RiverRun honoree Celia Weston relishes working with strong women

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Celia Weston, who accepts the 2017 Master of Cinema award from RiverRun International Film Festival on April 2, holds a long and intimate relationship with Winston-Salem.

A native of Spartanburg, SC, Weston received a scholarship to what was then called North Carolina School of the Arts after a drama professor at Salem College recognized her talent and encouraged her to take it further.

“It befell me in a quixotic way,” Weston said of her acting career. “The drama teacher at Salem College, where we did not have a drama program — I did every play I could — thank God, gave me a flier for summer stock theater, which included faculty and students from the school of the arts. Before the end of the summer, I’d been offered a scholarship to North Carolina Schools of the Arts.

“I was blessed with these people who saw my light before I knew what to do with myself,” Weston continued. “The school of the arts was perfect for me. I’d been in Winston-Salem. I had the security of knowing what my life outside of the school would be and what my life inside the school would be. That was perfect for me. I wasn’t ready for New York. I had been accepted at New York University. My father had died. My mother wasn’t willing to help me with anything as carny as being an actress, as we said in those days.”

During a phone interview from her Manhattan apartment, Weston fondly recalled walking from Sanford Hall at the university “in full Moravian garb” for her job as a bartender at Salem Tavern.

Weston may not be a household name, but she’s renowned as a skilled character actor, with roles in Dead Man Walking, The Talented Mr. Ripley, “American Horror Story” and many other hits. She played the mother of a self-taught painter for the acclaimed 2005 film Junebug, which was written be fellow school of the arts alum Angus McLachlan and filmed in Winston-Salem, Pfafftown and McLeansville. McLachlan will moderate the discussion when Weston accepts her Master of Cinema award on April 2.

Weston said that from the start it was apparent that Junebug was a special project. She signed on to the project two years before filming started, when McLachlan and director Phil Morrison were still raising money. Whenever other acting opportunities arose, she always made sure it wouldn’t interfere with Junebug before committing.

“Someone stopped me in the grocery store before the supposed blizzard when people were hoarding toilet paper,” Weston said. “She said, ‘What are your favorite films that you’ve been involved with?’ She said, ‘I hope you’re going to say Junebug.’ She was crying while she talked about it. I thought: Why else do we do it as actors? It seems like such a fatuous choice as a career. Until you realize that we’re trying to help people feel something, to access something that’s already familiar to them, to help them grieve and to help them feel joy.”

Similar to the bond she developed with McLachlan, Weston embraced the opportunity to work with Rachel Lambert, the first-time director and co-writer of In the Radiant City. Weston plays an opiate-addled and clairvoyant matriarch reeling from the loss of her two sons — one who’s in prison for murder and another who is estranged from the family. Set in small-town Kentucky, the film explores the fraught dynamics of a family splintered by a murder, and how violence and anger mediate family relationships. Michael Abbott Jr., another school of the arts alum who turns in a riveting performance as the prodigal son, will also be on hand for the three screenings at RiverRun.

Weston said she feels gratified that Lambert and co-writer Nathan Gregorski created three strong female characters, and that another woman, Zoe White, handled cinematography.

“I’m thrilled for [Lambert’s] opportunity,” Weston said. “There should be more like her. With the strength of women filmmakers working together with a strong female cast, there’s a lot of power.”

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