Opening April 11th, “Oculus” is an ingenious horror film with an intriguing premise that interweaves siblings Tim (Brenton Thwaites) and Kaylie’s (Karen Gillan) struggles in the present with the story of their family’s tragic demise ten years earlier. Kaylie is convinced a beautiful antique mirror known as the Lasser Glass, which once hung in their childhood home, is the villain. She sets out to prove that its seemingly harmless reflections hold a malevolent supernatural force that reflects people’s worst insecurities and fears. The scary, suspenseful movie directed by Mike Flanagan also stars Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, and James Lafferty.
At the film’s recent press day, Gillan, Sackhoff, Cochrane and Lafferty spoke about what drew them to their roles, their reaction when they first read the script, how they found the right tone for their characters as the story unfolds, their collaboration with director Flanagan, how they interacted with the actors who played the younger versions of themselves, their own worst fears, the subgenre of horror film they enjoy the most, the experience they brought from earlier roles to their performances, how they handled the violent scenes, what they did to unwind afterwards, and their thoughts about the mirror.
Here’s what they had to say:
QUESTION: When you first got the script, what was it that struck you not only about the story as a whole but also the individual characters?
KAREN GILLAN: One of the things I loved about the script so much was the time that was devoted to the characters. We see them develop before things happen to them so we’re actually invested and care, and we really earn the scares which excited me. I just loved the character that I played. I thought she was really interesting.
KATEE SACKHOFF: Very similarly in the sense that I really loved the fact that we saw for Marie this vulnerability that she had and this obsession that she had with mirrors before the mirror actually took her. I wanted to make the audience love this family and understand this family and then ultimately feel heartbroken for these children and what they had to go through. Mike (Flanagan) did a phenomenal job at pulling you on this slow ride that was engaging the entire time, and then in the last 30 minutes, it seemed to just punch you in the face repeatedly.
JAMES LAFFERTY: I have to agree with Katee. It was the family aspect that got me and the fact that there were children involved in the script tugged at my heartstrings. To see the performances that they gave on screen was mind blowing to me. That really showed through for me.
RORY COCHRANE: I appreciated the family dynamic that could happen without these supernatural forces that were surrounding this family. If you took them away, you could still have this family drama.
Q: Rory, often we see you in roles where you’re a very likeable person. You start out in this film with a certain likeability factor. I’m just wondering how you found the right tone for your character as he evolved through the storyline?
COCHRANE: It’s a credit to Mike’s development of the character. He gave everybody this arc to play with. For me, as an actor, I went against trying to be super creepy and just play the realism of how I felt in between whatever scene we were doing. It’s like, what is the reality in this scene? Forget the mirrors. Forget the ghosts. That’s the only way I could wrap my head around it. That’s what I did. You have obviously a slow decline, but I wasn’t trying to play off that too much.
Q: Mike has said that the mirror reflects each of the characters’ fears and insecurities. Could each of you comment on how you perceived your character’s fears and insecurities and what you took as fuel?
SACKHOFF: Mine was incredibly obvious. The children were 13 years old and I was 32, so to me, I would have had to have the children at 18 or 19 years old. I wanted to play that as the reality, because my sister had a child at 18 and she’s a phenomenal woman. She finished college. She worked her ass off. I didn’t want to age myself up or have that play in a negative light, but if that was the reality of the situation, then she probably gave up much of her own life for these children. There’s a lot of insecurity that comes from that. Like what is your importance to the world beyond being a mother? What have you given up? We can relate to body issues. I stand in the mirror and go, “Oh Jeez! Oh my gosh, this is happening!” and I haven’t had children yet, so I can’t imagine what that’s going to be like. I’ll probably do it some more. I think her insecurities were incredibly obvious from the very beginning. I understood that because I’ve seen it in so many women. It’s painful to not like yourself physically. I understood the insanity of that.
Q: Karen, did you and Brenton (Thwaites) see the work of the younger actors who played your younger selves and did you synchronize your performances with theirs?
GILLAN: Basically, these guys filmed their scenes in the past section of the film first. That was the first three weeks of the shoot. Brenton and I went onto set all the time and just watched what everybody was doing. It’s an absolute credit to Annalise (Basso) who played the younger version of my character because she absolutely established the character. I went there and watched what she did and then just took it from there and tried to expand on it.
Q: Since the Lasser Glass exacerbates its victims’ darkest fears and insecurities, if you were to look in the mirror, what would your worst fears be?
