Knox Alumna Makes Movie Debut in "Shutter Island"

April 09, 2010

Bree Elrod Novak, '00, was portraying a drug-addled woman in a Boston theatrical company's production of "Angels in America" when casting directors for a Martin Scorsese film told her she'd make a good mental patient.

She remembers thinking, "Thank you very much. I'm sure my mom would be very proud to hear you say that."

But she understood what they meant. The encounter led to her first movie role -- in "Shutter Island," the recent Scorsese-directed thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo and Sir Ben Kingsley.

The actress, known professionally as Bree Elrod, plays a patient in a hospital for the criminally insane.

Filmed at a former mental institution outside of Boston, the movie "definitely had this feeling of mystery and intrigue," she said. "It was a wild ride."

Working with the renowned Scorsese was a pleasure, Elrod said.

"He was nothing but gracious and nice. He made it a point to meet everybody on the set."

Elrod apparently made a good impression on Scorsese, too. Others who were involved in the film told her about a couple of his compliments, which she didn't hear directly.

One came when someone commented on a particularly good shot of Elrod, prompting Scorsese to respond: "Yeah, she's terrific."

On another occasion, while setting up a shot with DiCaprio and Ruffalo, Scorsese told an associate: "Will you tell Leo and Mark to move over because I can't see Bree?"

Elrod got a pleasant surprise on her final day of shooting: She would be bumped up from an "extra" to a "day player," the distinction being that a day player gets his or her name listed in the film credits.

"I felt it was their way of saying, ‘Thank you' and ‘It was great meeting you,'" she said.

As a result, Elrod's name now turns up in the Internet Movie Database, a popular website for information about films, directors and performers. Typing her name in the site's search box yields this result: "Shutter Island (2010)...Female Patient."

"I can't believe that! It's so wild to me," she said.

Elrod has loved the performing arts for most of her life. As a child growing up in Topeka, Kansas, her mother often took her to theatrical productions.

"I remember seeing ‘Les Miserables' as an 8-year-old and ‘Phantom of the Opera' as a 9-year-old," she said.

She wrote her own plays while still in elementary school. In high school, she performed in plays, madrigals and musicals.

Elrod decided to enroll at Knox College after visiting an older high school friend who was a Knox student.

"I just instantly felt at home there. I'm so glad I went to visit," said Elrod, who met her husband, Todd Novak, '99, on the Knox campus.

By the time she began her first year of college, Elrod knew she loved acting, but she didn't think a career in that field seemed feasible. So she majored in political science at Knox and prepared to attend law school, as her parents did.

She nevertheless found time for Knox's Repertory Theatre Term, the unique 10-week immersion program that combines academic study in theatre with hands-on experience in every facet of production. Students in Rep Term collaborate closely with faculty members to research, design and perform two full-length plays.

Elrod participated in the 1999 Rep Term, which featured "The Government Inspector" and "Treacherous Journey."

"That was really a wonderful experience and a life-changing experience," she said. "You eat, sleep and breathe the theatre. You're doing all aspects of production. It was like being part of a company."

Elrod graduated with College Honors in theatre. Her honors thesis explored how regional theatres affect the communities where they're located. As part of her research, Elrod completed an internship with The 52nd Street Project, a not-for-profit group that teams up professional theatre artists with children and teens from the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City.

Elrod concluded in her thesis that "great theatre can be done everywhere, and it's important everywhere." She still holds that view.

As Elrod's commencement date approached, she realized she no longer could resist the pull of the theatre, and professors at Knox helped her audition for graduate programs. She decided to go to New York University, where her brother, actor Carson Elrod, already was enrolled.

Since then, she has worked as an actress, a songwriter and guitarist, and a part-time editor. She also received the 2009 Young Alumni Achievement Award from Knox.

Because of the unpredictable nature of show business, Elrod makes no predictions that the "Shutter Island" role will propel her acting career "into a new realm."

"It's just a teeny little speck of a thing," said Elrod. "For me, it's just been fun having friends and family call me and say they saw me."