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Summary

  • My Dead Friend Zoe is a dark comedy on grief starring Sonequa Martin-Green as a veteran whose PTSD leads to her having a relationship with her dead Army friend, played by Natalie Morales.
  • The film portrays the military vet experience authentically, with a star-studded cast that also includes Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris.
  • Writer/director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes developed the film for 20 years based on his military experiences, and aims to spark change in the veteran community.



My Dead Friend Zoe is a darkly comedic look at the grief process that is making its debut at the 2024 South by Southwest festival. The film draws from the experience of filmmaker Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, who joined the U.S. Army one month before the 9/11 terrorist attack and served 5 years as a paratrooper. Plan B‘s Natalie Morales plays Zoe opposite Star Trek: Discovery‘s Sonequa Martin-Green as Merit, and they’re joined by Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, Ghosts star Utkarsh Ambudkar, and Elsbeth‘s Gloria Reuben.


Merit is a U.S. Army Veteran who served in Afghanistan and is at odds with her family due to her ongoing relationship with her dead best Army friend, Zoe. Merit’s mother, VA Counselor, and a new love interest are unable to break through the dysfunctional relationship that keeps her insulated from the rest of the world. It’s only when she finds herself required to assist her estranged Vietnam vet grandfather (Harris), who has holed himself up in the family’s ancestral home, that Merit is forced to deal with the reality of her grief and reintegrate her divided family.

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Screen Rant welcomed Hausmann-Stokes, Martin-Green, Morales, Ambudkar, and Reuben to the Screen Rant suite at SXSW to promote the film for Legion M. The group discussed Hausmann-Stokes’ semi-autobiographical story, their dedication to authentically portraying the military veteran experience, and the fun of working with Freeman.



Hausmann-Stokes Spent “Maybe 20 Years” Developing My Dead Friend Zoe

Screen Rant: Give it up for the team from My Dead Friend Zoe. Congrats on this film. It is so beautiful. The movie centers around a veteran from the Afghanistan war played by Sonequa’s character who has PTSD and that’s manifested in these visions she has of her late friend, played by Natalie. From what I understand, and as the film makes clear, it’s inspired by some real-life friendships. So Kyle, we’re going to come to you for this. Tell us how your experiences manifested into this beautiful story.


Kyle Hausmann-Stokes: I’ve been trying to make this movie for maybe 20 years. When I got out of the military the first time, it was a colonel of mine that saw something in me and set me on this path to tell the soldier’s story. So that was back in 2004. I eventually made my way to film school and got pulled out of film school to go to Iraq and I just really kind of had every experience that the typical soldier would have back home and down range.

And I lost some friends and I had my own PTSD and, anyway, all of that, I’ve been too afraid. Didn’t have the courage to talk about for so long, until COVID came, and I really had some time to reflect and finally started to put words on a page. And everybody in my community and writing group was so supportive, and it just grew from there. There was a short film at one point. It’s kind of like a proof of concept and then eventually the script got to these amazing people, and it was just 100 miles an hour from there.

Martin-Green & Morales Approached Their Military Vet Roles With “The Utmost Responsibility

Ed Harris, Natalie Morales & Sonequa Martin-Green in the car in My Dead Friend Zoe
Photo by Mike Moriatis


Natalie and Sonequa, what kind of responsibility was that then for you, not only telling this incredibly personal story, but also portraying the military?

Sonequa Martin-Green: I mean, we took it so seriously. It was the utmost responsibility. I approached it as duty. It was an honor. It was a blessing for me. When Kyle reached out to me, I was just so moved by him. I was moved by his courage and his bravery, and I was moved by his why, because his mission was very specific, and he wanted to serve. He wanted to just keep serving, and I wanted to stand with him to do that. There was no thought put into it whatsoever. It was to save and help. And that meant everything to me. And then being able to tell his story and being able to tell it with you and being able to tell it with the two of you as well.

And also Ed Harris.


Sonequa Martin-Green: That’s right, and Morgan. Those two that wish they could be here. But no, we were all honored to stand with him because of the mission and because of him. So yeah.

Natalie Morales: Yeah, I agree with that. I could cry.

Sonequa Martin-Green: We could just cry right here.

Natalie Morales: Well, to not repeat exactly what Sonequa said, let’s see if I can come up with something that doesn’t repeat exactly what Sonequa said. It’s interesting because I’ve always really felt such a passion for veterans and how poorly they’re treated in this country by the people that put them in danger. And I feel like we really should take care of our veterans so much more than we do and that we have. And it’s always been an issue for me, as I know it is for many.