GILLAN: I would say probably not being able to do what I want to do and not being completely fulfilled and happy. I don’t know how that would manifest itself in a mirror. It’s just that feeling of not being satisfied with my life would be the worst thing that could ever happen to me.
COCHRANE: I’d say every audition I’ve ever gone on. (Laughter)
SACKHOFF: We were joking about that earlier. It’s like a “Funny or Die” skit, every worst audition you’ve ever had. I had somebody answer the phone halfway through one of my auditions and I was like, “Should I assume I didn’t get the job or just keep going? I don’t know what to do right now.” I just went, “Alright, I’ll see you later then.” I left because I just thought that was really rude.
Q: There are so many subgenres of horror films, for each of you, what’s the thing that grabs you about horror movies? Is it the gore type, the supernatural thriller, the psychological ones? What does it for you?
GILLAN: I love horror films so I just want to try one of them. I’m a huge horror film fan so this was really exciting for me. I’d say I love the cheesy slasher ones for the gore aspect, but really the ones that are truly scary are the slow burners that build up to things. I loved “The Ring.” I just thought that they did that really well. And that wasn’t so gory. It was just a really creepy video.
SACKHOFF: There’s enough things in my life that scare the shit out of me already. I tend to be mostly scared of the movies where there’s something that could actually happened. When we’re actors, we spend a lot of time on the road and in different places. So, I tend to wake up in the middle of the night and run into walls a lot and forget where I am. For me, my biggest fear is things that can actually happen. Someone tried to open my hotel room one night. The chain was going and I was like, “Oh my God, what’s happening?!” And it’s just those weird things because you’re constantly not home. I’m never in a comfortable place. Those types of horror movies scare the shit out of me, like things that could actually happen.
GILLAN: Hotels are really scary. One time I was in a hotel and I was convinced it was haunted. I decided to make a film of it and there was nothing on it. I then called the reception and I was like, “This room is haunted. I need to move.” They didn’t ask any questions. They were like, “Yeah. We’re going to move you.” It was like they knew.
COCHRANE: I just want to add to that. When we were in Alabama, she had a stalker. The guy made his way across the United States sending postcards and things like that. It got to be pretty scary. The guy actually showed up at the hotel with flowers. Everyone around the set, the crew, everybody was like, “Karen, you have to be really careful.” She was like, “Oh it’s so sweet. He brought me flowers.” She wasn’t scared of that at all and that was a real thing.
LAFFERTY: I think if you can trick me, you can make me laugh or you can make me cry or you can scare me. That’s one of the great things about “Oculus” is that it tricks you so often and you’re kind of questioning your own sanity. At a certain point, you’re not really sure where you are in the film, if it’s your fault or the mirror’s fault. That’s the kind of thing. If you can get me off balance like that, then you’ve scared me. So I guess it’s the psychological aspect.
Q: What did each of you take from previous roles that you’ve been in and use in these characters?
GILLAN: For me, I worked on a TV show in the U.K. called “Dr. Who” where we repeatedly had to be scared of something that wasn’t there, and that came in really handy for this film.
LAFFERTY: That’s a really good answer. This for me was one of the first roles I’ve played where I was actually an adult from the start to the finish. It was nice to go from the television show that I was on where I ended up an adult. On this, I played an adult the entire time so I drew from the end of my experience of my last project.
COCHRANE: What was the question? (Laughter)
SACKHOFF: I think for me it was just the physicality. Mike had said, “Just go bigger or go home with her. It’s never going to be too much with this character.” We came up with this sick animal thing so I crawl on the ground and I throw my body all over the place. I think that coming from action movies and TV shows really helped with all of that.
Q: Rory, there are a lot of violent scenes in the film and especially the ones with the children. How did you deal with those?
COCHRANE: The kids we worked with were terrific. They were very resilient and diligent and professional, and especially her (referring to Sackhoff), she had a safe word with the kids if they felt you were going too far. For me, I didn’t have a safe word, but I would check in every take. “Am I hurting you?” And then, they’d be carving pumpkins on the side, and I thought, “I’m actually not that bad.” (Laughter)
SACKHOFF: Wasn’t it Halloween?
COCHRANE: There were a couple of times where I was choking the girl in particular. After about the fourth or fifth take, she was like, “Yeah, maybe he’s up a little bit on the back of my neck.” And then, I felt really bad.
SACKHOFF: And you wished you’d had a safe word.
