Mia Goth Finds a New Sense of Self

The actress and new mom discusses Pearl, X, and why she’s having the best year of her life.

A portrait of Mia Goth wearing a black dress, with her nails painted maroon
Photo by Beau Nelson

At the end of 2020, Mia Goth was in New Zealand throwing herself into one of the most intense experiences of her acting career. Making Ti West’s horror movie, X, she played dual roles—one of which required her to spend 12 hours getting prosthetics applied so she could embody a vengeful, decrepit woman named Pearl. As soon as that wrapped, she had one day off, then went straight into dance rehearsals for its prequel, Pearl, which she co-wrote with West. (Why dance? In Pearl, her character is an aspiring chorus girl in 1919.) Goth tells me she relished all the work.

“Every time you’re able to go off and make a movie somewhere, it’s such a sacred time. Why wouldn’t you want to give your all to it?” she says when we talk on the phone.

Nearly two years later, she’s seeing the results of all that effort. X premiered at SXSW, and now, Pearl is touring another festival circuit with stops in Venice and Toronto. Goth calls me just hours after she lands in the Canadian city, her baby nearby, the infant’s coos echoing through the speaker. (In the midst of releasing two movies in 2022, she also had her first child with Shia LaBeouf, who she’s been with on and off since 2012.) “It’s been the best year of my life,” she says. “On every front, it’s been such a celebration.”

Since her film debut in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac in 2013, Goth has been quietly building one of the most eclectic, exciting careers in Hollywood. She worked with Claire Denis in High Life and Luca Guadagnino in Suspiria, putting herself at the center of dark, boundary-pushing films, but later proved she could be charmingly funny in the 2020 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. But Pearl is her first leading role to date—and it’s one that she had a hand in creating. She makes her screenwriting debut with the serial killer origin story as well.

Whereas in X, Pearl is a horny old murderer longing for human touch and willing to brutally kill anyone who tempts or denies her, in Pearl, she’s a fresh-faced, farm-girl rebel balking at her mother’s rules. Pearl dreams of being in the pictures, but her husband’s fighting in the Great War and her strict mom is worried about the influenza pandemic. (The parallels between Covid times and Pearl’s world are not even a little bit subtle in the film.) But in addition to being ambitious, Pearl is also a bit unhinged. In the opening moments, she casually kills a goose with a pitchfork and feeds it to an alligator in a lake. When she encounters a scarecrow in a cornfield, she launches into a fantasy that ends with her humping the dummy.

Goth was about six weeks into prepping for the 1970s-set X, in which she plays an aspiring porn star in addition to the villain, when she got a text from West explaining that he had a prequel in mind. They began FaceTiming almost every night, discussing their ideas. “It snowballed and became truly one of the most creatively fulfilling experiences of my life,” she says. Those experiences aren’t slated to stop anytime soon. The next project she’s working on with West was announced during Pearl’s TIFF premiere: A sequel to X called MaXXXine, where she will be back as the final girl whose main goal is stardom.

For X, Goth says was shocked when West asked her to contribute to the screenplay, having never considered it before occasional rewrites on scripts that had already been handed to her. While West focused on Pearl’s environment—he shoots it like a Technicolor so it resembles a 1950s melodrama—Goth was able to dig into her character. She looked to Björk's turn in von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark and Bette Davis’s faded star in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? for inspiration.

After a discussion about Michael Fassbender’s extended monologue in Steve McQueen’s Hunger, she and West decided to write a version of their own for Pearl, where she confesses her misdeeds and her fears to her agog sister-in-law. Goth wanted the audience to see how vulnerable Pearl is, even while she’s murdering people willy-nilly. It’s a tour de force moment in Goth’s performance, the mania creeping into her face as her honesty becomes more horrifying. “I was really terrified to shoot that, because I never went to film school,” she says. “I didn’t have any tools to gear myself up to something like that.” West decided to schedule the scene for the end of the shoot. “That was a great move, because the emotional turbulence Pearl had gone through up until that point, and the intensity of what that shoot required from everyone, helped and informed the monologue that that came that day,” she explains.

As we reach the end of our conversation, Goth’s baby starts to vocalize, and she needs to step away from the phone for a moment, somewhat awkwardly, after I ask her a question about how she thinks about her character’s sexuality. It’s a topic Goth has been exploring since her debut, and she says she’s never been intimidated by doing so. She sees it as another way of deepening the portraits she’s creating. “I wanted to use the sexuality that’s portrayed in the film to humanize these characters,” she explains.

She’s always been fearless, but Pearl and X have given Goth a newfound confidence. She wants to be involved with projects from their inception, whether by writing or producing. She loves the “traveling circus” aspect of working on a movie, but is ready to assert herself more. “I was always quite chronically shy, and felt just happy to be on set or grateful to be there,” she says. She takes a long pause as searches for the right words. “I think Pearl has given me a new sense of self.”

Photo by Beau Nelson