Within the first few minutes of Smile, the actress Sosie Bacon stars in a scene that’s basically a living nightmare. It’s so terrifying, you wonder how her character, Rose, will recover from what she has seen. And in fact, that’s the heart of Smile, a horror movie that opens Friday and turns the familiar on its head: Rose is a hospital psychiatrist haunted by a violently tragic patient who reported seeing people with uncannily sinister smiles. Bacon landed the lead in Smile following a well-regarded turn as a recovering addict in Mare of Easttown, among other roles. “I’ve had to audition for everything up to this point, so this is the first time I got a script for just a meeting,” Bacon told me, praising the meticulously imagined visuals and practical special effects of the resulting film, the first feature from director Parker Finn.
As Rose, Bacon gives us a character whose nerves unravel as she sees and hears things she can’t explain—and struggles to make her boyfriend and her sister understand. I talked with Bacon about how exactly Smile gets under your skin, and why horror stories can be so good at delving into our fears—and even our sense of grief.
What gripped you about this role?
I’ve always wanted to do a horror movie, and what was cool is that this has a fully formed human being as the lead. There is a trope in horror of girls just screaming and running from the monster, and this broke that, in the sense that Rose is strong and really determined to escape it. Her trauma is explained, and it’s a real part of it.
What stood out to you about the director’s approach?
He used all practical special effects, which is quite rare. That helps to inform the performance, because sometimes with CG [digital effects], you can really be acting with a tennis ball, you know? All of the things that you see were right there.
What is the scariest aspect of the movie for you?
Everyone would likely say that one of their worst fears is to have a completely different reality from the rest of the world, and be not believed and not listened to and doubted. So I think that’s the scariest through-line in the movie. But the best [single] scare in my opinion is when the alarm goes off and she picks up the phone, because it used something that's been in horror movies many a time, but it lingered differently—and the jump came at a different time. It messes with our expectations.
The sound design was a big part of the movie’s scares for me, and how people’s voices sometimes felt really close-up.
Yeah, and they come in different places in your ear. I have really, really sensitive hearing, and for me, particularly if I’m very tired or anxious, sounds do sound different. It's almost like inside your eardrum! It’s jumpy, and the way [the director] used sound design is unnerving.
Did that carry over to how your voice was recorded?
It absolutely was different because she’s in such a state throughout the movie that there is a physicality to the way the character speaks, and the breathing, and the stress. Luckily, I wasn’t really in that place when I was doing ADR [re-recording audio later in a studio]. At one point, I had to lie on the ground and do lots of heavy breathing to get me back into that real state. So it was definitely harder than other ADR I had done, and I think this is probably true for most horror movies. They wanted so much breath in ADR to put in different places that it wasn’t originally. Or screams—I had to do a bunch of them just based on nothing.
So you have to summon the fear. How do you do that?
You un-exorcise yourself! Like, you haven’t had your exorcism yet. [Laughs] It’s easier when you’re doing it every day, and you just drop into it once the cameras are rolling. But there are lots of things you can do. My friend had an MRI the other day where she had to breathe really heavily in order to get the tingling feeling. That was me every single day at work.
Visually, the movie gets so much out of the potential of sinister smiles.
Yeah, somebody just staring at you and smiling is so unnerving. I also think it plays with this idea. There’s that scene where she’s sitting in front of the mirror, trying to put on a smile, put on a mask, and there is something horrifying about having to pretend that you’re okay when you’re not.
She’s had these traumas and then these feelings of guilt, so the movie feels like it’s also about grief.
Yes, totally. Grief is such a complicated thing, because it's so not just being sad. It’s got so many facets to it and also it happens to you. You can't control it. A loss of control of your own emotions is scary for anybody, which is why I find it to be more universal than “this woman is going crazy.” We all will experience a lack of control of our emotions at some point.
You mentioned you were a fan of horror. Any favorites come to mind?
Actually, that’s a really smart theme [of grief] that you identified that I hadn’t really thought about much. Now I’m thinking that almost all of them are, in a way. Like Rosemary’s Baby. It’s almost like someone’s grieving about not being a parent before it’s happened.
Thinking of Rosemary’s Baby, another thing in common is how people refuse to believe your character.
Yeah, part of the thing that disturbed me about this movie is that that theme is ever present in our lives. Women’s pain has been ignored, historically and currently. It’s exhausting, and I see it happen all the time. And it’s typically not just denied, it’s argued with. That feels even worse, because not only is nobody listening, but you’re also defending it. You have to somehow be a crusader for your own trauma and pain. And that isn’t just with women, that’s with all marginalized groups. It’s a way that I think people feel more comfortable about others’ pain, to be like, “Well, it’s not that bad. It’s all in your head.”
What I wanted is to make Rose an empathetic character who people could understand, and not just put in a box.
Hereditary comes to mind too—have you seen that?
Oh my gosh, yeah. That was one of the most disturbing experiences I’ve ever had in a movie. It’s like if you get into a car accident or something: I feel like my whole world goes “whooomp” and then immediately after you’re just... not emotional. You’re talkative, figuring things out. And in Hereditary,and also in this movie, her getting home and him getting home after—that to me is the darkest moment. Like, holy shit, I was around people, and I was dealing with it... and now it begins.