Hop on the rug with us — and get to know how Kelly Murtagh lives life well.
Earlier this year, Kelly Murtagh’s long-time dream came true. It wasn’t with all the bells and whistles usually attributed to this kind of dream — on account of the global pandemic that’s still going on, but it still happened. The movie she first conceptualized over a decade ago made its world premiere at the TriBeCa Film Festival. “It was outdoors, and there weren't any parties or press screenings or panels or anything like that, but it was incredible,” she says. “I had never seen the film on a big screen until then and that was powerful and vulnerable.”
It was, for sure, a vulnerable moment. Murtagh’s film, Shapeless, a horror drama, is based on her personal struggles with an eating disorder. In the film, she plays a New Orleans lounge singer who must face her bulimia or turn into a monster. When the actress was in her 20s, she lost her voice, as a result of her eating disorder, and it was while seeking treatment that she began searching for a way to share her story.
“It took a while for me to get help, because of shame, and because of the stigma, and nobody really talking about it,” she says. She felt like couldn’t find anything that really spoke to her experience as an artist, as an actor, and what living with an eating disorder was like.
Finding her way to acting
Murtagh grew up in Shreveport, an hour outside New Orleans, with a strong desire to act. But a more pragmatic approach to a career choice led her to study broadcast journalism in LA. It was only when she found an acting teacher — Emmy winner Francis "Chick" Vennera at the Renegade Theatre Group — whose methods got her to dive into some of the hurt behind her eating disorder that she found her way back to acting and her own processing of it all began. While in therapy, she started to think of how she would tell her experience through film, as a way to help others.
And then life came at her fast. Murtagh picked up roles across TV and film, from Hulu’s The First to Netflix’s Tall Girl, and the romcom starring Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani, The Lovebirds. She got married, she had a baby, and the idea for the film was shelved. But then, something clicked, and the internal urge to return to the project became too strong to ignore.
With director Samantha Aldana
“When my daughter, Fallon, was about four months old, I really felt called to just get something down on paper because I was looking at this little girl in my arms and I felt like I had to tell this story,” she says. She wrote a first draft and then found support in Samantha Aldana, a fellow New Orleanian, who came on board to direct the film. They developed it, and Murtagh started to see her story differently. “She asked me non-judgmental, curious questions about the experiences I had, and as I spoke, it was like it held my shame. It was normalizing my experience.”
A dream delayed
The team working on the film grew, and they shot the film in 2019. And then, the pandemic hit, delaying production. The film made its debut at a host of festivals over this past year, including TriBeCa, and the New Orleans Film Festival. At each screening, Murtagh has been receiving feedback that lets her know her voice won’t go unheard again.
“The more I've been able to share it, and talk to actual human beings who come to me and say, `This is really important, I struggled with it or a loved one in my family struggled with this, thank you,’ it just makes it all feel worth it,” she says. “I made the film with the idea that if I can just help one person who sees it feels that they’re understood, and open a bridge to an uncomfortable conversation that can help save their life, then that’s what I can do.” Murtagh hopes that more of these kinds of difficult conversations can help make it more normal to talk about and come up with ways to move forward and beyond it.
There are plans for Shapeless to make its debut on a streaming network next year. In the meantime, Murtagh is continuing to speak through other creative outlets, from her first children’s book, Zoo Krewe, to teaching yoga. “It’s been this really long process of writing and creating the thing from inside my head about a woman losing her voice to mental illness,” says Murtagh. “And I found mine in real life, and my healing sort of coincided with that creation of the art.”