There are a number of memorable lines in Robert Frost’s poem, “The Death of the Hired Man,” but my favorite consistently come to mind when asking someone about the place they call home. This is especially true when the idea of home is blurry enough to require definition. Writes Frost:
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”
I’ve thought about these lines a great deal recently, especially when talking to people who, as adults, decided to make New Orleans their home—a very different experience from being born and raised here. The former includes actress Kerry Cahill, whose latest role is in the recently released Free State of Jones.
Born into a military family, Cahill spent her formative years in various places, including Montana. Today, she has another home here in New Orleans, a city far, far away from the landscape and culture of the American west but possessing a shared ability to draw people in and invite them to stay awhile.
That’s what makes her latest film role, Free State of Jones, especially intriguing for Cahill. Free State of Jones is story based on real events that occurred in Jones County, Mississippi—located just two hours north of New Orleans—during and immediately after the Civil War. The film focuses on Newton Knight, an impoverished farmer and former Confederate Army battlefield medic (played by part-time New Orleans resident, Matthew McConaughey), who joins together with escaped slaves and fellow Confederate Army deserters to form a militia that succeeded in holding on to a significant portion of south-central Mississippi, the eponymous “Free State of Jones.”
Cahill’s interest in the role and the film is related to her own interest in the social dynamics and history of the American South, and the fact that Free State of Jones is a narrative, says Cahill, “about people standing up to something that they didn’t believe in. And it’s a film that combats the myth that the Civil War was black and white when it really wasn’t. There were a lot of poor Southerners who didn’t own slaves and didn’t want to. And there were many Unionists in the South.”
In both history books and popular discussion these facts aren’t often addressed, Cahill asserts, and they should be.
The militia that Knight helped lead defended this county—along with almost three others—from Confederate forces until the end of the Civil War, and in turn showed that support for slavery and the Confederacy wasn’t monolithic across the region. In the film Cahill plays Mary, a young mother and yeoman farmer whose home and supplies have been raided by Confederate soldiers; in one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Mary and Newt Knight take an armed stand against the marauding Confederate troops.
Myths of the Civil War continue to be pervasive, while some facts—like Robert E. Lee’s one-time order “that all deserters should be killed”—are obfuscated. Cahill says one of her favorite lines from Free State of Jones highlight the ambiguity and complexity of the war. One of the characters says, “The [Confederate] rebels burnt my first house and Sherman burnt my second. I guess they agree on that.”
For Cahill the film is about showing the differing experiences of Southerners, black and white, in Southern Mississippi and beyond, during the Civil War and into the era of a failed reconstruction. In this fashion, Free State of Jones also makes us think about how the strands of history overlap, twist, and fray, and how the past, murky as it is, can help us make some sense of this beguiling present.
While Cahill moved to New Orleans to attend Loyola University, her education and dramatic training spans to Europe, where she studied at the British American Drama Academy (Oxford) and Queen’s University Belfast. Later, she was involved with the legendary Second City in Chicago. On returning to the South, Cahill was involved with a number of artistic projects in New Orleans, and it was here that she appeared in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, the strange and underrated film by famed German director Werner Herzog. (If you haven’t seen it and you’re interested in the intersection one of this country’s most perplexing actors and one of the world’s most important directors, then Bad Lieutenant is the place to start.)
Cahill has gone on to appear in numerous films and television series, including Old Boy, Terminator Genisys, Now You See Me, NCIS: New Orleans, and Mississippi Grind, amongst numerous other roles.
Alongside her acting work, she is involved in advocacy for veterans and victims of domestic terrorism. In 2009, her father, Michael Grant Cahill, a retired Chief Warrant Officer and physician’s assistant, was killed at Fort Hood, Texas, as he attempted to stop the shooter; at the time of his death, Michael Cahill was helping assess soldiers through physical examinations prior to deployment. A year after her father’s death, she met with the first cousin and other family members of her father’s killer.
After doing that, Cahill became involved in an ongoing project where she often speaks at events where the primary message is “if we can work together, maybe other people can too.”
