Further to our interview with Evan Spiliotopoulos, writer and director of the Screen Gems and Sam Raimi-produced The Unholy, we also sat down with Cricket Brown who plays Alice Pagett, the film’s pivotal character.
Based on James Herbert’s 1983 novel “Shrine”, and starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Katie Aselton, William Sadler, Diogo Morgado, and Cricket Brown, The Unholy tells the story of Alice Pagett, a young deaf-mute girl who is suddenly able to hear, speak … and also heal the sick after supposedly receiving a visit from the Virgin Mary. As the news spreads, Alice’s New England home town becomes ablaze with publicity and a disgraced journalist (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) sets about investigating the hysteria in the hopes of reviving his career. But, as shocking occurrences start happening, he starts to question whether these phenomena are the works of the Virgin Mary or something much more sinister.
Ahead of the film’s release this Friday, March 2nd, SCREAM caught up with the promising young actress, Brown to find out how she made this giant leap from an Off-Broadway show to her first major feature film and how she laid down the gauntlet to nail such a challenging role that explores themes of religious ecstasy, mass hysteria, demonic possession, faith healing and media savvy supernatural entities…
This is your first role in a feature film after having performed in an off-Broadway show and a number of short films. How did you get the part? The cast and crew alike were gob smacked and said you were more professional than even the most veteran actors on set.
That’s really nice of them to say that. I was just auditioning a lot at the time. It was just a few months after I had graduated from Conservatory and this audition came up and I just tried to give it my time. They responded to my first tape pretty quickly and then I just had a few more rounds of auditions before I finally found out that they’d booked it but I really couldn’t tell you what they saw in me to play Alice. But once I did get to actually learn the role, I agreed with them in the sense that I fit pretty well.
This is a particularly challenging role to dive into, not just for a recently graduated actor, but for any actor because of the journey that she goes through from being hearing impaired to suddenly being able to hear, speak and also now heal others.
This character is kind of an actor’s dream in the sense that I was able to do a lot of magical and mystical things. Her circumstances are really heightened and really supernatural but the scene where I hear and speak for the first time was definitely the scene that I was most worried about and had the most fear about in terms of playing it truthfully. I had to prep some kind of body knowledge of what it is like to speak through American Sign Language and be inaudible. I watched a lot go things and stuck mainly to YouTube as there’s a wealth of information on these communities of people with different abilities online. It would have been my goal to work with people in person but it was a busy time for me so I stuck to YouTube and just tried to really just listen to people’s experiences of what it was like to gain hearing or gain speech and see the kind of emotional diversity that people experienced when those senses came back to them. There was really no one specific way that people responded so that gave me a kind of freedom in those moments to really be in my body on the day of filming and see what came up and also trusting that the story and all of the circumstances were in place to help me tell that moment.
And in terms of the religious themes, the book the film is based on dates back to 1983 but this adaptation combines religion with the advent of the internet and social media. How did you approach this combination when it came to your character spreading her message to the rest of the world?
That was something that came up in later drafts of the script with themes of fandom and prophetisation. That made me very uncomfortable because it’s just a weird thing to happen. But it does happen and the way that Evan (Spiliotopoulos) and I worked together on that was that he shared a lot of information and movies with me before I got to set about healings and visions occurring across the world over time. I’m thinking of Lourdes and Fátima and these places where women have claimed that they saw the Virgin Mary and were healed by her. I gained a lot of information from these cases because they actually happened.
And then in terms of the social media aspects, it just felt like something that could happen today so that was a pill I had to swallow. As gross as it all sounds, it does feel completely applicable to 2020/2021.
Evan said that he doesn’t want his audience to feel frightened OF you but rather he wants us to feel frightened FOR you. That must have played on your mind a lot whilst filming.
That’s such a great point because a lot of times when my family members have been seeing the trailer or they don’t quite know the story, they’re like, “I’m so scared of you! I don’t want you to be a demon.” What they don’t understand is that my character is never actually the “bad guy” in the story and there is a really amazing part of the movie where Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Natalie (Katie Aselton) realise that my body is actually in real danger. That was a really powerful moment for me to see from the film and it’s really something I got from the script and James Herbert’s book. In the book, my character is a little more demonic but I’ve always read her with a lot of sympathy in the sense that she is really a puppet that is trying her best and genuinely loves her family and community but is being tapped into by an evil spirit. So I love that point that my character is actually in more danger than she is causing.
Getting to work with special effects that Sam Raimi helped to design must have been quite an experience?
That was really cool. It was mostly an up-and-coming actress, Marina Mazepa. She is originally a body movement contortionist who was hired to play out the really fantastical demon-like movement so Marina was really playing out all these scenes that I was playing out alongside her. And it was really crazy to see the special effects makeup that they were putting on her. She wore this entire full-faced mask and demon hands and every take they would come in to do touch-ups on her makeup but it was really cool to have a human being under that as someone I could communicate with and really work off and it wasn’t entirely CGI. I was really excited that Evan thought to bring talent like that into the space because it brought so much to the performance.
I know that filming was shut down halfway through because of the pandemic. It can’t have been easy having to sit on the material, waiting to get back into character? At the same time, I imagine the fact that the pandemic affected us on global scale and your character’s story reaches the whole world must have affected the way you read Alice once you got back on set?
Absolutely! It was such a hard dichotomy because I was kind of sad to get back to work as it was a huge risk and really hard to pull off, asking so many people to put their health and safety or socialisation on the line. We really had to bubble in quarantine. But at the same time, it was such a joy to go back to work and see a team come together collectively to make it happen. There was a whole new kind of gratitude and awe that permeated through the set, along with fear and anxiety and quietness. It was definitely a different vibe on set coming back but it was filled with gratitude and commitment because we were all there to finish the story together.
Words: Howard Gorman