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Hannah Marks started acting when she was 6 years old, after seeing her mother’s acting reel. And she’s pretty much worked nonstop, from roles in the films “Accepted” and “The Runaways” to the cast of “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.” In fact, just last year she took her first vacation though she confesses to recording several self-tapes during it.

In recent years, she has also made a (forgive me) mark behind the camera as a filmmaker, beginning with writing and directing “After Everything,” The indie film starred Jeremy Allen White as a young man diagnosed with bone cancer who embarks on a new relationship, premiering at the SXSW Film Festival in 2018.

That same year, she landed the coveted directing job of the film adaptation of John Green’s beloved novel “Turtles All the Way Down.” The story focuses on a teenage girl named Aza (Isabela Merced) struggling with crippling obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. With her best friend Daisy (Cree Cicchino), she begins to investigate the disappearance of a local billionaire — while also beginning a tentative romantic relationship with his son David (Felix Mallard.)

After years of delays due to COVID and turnarounds and life in general, “Turtles All the Way Down” makes its debut today on Max and is evidence that some things are worth waiting for. In a film told with frankness and sensitivity, Marks has found a way to communicate Aza’s obsessive mindset while also capturing the joy of young love and celebrating female friendship. It’s a tricky balancing act, told with heart and a surprising amount of humor. Variety spoke to Marks about the long journey and what’s ahead.

She owes a debt of gratitude to Saoirse Ronan and Ariana Grande.
Landing the “Turtles” job was a six-month process for Marks, who admits “being at the beginning of my filmmaking career; I knew it would be an uphill battle.” Marks put together a speech, a look book and a fake trailer using videos she ripped from YouTube. “I used a lot of Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet looking into each other’s eyes,” she says of the film’s romantic moments. She also communicated her vision for Aza’s obsessive thought spirals. “I used a lot of microscopic imagery with staticky sounds,” she notes. “But I wanted it juxtaposed with upbeat pop music, so it didn’t feel like a downer. I think Ariana Grande’s ‘Breathin’ had just come out, so that became the foundation for the trailer.”

Marks says that trailer, made in 2018, actually feels surprisingly similar to the final product. “Of course, the shots and music are different, but the soul is definitely the same,” she notes.

Her cast aged into their roles perfectly.

A common thread in all of Marks’ films are the stellar performances, from White and Maika Monroe in “After Everything” to John Cho and newcomer Mia Isaac as father and daughter on a road trip in 2022’s “Don’t Make Me Go.” “Turtles” continues that tradition, with a trio of star-making performances from her leads.

Despite the fact the film wasn’t shot until 2022, all three were cast in the beginning and stayed with the project through its delays. “Ironically, they felt a bit too young then,” Marks says. “But we loved them so much, we went with it.” The additional time gave her cast more of an opportunity to bond — though Merced and Cicchino have actually known each other for years. “The chemistry between the best friends is just as important as the romantic chemistry,” says Marks. “And they just instantly felt right together.”

Since it was during the pandemic, the reads took place over Zoom. “That’s every actor’s nightmare, trying to have chemistry over a computer screen,” Marks admits. She took a chance with Mallard, an Australian actor seen in “Ginny & Georgia” and “Neighbours.” 

“You know, he has a tough role in this movie,” Marks praises. “I think playing a billionaire’s son is not inherently an empathetic thing. He deserves all the credit for being charming and supportive and for pulling off a perfect American accent. As someone who struggles with accents, I was blown away.”

Marks, like everyone, is a “Succession” fan.

The film also features turns from some veteran actors, including J. Smith-Cameron, a two-time Emmy nominee for her role as Gerri Kellman on “Succession.” Cameron plays a professor that Aza admires who, in one scene, elaborates on the meaning of the film’s title. “I am a ‘Succession’ die-hard, and I wanted Gerri from day one for this role,” Marks admits with a laugh. “So I wrote her a letter saying, ‘I’m a huge fan, please come and say the title.’ And she was so intelligent and warm and funny and soulful — everything you could want.”

Judy Reyes also appears as Aza’s mother, and one has to note that she also appeared on “Succession” — did that have anything to do with her landing the role? Marks laughs. “No, she had a wonderful reel and can do such a range of genres and mediums — I was thrilled to have her,” she states. “But I’m not going to lie; it didn’t hurt.”

As an actor, she understands the struggle.

Having been on the other side of auditions, Marks wants actors to know there are so many factors at play when it comes to being cast. “It’s not just about your ability,” she says. “We saw thousands of people for ‘Turtles,’ and they’re all talented. I know it sounds simple, but only one person can get the job and it comes down to what fits right with all the other pieces of the puzzle.” She encourages actors to be true to their own spirit when walking into the room. “No two people have the same interpretation as the other. I spent a lot of time as an actor wondering how I could set myself apart. It turns out, I am different just by being me. My face is different. I come in with different baggage and experiences. Just be you.”

As both actor and filmmaker, she is hoping for a return of more in-person auditions. “Zoom is great because you can see people all over the world,” she acknowledges. “But it can be hard on an actor’s spirits to send a tape into the void and not know if someone even hit play.”

She’s also a John Green fan… like everyone.

The acclaimed author of novels like “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Paper Towns,” Green has been very upfront about how much “Turtles” means to him, having endured his own mental health struggles. He was also a producer on the film and always present on set. But rather than be intimidated, Marks says the hardest part was “not fangirling out” on the author. “He was so generous and so willing to step back and let me take the reins and hear my ideas,” Marks recalls. “He was a dream collaborator.”

And now he’s become even more. “The day the film opens, we’re going to celebrate together,” she reveals. “This movie gave me so much but one thing I will always cherish is that I get to plan friend things with John Green. It still blows my mind.”

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