And so it was a bit of a challenge for me to do this, but Kyle wrote such a uniquely special script that was funny and true to life and more about people than it is about soldiers. It’s about people who happen to be soldiers. And that was what attracted me to it the most. And also I think if I came at it from that angle about the fact that these are people who just happen to have these jobs for very different reasons, then I could bring some honesty to it and that’s what I was going for. Did that make sense?


Gloria, tell us how meaningful this story was for you personally to tell and what sort of experience you had to tell it?

Gloria Reuben: Because I’m a Gemini, it was extremely meaningful and very powerful and poignant from the beginning, from reading the script the first time. And just as these two ladies so beautifully said, the human story of it all, and also the respect and the honesty of portraying veterans, it’s that honest, that kind of breaking down their perceptions or preconceptions of a veteran’s life. The first time that I’ve ever read or seen anything that shares these kinds of fundamental human experiences. And then just on a personal note, what was happening in my life just happened to — this happens a lot for me — parallel this story that Kyle so beautifully wrote.

So, I was immediately drawn to it on that level, and I reflected on past experiences from reading the script and then talking to Kyle, it just kind of opened up this whole new possibility of healing, and hope, and how to break down those boundaries, or those walls of silence and secrecy and shame, and how those things can be killers in their own right. Silence, secrecy, and shame. So it’s really a powerful, beautiful, funny, funny, just unexpectedly — I’ve been in this business for about 92 years [chuckles] and this is definitely one of the handful of projects that I’m so proud to be a part of. So yeah.


Utkarsh, you shared your reaction to the film with us earlier when you watched it for the first time. Can you share that with us on camera? It sounds like it is going to hit people hard, and it certainly hit you hard, even though you were in it.

Utkarsh Ambudkar: Yeah, I think first of all, Screen Rant, you got to do a top 10 list of haunted characters, and Zoe and Merit deserve to be on the list. Okay. I know y’all are in that top 10. [Chuckles] I think the relationship between Sonequa and Ed Harris’s character as a granddaughter and grandfather is so strong. They’re such willing scene partners and to watch the work happen between them is really gripping. You can tell how much care and grace has been put into every performance and every nuance of the script and the production value.

And most of the people that worked on the production are either vets or family of veterans. So everybody here really cares, and you can feel that. And I was watching the movie with my wife and as the final credits rolled — I don’t cry often, but I was. Her and I looked at each other, and we were just bawling. And I called Kyle immediately and let him know that I had cried. And then I had several thoughts on the film on how to improve his job. [Laughs] Yeah, no, no. I was like, “I got notes!” But I think it’s like Rocky, it’s like it’s a story of overcoming.

There’s light and hope and power in this story, and I think, as anyone who’s been confronted with mental health issues and darkness, that people can be able to see Merit, in particular, go through a journey like this and come out where she comes out and her family as well, how they are affected and how they can grow as a unit. I mean, it’s really inspiring, well-done, man. I’m happy to be a part of it.


Kyle, we talked about your service a little bit earlier, but that’s definitely one of the things that is really going to stick out for people that we’ve seen PTSD portrayed in films before, but oftentimes it feels like it’s being told from an outsider’s perspective. As you guys mentioned, there were a lot of vets that were cast in the supporting characters. Was that one of the things that sort of inspired you to go into filmmaking? Was the lack of that proper representation frustrating to you?

Kyle Hausmann-Stokes: 300%. I mean, Oliver Stone and Platoon is one, but there have been very few. There have been very few. I guess I’m one of those annoying people that would say, I’ve always been into movies and making movies back on my Hi8, whatever, making skate videos, and my high school class, and the tennis video and all that stuff. I came into the Army not as a, “Let’s go to war.” I enlisted a month before 9/11. I joined the Army because I wanted some adventure. My grandfather, who’s played by Ed Harris in the film, I wanted to follow in his footsteps. And then I’m a month into basic and 9/11 happened, and the ground shifted under me. So I was kind of like this artist that was thrust into this world and this culture that isn’t often really portrayed on film. And I was just like a sponge. Just a sponge. I was at this jungle warfare training center in Louisiana.

We did airborne operations. Eventually, I was in Iraq, a convoy commander and, kind of like these ladies were saying, soldiers, I guess they make us all look the same by design. It’s very tactical, but surprise, there’s humans under there that are also sponges. These things that happen to you, you have to do something with them at some point, and we’re very good at compartmentalizing, because you have to suck it up and drive on. What they don’t teach us how to do is how to release that. And that’s the real work after. And that’s what Morgan Freeman’s character does in the film. He plays a Vietnam veteran. That was somebody that was in my life that saw me in a bad way and grabbed me by the shoulder and just kind of held me and shook me and talked some sense into me.

