Alabama native bringing VR production to Sidewalk, looking to make feature film in the state

Alabama native bringing VR production to Sidewalk, looking to make feature film in the state
Phenix City native Meredith Riley Stewart is back in her home state with a virtual reality short film, "SEE ME," at the Sidewalk Film Festival. (contributed)

Meredith Riley Stewart has found a new home in Hollywood, but lately the Phenix City native is feeling a pull back to her home state.

Whether it’s showcasing her virtual reality (VR) short film at this week’s Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham or scouting locations in the Chattahoochee Valley for a new feature film, Riley Stewart is finding her way back to the South.

After living life as a dancer in Philadelphia and as an actor in New York, she has found living in Los Angeles is not such a far cry from Alabama.

“I feel like L.A. is sort of the perfect blend of more of the charm and connection to nature that Southerners have with the grind and hustle of New York,” Riley Stewart said. “It’s kind of the perfect combination for me. I feel at home there. And there are so many Southerners in L.A. It’s always my tell is that I will say ‘y’all’ in some room and they’re like, ‘Wait a second, you’re not from L.A. Where are you from?’”

The University of Alabama graduate has even found that a well-placed “Roll Tide!” can lead to connections in Hollywood.

“In my resume under ‘education’ I just squeeze in a little ‘Roll Tide!’ and I can’t tell you how many casting directors I’ve had conversations with about SEC football because that’s on there,” she said. “It’s been a smart little addition. We can have a conversation that makes me more human. It’s not about the story. It’s not about the character. It’s about something totally different.”

It keeps rolling when she’s at home.

“I am married to an Alabama boy as well,” she said. “We literally just changed cable packages because we were with somebody who dropped CBS and he was like, ‘What? We can’t … no, no … I have to …’ Our life sort of revolves around football in the South. He’s counting down how many days until the opening game.”

Meredith Riley Stewart’s “SEE ME,” with multiple showings at the Sidewalk Film Festival this weekend, uses virtual reality to examine male objectification of women. (contributed)

Riley Stewart is counting down the days until her immersive VR experience “SEE ME” is shown at Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival this weekend. Alabama Power is a sponsor of this year’s festival.

“’SEE ME’ is a short-form, experimental VR experience that invites the audience to step inside the subconscious mind of a woman, invites you to sort of experience what daily life is like for many women, including the constant barrage of commentary that happens for them in our society,” Riley Stewart said.

Other than being shown for friends and family, “SEE ME” has been shown publicly only at last week’s Macon Film Festival in Georgia. Based on the reactions there, Riley Stewart said viewers should come in expecting something intense.

“They should know that it challenges the male gaze,” she said. “VR is a unique concept for that because of the headset aspect of it. Not only are you feeling the experience of a woman, but you are potentially stepping into a male gaze on these women. That idea of challenging the male gaze – because it can be uncomfortable, especially in VR where your eyes are covered, your ears are covered, you’re sitting in a chair – and when these women approach you, because it looks like they’re coming right at you, some people wanted to hide, you kind of can’t get away. It requires people to be ready to confront it.”

In Macon, women would take off their headsets with tears in their eyes and the men felt uncomfortable and shared what they felt in a conversation with the filmmakers after the showing. At Sidewalk, the film will have multiple showings at the Lyric Theatre Aug. 24-25.

“We hope they can get through it and then they can take a breath and either realize what many women go through or so many women watch it and say, ‘Yes, that’s what happens.’ For us to be able to add a voice to their experience is powerful,” Riley Stewart said.

“That’s really the point, is to have that eye-opening empathy,” she added. “Really it’s about how our society objectifies women, and women finally finding a voice and the strength – whether that’s physical or of character – to speak up and demand to be seen as an equal human.”

A friend Riley Stewart made in Hollywood, Celine Tricart, is a leader in VR filmmaking and directed the acclaimed “The Sun Ladies” documentary about women soldiers in the Afghanistan army.