Alongside addressing the necessity of forgiveness and reconciliation, she works to end extremism and domestic terrorism. And even though her acting and advocacy take her around the country—when I spoke to her she was in New York City and on her way Washington, DC for an event—she is adamant about one thing: “Home is New Orleans.”
And speaking of homecoming: if you want to see Kerry Cahill perform here in New Orleans, she will be doing the one-woman show Grounded, written by the award-winning playwright George Brandt, at Loyola University’s Lower Depths Theatre Nov. 2-20.
20 Questions with Kerry Cahill
1. Who is your favorite New Orleanian, dead or alive, real or imagined?
V’lu from Tom Robbins’ novel “Jitterbug Perfume.” She’s imagined, but she also appears (to me) as a composite of thousands of Creole women, who are amazing.
2. What first brought you to New Orleans?
I went to Loyola University.
3. In your opinion — what’s the best neighborhood in New Orleans?
Bayou St. John. It is a great location in terms of beauty, but the neighborhood is also full of locals and local businesses. It’s right next to City Park, the bayou is great, and of course Morning Call and Parkway Tavern. I actually looked to buy a house there but there wasn’t a lot for sale because no one ever wants to leave that neighborhood.
4. If it’s a beautiful day, where are you going to spend it?
City Park or Audubon Park. Or, if I’m honest, my local bar, and I hang out on the patio.
5. Describe the best meal you’ve eaten in New Orleans.
My friend runs a seafood business, and on any given day we will be in a backyard grilling fresh soft shell crabs and fresh shrimp. Best thing ever!
6. Where’s your favorite brunch spot?
I love Oak Street Cafe. The grits are some of the best in the city. Also, for special occasions, Dante’s.
7. What’s your favorite type of po-boy? Where do you get it?
Grilled shrimp po-boy from Guy’s on Magazine, or oyster from Parkway
8. You’ve got friends visiting, and it’s their first time in New Orleans — where are you taking them?
Oak Wine Bar, Cooter Brown’s, d.b.a., and Morning Call. For a start. Of course, hitting up the parks and the French Quarter along the way and ending with Morning Call.
9. What’s your favorite neighborhood bar?
This is so hard. We have so many good ones. The Milan Lounge, The Kingpin, and Le Bon Temps are in my top five.
10. What is your favorite New Orleans cocktail, and where do you go to get it?
The Sazerac at The Roosevelt.
11. What’s your favorite dessert or sweet treat in the city?
There is something intangible about Southern artists. You can’t put your finger on it, but it’s like you can see the difference in it. Southern art is a little deeper and grittier in a way I can’t really explain.
12. Best spot to see live music?
D.b.a., and I love our outdoor concerts at City Park.
13. Favorite New Orleans musician or band?
Helen Gillet. I love her music. There is something about the way she works that cello that is just magical.
14. Favorite New Orleans festival?
I have to choose just one? French Quarter Fest.
15. What’s your ideal New Orleans date night?
A great dinner, some good cocktails afterward, and then finish it off at City Park or a great walk on the riverfront.
16. What are your favorite local shops?
Sopo on Carrolton has some incredibly cool stuff. I also love book stores, so Blue Cypress books, Maple Street Book Shop, and Octavia Books are on that list too. Fleurty Girl is at the top of that list, too.
17. What is your favorite New Orleans museum?
The Ogden. There is something intangible about Southern artists. You can’t put your finger on it, but it’s like you can see the difference in it. Southern art is a little deeper and grittier in a way I can’t really explain.
18. Where do you go to watch The Saints play?
The Milan Lounge. But sometimes I have to stay home. I yell at the screen … a lot.
19. Describe New Orleans in one word.
20. When was the last time you fell in love with New Orleans, and why?
I just had a lot of visitors in town, and we went to Algiers Point to watch the fireworks. Watching all the people there, the fireworks on the river, no one obsessed with their phone, and everyone focused on their friends and family, it’s not like that everywhere. We may not be perfect, but at least we ask “Where y’at?” or “how are you?” and mean it in this town.