Natalie Burn knows a thing or two about staying busy. When the filmmaker/actress isn’t on set, pulling triple duty—first helping to shape the story, and then acting in front of the camera as well as making decisions on the business end–she’s probably on a plane flying to her latest destination or driving either to or from an airport.
Physicality is also something she’s quite familiar with. The Ukrainian born performer got her start in ballet, and excelled as a dancer. Burn was admitted to the Bolshoi Ballet School in Moscow and continued her training at the Royal Ballet School in London and Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance at Brunel University, eventually working with some of the biggest names in the business.
As the years of physical stress related to her dance career began adding up, she decided to turn her attention towards acting. Burn has continued to grow as an actor, and coupled with her intense martial arts training, she is trying to find a niche in Hollywood—as a female action star.
She continues to rack up credits, including a recent role in “The Expendables 3.” She has several projects in various stages of development or production, and one of her most recent, “Awaken,” will be released July 7 on VOD. In the film, she plays Billie Kope, a woman who finds herself groggily coming back to consciousness on a mysterious beach. Billie is searching for her missing sister, and in the process stumbles upon a sinister kidnapping ring that deals with snatching organs from unsuspecting people.
“Awaken” is an ambitious indie project, and features a first rate cast, especially in the villain department. Robert Davi is at his menacing best as the quasi-leader of the band of kidnap victims harboring a secret; Vinnie Jones delightfully chews scenery as one of the mercenaries charged with finding fresh bodies to snatch; David Keith, as always, is a powerful presence as a doctor with twisted values; Jason London gets to be the top bad guy and is clearly enjoying it; and finally, Daryl Hannah is the mysterious Mao, the woman who everybody answers to whether they like it or not. Throw in Edward Furlong among the people who have washed up on the beach and “Awaken” boasts a cast that a film with a budget ten times bigger would envy.
When Film Slate Magazine caught up with Burn, she had just gotten back from her latest film festival appearance, and was on her way to catch another plane–this time to L.A. “Awaken” has won several awards in several different categories during its festival run, and as long as Burn has the time, she’s happy to chat about the movie and her ever-increasing responsibilities on set.
There is no doubt that the cast of “Awaken” is one of the things that will garner a lot of interest in the film. Not only for the names themselves, but also the fact that the audience will see certain actors, like London, get the chance to play against type.
“It was really, really great, all those actors,” Burn said. “Each one of them comes from a different point in my life, how I met them. And a few of them I’ve known for several years. It was great because I got one name, and it was Jason London, who I wanted to work with, and I thought it would be the perfect part for him. He won a Best Supporting Actor award for his role in ‘Awaken’ at the Hoboken International Film Festival. He was so thrilled. He was very excited and he told me that this wasn’t the kind of part that he usually gets—playing the bad guy—and he said, ‘I’m so happy that you saw me as that.’”
From the filmmaking side of things, Burn had the good fortune to end up with a group of actors that understood what the ultimate goal was—the camaraderie was strong and Burn said that it even helped the performances because they mostly stayed in the group and observed each other.
“It was a very interesting group of people and nobody had egos which was very good for me as a producer,” she said. “We were shooting in one house, and everybody would hang out downstairs in the living room. Nobody wanted to go to their trailers or their rooms. They just all stayed downstairs, and watched each other work, which was really cool. Even Daryl Hannah was there.”
Breaking Through as a Female Action Star
It’s been a conscious effort for Burn to steer her career towards action roles. Her background in dance and martial arts allows her to perform action sequences to a high degree, and the lack of female action leads in Hollywood has given her the idea and the drive to insert herself into the conversation when it comes to some of the heavies of the industry.
“I specifically tried and chose to guide myself into action films just because I thought there are not that many female action heroes and I feel like I have something that I can bring to that category because of my background as a dancer,” Burn said. “I do a lot of martial arts myself. I train with Benny the Jet [legendary martial artist Benny “The Jet” Urquidez—ed.] who played my dad in ‘Awaken.’ I do a lot of my own stunts. I just love to be physical. So while I can, I figure this is a good direction for me to take and showcase myself.”
Responsibilities on Set
For “Awaken,” Burn wore many hats. Not only was she the female lead and one of the producers, she also co-wrote the film (along with Mark Atkins, who directed as well, Scott Martin, Ryan Priest, and Michael Thomas Slifkin.), and all of these responsibilities gave her a greater say in what happened during production.
And as the driving force behind “Awaken,” she helped shape what the film ultimately became, which started out as a different idea in her head altogether. These changes also probably increased the commercial viability of the film, even though the creative impetus behind “Awaken” was some very real kidnappings with horrible outcomes.
“And that’s why in the beginning ‘Awaken’ was just going to be a documentary horror movie about these black market organ thieves, and I changed it because I thought that this would be a good time to showcase myself as an action hero as well,” she said. “And I put myself as the lead where originally it wasn’t going to be the girl. It was going to be the guy. And I just thought, ‘Hey, if I surround myself with amazing actors and names, maybe I can sell the film and people will still see me as a female action hero and an actress.’ And play the lead. And that was kind of a specific choice I made for ‘Awaken.’”
When asked what were some of the more challenging aspects of making “Awaken,” Burn gave a two part answer, which fits the fact that she had to perform more than one duty while being on location.
“I was pretty much the main person on set who everybody came to for the checks, for problems–anything bad that happens for some reason they come to the producer,” Burn said. “They never come to you when something good is happening (laughs). They never come up and say, ‘This is great by the way. Thank you so much.’”
The second part of the answer was that because she was the main producer, she realized that she would have to make sacrifices by the way of her own performance. Not so much that it necessarily suffered, but Burn wouldn’t have the luxury of doing multiple takes. After all, this was an indie production, so time was limited to begin with.
“That was the challenging part, because I couldn’t focus as much as I wanted on my part,” she said. “I didn’t get as many takes as I wished I could. I personally just chose to do one or two takes just to be done to go back to producing. I wanted for everybody else to be happy and for the production to go smoothly and of course it was time consuming. I realize that usually actions scenes like we had in ‘Awaken’ would take much more time to shoot on a normal production. And we didn’t have any time, so all of my action scenes were shot in one take. And that was it.”
The Learning Curve
Burn is well on her way to being an action presence, and all the while her learning curve is increasing when it comes to producing movies as well. “Awaken” was the first movie that she produced, and she mentioned after that film wrapped, she went on to produce four more movies in quick succession. So it would seem that keeping busy on both sides of the camera suits her, and she’s learned some important lessons along the way.
“I know what to do and what not to do,” she said. “It’s much better to do stuff and then realize what works for the next time, you’ve done it. You know next time what’s important to keep and what is not. Where you should be spending money and where to save it.”