Alicia Witt Interview: Talking "The Disappearance of Cari Farver"
Written by Marc Parker and Melissa Benefield Parker, Posted in Interviews Actors
Image attributed to Allan Amato
Alicia Witt first came to fame as a child actress after being discovered by David Lynch, who cast her in Dune (1984) and Twin Peaks (1990). Other films include Mr. Holland’s Opus, Vanilla Sky, Two Weeks Notice, Urban Legend, Last Holiday and 88 Minutes. She has made television appearances in The Walking Dead, Nashville, The Librarians, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Cybill (87 episodes), Friday Night Lights, Justified, CSI: Miami and Orange is the New Black.
In addition to acting, Witt is a professional singer-songwriter and pianist and is reported to have been a musical prodigy. She can currently be seen in Lifetime’s The Disappearance of Cari Farver. The movie is based on a true story and is the subject of Leslie Rule’s bestselling true crime book, A Tangled Web. The Disappearance of Cari Farver also stars Lea Thompson and Zach Gilford.
"It’s like if somebody wrote it like a work of fiction with all the twists and turns, many of which we didn’t even have time to go into in a two-hour movie, you just wouldn’t believe it."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Alicia, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, and that’s definitely the case in the true story of what happened to Cari Farver.
Alicia Witt: It’s absolutely hard to believe. It’s like if somebody wrote it like a work of fiction with all the twists and turns, many of which we didn’t even have time to go into in a two-hour movie, you just wouldn’t believe it. You’d say, “How could that happen?”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Exactly. Let’s talk about The Disappearance of Cari Farver.
Alicia Witt: The true story spawned a well-seen piece on 20/20 as well as on Dateline and a book called A Tangled Web, written by Leslie Rule, which really goes into the details and the backstory of all of these characters. I’m thinking that after people have seen this movie, they might be intrigued to read a little deeper into it because I was certainly hooked. I read the book prior to becoming involved with it, and I’m really glad that I did because it helped inform a lot of what my version of Liz might have been inspired by and what was going on in her head.
It tells the story of Dave who is a fellow that’s recently out of a 12-year relationship and is very open with the women he’s dating that he’s not looking for anything serious, just casual and easy-breezy. He meets Cari who appears to be really wonderful, smart, funny, cool and best of all not looking for anything serious. Things are going really well, and all of a sudden, two weeks after having met her, he gets a text saying, “Hey, I think we should move in together.” It comes so out of the blue that Dave’s shocked, and he writes back, “Well, no. We talked about this. I think we should keep it casual.” She responds, “Don’t ever speak to me again. Enjoy knowing that you’ve ruined my life.” Then a whole bunch of obscenities that I’m sure you won’t want to print.
She didn’t let up. At a certain point, Dave would get as many as 20 emails a day and texts that were non-stop at all hours. This also extended to other women, in particular, Liz, the character I play who was another woman in Dave’s life who he was very casually seeing. She started receiving all these threatening and harassing communications.
Meanwhile, Cari’s mother, who lived a few hours away in a very small town in Iowa, was starting to become very concerned because she was also getting these mysterious texts from Cari saying that she just needed space, had to figure some stuff out and wasn’t ready to come home. Her mother started filing reports with local detectives and because Cari had, at one point, been diagnosed as bipolar, they didn’t necessarily take it as seriously as they might have otherwise. Meanwhile, David is back in Omaha reporting all the harassment, and it just got crazy, crazy, crazy.
In the real-life version, this went on for years. In our version, we don’t really specify that because there just isn’t enough time. It’s quite a tale.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Lea Thompson plays Cari’s mother?
Alicia Witt: Yes. I never got to meet her, believe it or not. That’s the thing about this story. Because it takes place in these two separate geographical locations, none of them ever met each other until long after when the truth was revealed. But when the story was taking place, when all these harassing texts and emails were being sent, they didn’t know each other, so it made the pace even more complicated. So no, I never met her. We weren’t working on any of the same days. We passed like ships in the night. I hope to meet her one day. She’s incredible and was so good in this.
