Widgets Magazine

Stanford sophomore plays lead in feature film

Carly Kohler '13 (Courtesy of Jack Kohler)

For Carly Kohler ’13, acting is just a hobby.

“I can’t imagine majoring in drama,” she giggled. “I love Shakespeare, but I can’t, like, kiss someone I don’t know on stage or anything like that.”

A psychology major here at Stanford, Kohler has something to her name most Stanford students don’t have – a lead role in a feature film. “Behind the Door of a Secret Girl” chronicles the life of a depressed, self-mutilating Native American teenager named Sammy, played by Kohler herself, and her struggle to live on a reservation under her meth-addicted mother and her mother’s drug-pushing boyfriend.

The film has won seven awards at various film festivals, and it was most recently screened at the 2010 American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco. The director, Janessa Starkey, lived through the same kind of brutal experience Sammy endures in the film; Starkey channeled her own suffering into a 24-page short film that later grew into a full-length feature. Kohler’s father, actor and filmmaker Jack Kohler ‘83, took Starkey under his wing as a sort of prodigy, shaping her creative vision.

Although Carly Kohler began acting at the age of four, “Secret Girl” marked her first experience with screen acting.

“It’s a difficult role,” she admitted. “I was worried that I would become too over-the-top with histrionics, but I made sure the film wouldn’t become too monotonous with its depressing parts.”

Internalizing this role was a taxing process. Kohler was, in particular, worried about living Starkey’s personal history out on screen, though she increasingly found herself drawing from what she witnessed among friends and family growing up, to the point that Kohler didn’t feel that her character’s experiences were foreign to her.

Kohler is, of course, not your typical Stanford student. She certainly stands out from the crowd – with a streak of electric blue running through her hair, she’s all at once striking, perplexing and beautiful. A member of the Yurok and Karuk tribes, Kohler is heavily involved with Stanford’s American Indian, Alaskan Native and Hawaiian on-campus organizations. She’s also on Stanford’s rugby team and part of the a cappella group Counterpoint. Balancing school life with acting was particularly grueling during the end of Kohler’s freshman year, though the experience of touring film festivals, she claimed, was ultimately more rewarding than she anticipated.

“It was really amazing, meeting all these filmmakers,” she said. “They all came from different walks of life.”

Kohler hopes that this film will, if anything, dispel some of the nation’s deep-seated stereotypes of American Indians. By tackling such rampant problems as drug abuse and depression that Kohler witnessed firsthand among Native youth groups, “Secret Girl” penetrates issues merely skimmed over in other forms of media. The portrayal of Native Americans in mainstream American film, such as “Pocahontas” and “Twilight,” has often bordered on the offensive, she mentioned, hammering in preconceived notions of the American Indian population.

“I mean, even ‘Avatar’ just reinforced so many prejudices about Native Americans,” she said. “That was a film that continued to romanticize Native culture, portraying us as people who are in touch with nature and all that. We’re always portrayed from a white man’s perspective.”

The role, Kohler claims, has given her a new sort of perspective on her own sense of self – evident just by observing her poise and easy confidence. And she’ll be keeping the blue hair.

“It was for the part,” she smiled, taking strands in her fingers and rubbing them against each other. “But I liked it, so I decided to keep it. It makes me feel like an individual.”