August 1, 2020
Anatomy of a New York break-up
Finnerty Steeves, photographed in Hell's Kitchen by Francesca Russell
Finnerty Steeves has this beautiful memory of a perfect moment in her perfect marriage. Her husband – a sailor and yacht rigger – had taken a boat on a boys’ trip. But, 18 hours after leaving her in New York, he turned around and came back. “I was asleep on the couch, and he came in that night,” she recalls, tears pricking her eyes. “I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And he said, ‘I didn't want to be away from you for that long. I decided not to go.’”
It was memories like this that she clung to as, pregnant with a longed-for child, her 15-year marriage imploded. Revisiting that moment in the film she’s made about the break-up and its aftermath, however, it took on an entirely different meaning.
Trying to remember the good times, to not get stuck in bitterness and anger and sadness, she said to her ex: “Remember that time when you turned the boat around?” Barely pausing to think about how his words might wound her, he replied: “If I'd kept going I would never have come back.”
“We were babies when we met,” says Finnerty, who plays Beth Hoefler on Orange Is The New Black, and Beth in Bad Education. They'd both been 20, and were together half their lives. He’d followed her to New York when her acting career took off, but she says now: “He never really liked it here. It was never a match for him.”
As she felt her heart being tugged with the desire for a child, they discussed starting a family. “And when he said yes to us trying, it was like I'd never felt closer to him,” she says. “But it was not something he ever wanted. And I think that was the beginning of the end without really knowing it.”
They got pregnant right away, and he panicked.
“It had never occurred to me that he was having an affair,” she says. “He met this woman on our boat. At first he said they were just friends. It was a one-night thing, where they danced together and kissed, and that was it. Then she started calling him nonstop and saying, ‘I'm going to kill myself.’
“Throughout our relationship, we had never really fought," she says. "I didn't grow up around anyone arguing – I didn't know how to do it and neither did he, so we never really communicated.
“It seemed perfect, and then it was over. People were like, ‘He's going to fight for you.’ And I said, ‘No, I think this is it. We don't have the skills to work through it.’”
Then she found out there was something wrong with the pregnancy. “It wasn't going to make it,” she says. “And I felt so relieved in some ways, because I thought, ‘How do I explain to this baby that her dad and I were happy for 18 years, then she came and it was over? How do I do this?’ But then I had to mourn the idea that I probably wouldn't be a mom. It had taken us 20 years to decide to try. I was 40 years old and unlikely to meet somebody at that point.”
As horribly painful as this period in time was, a small part of her kept saying: “If this weren’t happening to me, it would be really f***ing funny!” Mainly thanks to the truly dreadful therapists they went to in an attempt to rescue their marriage.
So she wrote her first movie, raised the money herself, and “gathered some insanely talented people together to make it.
“There was something about writing it that felt like I was letting it go,” she says. “There was one scene, the scene where she finds out – she puts two and two together that he's cheating. And after finishing that scene there was silence in the room. Then the crew were applauding. I remember waiting for the subway afterwards and thinking, ‘It's gone. I feel 60 pounds lighter.'”
Much of before/during/after is about memories, and redefining oneself after loss, she says. And the “after” part is crucial.
Newly single, she was Christmas shopping in southern California when she spotted a cute guy in front of her in the line, wearing a Yankees hat. “I was trying to practice flirting, so I made myself say something to him, and he waited for me at the door. We stepped outside and had this amazing connection in the parking lot. This guy who looked like a drunk Jesus got out of his car and said, ’Don’t let her go, man. I'm watching this whole thing. Don't let her go.’
“I said, ‘I should probably get going. It was so nice to meet you, Mark.’ He said, ‘It was nice to meet you.’ And I thought, 'He’s not going to ask for my number.
“I said, ‘Well, I hope our paths cross again.’ And he said, ‘Me too.’”
And that was it.
A friend persuaded her to put a listing on Craigslist's Missed Connections, so she plucked up the courage – he probably wouldn’t see it anyway, she reasoned. When her phone rang, she could hardly believe it. “So, ah, here's the deal,” said Mark. “I have a girlfriend.”
Finnerty was back in New York, rebuilding her life, when, a year or so later, he called again. She and Mark are now married, living in Hell’s Kitchen, with a nearly seven-year-old daughter.
“It's funny, because when I held her, I was like, ‘Oh, it had to be you. It had to be you.” A perfect moment.
When she sees Jennie, the character based on her, on the screen, how does she feel?
“That's interesting,” she says. “It ends up being one of the lines in the play that she's auditioning for, which I didn't totally believe at the time but I do believe it now. I forced Jennie to say, ‘I didn't know how strong I was.' I was never asked to be strong. So even as I was getting squished I was like, ‘This is amazing – I feel myself for the first time. I feel where I am.’ And the fact that I was able to make something beautiful out of something really shitty is really exciting to me.”
before/during/after was set to premiere at RiverRun Film Festival in North Carolina in March, then COVID happened and she was forced to shift her goals and rethink the grand plans she’d had for this baby, her feature film debut.
“When I was really quiet with myself, I was like, you know what? I want to put a bunch of maybes out there, and I want to say yes if they say yes. I've never been to Ireland. I've never been to England. There are so many places I've never been. I want to submit to festivals that seem like a great match. And if it turns out that I’m chosen, I want to be able to be like, 'Dammit, I know we can't afford it, but I'm going to get on a flight.' I want to meet other filmmakers and I want to share this film.”