When it comes to combating the horror that has been 2020, Marin Ireland seems to be managing surprisingly well. With Broadway dark until May 2021 due to the pandemic, the stage and screen actress, who in 2009 earned a Tony Award nomination for her performance in reasons to be pretty, created an online theater space where thespians could meet remotely and continue to exercise their chops. “I’ve been very busy with theater!” she laughed on a WhatsApp call from Canada, where she’s filming her next project—with Covid-19 protocols in place.
“We started out just reading plays and hanging out,” she explained. But the group’s focus shifted to another pressing cause: doing their part to respond to the global calls for social justice particularly with “Lessons in Survival,” in “residence” at the Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan. For this project, as well as an additional piece running on the Rattlestick Theater website, actors like April Matthis and Joe Morton recite interviews and transcripts of real-life activists and political figures for an audience. “After George Floyd was killed, we tried to become a little more intentional in what we were looking at,” Ireland continued. “That led to investigating James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Angela Davis’s words.”
While Ireland knows how to navigate times of crisis and her personal fears of the unknown, she is the first to tell you that she can’t handle scary movies. “I have a very sensitive constitution for that kind of stuff,” she said. But even she couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be in one of the most horrifying movies of the year, writer-director Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and the Wicked; it succeeds how every great horror film does, she explained—by confronting real-world anxieties in a profound way.
“To me, the most exciting scary movies [are when] you understand the parable of it in your bones,” Ireland said. In The Dark and the Wicked, she plays Louise, a woman who retreats to her family’s farm following the news that her father is dying. Once she and her estranged brother, Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), arrive, they soon realize that his impending death isn’t the only terrifying occurrence that awaits them in the home. They’re met with petrifying nightmares and lucid hallucinations that represent their own increasing dread of what’s to come.
From her own isolated place in the world, Ireland discussed working through her own fears, the haunting sense of death, loneliness, and making the emotional “marathon” that is The Dark and the Wicked, which will be released on November 6.
I once read that you said horror films make you ill. How did you end up in a terrifying movie like The Dark and The Wicked?
Yeah, it’s crazy—I can’t watch them! I mean, I’ve watched a couple, but I am very delicate [Laughs]. When [The Dark and the Wicked] was sent to me, I remember being like, “Oh, I’ll just read it…” And the script was so incredible. It was genuinely terrifying and personal.
To me, the most exciting scary movies [are when] you understand the parable of it in your bones, as you did when you’re a little kid hearing a scary story or a fairytale. The bigness of it is a way of speaking [to] something that’s really profound.
I learned a lot once I met with Bryan; the way he communicated to me about what the genre means to him, how it is about looking right at whatever feels like the scariest thing you can think of. It felt like I had a different understanding of what it was like to create that. I know there can just be fun scary stuff, too. But it gave me a totally different insight. And the making of the thing is so much more grueling and intense, [building] that kind of particular tension.
Like, [Bertino] would sit down with me and Mike and be like, “Alright, here’s how many extra setups we’re going to need for this. If we were just shooting this like a regular movie, we could do this in three shots, you know. But we’re going to need 17 [Laughs]. So here’s how we’re going to all have to stay in really close conversation about how we’re doing and our energy levels.” And “Don’t blow out your voice here. We’re going to turn back around into this.” It was a much more immersive experience. It gave me such a different respect for the genre.
I haven’t watched it, but I also don’t like to watch myself. I remember when we were making it, being like, “Oh, my god. I definitely wouldn’t be able to watch this movie.” [Laughs] There were moments where it was just scary on set. I was like, “Geez, Louise!” Going home by myself [at] six in the morning after all night… It follows you around because some of this stuff is real. Abandonment is a real fear. Fear of death is real. Fear of loss is real.
It’s a terrifying movie, but it’s also deeply sad. There’s a constant sense of dread because someone is dying throughout the film, and death is also haunting the characters. Then there’s the overwhelming fear of isolation in this faraway home that is slowly being emptied because of death.
I’m talking to you from this house that’s not my house in another country. When I got here, I had to quarantine for two weeks by myself. This time that we’re living through right now, [the film] ended up resonating on a whole other level. We’re all just finding ourselves in these circumstances. Like, [being in] a place we aren’t usually or not seeing family [and] feeling isolated. How do we navigate a new relationship to a lot of those things? The loneliness and all of that is really different than it was when we were making [the film]. This is a bigger story than just trying to freak people out. The scariest thing that [Bertino] is looking at is losing everybody. That’s terrifying and very sad. Those things are really bound together.
What did you do to immerse yourself in the story?
Bryan and I talked a lot about the person that [Louise] had been, leading up to [the story] and things that might have been useful for her in terms of the life she was leaving behind. She was feeling unmoored already in her life, and lost. We also talked to each other about our personal lives and opened up to each other. Like, “Well, this actually rings really true for me” or “Here’s where this hits for me.”
I had a lot to navigate in the course of one movie. You have to figure out where to set the dials for each level of it. It’s like a marathon, doing a movie like this. It was very much like knowing when you need to stop for water [or] stretch it out. We had to stay in very close conversation. I always felt very, very protected by [Bertino] in that way. He was right there with me in the room. He’s not a director that is off watching the monitor three rooms over. He was usually right near me, trying to stay very, very connected to how I was doing and where I was. That really let me open up a great deal.
What did you do to shed the role afterward?
Honestly, it was a lot of Epsom salt baths and watching 30 Rock when I went home. This actually sounds very sweet, but my mom came out to visit. [She] lives in California, and I normally live in New York. At first, I was like, “I’m going to be so busy working every day on this movie. Don’t bother.” She’s like, “Well I’ll come out, at least for a little while.” I ended up getting really sick around that time, and it [was] so incredible that my mother was there, especially with the movie we were making. Having somebody there to be like, “I can go get you some medicine” or “I can cook for you” was really important. That’s a lot of what Bryan and the crew were able to do for me, too. I was in a very special environment.
There were a lot of days where everybody [was like], “Alright, she’s going through it today. Bring her some tea. Bring her a blanket.” You know, exactly like somebody [who] is on the treadmill for nine hours. It made me feel like I can continue to put myself in where I need to and go through it. We all believed in the project, and that helps too. If you’re inspired enough by the thing itself, you feel like you can do it because it’s bigger than you.
Louise does get put through the wringer. She’s so desperate to hold on. At times, I was like, “Just get out of the house!”
That’s part of what Bryan and I were talking about. She doesn’t have something to go back to. She obviously doesn’t have a boyfriend, so there’s nobody special back wherever she is coming from. Maybe she was fired from her last job. [She probably] doesn’t have a career. She probably got fired and broke up with some stupid guy, you know. So, I think it’s that feeling of, “Where am I going to go back to?” And that’s also terrifying. That very profound sense of isolation and drift adds to the nightmare.
And through the film’s horrifying ending, the dread is relentless.
Bryan doesn’t pull any punches [Laughs]. [He] would be like, “This is life the way I see it.” It’s something I really appreciate [about] him so deeply. He’s just like, “Yeah, It’d be great if it didn’t go like that. But unfortunately, this is what happens.”