If someone told you the film you were about to watch followed a couple of Satanists preying on a pregnant woman, you probably wouldn’t picture the cast of Anything for Jackson—or the surprisingly tender dynamic that plays out between them. Following Audrey (Sheila McCarthy) and Henry (Julian Richings), an older couple mourning the tragic loss of their grandson, the film centres around the “reverse exorcism” the couple tries to perform on the unborn child of Shannon Becker (Konstantina Mantelos), a pregnant woman they’ve kidnapped and chained up in their home. What follows are spirits and scares galore—but also a surprising amount of heart.
The brainchild of director Justin G. Dyck and writer Keith Cooper (read our interview with them here), Anything for Jackson only came to fruition after the duo spent a decade cutting their teeth in the world of Christmas movies. And while it’s not exactly a holly-jolly watch, it’s certainly got enough snow to justify adding it to your holiday watchlist. It was filmed in Canada, after all.
To celebrate the release of Anything for Jackson on Shudder, we caught up with stars McCarthy, Richings, and Mantelos to discuss unconventional (anti-)heroes, accidental method acting, and a very Canadian approach to horror. Here’s what they had to say.
SCREAM: When we spoke to Justin and Keith a few weeks ago, they mentioned that they had you in mind, Sheila, when they began writing the film—and that they started to think about Julian when writing Henry’s character. What were your first reactions when they brought the story to you both and said, “We think this is perfect for you.”
SHEILA MCCARTHY: Well I was delighted to work with Julian—I’d only done that web series, Whatever, Linda, and we didn’t have too many scenes together. I was thrilled that he was cast, because I thought, “Wow, they’re casting a couple that looks the same. We’ll look like brother and sister!” [Laughs] We had so much fun. You go into these projects and there’s a wild script, and it’s really nice to have an ally that you’ve worked with. So that meant a lot to me that Julian was cast.
JULIAN RICHINGS: That’s very nice of you, Sheila—I feel exactly the same way. And to just add to that, in many ways, I look at Henry as kind of a reflex to Audrey. I don’t think of Henry in isolation; I think of him in a long-term relationship where Audrey completes his thoughts sometimes. So it was just so important that we were a couple and we belonged and we felt good about each other.
SM: And to be two old shoes that have been married for 40 years thrust into this calamity with no idea how to get out of it. The idea that we were babes in the woods in this extraordinary situation—we talked a lot about that. The heart of that was really important to both of us.
JR: And our careers, too. We’ve both enjoyed our careers and we’ve done all kinds of different things, but we often haven’t carried the weight of the story together. That’s what’s so great about the writing: it challenges a lot of our assumptions of what a heroic journey—or an anti-heroic journey—is. It extends to Konstantina, too. She is not simply a victim. She has agency, and we are complicated in our relationship to her.
Konstantina, your character spends most of the film chained to a bed. Were you nervous or intimidated when you read that in the script?
KONSTANTINA MANTELOS: It presented a really great actor challenge, honestly. It was sort of a challenge and a treat at the same time, because I didn’t have to imagine the circumstances that I was in—I was literally chained to the bed. I had the heavy pregnancy belly on me, and I was in this space with all this stuff happening around me. So that really helped me to immerse myself in the world of the film and feel what it was like for Shannon to be experiencing everything from this one vantage point and just trying to process it. Everything she was doing was about “How am I going to get out of this situation and who are these people and what am I going to do?” All these things are being thrust at me and I’m just trying to get by in these manacles. So it was a treat to work with, I think.
SM: There was almost a sense of domesticity in those scenes—that this is just our world now. We just have this little girl locked up in our attic and we’re going to deal with it. Kindness isn’t the right word, but there was a sort of softness about her being there and a normalcy that we tried to create. Which is pretty horrific. [Laughs]
KM: It was almost like the world of the set emulated the world of the film. Obviously I was allowed to get up and go whenever I needed or wanted to. But there were a lot of times, like between takes, where it was like, “You know what? It’s easier if I just stay here.” And so the crew started to take care of me the way that Sheila and Julian do in the film. They dote on Shannon, even in the film, because they’re not bad people in some ways. They’re really trying their best here; they have certain values that they’re trying to uphold, regardless of the situation they’re in.
JR: I like the fact that there are quirky things about that. Normally, you have a morality that’s hidden in a horror film. So for instance, Shannon being pregnant and not knowing who the father is—that’s sometimes seen as an issue for judgment or retribution. That’s not the case in this film. That is never questioned. In fact, we become her surrogate parents and we want the best for her, but for the wrong reasons completely. That’s where it’s kind of distorted and interesting, I think: there’s no avenging crazy force out for social retribution—we’re bringing it on ourselves.