Smashing interviews Magazine: Why were you drawn to the movie?
AliciaWitt: I just love playing a character that is different than me. We have the actual video footage of Liz that is available, so that will be familiar with those who’ve seen the Dateline and 20/20. It’s captured there for us to use as inspiration, and that is a rare gift to have that to research like the phone calls that are in the movie. When she’s on the phone calling the police, we have audio footage of that. So what a delight to sink my teeth into that, and then there’s the physical difference. Playing somebody that doesn’t really look like me on the surface, we had to figure out what to do with hair, makeup, wardrobe, my body language and my dialect. It all came together really quickly.
This movie was greenlit and cast only a few weeks before the whole thing began shooting. So it was fun to go on my instincts and do as much research as I could, and then just trust that what my first impressions were of her and what I got from reading this beautiful script was going to be on point. I had a great leader in Danishka, the director. I couldn’t have wished for anyone more supportive and more sure-handed in guiding the whole thing. I think she did a dynamite job of editing it and putting the whole thing together, choosing the right takes and putting the performances of all the actors where they were most effective.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You were interested in music at an early age, so did you also know you wanted to pursue acting, too?
Alicia Witt: I knew from the age of seven that I wanted to do both. I’ve reflected often over the years on how sometimes the version of us when we’re little children is the most authentic that we’ll ever be. Maybe as we get older, we start trying to figure out who we should be or who others want us to be. Maybe the best we can do is unravel all of that at a certain point and get right back to the roots of what we were. For me, that’s true anyhow. When I was seven, and I set foot on my first movie set, which was David Lynch’s Dune, of all things, I just had this feeling I’ll never forget which was “I want to do this for the rest of my life.” I hadn’t even filmed a scene yet. It was just that setting foot on the set. I thought, “Oh, I belong here." I don’t know. Maybe I did it in a past life or maybe I just knew that’s where my destiny was or part of my destiny.
Music was the same. I didn’t know that yet because I didn’t know any musicians. I didn’t exactly know what I was aiming for, but I started taking lessons, again at seven. Then within a few weeks of that, I took to it so quickly that I was able to play quite proficiently really early. I would sit there in the dark in the living room with just a little piano lamp on and play these concerts. My dad would sit on the couch in the dark and listen. Those were my first gigs (laughs). Now, when I play these shows that’s kind of what it feels like. The audience is dark, and I have that same feeling of being able to communicate more authentically than perhaps I can any other way.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I first remember seeing you on Cybill.
Alicia Witt: Oh, yeah!
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And you were definitely playing the piano.
Alicia Witt: Yes, which only became part of the character because, as I always do when I see a piano on a set or in any room really, I want to play it and see what its personality is. So I sat down at the piano, which was already there on the Cybill set, and I started playing something. Chuck Lorre, the executive producer and one of the creators of the show, said “Oh, you play piano?” So that became my character’s first scene. In fact, the first introduction to her was playing piano.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you enjoy the experience on Cybill?
Alicia Witt: Oh, yeah! There were so many things that I enjoyed about it. The most indelible feeling is just getting the role in the first place and being able to quit my so-called day job at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. I was playing piano there for a living, and I did that for two and a half years when I first moved out to Los Angeles. So to get a role on a series that had already been picked up and to know that it was going to air for at least a little while, I was utterly ecstatic. It was the first time I felt like I could accurately say to people when asked what I did for a living, “I’m an actor,” because up to that point I wasn’t paying my bills with acting, and God willing, I have been paying my bills with acting ever since. That is no small gift or blessing.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Should some thanks be also given to David Lynch who auditioned you for Dune?
Alicia Witt: Yes. That first audition … I didn’t even know what an audition was. But because I wasn’t an actor at that point, my family didn’t go to the movies. We were kind of in our own little bubble there. So David, to me, is like a family member almost because I’ve known him since I was seven. Whenever I’ve worked with him over the years, I don’t really see him in the way perhaps others do. I see him like an uncle. It’s just a real familial type connection, and I trust him 100%.