Riley Stewart wanted to make something impactful to address the objectification of women, and began working on “SEE ME” just as the #MeToo movement was beginning.

“That’s something I’m always trying to do with things I decide to spend my energy on now,” she said. “Media is such an influential culture shaper. There is such an opportunity there to create change in our society and that’s what I want to do with the media that I create.”

It is part of an evolution Riley Stewart has gone through since graduating from the University of Alabama with degrees in dance and biology and then dancing professionally in Philadelphia. Hosting on QVC and shooting commercials gave her the acting bug. She took professional classes and earned a role as a dancer on the first season of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” which gave her a Screen Actors Guild card and allowed her to pursue other acting roles.

Meredith Riley Stewart alternates acting in TV series and films with producing her own projects. (contributed)

She’s had roles on ABC’s “Scandal,” NBC’s “Days of Our Lives,” Lifetime’s “Devious Maids” and Martin Scorsese’s movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Riley Stewart co-produced “Flip The Script,” the first digital series by Women in Film. She created “AutocorrectFU,” that features funny, over-the-top reenactments of autocorrected text conversations. Her “Southern Dish” digital series is about a Southern belle in the Big Apple, embracing the culture clash instead of fighting it.

She has become known for her Southern charm and wise-cracking personality in various pursuits in Hollywood. The production she is looking to film in the Phenix City-Columbus, Georgia, area is in keeping with that.

“The Inheritance” is a faith-based family comedy with Hollywood’s Mustard Seed Entertainment.

As soon as Riley Stewart read the script, she envisioned it taking place back home.

“I just thought, ‘This is so perfect to bring back to my hometown,’” she said. “It’s a beautiful story about family.”

Family and home were important touch points for Riley Stewart.

“In the past 10 years I have lost both of my parents and my aunt who was like my second mother,” she said. “I’m young to have gone through all of that already, but it really gave me a deeper understanding of what’s important about your family and life. While this is a comedy, it kind of centers around the unique place of where people go when it’s time to claim inheritance. It’s this weird thing that happens. It brings out certain character and shades of character that might not have existed before.”

Riley Stewart noted your family has a way of seeing the real you.

“You think you’ve evolved so much and then you have Thanksgiving dinner with your family and remember who you really are,” she said. “The theme of family and that being an important part of your legacy was really something that connected to me immediately.”

Shooting the film will be easier than other productions because almost all of the story takes place on the grounds of one estate. Riley Stewart said some generous people in the Phenix City-Columbus area contacted her to offer their home to shoot in. Columbus has a film office and infrastructure to support moving productions in the area and the film is expected to create 30 jobs and bring about $500,000 in spending.

“I’m really hoping that that’s going to happen … no, it is going to happen by the end of the year,” Riley Stewart said. “There is so much support here. It’s really wonderful. To be a hometown person bringing this movie back, I’m excited about it.”

A second feature film Riley Stewart is looking to produce is important to her for another reason. It’s a drama about public school teachers and the heavy lifting they do as part of their job.

“That one is really dear to my heart because both of my parents were public educators,” she said. “My mother was the principal of my high school. It tells the story of those unsung heroes, the people who really do shape American culture in the microcosm of schools.”

For now, Riley Stewart is excited to be returning to her home state and making her first visit to Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival. She is planning on spending time with friends from Hollywood who are in the Magic City.

“Now that I’ve been in L.A. for five years, looking at my network of people there, I have probably five friends with pieces in (Sidewalk) that I’m going to see in Birmingham,” she said. “So, it will be really cool to sort of like be able to take them to a restaurant I went to in college or something.”

Riley Stewart loves the freedom that being an actor and a producer allows.

“I’m in the fortunate position of just being able to focus on being a creator,” she said. “As an actor, sure, I can audition any time for other people’s projects. But between those, I do have time to develop my own.”

In it all, she can always find room for a “Roll Tide!”

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