Chances are, the first time you laid eyes on Pollyanna McIntosh, she was almost unrecognisable beneath a layer of dirt and blood. Her breakout role in Andrew van den Houten’s 2009 film Offspring (based on the novel of the same name by the late Jack Ketchum) saw her playing the Woman, a member of a savage cannibalistic tribe that spoke only in grunts and weren’t too keen on personal hygiene. She reprised this role in 2011’s The Woman, directed by Lucky McKee. More recently, though, she’s been on the other side of the flesh-eating divide, fighting walkers in The Walking Dead. Somehow, despite being a scavenger in a zombie-ravaged world, her character Jadis looks remarkably clean in comparison to her earlier role.
But now that Jadis has swanned off in a helicopter with the badly injured Rick (spoilers), McIntosh is looking for a new challenge. For her feature-length directorial debut, Darlin’, which premiered earlier this year, she decided to return to a character she loves, exploring the Woman in greater depth. Based on a script that McIntosh wrote herself, Darlin’ tackles a number of heady themes, from women’s reproductive rights to gay adoption to scandals within the Catholic church.
Ahead of the East Coast premiere of Darlin’ at What the Fest!? 2019, Scream caught up with McIntosh in New York City to discuss female representation in horror and what it was like stepping back into the Woman’s mud-caked skin a decade later.
SCREAM: Thanks so much for speaking to us.
POLLYANNA MCINTOSH: Thank you so much for talking to me.
You’ve been making waves in horror for some time now. What attracts you to horror in particular, or is it almost a coincidence that you’ve gone down this path?
If I’m honest, it started off as you say—a coincidence. I just found that some great roles were offered to me in that genre and read some great scripts and went, bloody hell, I hope I get this! The first audition that I ever had in America, for instance, was for Headspace. That was produced by Andrew van den Houten, which led to him sending me a copy of Offspring and asking if I wanted to play the Woman in that. That was the first offer I ever had without having to audition, and that was amazing.
So yes, this story and this history with this world goes back a long way for me. What I’ve found with genre is that with horror, when it’s life and death, you can just make such great drama. Some people I think are snobs about horror because of the gore or death or bloody aspect of it. That is a major part of our human experience and our psychology and our fears, and I think there is a great capacity in horror movies to tell great stories and on bigger themes. That’s been happening since the 70s, probably before that in fact, and some of the stories I’ve loved even though I didn’t think I was a horror fan before I really got into the genre as an actor have been horror. You know, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, The Wizard of Oz I consider a horror movie and Lucky [McKee] would agree with me on that. Frankenstein—what an incredible book and incredible films! Dracula was always in my imagination as a child, and the devil, because of horror movies.
So actually, I was always into the genre. I just didn’t really realise it, because the commercial horror that I was witnessing as I was growing up didn’t really seem to offer me that much. It’s only since I’ve been an actor in the films and have gone to the festivals and seen some truly great independent horror that I’ve really become a true lover of it.
I hear the same thing from a lot of women in horror—they say that it was one of the more welcoming genres when they were first getting into acting or filmmaking. It’s kind of a gateway for a lot of people. Do you think that horror has a particular appeal for women, both as viewers and as actors and filmmakers?
Yeah. Statistically, more women consume horror than men, which I think would surprise a lot of people. And I think that on a very simple level, women in this society have a lot to be afraid of, and fear is something that we live with on a regular basis. So it’s something that’s exciting for us to see explored, and the catharsis of that fear in empowerment or just in confronting it through watching horror films is probably something that quite relates to our gender.
And the obvious one as well is that we have a period every month! [Laughs] Most of us are menstruating and so we’re quite familiar with blood, and it’s something that is scary for us, especially at first, but something that we contend with and cope with on the daily. And this is something that we’re not really supposed to talk about—you know, god forbid that it be exposed! There’s that great moment in that film with Jonah Hill [Superbad] where the woman has the period stain on the back of her skirt and she’s dirty dancing with him. I know that’s a male perspective movie, but I just thought that was great and so honest—we’ve all been through a moment like that. I think that we’ve all had to become more comfortable with the gorier side of life, so perhaps that’s another reason.