SM: And we’re dealing with the big theme of grief in this film, which is wonderful. Walking that line between horror and grief is a rarity. The Orphanage, the Spanish film, was one of those few films where you’re terrified and crying at the end, and that’s what we were hoping to get with our little movie.
Sheila, Julian, how did you work together to bring that sense of humanity and history to your characters?
SM: We hung out a lot, didn’t we Julian? When you’re on a movie, there’s so much time between scenes, especially with all the special effects. There was a lot of downtime where we just, honestly, got very comfortable. It wasn’t hard to get very comfortable with each other and accept the conceit that we are doing this for love—we are doing this to fill the void in our lives and to bring our grandson back. There was never any question, as two actors, that we thought we were doing the wrong thing. We were always doing the right thing.
JR: Always the right thing—for each other as well. That was very important. Also, as actors, it was always about “we” as a couple, rather than, “Oh, well this is Sheila’s scene and this is my scene.” It was, “I’m out of the room, so you have to look after Becker and make sure that everything’s okay, and I’ll go to the office.” There was a sense of a strategy in the way that we approached the whole filming of it, too.
It felt very natural. People ask that question, and I think it’s also our own history. You know, we’ve brought up children, we’ve had long-term relationships, and it’s just channelling that, really.
SM: You never plan that chemistry that all three of us had together. It’s just wonderful when it happens. It doesn’t always happen. And we were thrust into this. This is not a big-budget film, and it was a lot of hanging around in this old movie theatre, freezing cold, COVID looming in as we shot. We were in the trenches together.
It does feel like a very natural relationship. But one thing that was less natural was the spirits in the film. What was it like to film those scenes—especially for you Konstantina, dealing with the Suffocating Ghost (Troy James)?
KM: Just like the shackles, it was all part of the fabulous immersion, because there were so few visual effects done on the film. A lot of it was practical effects, the costuming and all that. And then, of course, Troy—that was all him. I can’t imagine being able to do what he’s able to do, because he would just waltz in and be like, “Okay, so what are you thinking? I could do a little bit of…” And then he’d kind of bend backwards and scuttle away, and we’d all shriek! You don’t have to pretend when that’s happening in front of you.
But they were also careful and generous with us. Troy would be backwards and clambering on me, and then we’d call cut and he kind of reset into normal mode and he’s like, “I’m so sorry, I think I might have nudged your arm a little, are you okay?” And I’m like, “You just twisted your neck back—are you okay?” [Laughs]
JR: Truly Canadian film through and through.
SM: It’s so much fun when you’re shooting this stuff. There’s a lot of laughing—we’re not scared. And the beauty of the simplicity of a child in a little white sheet behind the door: that is so unnerving and terrifying. You can do million-dollar effects, but that can be scarier than anything, I think.
JR: And the house, too. The actual house that we shot in is Keith’s house, so we were utilizing all the resources that we had. He knew it intimately, and he wrote scenes for it specifically, like with the ghosts that we’re talking about.
SM: I remember Keith’s father coming in in the middle of a scene one day with groceries and he was relegated to the basement. [Laughs]
He didn’t mention that when we chatted! Although he did mention putting paint “blood” through a snowblower to see what would happen—in the middle of a child’s birthday party.
JR: That was in his backyard! So he was able to strategise—and the same with the elevator—and write a sequence knowing about the front door and the elevator. It’s where low budget and collaboration really works.
It came together wonderfully; you wouldn’t know it was a lower budget film looking at it, because it looks beautiful. Sheila and Julian, you’ve both done work in the horror genre before, but Konstantina, this was your first feature-length horror film. What was that experience like?
KM: Yeah, it was certainly a huge treat. Unlike Sheila and Julian, who were kind of on board with this project right from the beginning, I got an audition notice for it. I originally auditioned for a much smaller role in the film—I auditioned for Julian’s secretary. And I remember right off the bat, when I got that audition, I was so excited about the film, because you don’t see stuff like this that often. They already told us that Sheila and Julian were attached, and just reading the description of it, I could picture this thing, and I could see how much fun it was going to be and how much creativity was already thriving in it. So I auditioned for the smaller role, I sent in a tape at the beginning of the year, and then they got in touch with my agents and had me read for Shannon. And the rest was history.
It was such a wild ride. I’ve worked on a lot of smaller independent projects, and when you work on stuff like that, there’s a lot of passion. People are there because they want to create something fabulous. It was such a treat for me for one of my first bigger films that there was the same amount of devotion to the artistry of the thing. You spoke about the quality of the film and how it really doesn’t look like it’s a low-budget film, and I really think that’s owing to the fact that everyone in this film, in every facet, every department, was so excited to be doing it—because we don’t get to do it as often as we’d like here in Canada.
