culture through the lens of a feminist filmmaker, who is trying to dismantle a 150-year history of cinema’s use the rape trope. Also, lots of people will hate it, and that’s great. I don’t want people to love this movie. These projects are total opposites. And that kind of goes back to how I think the most exciting art is continually oscillating between extremities to find that sweet spot of expression.

I’m vacillating all the time, turpentine and milk.

Wayne

I admire your ability to straddle both the creative and commercial sides of things seemingly; your feet firmly planted in both ponds.

Karen

Yeah, I find I’ve deeply embraced frivolity in the past two years of my artistic creation.

Wayne

What do you mean?

Karen

I mean you can’t fight it, the commercial side of things, you’ve got to harness it and learn how to use it. I think the hardest art in the world to make is art that is both universally understood while also being deeply sophisticated.

Wayne

Yes.

Karen

Because who is universally understood except for the extremely stupid? I like to challenge that notion. And I think that part of getting your art out there is exploiting its commercial elements, and being able to “play the game.” For better or worse right?

Social media is not art, but there is an art to it.

Wayne

But it’s an algorithm.

Karen

Sure, it’s an algorithm, but it’s all part of a larger game, and I find that fun.

Because if I had my druthers, some patron, or whatever, would look at the shit I’m making and go: “Here is financing for your next five series or movies or whatever, and you can do whatever you want with it.” But, that doesn’t exist anymore. And honestly, in this day and age, I don’t know if that model of arts funding would necessarily produce the best art. Funding models adapt as art itself adapts; they have to.

Especially within the climate, we live in now that has a 24-hour news cycle. It demands that relevance supersede content, requiring a certain level of intuition from media makers. I believe that art has to force itself to be more intuitive. Because as globalization increases, as we get literally closer together and continue to be connected to our mobile devices all the fucking time. I think artists need to interpret what the zeitgeist is feeling and hungry for to remain relevant – not just on an individual scale – but art period – if we wish for it to remain a priority.

I think the people who can tap into, and intuit, what’s hot, what the beast wants right now; the better it is for them. And that’s not to say the quality of the art will be better, but more people will watch it.

Wayne

Right, but an internal balance is needed. I get weary of the concept that one can sit on Instagram all day and be considered an artist.

Karen

Oh yeah, and create fucking garbage.

Wayne

What you’re saying is bringing up this kind of conflict for me: entertainment versus art. There seems to be a lot of entertainers, personalities, who don’t have that great depth, that aesthetic, that socio-political standpoint, and yet they are offered global platforms.

Karen

It’s funny, you know, yes, we often give the keys to people who are woefully inept at using them. But that’s the fucking business, right? That’s life.

Wayne

So then where does the joy of playing into that narrative come from?

Karen

Because to me, it’s all a fucking game. And I like games. That’s not to say it can’t be frustrating at times, it is. When it’s not working.

Before I left for London, I was spinning my wheels trying to figure out how to crack into the industry, and I had no idea how to do it. I was like failing profoundly. But eventually, you figure some things out and maybe also get lucky. I think most of it has to do with elegance. Like, how elegant can you do it?

Wayne

We can see when someone is trying too hard.

Karen

Exactly. When you’re promoting yourself, it’s all about elegance. When its meeting people who can do you favours, its elegance. People know when you’re too thirsty. It’s like dating; you never want to show your cards too fully. But you also want to make them interested enough to ask who you were when you leave the room. Do you know what I mean?

Wayne

So it’s flirting?

Karen

Yeah, I think so. I believe there is an aspect of that to it. Definitely. And I think that’s why the industry gets a little fucked up regarding abuse of power because there is an inherent aspect of our industry that is flirtatious, period.

Wayne

And non-committal.

Karen

Exactly. And it’s like, how do we do that with elegance? Because we want people to be interested in us, and hire us and want to work with us. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to fuck them. Messages get misconstrued all the time in our industry – way more than in say a dental office. It’s problematic.

Wayne

See, I feel like I operate in exact opposition to you; it’s paralyzing, or frustrating for me to think about the self-promotional aspect of this life. I love that you have such a sense of humour about it.

Karen

You have to.

Wayne

Right. But, I want to acknowledge that your sense of humour is an inherent strength. Like for you, it might be, “I love the game!” But for me, I get stressed out playing simple board games, like Monopoly.

Karen

In my defence, I hate board games. I fucking hate them. I’m serious. I won’t play them. I’m too competitive. And then I get angry with everyone in the room.

Wayne

I find my relationship with social media to be so hot and cold. It oscillates between obsession and then complete rejection.

