In November 2019, Isabelle Fuhrman began receiving a barrage of text messages from friends, family members and random acquaintances about an episode of “Dr. Phil.” The episode garnered publicity at the time for its bizarre interview with Natalia Grace, a Ukrainian orphan who was adopted by the Barnett family, before being abandoned by them after they claimed she was an adult sociopath masquerading as a child.
“Anybody that I had ever met, people came out of the woodwork messaging me being like, ‘have you seen this?'” Fuhrman tells Variety.
As the interview itself referenced, the situation bore a close resemblance to the plot of “Orphan,” the 2009 Jaume Collet-Serra thriller that featured an 11-year old Fuhrman as Esther, a 9 year-old Russian girl adopted by Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Saarsgard). Initially seeming like a polite, adorable and well-mannered child, Esther quickly begins displaying disturbing and violent behavior, as well as knowledge of culture, sex and philosophy well beyond her years.
Eventually, the film’s famous twist ending reveals that Esther isn’t a child at all, but a 33 year-old Estonian woman with a rare form of proportional dwarfism that causes her to look like a child. As her former psychologist explains to Kate in the film’s bonkers third act, Esther (real name Leena Klammer) has spent her life impersonating a child, worming her way into a string of adoptive families and attempting to seduce the father, before killing everyone in the process. It’s a strange turn, but Fuhrman, in spite of her young age at the time, leans into it and creates a genuinely terrifying and unforgettable horror villain. And although she’s carved out a successful career for herself in the years since, especially in last year’s well-received indie college drama “The Novice,” Fuhrman is still widely associated with the part of Esther.
After the “Dr. Phil” episode premiered, Fuhrman got coffee with the film’s original writer David Leslie Johnson to reconnect. During their talk, Fuhrman asked him if he ever thought about doing a follow-up to the original film, which ended with Esther sinking in a lake to her death. She learned that a sequel script had been written but wasn’t going anywhere. Fuhrman convinced Johnson to pull the script out of development hell, and within a month, William Brent Bell signed on to direct and Entertainment One came aboard to produce.
Once the crew got together, however, one big question remained: would Fuhrman, now in her early 20s and clearly not a little girl, reprise the part of Esther? The studio went through a few different solutions. At first they signed Fuhrman on as a consultant. When they couldn’t find a replacement, they considered using CGI to put the actor’s face on a child, which Fuhrman point blank told them was “just weird.”
“It was actually Brent who put his foot down and was like, ‘I’m only doing it if Isabel is Esther,'” Fuhrman says. “He forced the studio to do a camera test with me where I was standing on my knees and they put my hair in pigtails and it was the weirdest day because it was like height of COVID and I hadn’t been on a set since COVID, and I didn’t know who I was working with. But obviously, it worked.”
So Fuhrman ended up starring in “First Kill,” a prequel to “Orphan” that explores the events that lead to Esther getting adopted by the Colemans. Initially trapped in a mental institution, Esther escapes through a bloody break-out and travels to America by posing as the missing child of the Albrights (Julia Stiles and Rossif Sutherland), worming her way into their wealthy home. Although the premise initially seems similar to the first movie, the screenplay packs plenty of twists throughout, and the now-adult Fuhrman remains a captivating presence as Esther, imbuing the character with real menace, wit and a hint of genuine sadness at her core.
On a zoom call from Switzerland, where she just wrapped filming on the movie “Littlemouth” with her former “Hunger Games” co-star Josh Hutcherson, Fuhrman chatted with Variety about growing up after starring in “Orphan,” revisiting the character as an adult and where the Orphan Cinematic Universe might take her next.
What was it like for you to grow up identified with a character like Esther?
This is going to sound funny, but I think it made me a nicer, friendlier person. When you’re greeted by strangers and their immediate reaction is fear, you really have to overcompensate. I was really fortunate that even though it became this cult classic after it came out on DVD, I was able to have a childhood. To this day, people are like, “Did we go to school together?” And I’m like, “I haunted your nightmares in high school, probably, but we don’t know each other.” It enabled me to have a childhood and a regular normal life, because Esther is so separate and different from me, even though for a very long time that was the role that people knew me by, at least in the industry. It was like that until last year, when I did “The Novice.”
What do you remember about reading the script for the original “Orphan” as a kid?
