- Local actress Devon Keller brings out a subtle and genuine first feature film performance in Petting Zoo.
In the drama Petting Zoo, lead actress Devon Keller plays Layla, a college-bound high school student living in San Antonio who is faced with some major life choices when she finds out she is pregnant. While it might not sound like much on paper, filmmaker and San Antonio native Micah Magee directs Keller, also from S.A., in her first feature film and brings out of her a subtle and genuine performance on top of making an authentically heartfelt narrative. Both Keller and Magee graduated from Clark High School, which is where Magee first discovered her actress in 2012. Since then, Petting Zoo, which was shot entirely in San Antonio, was screened at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival in February where it was nominated for Best First Feature. It was also accepted into the South by Southwest Film Festival this month. During an interview with the the San Antonio Current in Austin for SXSW this past weekend, Keller, 19, talked about the chance encounter she had with Magee during a fashion show they were both attending and what she hopes comes out of an indie film like Petting Zoo.
How did Micah find you for this role? Did you go to a casting call?
No, not at all. We were at a fashion show at Clark. Each seat had a number and my number was called because I won a free burrito from Taco Bell. I was super excited, so I ran up there and got my coupon. Micah saw me and when I was coming back to my seat she was like, “Hey, you should audition for my film.” That night I thought to myself, “You know, there’s probably tons of people auditioning. There’s no way I’m going to get the part.” So, I sort of ignored it for the night. Sorry Micah!
Were you even interested in acting?
Well, that’s the thing. After the fashion show, she saw me again at a theater showcase. When she saw that I was actually in theater she said, “OK. I’m going to get your number. I’m going to get your mom’s number. You’re going to audition.” At that point I was like, “OK. This lady really wants me to audition.” To think how nonchalantly I took it back then and then to think how important Micah has been in my life since then, it’s crazy.
Have you had a conversation with Micah about what she saw in you that made her pick you out that day at the fashion show?
I think she saw a lot of Layla in me and a lot of similar characteristics she wanted Layla to have. I think it was more of a natural connection.
As you learned more about Layla, did you see some of those similarities yourself?
Definitely. Layla is really strong willed. Something happens to her and it might suck, but she just tells herself that she just has to keep going. I think that’s what I do, too. If something happens, I just go with it. I think that’s pretty admirable of Layla. I think that’s the big reason we’re similar.
I know you graduated from Clark last year. Are you in college now?
I went to San Antonio College for a semester, but I took this semester off because I knew I’d be going to Berlin and South by Southwest and would have a lot of absences. I don’t know what I’m going to do after this. I think I just need to ride the wind right now. You really don’t need a degree to act, but I’ve always seen myself going to college. I think a degree could really help long term.
Are you hoping your role in Petting Zoo will lead to more acting opportunities?
I’m hoping for that, of course. Honestly, with this film, I just want someone to look at it with an open mind. They don’t have to pick me out of the crowd necessarily.
You seem like someone who might get a little homesick if they left San Antonio. Are you open to relocating if more acting opportunities come your way?
Yikes! Maybe. All of my mom’s side of the family lives in L.A. I know people in Austin. I’m open to moving around, but I really do like home. Leaving my house is something that I’m scared to do right now. I mean, I grew up there since I was in the first grade. I have an attachment to it.
Before you signed up for the film, did you know the teen pregnancy rate in San Antonio was the second highest in the nation?
I was well aware of it. I mean, at Clark we had freshman who were pregnant. I’ve had friends who were pregnant, too.
Do you remember those girls being singled out or shunned at school?
Teenagers are crazy and also immature. Sometimes they don’t know that they shouldn’t judge people. But, yeah, people are really harsh sometimes. I can remember of one of my friends specifically who was pregnant and afraid to go to school just because of the way people acted. I would just tell those girls to stick with it because when that baby comes around it’s going to be the best thing in their life. They shouldn’t be ashamed of that. Teenagers are going to judge. That’s just how it is.
What kind of research did you do for your role?
I went around and asked a bunch of mothers to tell me everything about birth! I asked them to express everything they felt. I asked a bunch of questions. I morphed everything they said and created a whole scene in my head. So, for example, instead of giving birth in the scene, I imaged myself getting beat up. So, every punch was like a contraction. It’s the best way I could understand it. I grew up the only girl in a house full of boys, so I’ve been punched before. It was a lot easier to imagine that than to imagine giving birth.
I don’t want to give too much of the film away, but if the story had ended differently for Layla, how do you think things would’ve played out for her and her baby?
I think she would’ve been a great mother. There were so many personal things tied to that child, like the memory of her grandmother. I think she would’ve seen that and taken responsibility. I think Layla would’ve hung onto that with everything she had. I think she would’ve been OK. She would’ve found a way, someway.