Dianna Agron Novitiate Interview – Dianna Agron Talks Intimate Revealing Scene


Imagine you’re a young woman in the early 1960s. Your religious beliefs are so powerful that you want to dedicate your life to God as a nun. But your reverend mother superior—who enforces periods of total silence, forbids touch, and encourages her charges to punish themselves with a knotted flogger—begins hiding secrets from her other charges, and they’re messages that might change your life. On the one hand, you’re faithful; on the other hand, the brutality and furtiveness of your leader makes you question everything you believe. What should you do?

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This is what Dianna Agron’s Novitiate character, Sister Mary Grace, goes through: a reckoning so profound that it might upturn everything she’s achieved so far. Serene on the outside, but troubled on the inside, when a new group of young women enter her care, she begins to question the convent’s methods and what she really wants from life.

We spoke to the former Glee star about wearing a nun’s habit, supportive female filmmakers, and the heartbreaking, intimate self-love scene that made her cry.

Sister Mary Grace has two very different sides to her. How did you find your way into a character with such a conflict brewing inside?

It was interesting—I transferred it to other times in my life, where I had to double check I was going down the right path, and not getting myself too deep into something that didn’t feel authentic. Sometimes when you’re questioning whether or not you’re in the right place, right time, and the right space, you just need a moment to breathe. Then, sometimes you have to make a change, which she did.

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I got engaged a week and a half before I started filming, and it was so strange to then go play a nun; sometimes in life you’re playing characters that are on a similar journey, and sometimes you’re really far from what you’re playing. I had to use that instinct differently: Well, maybe that’s what she wants, like maybe she wants to have a family. Maybe this place that I’m at in my life is something that she’d like in her own life.

We were all excited to work together and work with Maggie [Betts, director], who was so clear in her vision and in what she wanted. The wardrobe and the set design and all the other women being so closely around, it really was so transformative.

Dianna Agron in Novitiate

Dianna Agron in Novitiate

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Sister Mary Grace wears a traditional nun’s habit. Did the clothing help you enter her character and mindset?

Absolutely—it was so transformative and so restrictive. You can’t hear properly, and the wimple is truly a corset for your head: It’s tied as tight as possible. The second I would get out of those clothes, particularly the headpiece, I would shake my whole body out, and shake my hair out, and jump up and down. Margaret [Qualley] and I have spoken about this a lot—both of us were ballerinas, and with dance, you have to be so graceful and elegant; there’s a lot of restriction and rules, but you don’t have clothing that’s also adding to that. This way of life for those women in the convent, it is restrictive and lonely.

There’s one incredibly intimate scene, where we see Sister Mary Grace go into her room and begin undressing, and she eventually begins to masturbate. That’s the first time we see her serene manner might be hiding something. Can you tell me a little bit about filming that scene?

It’s interesting because—especially for the young woman who has committed herself to this way of life so early on—I thought about how often I’m hugged or kissed, or my hand is held. Just varying levels of physical affection. To not have that at all, it was so hard to imagine that. In that moment, she’s trying to comfort herself and feel this kind of physical love, but she’s ashamed by it, and that scene is so heartbreaking for me. We shot it in one take, and Maggie came up to me and was like, “I don’t know how you could do that better, but if you want to give it another go….” The second time, I was crying really hard, though we didn’t use that one. But I was so heartbroken for her in that moment.

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From Novitiate

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Many women in Hollywood say it’s pretty rare to have a really woman-heavy set. With a female director and almost all-female cast, what was filming Novitiate like?

It is rare. I have had that in one other film called Bare, which was a coming-of-age story with a female writer/director. In both projects, the subject matters were so very embedded in the female psyche and I think it did help to have so many women around. Whether or not they were directly influencing you, the mood of the set was different. You have to fight if you want to be on the other side of the camera, and with Maggie, I had seen a documentary she shot that was heartbreaking and beautiful, so I knew that she would give this the same kind of love and passion.

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I just got back from Berlin late last night; I was directing over there for Berlin, I Love You. There’s ten directors and ten different pieces, and I’m one of two women. There’s no version of me ever wanting to be given a role just because of my gender, but…. people like Reed Morano [The Handmaid’s Tale] and Maggie, female filmmakers who are passionate and killing it and so supportive, they were texting me the night before shooting, you know, “You got this.” It’s a nice feeling, but we are in a very small pool and even on the acting side of things, to have female protagonists and stories—it’s not very often. I’m sure for people who look up to Maggie and respond to her work, there will be some young women who think, I’m inclined to do it as well. It helps when there are role models to look up to and help fuel your own fire.

I know it’s not your first experience directing, but what was it like?

The story that we’re telling is somewhere in between reality and fantasy, and the script was unusual in a delightful way. Luke Wilson, who we cast, is such a treasure—we probably could’ve used his first take on every set-up because it’s so good, so expressive and wonderful. This is probably now the biggest thing that I’ve directed, and it’s just growing in a really lovely way.

Directing is such a different experience because you really are getting to collaborate with everybody on set, in an elevated way where you’re starting the process, whereas as an actor, sometimes you’re coming in towards the end of all that collaboration and you’re picking up the pieces. I love it so much and I think that it’ll be something that I have to keep doing. I got no sleep the week I was in Berlin just because there was too much to be done. But it fills me with such joy.

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This interview has been condensed and edited.


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