Horror has a reputation for mistreating women, and there are certainly a lot of films that I find difficult to watch or that I don’t choose to watch because I feel it’s objectification or eroticised violence or crappy character development. But you can say that about every single genre, of course—that’s the society we still are working on. And again, there have been some thrillingly exciting female characters in the genre, and a lot of them written by men. The most obvious one is Alien—we still talk about Sigourney Weaver’s performance in that and Ripley as a character. I hope that there will be more and more characters like that. I hate the “final girl” term and I hate the “scream queen” term, but I love that there have been women in horror doing exciting and weird things for years and I’m glad to be a part of that.
Speaking of women, we have to talk about Darlin’. Obviously that’s the next chapter for the fascinating characters originally created by Jack Ketchum [the pen name of Dallas Mayr]. How did you approach continuing their stories after the author sadly passed away?
I was lucky enough to be writing the piece when Dallas was still alive, and with his full blessing. It was unusual in this series in that Offspring was written by Ketchum as a book and then as a screenplay, The Woman was co-written by Lucky and Ketchum together, and then Darlin’ is me on my own. But it was really important for me that he felt it was still a homage to his world, because Darlin’ and the Woman and Peggy who all feature in the film were of course characters created either by him or by him and Lucky. He came to visit the set in December, the month before he passed away, and he had the biggest smile on his face and was loving it. I was so glad that he made the trip—a difficult trip with his health—from New York to Baton Rouge, Louisiana where we were shooting.
I’d say that it was definitely a little bit intimidating to be taking on the third part of a franchise I so respected, especially following The Woman which I think is an amazing movie and the filmmaking is so finely wrought. It’s up to the audience now whether I’ve done a good job, but I feel good about it.
You were pulling double duty this time as one of the lead actresses while also being behind the camera. Was it hard to bring the same raw energy and ferocity to the Woman’s character when you had those dual priorities you had to attend to?
I was so lucky in that it is difficult to split your head between acting and directing, but I think because I’ve written it, that helped. I found this before when I made a 35-minute short based on the first act of a feature script I wrote called Perfect, which is a very different movie, it’s a dark comedy, and I was playing the lead in that. It was odd. It was only a week before we started shooting that I went, oh yeah, and I’ve got to prepare for the role! But I think because I’d written it, I knew exactly who this person was and what she was going through and what she wanted.
And it was the same with the Woman [in Darlin’]. I’m lucky enough to have been through that character twice and to feel her in my bones. She was there with me when I was writing it and she was there with me on set. Luckily not quite as ferociously when I was directing!
I think the funniest part of it was being in all that makeup and nails and teeth, and even with the wig off you look pretty scary. I would forget that I looked like that and I’d be directing children and they’d be timid, and I’d think why are they afraid of me? I’m nice! Then I’d realise oh yeah, I have really bad teeth and basically a makeup mask of dirt. There’s something about the hiding of the features that really creeps people out, which is great because that’s what it’s supposed to do.
I think it was a benefit that I come from an acting background and that I was in the film because it makes everyone feel like we’re in it together, and we were. So were there challenges? I’d say the main challenge, the only challenge I can really think of, is time. Because that makeup takes a lot of time and I need to be there for crew, not for actors’ arrival. Factoring in that extra hour and a half for makeup was difficult on an already very tight schedule. There were a couple of days when I did it myself to ensure I wasn’t making the crew do such a turnaround, but that’s a whole other story. [Laughs]
I can just imagine you in your bathroom putting the make-up on and getting ready to drive.
Just the filthiest hotel room floor you could imagine.
The other challenge was not being able to watch my takes from the monitor. But again, the benefit was you’re in the scene with the other actors, so at least you know you’ve got the same perspective on their performance. You’ve just got to hope your own is going to stand up.
The character of the Woman has changed so much across the franchise. You were the aggressor in Offspring, then the victim in The Woman, and now you’re almost this devoted mother character in a strange way.
Well, yes and no. I mean, I think that the character of the Woman has actually remained the same throughout. The experience that she goes through and the world in which she’s been placed just changed dramatically, and certainly the perspective of how we are to see her. One of the really exciting things about The Woman for me was watching this character going from, like you say, the aggressor to actually being the victim, and I think that’s one of the things that is so brilliant about that film. You’re scared of her but you’re on her side, which is a pretty cool theme for a woman. I do subscribe to the idea that a woman’s power is something that is scary for people and something that we need to embrace all the more because of that, because that’s something that needs to be dispelled.
