Giving life to a challenging role
In the film October Baby, Dothan native Rachel Hendrix plays Hannah, a 19-year-old abortion survivor who takes an emotional and literal journey to find her birth mother. Yes, you read that right – abortion survivor. The controversial subject of her debut movie seeks a place in viewers’ hearts alongside inspirational films such as Fireproof and Courageous as it opens nationwide in March.
Story by Taylor Thames | Photos by Mandii Marie
They say that movie stars look smaller in real life. Maybe it’s because we only see them larger than life when they’re projected upon giant theater screens. Rachel Hendrix is certainly more diminutive in person than she looks in her very first feature film, October Baby. While her stature and her hometown roots may be small, it’s nothing a couple of apple boxes and Hendrix’s irrepressible acting ambition can’t handle.
“I’ve heard that!” says Hendrix when told about her smaller than expected frame. “And I’m even wearing high heels!” In fact, in several of October Baby’s scenes, Hendrix had to stand on multiple apple boxes, a common trick of the movie trade, to even be in frame with co-star John Schneider (whom you may remember as Bo Duke in the popular television series The Dukes of Hazzard). Listening to Hendrix talk about apple boxes, costarring with one of the Duke boys and the craft of filmmaking can leave you in awe—how did a girl from Dothan, Alabama, make it all the way up there on that big screen?
Nothing in Hendrix’s early childhood portended she’d be in movies—in fact, it seemed more likely she’d be in the Olympics. “I grew up swinging on rope swings and swimming in rivers,” she says. An athletic girl who did gymnastics and played championship softball, Hendrix did anything she could just to be active. “Part of me was this wild, outdoorsy person,” she says. “I just liked to play. And I never grew out of that.” She’s lucky, she says, to have grown up in a place like Dothan where she could do just that. As a teen, Hendrix worked as a waitress “here and there, trying to earn extra money to have a car, to have a life,” she says.
Hendrix showed an interest in drama and began auditioning for local plays. She started out getting bit parts, even playing a man in a production of Guys and Dolls. Her big local break came when she beat out girls from the collective talent pools of Northview High, Dothan High and SEACT to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. It was an important victory. The part introduced her to rehearsals and singing live in front of an audience. “I was jumping out of my skin,” she says, “but I had a really great time.”
But even after finding a spot in Dothan’s theater scene, when Hendrix graduated from Northview High School, it wasn’t theater she majored in at the University of Montevallo—it was art, specifically photography. But she still couldn’t get away from acting—Hendrix was a frequent participant in her friends’ student films. In one, she played a character that was “murdered” with a chain saw, with bananas and chocolate syrup subbing as fake blood and gore. “I remember walking home across campus, covered in chocolate and bananas,” says Hendrix. “I didn’t care, it was fun.”
Things got more serious when Hendrix was discovered at a sushi bar by filmmaker Kris Kimlin, who “liked my face” says Hendrix so he put her in his first short film, Letting Go. And when that film was shown to Alabama filmmaker John Erwin, he liked her face, too. “John said there was just something really honest about the way that I was on camera,” says Hendrix. The Erwin Brothers—John and Andy—started to cast Hendrix in many of their projects: commercials, short films, music videos, and even a television series. So when the idea came across their desk for a film about an abortion survivor, they went straight to Hendrix for the lead. “They said ‘we wrote this for you’,” she says. “No pressure.”
No pressure, they said, to play such a previously unexplored role as an abortion survivor in one’s very first feature role. “The first take, the first scene, the first day on set is gut wrenching,” says Hendrix. “You’re so nervous your heart is coming out of your throat, and it shows. You have to do about 20 takes and then maybe by that time you’re relaxed, more natural.” But Hendrix’s natural acting ability enabled her to use that to her performance’s advantage. “The thing with my character is that she’s supposed to feel awkward, to feel out of her own skin. Playing Hannah was like living the way I was really feeling most of the time—nervous, vulnerable, and scared.”
October Baby is a fictional story, but is based on actual medical research and evidence, and was filmed in Alabama. Although, because of its subject, it could very well be grouped with other Christian-targeted movies like Fireproof or Courageous, “it’s a totally different caliber,” says Hendrix.”People think they have an idea of what they are going to see, and they come out of the theater going, ‘Whoa, that is not what I expected,’” she adds. She admits that abortion is not an easy subject to talk about, let alone film, but in the end, October Baby is “not condemning in any way,” says Hendrix. “I think the movie is more about healing than anything. People from all different faiths and walks of life are responding to it.”
Since making the movie, Hendrix has been busy. There was a promotional tour for the film’s limited release last October (the movie played here in Dothan) and a recent visit to Hollywood to meet with casting directors at big name studios. In February, she’ll come back to the States (she actually resides in Switzerland, her husband’s home country) for another promotional tour for October Baby’s March 23 national release. And she hopes to be back for good, residing in California to really pursue an acting career. “I want to be a working actor, to make a living with that,” Hendrix says. “I really believe that acting will go as far as I want it to.” With that ambition, the view from atop her apple boxes should be spectacular.