Ellen Toland felt some anxiety and trepidation over the romantic comedy Inside the Rain, and not just because she’s playing a sex worker whose body — in one memorable scene — becomes a sushi platter.
Toland’s first big-screen leading role represents a critical step in the career of the Dallas native, winning the sort of acclaim that validates her decision to pursue acting full-time almost a decade ago.
In the film, which pivoted to a streaming release this spring once theaters were shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Toland portrays Emma, who moonlights at a strip club where she meets manic depressive film student Benjamin (Aaron Fisher). When he’s threatened with expulsion from school, Benjamin recruits Emma to help him re-create the incident on film. His afflictions draw the two closer together.
“Emma wasn’t portrayed as down-on-her-luck, or in trouble, or the usual things that you see from women in sex work,” Toland said by phone from New York. “Instead, it’s just about their friendship and their growth together.”
Fisher, who also wrote and directed the low-budget film, suffers from bipolar disorder and wanted to use the project to push back against stereotypes. Toland said she was drawn by the heartfelt nature of the script, and by how her role was more empowered than it first appears.
“We were able to understand it. Because it was coming from Aaron’s voice, you were able to laugh with him,” she said. “It became personal for all of us.”
Toland, 30, grew up in the Park Cities as the youngest of seven children in her family. She performed at the Dallas Theater Center for the first time at age 3, and was hooked.
“I loved everything about being on stage, and I loved dance,” Toland said. “I was 8 years old when I saw Dirty Dancing over the summer, and I came back and wanted to be the best dancer I could possibly be.”
After graduating from Highland Park, Toland developed a passion for acting at Pace University in New York. She even studied abroad for a semester at the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts in England.
“It was something I always dreamed of doing. It was an amazing opportunity, she said. “The teachers there really changed my perspective on everything.”
Toland has amassed an impressive resume of roles thus far, including small parts as a cult member in the short-lived web series “Doomsday” and as a 1940s army wife in the 2018 indie feature The Chaperone. She hopes Inside the Rain will continue that upward trajectory.
“My goal is to always keep changing and not get stuck,” Toland said. “Despite all the things going on in the world, I feel like I’m in a really good spot in my career.”