The elfin woman with the dark, shining eyes at the untended bar in a swank Burbank hotel has an easily sparked laugh. Her words come in quick, vivacious bursts, relapsed New Yorker that she is. It's easy to picture the 39-year-old Columbia University creative-writing student in one of those undercover-cop-in-school movies.
"I was really focused on being a student and my agent sent me this script. I had midterms the next day, but I couldn't put it down," says Sabrina Lloyd, one of the stars of "Hello Lonesome," which screens at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Friday, Tuesday and Wednesday. She was on a break from acting, "then I met with [writer-director Adam Reid] and he told me that the Debby character was based on his sister, which made it very scary — and intimate and wonderful."
A micro-indie comedy that has nothing to do with cops or school, "Hello Lonesome" depicts three stories of the essential human need to connect with other people. There's a newly single voice-over artist coming to grips with his failures as a father; an elderly widow's budding friendship with her much-younger, socially awkward neighbor; and a freshly minted couple suddenly faced with tragedy. Lloyd endorses the film's lack of "neatness" (no pretzel logic linking the stories, just the theme), and it doesn't get much messier than Debby's scenario. After only a few months of dating the somewhat deer-in-the-headlights Gordon, she is diagnosed with cancer — just as Reid's late sister, Lisa, was.
The auteur says he jumped at the chance to land Lloyd for the crucial role.
"She sparkles. There's a genuine sensitivity and fierce intelligence and lucidity to her. Sabrina has all that old-soul wisdom and that quick, sharp funny girl; that's a winning combination," says Reid, allowing that he also sees a physical resemblance between Lloyd and his sister, and has long admired the actress' distinctive appeal.
"Have you ever heard the phrase, 'manic pixie dream girl'? It was coined by [entertainment newspaper] The A.V. Club; it's like Natalie Portman in 'Garden State' — petite, quirky. [Lloyd's] kind of playing against it in 'Hello Lonesome,' but I feel like she invented it."
The actress says Reid gave her total freedom to create Debby, not seeking an imitation of his sister. She chuckles, considering how to describe the character: "Like a lot of girls in New York I know; probably myself 10 years ago. It's a place for Type-A personalities. She's got a good career and she's very focused on that, so perhaps hasn't worked very hard on the intimate parts of her life."
However, Lloyd says she learned much from video footage the director showed her of Lisa's struggle.
"I didn't know if I wanted to see it," Lloyd admits. "I was not far off from her age when I was playing her, so it was really close to home for me. But he said she never lost her joy. She was in the hospital bed and she was making everybody laugh and full of life and she was beautiful. It really humbled me."
Largely because of those qualities of Lisa's, Reid stressed keeping things as light as possible. It's a comedy, but in the Chekhovian sense: less about gags than recognition — sometimes bitterly so. And then there's that mess again.
"The scene where she tells Gordon she has cancer was really scary," says Lloyd, explaining that Debby expects the revelation to mean goodbye. "How do you tell someone you don't know that well, that you're just starting to fall for … You don't want them to leave you because you don't really have anyone else, and you're still trying to process that information. You're trying to make everything OK for someone else and you're still trying to make it OK for yourself — it was incredibly emotional to do.
"I think it's the moment you really see her bravery. I wasn't expecting that she'd be quite so brave. It's not going to be OK, but she's holding on to 'I'm going to fight this.'"