By ROCCO T. THOMPSON
Best known to fright fans for her work in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and James Wan’s first two Insidious films, Oscar-nominated actress Barbara Hershey makes her return to Blumhouse this month in Axelle Carolyn‘s THE MANOR. An installment in the Welcome to the Blumhouse film series, THE MANOR stars Hershey as Judith Albright, a woman who, after suffering a mild stroke, moves to Golden Sun Manor, an assisted living facility with a spotless reputation. Before long, Judith is witnessing strange occurrences and having disturbing visions that convince her that a malevolent force has also taken up residence in the facility, but the staff, her friends, and even her grandson (Nicholas Alexander) dismiss her paranoia as a symptom of dementia. With no one to believe her, Judith must combat the demons residing in the manor, or fall victim herself to their evil influence.
We sat down with Hershey to discuss her career, relationship with Blumhouse, and how her perspective as a woman of a certain age in Hollywood influenced her work in THE MANOR.
You’re one of the most highly regarded of the roster of actors in the Blumhouse stable. What keeps you coming back?
[Laughs] Well, they make a lot of movies for one thing, and they don’t seem to be adverse to hiring me, so those are two good reasons right there. I also think they’re doing some really inventive work. I love the opportunity, giving young filmmakers and unknown filmmakers and minority filmmakers, and I love that they’re using their power in this way, which I really appreciate and think is great of them. So, I’m very happy to work with them.
You’re obviously something of a genre icon with your work in Insidious, Black Swan, and The Entity before that. But do you consider yourself a horror fan?
Psychological horror, yes. Not the blood and guts horror, that’s not for me. But the psychological horror I love. And I think that we’re built for fear, human beings, even animals, in general. I mean, on a real basic level, we’re equipped to deal with fear. And in our own lives, if we don’t have it, we create it, and the horror, like riding on a roller coaster, gives you a chance to experience fear without it hurting you, without hurting anyone. I think it can be very satisfying on that level for an audience. There’s something about us that craves it, and it’s like this arena where we can experience it. So, I like it on that level, too, but I like all kinds of films. I mean, I’m not just a genre actress or genre viewer. I like all kinds.
Is the prep you do as an actress for this type of film similar or different to work that goes into a non-genre film?
It’s the same work. But that said, I don’t prepare in the same way for every film, because some films are far away from me. I have to go through a whole process to get there to a truthful place, and some are closer to me. It’s more of just inhabiting the character. In this case, I got into the physical part, what it means to have a stroke, and also, she has the beginning of Parkinson’s, which is why she’s in a rest home or a nursing home, because it’s a progressive disease. I wanted to explore these things because I was ignorant about them, but also because I didn’t want to act them. I wanted it to be under the surface. I don’t want to hit the audience in the face with it. It’s not about that. But at the same time, it had to be present. I had a personal experience with dementia, my mother had it. I witnessed firsthand how painful it is, and how painful it is not to be believed, which really bothered her. And so, as these things start happening to Judith, I don’t know what’s worse, the monster outside of you or the monster inside of you. Both [are] horrific. So, I had to explore all of that. But I think again, here’s horror, it’s fun to have these issues, the issues of aging, how older people are treated, all those things under the surface but covered with a horror film and covered with humor, because I loved the irreverence of the character and how she was so snarky and fun and swore. I just loved her as a character, her vitality, her lifeforce. So that was all great. It is wonderful to find a vehicle where you could explore issues but at the same time have fun. It was a great combination.
Were you on board as soon as you read the script, or did it take any convincing?
I was in as soon as I read the script. First of all, I like the character, I had never played a character like her. And I liked the movie itself. I was surprised by it. I was surprised by the ending. It was a provocative ending. I hope not unsatisfying. People seem to react positively to it, but it’s a question mark, “What would you do? Would you do this? Would you go this direction?” It was really intriguing to me, and I like that.
“I’m not afraid of aging. I’m afraid of other people’s reaction to my aging.”
THE MANOR is a lot about aging, as you said, and as a woman in this industry who is known for her beauty, how did this speak to you specifically? Did it present any challenges for you?
Yeah, it’s a delicate thing, only in that I always say that I’m not afraid of aging. I’m afraid of other people’s reaction to my aging. The boxes that our industry puts people in, and our society puts people in, are dangerously inaccurate, [I’ll] put it that way. If you’re healthy and you’re vital when you get older, you’re just older. You’re the same version of yourself. You’re older. You know more. You have more fun. I have more fun now than I did. Everyone is always talking about the downside, and movies seem to reflect a certain kind of people, the ending of a life, very often. And I thought this was a great chance to break down some of that prejudice, because you’re still vital and sex still matters and all those things. Life isn’t over. It’s just a different chapter.
Female directors continue to be underrepresented in the industry. Have you had any notable experiences working with female directors? What did Axelle bring to the table here that made her unique in her perspective?
I have worked with some female directors [and] I’ve always loved it, but I don’t like to think of directors in terms of that. I can’t wait for the day when it’s just “a director.” [It] doesn’t matter what race they are or what sex they are – just hire the best person. We’re all human beings. That said, I’m glad to see women getting a chance, and Axelle is very invested and very visual. She has strong visual impulses and she’s a complete horror goofball! I mean, she dresses [with] skeletons hanging on her. She is so, so into horror. It’s just wonderful, and that kind of enthusiasm for it just really permeated the set. She’s a horror nerd. She knows everything, every movie. On Halloween, she came dressed [up] and the whole crew came dressed [up]. Here I’m doing these kinds of heavy scenes and I look up and there’s monsters all over the place! [Laughs] It was really fun. She was great.
A big focus of the film is your relationship with your character’s grandson. Can you tell us a bit what it was like to work with Nicholas Alexander?
He’s very naturalistic, which really is great. We hit it off. That relationship is the center of the film to me. He is everything to her. She lives for him. It’s a love story between them really, honestly. We didn’t have any prep time. This is a low-budget film [with] no rehearsal, so, we met once with Axelle in a restaurant and then just got into it. Immediately, it was easy between us and that stuff you always hope for, but you never know! [Laughs] That chemical thing really happened between us. So, really, I had an affection for him, still do.
You’re no stranger to sharing the screen with FX work, but were the supernatural elements present in THE MANOR different from what you’ve had to contend with previously?
Well, Axelle had practical stuff, which I really appreciate, [as someone] who knows CGI. I got to react to a real creature and witness real things happening. It makes my job a billion times easier to have something real to react to. I mean, in The Entity, I had to react to nothing the whole film. That was a real challenge. So, this was much, much better for me.
How do you hope audiences respond to THE MANOR?
I hope it breaks down a bit of the barriers of prejudice against older people. I do. That we don’t have this cookie-cutter image that Hollywood tends to paint. We’re just older versions of ourselves, and we should be approached that way. You look at a series I admired a lot and was addicted to, Game of Thrones. They had characters of all ages and really young kids and they had really old people and you cared about them all. None of them turned off the audiences. So, I think older people are worthy to have films about them. It doesn’t mean that younger people wouldn’t be interested.
THE MANOR will debut on Amazon Prime October 8th, 2021.