Did you ever play Pokémon as a kid?

Karen

Oh yeah, hardcore.

Wayne

Did you ever EV train your Pokémon?

Karen

No.

Wayne

Okay, well there is a multiplicity of layers to Pokémon games. And that’s what social media reminds me of, I’m like, “I want to go catch Pokémon and have fun with my little Clefairy, it’s going to evolve, and then I’ll beat the elite four and so on.” But then there are like all these other hidden aspects of the game, for example, stat scores that you can’t see, but the game registers. And people have dedicated years to archiving this process for each generation of games, when realistically, in the end, it only incrementally strengthens your Pokémon.

Karen

I love that.

Wayne

But it’s so much extra work for, like, who? Unless you are competing in a championship, you’re primarily going to be playing with your friends, right?

Karen

Sure.

Wayne

And then I look at all the people who are thrust into the spotlight, accumulate a massive following, and they don’t curate their social media at all!

Karen

I know!

Wayne

I feel like I have a hard time with this idea of curating myself to other people’s needs, or new systems. I’m a deeply nostalgic person; I walk around with a film camera and a Robert Mapplethorpe biography under my arm, and every person my age is like, “ I don’t know who that is.” And, “what’s around your neck?”

Karen

Right.

Wayne

Where I feel what makes you a creator of today, of 2018, is your willingness to try new mediums, like,“Cool, let’s do that. If it works, great! If it doesn’t, oh well, moving on.”

Karen

Yeah, but, like, is any of that good stuff?

Wayne

You were able to create Barbelle. You were able to create Massey. Which, as you said, are two vastly different things, and if you hadn’t experimented you wouldn’t have known what that polarization was going to be.

Karen

That’s true. I feel like anything good needs so much time. No one is writing a masterpiece overnight, and if they are, it took decades of consumed life to make them ready for that single night of glory.

Wayne

I remember seeing you before we met, at a bar once with your friend and you were filming something.

Karen

Oh yeah! At Mahjong! Amazing.

Wayne

Yeah! And I was like, “That woman is filming something right now that she is probably going to use in some short film.” And I was like, “Wayne, that’s how simple it is.” And I could only look at you with like a sense of envy because I was like “she is working right now; she is taking a social event and turning it into work.” And I love that. It intrigued me so much because I wouldn’t have even thought to do that. To be like, “let’s go and film stuff!”

Karen

Oh, and we did. That was exactly it. We were supposed to have a drink or something, and instead were like, “Want to film some shit tonight?” So me and this amazing cinematographer Victoria Long made this cool short out of that.

Wayne

Amazing!

Karen, I’m curious, do people like me, the ones who marinate, who are interested in the past and operate a bit outside the current zeitgeist, do we have to get up to speed?

Karen

I want to say, “no.” Like, “deeply no.”

I was, for a very long time, also living outside of the zeitgeist; I read a ton of books, I didn’t watch TV, I wasn’t into pop culture at all. I was quite anti-pop culture; read all the classics, was really into poetry, like spending months working on the perfect poem, and then a switch flipped.

Now I haven’t read a book, like a proper narrative book, since last year. Seriously. Have not read a fucking book. I was listening to this interview with Lena Waithe, who I admire, and she was like, “Yeah, I don’t fucking read. I don’t got time.” She’s like, “I watch a lot of TV, cause that’s what I’m making and that’s what I like.”

So I think you figure out what works for you.

Wayne

Right.

Karen

I’m going to Japan in July to marinate my creative self. Detach a little bit from social media, which is ironic because I’m going there to interview Japanese teens about social media, but there’s that thing, “you have to replenish the well from which you draw from creatively.” I don’t feel like my well is dry, but I know that it will eventually get dry and I’m excited to have some time to feed myself without necessarily having to make anything.

I think anyone who has a period of like rapid output – it’ll finish. And then do anything for like ten years. No one is prolific their entire life. No one. They can’t be. Some people are prolific, and maybe they have two years of like good shit that is prolific, but I don’t think anyone is prolific with good shit their entire life.

Wayne

Mhmm.

Karen

And I think that a lot of the time, it’s just about hitting at the right moment; is your voice needed at this time in the medium that you’re working in? And, I mean, that’s fucking luck and fate at play, you know? I wasn’t needed in the theatre world, as a young, blonde, white, 22-year-old.

And a lot of people can beat their head up against a wall, or the wall of something they want to be a part of or that they are attracted to. And then, after however long, they finally see a place where their voice can flourish, and they move towards that.