JR: To add to that, I think what’s so cool about it is that there was expertise and professionalism from everybody—specifically Justin at the helm as a director. He knows what he wants because he spent so much time banging out Christmas movies that are a very specific formula and to a very particular budget. He’s also really clear about how to shoot to edit, so there were no extra scenes like, “Well, let’s see if this works.” It was very, very clear, so we could focus on everything. There was the sense that it was fast-moving but really well directed, well managed. And it was kind of an added bonus that it was on the backs of experience doing cheesy Christmas stuff.
It feels like this is the movie Justin and Keith were always meant to make. I know they’re both fans of the genre—do you consider yourselves horror fans?
SM: I’m terrified of them. But when you see a good one, like The Orphanage or Get Out, I often think, “Why am I watching this? Love it.” You know, that whole terror-fascination with horror movies. They’re hard to do. It’s just that fine line. For me, there’s a handful of really great ones out there, and then a lot of schlock. But they’re still fun to do!
JR: I enjoy watching them. I love the genre—I like the idea that there is a ready-made body of work that people can pile on. There’s a big independent horror film community here in Canada, and a lot of people cut their teeth on it, which means that there’s varying quality—normally great ideas, but the execution is limited by budget, sometimes, and experience. But I’m always excited to be a part of it, and I feel that the Canadian film industry is being rejuvenated by a lot of people coming through horror. It also presents an alternate reality to mainstream ideals of the perfect house, the perfect relationship; it’s generally the terror that lurks beneath, and I like that—I like that kind of subversiveness. So, I like horror not so much from the bumps and the jolts, but from the alternate standpoint of society. The fact that Sheila and I can be hero and heroine or whatever we are—whether we’re anti-heroes, I don’t know what we are, I don’t even want to define it—but that it gives us that voice.
SM: A good story is a good story. A good story, in whatever genre it is, is a good story. When you get that in your hand, it’s, there’s nothing like it.
KM: Yeah, Julian makes a good point. I think that what I love so much about horror films is that a lot of times, there’s a lot of really clever metaphor to the monstrous that we’re seeing—especially some of the new films that are coming out like Midsommer and The Witch and Hereditary. The horrific things in these films are meant to support and be metaphors for the deeper struggle that we’re facing. And I think as audiences, people respond to that, and it helps us learn how to cope with the real world crap that we’re dealing with. [Laughs] I think it does—I think it shows us how we as people can respond to the horrific.
Absolutely, especially during a time like this. So, what’s next for you all?
SM: During COVID, it’s been a lean year for most actors—certainly theatre actors, film and TV too. It’s been a tough year: we were the first thing to shut down and the last thing to come back. But those Christmas movies are being done—boy, they barely stopped. But I just finished working on an arc on The Good Doctor, an American TV series west of Vancouver. I played an empath, a really interesting character of somebody who feels other people’s emotions through her quite enlarged empathy. So I have morning sickness because somebody has an undiagnosed pregnancy; the head surgeon has PTSD and I’m experiencing heart attack whenever she comes in the room, code red, because of her anxiety. It was a fascinating part to play.
JR: I’ve been very fortunate. I was originally contracted to do a show pretty soon after we finished Anything for Jackson, but of course, COVID hit. But it was already greenlit, so it was easier to get it going once the Maritimes in Canada established a bubble and a specific set of COVID protocols that allowed the film industry to continue. I’m doing a show called Chapelwaite, which is based on Stephen King’s short story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” and in it, I play one of the elders of the town. Because of COVID, it’s been an unusual shoot—I haven’t been back and forth, back and forth, because every time you go to the Maritimes you’re expected to quarantine for two weeks. Obviously a film company can’t cope with sending actors back home and then bringing them in and quarantining them, so I’ve been sort of sitting there. But that in itself has been a lot of fun.
SM: It’s been good for Canadians actually, because the big American projects can’t bring the co-stars up from the States—they just can’t take the time to quarantine. So yay for us. [Laughs]
KM: Yeah. Like Sheila said, it’s a quieter year, but one of my Christmas-movie-of-the-week projects just came out in Canada on Super Channel. It’s called A Christmas Crush. I think in the States and the UK it’s on Amazon Prime now, but in Canada, it just came out. So, just in time for the Christmas season, Konstantina is back!
Probably not chained to the bed in this one, I imagine.
KM: Not so many shackles in this one, no. [Laughs]
JR: By the way, earlier I described them as cheesy Christmas movies. But I’ve certainly done my share of cheesy Christmas movies or whatever you wish to call them.
SM: They’re hugely popular. I think it’s medicine, with the election and COVID.
JR: And our whole industry benefits, as we’ve seen doing Anything to Jackson—that’s on the back of that industry.
Anything for Jackson is now streaming on Shudder in the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)