By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Young actress AnnaSophia Robb first grabbed horror fans’ attention with a key role in 2007’s THE REAPING, though in the decade since, she has made her mark in off-genre fare such as SOUL SURFER, RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN and THE CARRIE DIARIES. Now she’s back in scary territory with Rodrigo Cortés’ DOWN A DARK HALL, and RUE MORGUE got an exclusive chat with her about her terror trips.
In DOWN A DARK HALL, releasing today from Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate and based on the novel by Lois Duncan (I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER), Robb plays Kit, a troubled teenager whose misbehavior gets her sent to remote Blackwood Academy. There, she and her four fellow students fall under the sway of domineering headmistress Madame Duret (Uma Thurman) and begin to discover the school’s sinister secrets. Robb’s heroine role in this eerie modern Gothic (reviewed here) is a change of pace from REAPING, in which she plays Loren, a bayou wild child who appears to be connected to the Biblical 10 plagues afflicting a rural Southern town.
Were you familiar with Lois Duncan’s novel before you did DOWN A DARK HALL?
I wasn’t, but I quickly became familiar with it once I read the script. Rodrigo wanted us to look more toward the screenplay than the book, but I read it anyway, and although it does feel very early-1970s, it’s still a good coming-of-age story about finding yourself and the sort of subconscious terror of becoming an adult, and having to find your own path and not look to authority figures to define you.
Do you see it as more of a coming-of-age story than a horror film?
Well, I think the best horror films and thrillers are all rooted in subconscious fears, so it’s both.
Were you excited to return to horror for the first time since THE REAPING?
I was! Rodrigo is well-versed in this genre, and I loved working with him, and our cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke [THE WITCH]. They worked together to create a beautiful film. It’s very unsettling, and the lighting and visual storytelling are really important. I came at it with a different perspective this time, because I didn’t have a real appreciation for horror films before, since I’m a total scaredy-cat. But I’ve started to watch more; my boyfriend loves them, so I watch them with him in terror! And making this film opened my eyes; I realize how much thought and subtext is put into them, because it’s a real art to make people feel that unsettled.
Kit is a very troubled and angry character; how did you get into her headspace, and maintain sympathy for her?
It was just a matter of accessing a certain part of myself. I did a lot of work with Rodrigo to find the reasons for her anger. Kit feels misunderstood and manipulated and controlled, and those are all things I identified with. I think people, when they’re around 16 or 17, have this desire to be independent and be adults, but they’re on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, and it’s a very tenuous period. I related to a lot of that.
Can you talk about working with your co-stars? Did you bond while filming together on location?
Yes, we shot in Barcelona, and I loved all the girls—and Noah [Silver, who plays music teacher Jules]; we called him one of the girls too [laughs]. It was a true bonding experience, especially because none of us spoke Spanish, and our whole crew was Spanish! But I loved it, and we had so much fun together going out and exploring the city. The filming was pretty intense as well; we did it mostly on stages, and we had these big, beautiful sets. For the fire scenes, we always had the fire department around, and a couple of times we had to evacuate the building because there was too much smoke. We wore smoke masks for a good month and a half, two months. My respiratory system wasn’t so great after the shoot, but I think it’s back to normal now! A lot of the fear you’ll see in my eyes is real, because we were running through flames and dodging falling objects—or not dodging them [laughs]. They were foam, but they’d still hit you!
How about Uma Thurman, who really seems to relish playing her villainous role?
Yeah, doesn’t she? She’s so commanding, and I remember the first time she came on set, I could feel her before I saw her. She showed up in costume, and everything clicked. She had that whole persona down, and the voice. She’s such a smart actress, and really collaborates with the director to find her character, and a sort of movement for her, orchestrating her body in such a way that sets the tone. There’s a way to choreograph yourself like that, and she did it so elegantly.
Where was that impressive house seen in the exteriors?
That was CGI! It was funny; they only built the front steps and the door frame, and everything else was digital. Victor [Molero], our production designer, is so talented. My dressing room was right by the art department, so I would always go in there and see what they were creating. Everything was so detailed and intricate; the floorboards and everything had different patterns and symbolism. There’s a rotunda you’ll see with all these paintings; they had these masterpieces hung on the walls, even though they weren’t real. It was really something to be part of.
Kit becomes a piano prodigy over the course of the film; had you ever played before?
I played for like two weeks when I was a child, but I got a lot of training for this role, and I absolutely loved it. I worked for a couple of weeks in New York, and then almost every day with my piano teacher in Spain. Rodrigo is a pianist, so music is very important to him, and I learned so much. Noah plays piano, so he actually learned all the pieces. I started to learn them, but then we realized I couldn’t look like a virtuoso with a month of training [laughs]. So it was more about choreography, and figuring out how they wanted the shots to look, so I could move my shoulders and arms accordingly to look like I was playing.
Do you think DOWN A DARK HALL has a message about young people being pushed to overachieve?
I think there are elements of that. I don’t think that’s the main message, but it’s definitely there, and also the idea of, do you really love it? Just because it’s bringing you success and praise from authority figures, is that what brings you joy or fulfillment?
What are your memories of making THE REAPING in Louisiana? I imagine it was a different experience, since you were mostly outdoors on location.
Hurricane Katrina happened while we were shooting that film, and about halfway through, they had to evacuate the whole crew. A lot of the crewmembers’ houses were flooded, and I remember the studio taking good care of everybody. But they had a hard time finishing, because all the generators and everything had to go to FEMA. Everybody really bonded by the end, because there was so much tragedy. But they continued to film, and everybody still had a job, which was very special, because a lot of projects moved away after that. Filming has returned to Baton Rouge and New Orleans since then, but it was a unique time.
Did you enjoy playing the scary kid in that movie?
Yeah, I loved it! I was 11, and I got to run around barefoot the whole movie, and they just dirtied me up. I would go into the hair and makeup trailer every day, and they’d apply dirt all over me. We had a lot of stunts in that film, and there’s the scene with all the locusts flying around—one of the 10 plagues—and I think it took about a week to film that whole sequence. There’s this bug in the south called the lovebug, and they’re everywhere a certain time of year, and by chance, it was lovebug week, so there were bugs everywhere anyway!
You mentioned you get too scared watching horror movies, but is there anything you find appealing about making them as an actress?
There are a lot of great horror films, and I’m just starting to find my way and become more interested in them. I just took a Japanese cinema class in school, and I found out there are so many great Japanese horror films, so that’s something I need to start watching more of. But they do give me nightmares!