And he said, “You really think you are suffering right now? No friends, drinking all this stuff. You really think that’s how your dead buddies would want you to honor them? You’re wrong, you’re stupid. You need to live your best life. That’s how you honor them.” That was the big paradigm shift for me. That’s why that character’s in the film and then that’s why all of these people, like Merit’s Mother played by Gloria, are trying to get her to talk about it, to move on. Utkarsh, who is the love interest, is somebody who’s just there to listen that’s also been through it. So, veterans have an immense amount of things to teach people, and we also have an immense amount of things to learn. It’s like a culture clash.


The Cast Had A Hard Time Not Geeking Out Working With Morgan Freeman

Natalie Morales sitting on couch with Kyle Hausmann-Stokes on set of My Dead Friend Zoe
Photo by Mike Moriatis

What is a day like on set with Morgan Freeman? I mean, is he just dropping knowledge left and right, like little breadcrumbs all over the floor?

Utkarsh Ambudkar: Is he telling you all about penguins? [Laughs]

Sonequa Martin-Green: He’s so funny and charming. He’s so charming. He was singing a song once in a scene that we were doing in between takes, and I said, “Oh my goodness.” I said, “You’ve got a beautiful singing voice.” And he said, “Well, yeah.” He said, “I sing.” And I said, “Oh, I didn’t realize that you sang. Thank you for serenading me.” No, he was fantastic. And it was really hard. We’ve been talking about this today. It was hard to be professional.

It was hard. It was definitely hard for me. I think it was hard for you too at one point because this is Morgan Freeman and I needed to give him some attitude, and I wasn’t getting there, and he had to pull me aside and be like, “This is not Morgan Freeman right now.” Like you said earlier, we grew up with him, we grew up with Ed Harris, and you think that you’re going to just be right on top of it, right on target, super professional about it, but then you get in the moment and you sort of melt.

Kyle Hausmann-Stokes: The one anecdote I’ll say is there’s a veterans group that’s portrayed in the film, and it’s played by my friends who are also professional actors, but also veterans. And to kick it off, before we started filming, I had everybody in the circle stand up and one would stand up and say,

My name is Tom. I was Army.” “I’m Alicia, Air Force.” “I’m Richard, I was a marine platoon lieutenant in Vietnam.” We made our way all the way around.

I said, “I’m Kyle. I was a paratrooper in the army.” And the last person said, “My name is Morgan Freeman, US Air Force.” He’s a veteran as well. So that’s a big reason why we reached out to him too. He connected with every single one of the veterans and, in between our takes, that rap group, that veteran circle, it was just so cool. He was just engaging with everybody. I mean, these are big stars. Morgan’s a huge star. Everybody’s there to do the work, but in that little safe space, it was like a veterans group. It was really special.


I’m sure nobody else at SXSW is going to ask you guys about this, but there’s a producer on this film named Travis Kelce, who may have won a few Super Bowls, may be in a relationship that people really care about right now. But how did he come on board? How did Travis get involved?

Kyle Hausmann-Stokes: One of the producers of this film, Ray Maiello and Mike Field of Radiant Media Studios, they have a connection to somebody on Travis’s team, and they got the script and the short that I had made and the deck to them. They reviewed the material, they were incredible. Travis is supportive of veterans in the military, and they decided to come in and support the film, and it was so surreal. We’ve been so grateful.

He’s really brought so much additional attention. And ultimately, selfishly, I want people to enjoy this film, but I want it to affect change. So the more eyeballs that are on this film, there’s going to be a veteran somewhere. I don’t know who they are, but they’re going to see this film, and it’s going to be the little nudge that convinces them to talk about it. Just to talk about it. And I think what Travis did for us is just this tidal wave of energy and exposure, and so, yeah, we’re so excited to have him.



My Dead Friend Zoe

premiered at SXSW on March 9, though no wide release date has been set as of the time of writing.

Source: Screen Rant Plus

My Dead Friend Zoe (2024)

My Dead Friend Zoe is a dark comedy drama that follows the journey of Merit, a U.S. Army Afghanistan veteran who is at odds with her family thanks to the presence of Zoe, her dead best friend from the Army. Despite the persistence of her VA group counselor, the tough love of her mother and the levity of an unexpected love interest, Merit’s cozy-dysfunctional friendship with Zoe keeps the duo insulated from the world. That is until Merit’s estranged grandfather—holed up at the family’s ancestral lake house—begins to lose his way and is need of the one thing he refuses… help. 
 

Director
Kyle Hausmann-Stokes

Release Date
March 9, 2024

Writers
Kyle Hausmann-Stokes , A.J. Bermudez , Cherish Chen

Runtime
98 Minutes



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