He’s one of those directors that, I think, everyone has that experience with. You just surrender and let him guide you, and trust that even if you don’t know what’s happening in the scene, which you often do not, you know that he does. So you trust and you fly.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I believe you toured on an album last year?
Alicia Witt: That was last year, yes. I toured throughout the United States when my album, The Conduit, came out. I also released a book last year. It was a combination album release and book release tour. The book is called Small Changes.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You have written songs and performed with Ben Folds?
Alicia Witt: Yes, yes, yes. He recorded one of the songs he and I wrote together called “I’m Not the Man.” I love that song, and he put it on one of his albums. We recorded a duet that was recorded for the end credits of one of my movies. He produced my album, Revisionary History, as well.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You live in Nashville now?
Alicia Witt: Yes. I moved out here for good five years ago, and I’m so grateful every day.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Who are some of your musical influences?
Alicia Witt: Gosh. That’s a long list. I got to see one of them for the fifth time on Sunday, Elton John. I could start to cry if I talk about what he means to me. I had the privilege of working with him on an episode of Nashville a few years back. But I didn’t get to talk to him or get to know him or talk music. I still hope with all my heart that I’ll get an opportunity to do that at some point. But I loved to just to watch him, to absorb him, to see how much, even after all these years, he clearly loves it and puts his whole heart into every song. Even when we were working on the set, he was in a hurry because he had to make it to Roanoke for a show. He was on his private plane with his band, and as a favor to T-Bone and Callie, he flew in from Atlanta.
He was meant to be there for an hour and a half at the most, so they were prepared to film his performance a couple of times and move on to the scene where he was going to be speaking and acting with me and Sam Palladio, and then he would take off. But when he arrived, to everyone’s surprise, he wanted to perform the songs six times and make sure they got it just so as a duet with Sam. As if that wasn’t enough, he played “Your Song” and “Rocket Man” for the audience, for the background players that were assembled just because he knew that would mean something to them.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Very cool.
Alicia Witt: Then we did the scene, and he was 100% off book. He’d prepared and knew all his lines. I think Sam and I were stumbling over our lines more than he was because we were like, “Oh, my goodness! It’s Elton John!” They had cue cards up for him thinking he wouldn’t have time, and he never looked at them once. He was such a joy. What an inspiration. As a piano playing singer-songwriter, he’s top of the list. Others are Shawn Colvin, Tom Waits, KT Tunstall, Brandy Clark, John Mayer and Ray LaMontagne.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Any upcoming acting projects?
Alicia Witt: I have a few things that are in the can. But I don’t know when they’ll be coming out of the can. One movie is called Fuzzy Head, and I know that just finished post-production and is off to the festivals. The director, Wendy McColm, had a very successful festival run on her debut film, so I would imagine this one might do the same. It’s very Lynchian. So I have a feeling you’ll like this one.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Is everything okay with you?
Alicia Witt: Fantastic! Oh, yes. I would want women to know that when you receive a diagnosis like this, it’s heart-stoppingly scary. I think everyone can agree. One in eight women will hear that. So I think it’s a blessing to speak about it, to share the experience with others and to help the countless women who are going to hear this news today, tomorrow and the next week to help them know that I’ve gone through it, and you can get through it too. Also I think it’s so important to focus on staying healthy after something like that so that you have the best possible chance of it not appearing again.
All of us have cancer cells in our bodies. We do. That’s just a fact. Our immune system is designed to knock those out, but when it doesn’t, when they pop up, it’s our body’s way of saying that something isn’t working. It’s also an opportunity for us to make some big changes. My hope, in sharing my journey and my continued changes that I’m making and have made, is that it will help someone out there to feel less alone and also to know that your journey doesn’t end the day you get the all clear.
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