She is a devoted mother character to Darlin’ in this, and there is love there—there’s a bond and a connection. But she’s still, hopefully, scary as hell. She wants what she wants and she’ll get what she wants. Her parenting is a little different from the ideal, though not, unfortunately, from the way a lot of us are with kids.
I know that when The Woman first screened at Sundance it got some mixed reactions and some really ruffled feathers. Do you think that Darlin’ is going to be similarly divisive for audiences?
So far, it has been a little bit divisive with audiences—well, with critics. The only audience members I’ve heard from are those that absolutely loved it. But luckily, the ones who don’t like it probably aren’t going to be coming up to me as much. And that’s fine—it’s not a movie that I wrote for everybody to love. I mean, you hope. But it’s not a typically commercial movie so there are going to be people who don’t like it.
I think it’s divisive in the sense that—from what I’m seeing so far, and this is only after South by Southwest—a lot of people say how nuanced and how sincere and how tender and touching a lot of it is, which adds to their enjoyment of the gore and the horror part of it, and that the two worlds meld really well. And the other half say that the tone changes too much and that it feels like one movie that the Woman’s in and another movie that Darlin’s in.
So it seems to divide people in their opinion in that regard, certainly the critics. Luckily, enough have been loving it that I don’t feel too bashed about. But I think it’s such a female perspective that it’s going to be really exciting for some people, and for other people probably quite maddening. We had one reviewer who acted like all these women’s issues were so annoying. That was the undertone of the whole review and I thought, well, fucking deal with it dude because it’s coming at ya. It’s time.
I have found that as a female horror fan, my perspective on films is often quite different from men. And it’s exciting to bring that female perspective and talk about it.
That’s the thing with this place we’re in. I feel like it’s not a fight, it’s a conversation. What I’ve found with a lot of predominantly male collaborators in film is that, as an actress who is not supposed to have a say in this and that and whatever, when I’ve spoken up about writing, they’ve been extremely collaborative with me. In most cases, they’ve gone oh, I didn’t look at it that way.
I think a lot of it is lack of understanding rather than any kind of hatred. A lot of people don’t perceive themselves to be sexist, and why would they? They’re living in a male-dominated world. The world is designed, from architecture to movies, from a male perspective and for a male audience. Statistically, women are more likely to go along and see a film with a man that is not their “type” of film, but men are less likely to go along and see something that they perceive to be female.
So-called “women’s films.”
Exactly, like it’s something weak and silly and beneath them. The whole point of this time is to shine a light on that and say, look at what’s really going on in your head—you are thinking that females are worse than, lower than, and that’s not who you want to be or how you want to see things, but you’ve been conditioned through society. Work with us. We’ll get there together.
When it feels like a battle, people really start freaking out. The backlash to the Me Too Movement is a great example of that. But it doesn’t need to be that way. We’re not trying to take anything away from men—we’re trying to get involved with them in the sandpit of life.
While we’re on the topic of changing perspectives, it’s been almost a decade since the Woman’s character first hit the big screen. Do you think that audiences are as easily shocked these days as they perhaps were when Offspring first came out?
Offspring was a little more traditional, and I think I’m not doing any disservice to Andrew [van den Houten] by suggesting that. It’s more of a seventies-style slasher movie, and it does have more traditional gender roles, other than the Woman being the aggressor in it.
I think the problem with The Woman was that a lot of people didn’t see it and wrote about how it was a shocker and how it was anti-women, interestingly enough. A lot of the people who wrote those things hadn’t seen it, they were just responding to that guy at Sundance who stood up and protested the film just before poor Lucky had to go up and do the Q&A. I call him Angry Man. And Angry Man did us a great service, ironically, because it meant we got a lot more press than we would have done.
Absolutely. I heard about it all the way over in Scotland back in the day. I don’t think I would have done otherwise.
Right? It’s not often that a film can make someone stand up in the theatre and suggest burning the film. Like I say, if you make a movie from the heart, sometimes it’s going to piss people off. I think that’s exactly what Lucky was doing and what the man reacted to was exactly what the movie is trying to admonish. It’s just that Lucky doesn’t do it in a didactic way, and so you really have to be watching and be smart to know what’s coming at you and why.
