Go Ask Alice

Thanks to the Newport Beach Film Festival, 77-year-old Alice Ellingson is coming from Washington state for a family reunion barbecue at her granddaughter's house in Ladera Ranch. And all Alice had to do to get here was expose her bra, appear naked in front of hunky firemen and generally annoy everyone around her.

Ellingson's first (and, to hear her tell it, last) acting role was playing Peggy Green in the independent feature Apart From That, which makes its West Coast premiere at the festival Saturday night. The film focuses on a random collection of vulnerable people struggling to make connections in this crazy, mixed-up world.

The character who suffers the film's first embarrassment is Peggy, a wacky old exhibitionist who, finding herself alone in a room with a man at a dinner party, gets her blouse stuck over her head while trying to remove it. Women come to Peggy's rescue as her head is covered in her blouse and her bra is exposed to the world. Later she's shown calling 911 to falsely report her house ablaze so that firemen busting through the door will discover her naked in her recliner. But mostly Peggy's a major pain to her much younger roommate, Ulla (LA actress Kathleen McNearney, who has this whole Hope Davis thing going on). But later we discover some disturbing things about Ulla that make you feel sorry for Peggy, and their strange relationship works itself out in the end.

In Ellingson's cast bio (which, frankly, I found more entertaining than Apart From That), she says she was just playing herself, but we can assume her longtime home's Bellingham Fire Department needn't worry.

Alice was born in Kansas and raised in Colorado until her family relocated to Long Beach when she was a little girl. She attended Franklin Junior High School and Long Beach Poly High. During World War II, sailor Neil Ellingson's ship docked in Long Beach for repairs. The same day in July 1945 that Alice met him, they married. She was 16. After the service, Alice moved with him to Bellingham, where she's stayed ever since.

She didn't finish high school originally but later went back and got that diploma, a bachelor's in home economics education and a master's in institutional food service. She taught high school for a few years, traveled the country with her local Veterans of Foreign Wars drill team and raised four daughters, who are all now grandmothers.

Neil died in 1991. “Sorry, guys, not rich or good looking,” the widow wrote in that bio.

Neil was Scandinavian, and Alice still belongs to a local women's group called the Daughters of Norway. Jennifer Shainin, the co-director, co-writer and co-producer of Apart From That, came to a Daughters meeting a couple of years ago and asked if anyone would want to be an extra in her first feature film. Alice has a brother in Los Angeles who works as an extra and, thinking it was easy work, volunteered. She later received a call from a fellow named Randy Walker, who identified himself as being from ForeignAmerican Pictures. Alice said no thanks and hung up, thinking Walker was selling photography services. Actually, Walker, who used to work in UC Riverside's genetics lab, is Shainin's writing, directing and producing partner, and ForeignAmerican is their Washington-based independent film company. He called Alice back to explain he wanted her to read for the part of Peggy.

“I'd not expected that,” Ellingson said by phone the other day.

She'd never acted before and was a “nervous wreck” through auditioning and the beginning of filming. “I was really not able to remember my lines well,” she said.

She didn't seem ashamed of the bra scene, explaining that it fit her character. “I'm kind of a sexy old gal,” she says of Peggy. “I like to get close to the men. I'd had a few drinks. . . . It's not like anyone saw anything.”

Ellingson said much of the film was improvised, but it followed the structure imposed by the screenplay. “It had the general details of where the story was going,” she said. “All the lines that were in the script are in the movie. They may not be in the order they were written.”

After her initial nervousness, she found the rest of filming “big fun.” Just don't expect to see her in front of the camera again.

“I'm declining all roles in the future,” she said.

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