In Ghostlight, a Real Family of Chicago Theater Greats Play a Family Changed by Theater

Keith Kupferer, Tara Mallen, and Katherine Mallen Kupferer star in this new film from Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson.

The new film Ghostlight, an IFC Films release now in cinemas, sounds like a comedy at first: a middle-aged construction worker with no background on stage winds up starring in a community theater production of Romeo and Juliet. But directors Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson (Saint Frances) have a more emotional journey up their sleeves. The construction worker — Dan Mueller — just lost his son to suicide, and he is falling apart. So are Dan’s wife, Sharon, and their teenage daughter Daisy. Romeo and Juliet not only ends up bringing Dan and his family closer together after the tragedy, but it also helps them process it.

Writer/codirector O’Sullivan is a Chicago theater veteran; she wrote the leading role of Dan especially for one of her longtime colleagues, Keith Kupferer. Kupferer is also a mainstay on the Chicago theater scene (he and O’Sullivan starred in the world premiere of Stephen Karam’s The Humans in 2014). So is his wife, Tara Mallen, the artistic director of Chicago’s Rivendell Theatre Ensemble. So when it came time for casting, O’Sullivan and Thompson, her husband, decided to make Ghostlight a family affair, casting Kupferer and Mallen to play husband and wife, and hiring their real-life daughter, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, to play their screen child.

We gathered the Kupferer-Mallen clan on Zoom to discuss this unique experience.

Tara Mallen, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, and Keith Kupferer in the film Ghostlight
(© Luke Dyra)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Was this project something you were all involved in from the start?
Tara Mallen
: Keith was part of it from the go. He and Kelly did the world premiere of The Humans together here in Chicago at American Theatre Company, so she was writing this for Keith. They did the first read-through in, what, March?

Keith Kupferer: Something like that.

Tara: And then during the summer, they invited us. Katherine, talk about how you got involved.

Katherine Mallen Kupferer: My dad had brought up that he was doing this movie, and then he brought up that there was a role to be his daughter, and she is the exact same age as me. And I was like “You haven’t told them that I’m also an actor, and I’m actually your daughter, and I’m the perfect age!? Why wouldn’t you tell them that!?” I finally got him to email Kelly and they asked me if I would like to do a reading. I thought I bombed it.

Tara: Kelly always says you did a beautiful job. Kelly and Alex fell in love with her. They had asked me to do a reading, too, but I wasn’t able. I run a small Equity theater, barely any staff. I had offered them the use of my rehearsal space and props for the play within the movie. I think I knew Katherine was doing it, and Alex goes “You’re doing it too, right?” And I was like “Nobody’s mentioned anything to me!”

Keith, what was it like for you to tap into the Romeo of it all?
: That part of the movie was interesting. Ultimately, all the scenes are leading up to Romeo and Juliet’s death. When Mercutio gets killed, because that role is played [in the play within the film] by Daisy [Katherine’s character], that was the point at which I decided that Dan would plunge into this play in a more emotional way. Up until then, he was just trying to get through it. The death scene is my character, Dan, saying goodbye to his son, not Romeo saying goodbye to Juliet. That’s the way I approached it, so in that sense, I wasn’t really playing the true intention of the play. I was playing my intention and putting that into the play.

Keith Kupferer and Tara Mallen in the film Ghostlight
(© Luke Dyra)

Katherine, this is your first time working with your parents as a fellow actor. What was that like for you?
: It was fun. But, you know, they’re my parents, so they still boss me around. [Laughs] That’s not something that changes. At the end of the day it was useful being with my parents on set and having them there every single day because I felt comfortable with them in the more intense scenes. I don’t know if that would have happened if I had been acting with people I didn’t know. Sometimes I get embarrassed, but I didn’t get embarrassed here because they’re my parents.

Keith: The dynamic of being a real family informed and benefitted the relationship between the characters. If it had been a different actor playing the husband or wife, we would have been as open to working with them, but a different actress playing the daughter would definitely not have been easy for me. With my own daughter, we can talk, we can hug. There’s a freedom there.

Tara: And the dynamic that exists in the Mueller family is exactly the dynamic that exists for the Kupferer Mallens. Keith and Katherine have always had a playfulness between them, and I have always been the one kind of moving the family forward.

Keith: That’s not really the dynamic in this [screen] family.

Tara: Because of the tragedy. When you’re trying to make up with her, you take her to the batting cage and you can see there is something that’s broken, for sure. But you can also see that there is a past relationship that you’re trying to get back to.

Keith: I think that’s the best way I can explain working with my real family: all the unspoken stuff. The stuff that is the mortar between the bricks.

Tara: It’s like chemistry. You can’t put your finger on it.

In watching the film, it feels like it captures the closeness of the Chicago theater scene. Did it feel that way to you when you were shooting?
: We’re all such a club. Everybody supports everybody else. We all loan four by eight platforms to each other. We share the names of technical directors. That goes for the big companies all the way down to the non-Equity startups. That is the legacy that I really think Martha Lavey started when she took over Steppenwolf, that this is all about community. There’s a real feeling of “If I succeed, then we all succeed” that I don’t think exists anywhere else. During filming, everybody hopped up to move chairs when they had to bring cameras through. The actors hopped up, the gaffer hopped up. It felt like a great ensemble theater project.

Keith Kupferer and the cast of Ghostlight, and IFC release
(© Luke Dyra)