I think that you’re probably right that we’re less shockable these days. But funnily enough, what I was hearing from other filmmakers is that the millennial vibe is more PC, and I think if The Woman came out now it would have the same reaction—in fact, it would have it even more so. But I think it’s a misplaced reaction.
A lot of these reactions do seem to come from people who’ve just seen a trailer for something and haven’t seen the film. Even with the female Ghostbusters film, it was the trailer that pissed people off.
And Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty. People were furious about that. Which is the opposite of what she was doing, you guys! Calm down. Watch the movie.
It’s a clickbait society right now. They say if it bleeds, it leads, so if something bad happens it just gets around much more. I think Darlin’ is probably less of a gory horror than The Woman is. But what I’m hearing is, a lot of men and definitely all women who’ve watched it who I’ve heard from had a very horrific horror experience with it and felt in that world with it. But some people say, oh it’s not really a horror movie.
Sometimes less is more with the gore. It’s the visceral horror behind it that really gets under your skin.
We had another reviewer say there were kills in the first half of the movie every second scene. Which again, is totally not true. It just depends on what you’ve watched and what you’re used to. So some people say it’s full of it and some people say it’s not enough.
Other than Ketchum’s original work, what were some of your main influences for the film?
You know, I really love the films of the late sixties and early seventies. I love the saturation of colour, I love the character development. There were films made then that would never be funded now but which are just so brilliant, like 3 Women, which influenced me massively.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rosemary’s Baby [were all influences]. I make this comparison in Rosemary’s Baby, the Devil is taking over a woman’s body, and in Darlin’ it’s the church taking over a woman’s body, which to me is far more realistic and scary. So what I’m basically saying is that I’ve done a better job than Rosemary’s Baby. No, I’m kidding! [Laughs] But yeah, those films were an influence on me. What I didn’t realise until later is that Kill Bill was a massive influence on me, too. I rewatched it after the fact and went, oh yeah, there’s definitely some Kill Bill in there. It’s one of my favourite films.
I love John Waters as well, I’m a huge John Waters fan. He’s so bold and brave and gets under the skin and makes very personal films. His characters can be outlandish and he’s not afraid of brutality. He’s not afraid of shock, because he doesn’t look at it that way. I think his films are often a wake-up call, even just to our sense of humour to not take ourselves so fucking seriously.
I call Darlin’—and I like this because I think it’s true—one half kitchen sink drama and one half garbage disposal. That sounds like it’s half garbage. [Laughs] I mean the toothy part of the garbage disposal!
So what’s coming up for you next? I know that you’re working on a segment for the upcoming anthology horror film Deathcember. Can you give us any teasers about your segment?
I wonder what I’m allowed to say… It is set in a cabin in the snow, very Christmassy, and it’s about a guy who’s trying to escape the commercialism of Christmas. But it’s gonna get him in the end…
I’m really looking forward to finishing it. So far I’ve only shot the snow exteriors to get the weather sorted before it changes, and I’m going to shoot the interiors at the beginning of May. I’ve cast my boyfriend as the lead.
It will be interesting to see if he dies horribly in the short, what does that say?
I know! He seems very calm about the whole thing. He doesn’t know that I’m really going to do the things to him… [Laughs]
I’d love to talk a little bit about The Walking Dead, which was obviously such a major role for you. AMC has teased that we’re going to find out what happened to your character and Rick in some spin-off movies. When you first joined that project, did you know that’s what was going to happen?
I had no idea. I joined as a recurring guest star for three to four episodes. I think we ended up doing five. And then we got the call saying, would you like to be a season regular? I was like, what?! It was just amazing.
It hasn’t been an overnight thing for me, having a steady career. I’ve been doing this a long time. It has been the thing that, just as The Woman did, made such a change for me in the business—The Walking Dead has taken it to another level, and the reach of the show is incredible. It’s such a special show and one that I love so much as an audience member, and I just feel so lucky that the job that has given me stability and wider recognition and the chance to do more work is this show that I also really, really love. That’s just a lucky ideal that you can’t really imagine as an actor.
I never expected to be on a show that was this big for this long, and it wasn’t even something I dreamed of, because so many of the bigger shows are not necessarily the most interesting. But The Walking Dead stands out as such a nuanced show, and it’s been fab. I love working with that family, so I hope it continues. I’d be very much up for it.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)