By SHAWN MACOMBER
When Luke Hemsworth was 14 years old, he lived in a house with windows so thin they’d shake and pop and flex whenever the wind got its gust on. No big deal on its own–we’re talking Australia, after all–but one night while his parents were out, THE EXORCIST came on television, and suddenly, as Pazuzu worked his infernal magic, those ordinary home sounds took on a different feeling.
“I remember just being petrified and sleeping with the lights on for weeks,” Hemsworth tells RUE MORGUE. “I still feel that way. THE EXORCIST scares me to this day.”
Of course, the tingles dark cinema and art send up one’s spine possesses an allure all its own, and soon Hemsworth was thrilling to the exploits of Freddy Krueger, the cosmic madness of sci-fi horror and everything genre in between. Today, a quarter-century later, the reverberations of those experiences are still felt: For example, as Hemsworth chats with us via phone, the loyal dog he adopted from the Linda Blair Worldheart Foundation sits beside him. (“She’s a lovely dog,” he says, adding with a laugh, “She does get a bit of the crazy eyes every now and again, but her head spins around very rarely.”) Then there’s the matter of an acting career which has included memorable turns in the THOR films starring his brother Chris, TV’s acclaimed WESTWORLD and now an affecting, nuanced performance in Darren Lynn Bousman’s DEATH OF ME. This smart, disorienting supernatural shocker (releasing this Friday in select theaters and on VOD/digital platforms) casts Hemsworth and Maggie Q as a couple vacationing in Thailand who must untangle a snare of murder and black magic before an approaching typhoon traps them in an exotic hell forever.
Whereas Hemsworth’s character Neil seeks escape, the movie itself is something of an inspirational homecoming for the actor. “Those types of horror and sci-fi films,” he says, “were a big part of me wanting to be an actor.”
Hemsworth makes the most of the opportunity, achieving–along with Q as his wife Christine–one of the most difficult goals in acting: Authenticity, relatability and charisma amidst utterly surreal circumstances. “I want to be challenged,” he says. “I want to be afraid of what I’m doing. If you don’t go to those sorts of places–if you don’t seek out those experiences for yourself–then as an actor, I believe you’re sort of selling yourself short. So what was attractive to me about this project was that it was different. A different kind of character. A different kind of story. Some of the themes are familiar, yeah, but I hadn’t seen them explored in quite the same way. Then you add Maggie Q and Darren Bousman? It becomes a very interesting exploration.”
If the reality-refracting script by Ari Margolis, James Morley III and David Tish got Hemsworth halfway to that knife’s edge where true art begins, shooting on location in Thailand took him the rest of the way. “I hadn’t actually been to Thailand previously,” he says. “I’d been to Vietnam, and spent a lot of time in Indonesia. So there are a lot of similarities there, and I felt like I’d been in enough situations in those places to know some of what Neil is going through. I mean, even during shooting, the fact that the parallels between the script and our life on set at the time were very apparent, because we were in a place where there were language barriers as well as cultural sensitivities and differences that you had to learn to navigate. And you either navigate them successfully or you piss off a bunch of people. That said, the Thai were very patient with us, mostly, and more than willing to help in every way they could. There was a lot to draw on day-to-day.”
For all the nuance and fire Hemsworth brings to the film, he’s quick to credit Bousman and Q with raising his own performance to the next level. “I was a bit on the fence about it until I met Darren,” the actor admits. “We spoke for about an hour and a half, just over coffee, going through all of our fears and loves. I found him so fascinating, and still do. He’s got a great sense of humor, but his film mind is…immense as well, which is always very comforting. I really think that if it was anyone else, I would’ve had a hard time doing it, as great as the material is.”
As for his co-star, “I was blown away by her. The set was hers, really, and I had no problem supporting her in everything she did because I think she’s fantastic in this. We also had a lot of fun. We ate dinner together a lot, and all those little moments outside of shooting helped to inform that relationship on screen. It really felt as if we’d known each other for a long time beforehand, and we developed a shorthand and an honest affinity that comes through in the film.”
One of the most impressive aspects of DEATH OF ME is not only how smart and sophisticated it is, but how clearly it trusts the audience to also be smart and sophisticated enough to come along as it lays out its clues and traps, letting its dread creep patiently and terrors build naturally. “Good art is often ambiguous,” Hemsworth says. “It rarely has all the answers. As an audience member, you don’t need–or even want–to be told everything. I personally think it’s great to be left with questions–with a way to engage the ideas in a film and bring yourself into it. In a lot of ways, it’s disappointing to have the answer, really. It’s sort of like finding out whether there really is or isn’t a God. Do we really want to know everything? Not me.”