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Krisha Fairchild is a breakout star - at age 64

At a beach-side Cannes Film Festival party, Cannes Film Festival things were going on. Young women of model-esque builds were flaunting skin and Hermès. Men in boat shoes and cream-colored jackets were sipping wine. Photographers were whipping their cameras up from their necks, unleashing a barrage of clicks, and dropping them again.

The waves flirted with the sand, then retreated. Guards stood sentinel next to the water, ready to protect designer outfits and VIP egos from any party crasher who might be possessed of fierce motivation and Michael Phelps' swimming talents.

Whooshing into this bubble of exclusivity, Krisha Fairchild, 64, descended the stairs from the street above with white hair askew and a body type that would draw a dismissive hand wave from a Paris designer.

Fairchild did not look the part of a Cannes habitué. She looked, perhaps, the part of an enthusiastic vendor at a Sunday flea market. But Fairchild is the star of a new scripted movie titled "Krisha" that has made her an improbable celebrity (and an even more improbable one at this status-obsessed film festival).

As the Texas native came to the bottom of the stairs, a publicist introduced her to a stylish man by explaining she was Krisha, star of "Krisha."

"Hi," she said, thrusting her hand out. "I'm titular."

Actors, real and hypothetical, can be found by the liter at Cannes; they're probably the only commodity more abundant than rose, the pinkish wine that replaces water as the gathering's go-to liquid. Fairchild once acted too — well over 30 years ago, briefly, in Los Angeles — but gave it up after not much success.

That's all changed thanks to her nephew, a 26-year-old first-time feature director named Trey Shults. He made the film, a fresh take on the trope of the dysfunctional holiday dinner, for well under $100,000, shooting it at his mother's house a little outside Houston. He cast his mother, Robyn, as one sister, named Robyn, and his aunt Krisha as another sister, named Krisha, and even named the movie after her.

Shults' move paid off. Fairchild, increasingly stopped and selfied by strangers on the street, has propelled the film to breakout status. "Krisha" was chosen for the elite Critics Week section at Cannes. And on Tuesday, the film landed a deal with the venerated distributor A24, rare for such a homespun movie.

Krisha is a well-meaning but volatile character, a desperate sort who carries a kind of reverse Midas touch wherever she goes. Fairchild plays her with big-mouthed brio. As seen in expressive close-ups, she alternately hassles and hugs family members and has a gruesome meltdown over long-ago family skeletons. She also has an unfortunate encounter with a giant raw turkey.

"I'm not like my character," she said. She paused and gave one of her trademark large laughs that can indicate anything from pride to insecurity. "Maybe a little. The big personality part."

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Sudden celebrity is a rare epilogue for failed actors, who normally disappear from the collective consciousness sometime after the third Hallmark Channel movie.

But Fairchild's success demonstrates that such turns are possible — even in a business that seems to have little room for older female actors. It also shows that a movie industry that has grown more and more corporate can still mint colorful characters — who don't necessarily jibe with a place like Cannes.

"Robyn and I went to a restaurant yesterday," Fairchild said as she ate lunch at an upscale spot. "We didn't finish our entree, so we asked for a box. The French didn't like that."

She gave a large laugh and plowed on. "I don't think they do boxes here. But then we got smart. We started bringing Ziploc bags. And it's just, you know, shove it right in," she said, making a sweeping motion with her hand.

And would she still have said plastic packaging on her?

"Right here," she said, patting her purse.

Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles in 1976 from a budding acting career in Chicago, Fairchild began striking out to auditions, then striking out at them. She wouldn't oblige directors' more offensive casting couch requests, she said, and apart from some bit parts, wasn't getting the right roles anyway.

"They used to want me to read as the girl next door. I'm sorry, do women who curse like a sailor live next door to you? Do women who grab men's ... live next door to you?"

Leveraging some contacts, she became Nancy Sinatra's assistant, then Joel Grey's, making sure entourages were taken care of, schedules left conflict-free. When she had enough of that job — she describes the entertainment industry as a place that "killed my confidence and then ate it" — she left for Seattle, where she managed to find voice work. (Fairchild has a booming one, in demand in the age of Valleyspeak and vocal fry). With both a hippie's outlook and a sense of wanderlust, she eventually moved to Hawaii and then Mexico, where she now lives in San Miguel de Allende with four dogs.

As she stood on Cannes' Croisette, the elegant boulevard that fills with fashionistas during the festival, Fairchild looked around. This was a time when the question of women and Hollywood hung in the air: The ACLU had asked government officials for an inquiry into potential gender bias in Hollywood director hiring, and Cannes had just experienced "flatsgate," in which security guards denied entry to women at a gala screening because their heels weren't high enough.

As a star of neither conventional age nor look, Fairchild offers a feminist riposte of sorts, though she might not quite put it that way.

"I was walking down the street wearing a dress that showed off more skin than a woman my age is supposed to show. And none of the photographers who gather to take your picture even looked at me," she said. "I could have been naked, and they wouldn't even look at me. Maybe I should try that next time."

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Shults cast her in his film because, well, she came cheap. But he also had more creative reasons.

"There was something about capturing her personality and then turning it upside down a little," he said as the pair and Robyn stopped for a snack. (Fairchild is far warmer than her antagonizing on-screen persona; she is also not an alcoholic or an addict like the character.)

"I've always known how good and fun she is, so why not share it?" Shults added. He winced slightly, however, as a moment later she started recounting anecdotes about him as a toddler.

It wasn't the only story she liked to relay.

Many were colorful but hard to immediately prove. She said she once lived in a house with the Bangle Susanna Hoffs (slightly hard to verify) and also believes she received a message from a relative beyond the grave to play Krisha (much harder to verify).

She once lost a role, she said, because there was already a Fairchild in the production and the producer didn't want two people with the same last name. The other actress turned out to be Morgan Fairchild.

In a Gothic twist, she's missing about an inch from one forefinger. She says she lost it trying to break up a dogfight shortly before the shoot, and nearly backed out until Shults said he'd wait until she felt comfortable again. (He also built it into her character.)

There was a serious side, too, as Fairchild described her alcoholic mother and PTSD-afflicted father. And her character in the movie was inspired in part by the daughter of another sister who died of a drug overdose, leaving behind several children. It turns out she took care of one of that niece's children, giving a plot point in the movie a poignant spin.

Fairchild never married and, she said, never had a truly happy relationship until recently. A Chicago man she has spent the last year corresponding with by phone and email is preparing to move to Mexico to live with her despite their spending only one week together.

"Life seems good, but how many good years do I have left? Maybe 10, before the infirmities start? Maybe. So you should go for the things you want. Because you have very few chances in life."

Realizing she was turning melancholy, she sought to bulldog through it.

"This has been great," she said, referring to her current run. "Don't you think this has been great?" she added, sounding mostly sure.

"But my life had been going really well until this happened. I retired to Mexico. I was ready to lay in the hammock. So if this works out and I get more roles, great. If not, well, I'm in the hammock."

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