And that’s not to say that all that time they spent beating their head against the figurative wall wasn’t valuable. It probably was; there was probably some serious shit that they were like figuring out.

Wayne

That reminds me of when Demi Lovato was a judge on X Factor, and there was this one guy who sang for them and wasn’t very good, and he pleaded his case being like, “I’ve worked really hard for this.” And Demi was like, “A lot of people work really hard for their dreams, but it’s not meant for everybody.”

Karen

Ooof.

Wayne

I know.

Karen

Coming from sweet little Demi?

Wayne

Yeah, she went in. But I mean, I translated that to be like, “it doesn’t mean you aren’t good in your way, or your voice isn’t valid, it means you might need to consolidate your dreams.”

Karen

I love that. It’s so true.

Wayne

And going back to this idea of elegance, I look at someone like Tatiana Maslany who is so dedicated to her craft amid the trajectory of her career. She continues to openly acknowledge the gift that was Orphan Black, both creatively and commercially and is also the first person to throw it back to her community and say that there are tons of incredibly talented performers in Toronto.

Karen

And all those people are equally as good, but it just doesn’t hit for them.

Wayne

She just happened to be the one the universe chose. It was her destiny, not theirs.

Karen

That’s the great tragedy of art though, isn’t it? I mean, think of all the great artists in the world whose genius was never recognized during their lifetime, but their passion was so strong to make their art that they spend a lifetime of poverty making it anyways, even though no one gave a fuck. What a testament to their collection.

Wayne

Totally, and the importance of taking the time to genuinely listen to where you’re needed instead of trying to force something that might not be intended for you.

Karen

And the crushing reality of that is so much different. Deeply different.

It’s so funny, like, I’m interested in the business of making Canada relevant. I want to make Canada so fucking cool. I want to make it the coolest place in the world. I want to make Toronto the hottest city, the biggest producer of top-notch media. That is end game for Karen Knox.

Wayne

What’s your definition of cool?

Karen

Fuck that’s tough.

I mean, it’s so nebulous, right? I think Canada is 13-years-old in terms of finding itself; it’s cultural voice, it’s entertainment identity, its media production identity. We are such babies in the development of our voice. But it’s starting to happen. I was impressed with the Canadian Screen Awards this year. Media content is getting fucking cheap to make; I can do it, and I can do it with my friends.

Content is king right now. Like, Facebook Watch needs content, Amazon needs content, Hulu needs content, Snapchat Discovery needs content, Youtube Red, everybody needs content. There are so many different production companies right now that are desperate to get “cutting edge” content. So everyone is taking a stab at it. And I think that’s great because the more people in Toronto being like, “Okay, we are going to make something. It will help us figure out what our voice is.” The more paint we throw at the canvas, the better our ability is, as a nation, or as a city, to be like, “That worked, that did it!”

Wayne

Right, of course.

Karen

But it’s like what is that? That voice? We haven’t quite figured that out yet. It’s a big goal; it’s a big passion for me.

Have you seen the trailer for Ming Dynasty? Matt Eastman directed it. It’s about two Toronto rappers who move to Alberta to run a Chinese restaurant, and it’s very funny. Like, the concept of it looks amazing. There’s this slick glossiness of the 6IX – “We about to get lit fam!” culture coupled with this classically Canadian prairie identity. When I watched it, I was like, that’s fucking Toronto. That’s fucking cool.

Wayne

What’s also great about all these other media platforms is that they aren’t labelling the content as Canadian; they’re simply releasing it to whoever is watching.

Karen

Absolutely. I think that’s going to help Canada get out of its ass a little bit. Because now that we have the ear of the world, the whole goddamn world, what is stopping us from making whatever the fuck we want?

Wayne

Totally. And the generation below us consumes media completely different than how we did. Like would you have ever just watched a web series? Start to finish?

Karen

No, never. I remember my first encounter with Internet videos –

Wayne

Ebaums world.

Karen

Yeah. Ebaums world. Yeah.

And like, bad haircut, or like sketch comedy troupes.

I’m trying to remember when I got Netflix. When did you get Internet on your phone?

Wayne

Like four years ago?

Karen

Right, so it hasn’t even been half a fucking decade for us having Internet on our phones. And now, can you imagine not having Internet on your phone? I can’t imagine it. How would I know where anything was, or where people are, or anything?

I think I’d get lost a lot.

The opinions and ideas that Karen Knox expressed in this conversation on March 15th, 2018 at 5:30 pm, at The Walton in Toronto’s West End, are always in flux and changing. She reserves the right to change her opinion about everything she has said here – and she probably will.

All photos by Yuli Scheidt.