Q: How do you unwind when you’re up at a 10 when it comes to the emotional intensity on set? When you get home after a day of shooting, how do you unwind?
GILLAN: I actually don’t have a problem with shooting and then just walking away and forgetting about it. I’m not really like a Method actor or an old soul. It doesn’t stay with me. But on this film, and no other projects that I’ve worked on have had this effect on me, there were a couple scenes that scared me for two days afterwards. A scene involving you actually (referring to Cochrane), but I shouldn’t give anything away. Something bad happened. I don’t know why, but it stayed with me for two days. It was just really weird.
LAFFERTY: I actually didn’t have very many scenes that were anywhere near the emotional caliber as the rest of the cast. When I got to set, it was actually fun. Everybody was in really good spirits, and that was shocking for me, because I figured stepping onto a horror set that the material lends itself to a seriousness, but for some reason it was just a really jovial atmosphere.
COCHRANE: I remember filming one scene in particular where afterwards I was shaking because something got ahold of me, but I wasn’t at that particular time being physical with a child which was good. I’m sort of like you. (referring to Gillan) It doesn’t take much. It’s like, “Okay, we’re in the van. Let’s get this stuff off of me. Let’s go back to the hotel.”
Q: Karen, after something as phenomenally huge as “Dr. Who,” did you sit down and have a list of things that you wanted to do next?
GILLAN: I don’t really have a plan of what I want to do. All I want is good quality of projects no matter what genre they are. That’s all I’m looking for. That’s it really. I don’t have a big plan. Hopefully, I get to continue.
Q: In terms of keeping up with what’s real and what’s not, was there ever a time where things became confusing to you as you were in the process of shooting? How did you keep things straight for yourselves?
COCHRANE: We had these well written arcs, again credit to Mike Flanagan. We shot out of order, so we were trying to follow this slow decline into everybody unraveling. One day she looks like a sweet mom and then the next scene she looks like a vampire, and she has to go back and forth. We all did because it was a tight shoot. We just had to stick to the page and trust Mike and the people around us.
GILLAN: Also, the past stuff was written in italics and then the present was in a normal font. I remember just thinking how that made it so much easier. It was so simple.
SACKHOFF: Mike Flanagan would come up and say, “Remember at this point you’ve had this happen,” because for the parents that kind of decline had to be [handled very carefully]. You didn’t want to accidentally go shoot a scene that was before and you’re a little too manic, and then your next scene you’re not as manic. He really would remind you. He’d go, “Okay, in this scene, this is when you crack. This is this scene. This is when this gets worse.” So you did that. He had his iPad and he would show you the dailies from a couple days before and be like, “This is what that scene looked like. This is after that. So don’t go too big, because remember you’ve got to kill somebody.” I was like, “Got it. We’re half way. That’s good to know. Kill children. Got it.”
Q: Did anybody, cast or crew, have an adverse reaction to that mirror? We know the mirror wasn’t the real thing, but was there somebody on set that after the lights went out said, “Man, let me get the hell out of here”?
GILLAN: (Laughs) Everybody? I mean, we’re all emotional wrecks.
SACKHOFF: I just took a mirror off the wall in the rental house the other day and locked it in the closet. Yes. I couldn’t sleep at night, found a sugar ant in the bed, and that freaked me out because the sheets were black. They do that in rentals. I don’t know why, which scares me. And so, I’m sleeping and the ant was there and then I was like, “Oh my God, I have to wake up at 4:00 o’clock. This is going to suck.” When I rolled over, the mirror was there and I was like, “Wow, that’s really freaking me out. I’ll go on Twitter.” I was on Twitter and everyone was talking about “Oculus” and mirrors, and they’re so excited to see it. It’s so scary. It was right after South by Southwest and they’re like, “It’s the scariest movie ever…blah, blah, blah.” I’m like, okay, great. And then, I’m lying there, and after 15 minutes, I felt like I was such an idiot, but I’m so taking that fucking mirror down. I took it off the wall and I hid it in the closet, and then shut the closet door because God forbid maybe that would stop the ghost if it got out. (Laughter) It’s like a door because that will work. It’s still down.
GILLAN: I didn’t really have an adverse reaction to the mirror. No, I really didn’t. It looks really cool to me actually.
COCHRANE: I thought it was really well done.
GILLAN: Yeah, I sort of want it. Is that weird? That’s maybe really creepy. I would love that in my house.
SACKHOFF: It’s a little freaky.