Rebecca Dayan on Her New Film 'Novitiate'

Rebecca Dayan on Her New Film 'Novitiate'

The actress talks about how the all-female cast and crew helped shape the drama on convent life.

The actress talks about how the all-female cast and crew helped shape the drama on convent life.

Photography: Sharif Hamza

Styling: Ellie Grace Cumming

“I have an opinion about everything and most people don’t like that,” professes actress and artist Rebecca Dayan. During the early stages of writing the film Novitiate, about young women navigating 1960s convent life, director Margaret Betts saw Dayan’s assertive nature as an asset. The actress was intimately involved as drafts developed and characters were fleshed out. At Betts’s recommendation, she also immersed herself in reading testimonies and first-person accounts of nun’s experiences.

Dayan, who grew up in South France and later studied art and fashion design in Paris, found these nuns’ stories influential on her visual art. Just at the time when she was engrossed in reading convent stories to prepare for the film, she was offered a residency and solo show at Catherine Ahnell’s SoHo studio and gallery. “There are so many aspects of being in a convent that are interesting but you can’t touch on them all with one movie,” notes Dayan. With the new watercolor works on paper she made, she was able to delve into other themes related to nuns’ experiences, in particular, the meaning of the word “virgin.”

In Novitiate, Dayan joins a cast of nuns that includes Margaret Qualley and Morgan Saylor. The director, producer, and cinematographer on the project were all women too. “I mean, how often does that happen?” Dayan asks. With a women-helmed cast and crew, there were parallels between the community of women they were depicting in the convent-set film and the community of women on-location producing the project. But Dayan contends there were important differences too. “Off set, we were all very caring and loving of each other but the nuns in the convent aren’t supposed to have any relationships with the women around them,” she explains. “It’s actually one of the things that was hard for me to understand.” Nuns often join convents, Dayan notes, “at an age when they’re craving intimacy and tenderness and are completely cut off from it. They’re all starved from this with their love for God. It’s very challenging.”

While the film illustrates the specifics of the convent experience, Dayan finds its narrative engages with a larger conversation about young women, expectations society has for them and expectations they have for themselves. She notes that themes of “wanting to be perfect and wanting to perfect yourself” are very relatable today. And with rave reviews following its Sundance premiere, the film, due out in theaters later this year, has proven itself relevant to a worldly audience. “I had a feeling that people were going to like the film, but you’re never too sure. I knew that it’s a poetic and elegant movie, I just wasn’t expecting the reviews to be so amazing,” gushes Dayan. “It was very rewarding.”

DRESS MIU MIU, TIGHTS FOGAL

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