I read the script before I auditioned for it. I remember it terrifying my mom because she had to read it for me and black out all the curse words. So I had this script with blacked out pieces and I went to my mom’s room after I read it. And I was like, “I kind of understand her,” and my mom was like, “What? What do you understand?” I really saw her as somebody who was just looking for love and obviously not exactly the best way to go about it. But I understood this primal need that she had.
When you started filming, how did you get into character as an 11 year-old, playing a 33 year-old woman?
That was really just doing a lot of research. I would sit and watch my mom and her friends have lunch, I would talk with Vera when we were on set. I had such an incredible support system when I worked on the first movie. Everyone from Jaume to Peter to Vera really took me under their wing and taught me so much about how to treat everybody on set and how to listen to suggestions, how to make things different and fresh each take. I was just a sponge absorbing everything. The tough part, funny enough, during the first one that Jaume had with me was actually getting me to be more childlike. Because I was so concerned with making sure that you can find all these easter eggs when you watch the movie back and see that she was actually an adult. I watch the movie now, I understand what he was saying when when he was giving me direction about certain scenes, playing it younger and more childlike. It was fun doing this movie because I didn’t have to worry about being an adult. I already am. I got to really play and be a kid and play with that part of myself that I don’t know if I really did get to on the first movie.
Walk me through the tricks they did to de-age you in “First Kill.” I know you had one or two body doubles?
We had two girls, Kennedy and Sadie Lee, who worked with me from the beginning to the end of the movie and were Esther from multiple angles. When we started I was like, “Okay, how do I train and coach these kids to be the way that I was Esther in the first movie?” I very quickly realized that, especially with COVID precautions and us not being able to see each other off of work unless we were on set, that it was just not going to be possible to develop that all together as a cohesive unit. So instead, what we started to do is I would play with them on set and see what they were good at. So Kennedy was really good at dancing, so when I’m in the hospital, the beginning of the movie, and I’m trying on the dress, that was Kennedy dancing. I’m a horrible dancer. But it was great because I’m finding these new things about Esther that I can add into her character through these wonderfully talented young women.
I was baffled because they were the same age that I was when I did the first one, and I felt like I was so aware and understood everything that was going on. But when I was having to explain certain scenes to them, like how to caress somebody’s face, the way that it’s supposed to be portrayed, I remember calling Jaume and being like, “How do I do this? Like, you know, you explained this to me in such a great way that it didn’t compromise my youth or my childhood or my perception of the world at that time.” So I really just had to like explain things in the most elementary way.
And then what other tricks went into de-aging?
Looks-wise, that was lighting. We realized you can’t put a ton of makeup on, otherwise you just look like you’re trying to look young. All the tricks that we tried to do with prosthetics to widen my face just didn’t work. I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to eat more bread and just make my face a little bit chubbier.” They made this chair for me to use when I was walking but it didn’t work. Towards the end when we were doing the stunt sequences, we discovered that the butt dolly that our Steadicam and camera operator was using was the perfect thing, because you still had to move your legs. And that was the problem with the original chair, when you’re not moving your legs it’s very hard to make your shoulders look like you’re actually walking. When I saw the movie for the first time I was like, “We actually did it.” Because when you’re on set and Julia Stiles is wearing stripper heels because that’s all she could wear to make herself taller, so I didn’t have to squat for as long, you’re just like “Wow, this was really a team effort.”
Esther is obviously a bad person, but it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her. This film makes it very clear how alone she is in the world. What’s your take on that?
There were original drafts of the first movie, which was so funny to reread after years, where there’s a whole monologue that I had, where I was talking about how I can’t have children of my own. So those were things that I got to pull from into this movie in the sense of, “how do we take back the story of Esther?” She’s a bad person, she does horrible things, how do we find a way to trick the audience into rooting for her and wanting her to get out of the situation? And that was something that Brent and I worked on a lot. Let’s find the humanity, even though she’s doing something wrong. This time around, I really enjoyed getting to have fun with Esther rather than make her such an enigma. Originally in the first movie, I lived, and the focus group said, “Kill the bitch.” We really created a monster in “Orphan.” So for this one, it was fun to create a hero in a sense, an anti-hero.
This movie does have a twist, and it’s even crazier than the original twist, in some ways. What was it like reading that for the first time?
David, when we sat down for coffee, he told me, “Just bear in mind that the first part of the script follows the same story as as the first one.” I was like, “What do you mean?” And he was like, “Just read it.” I loved the twist because this is something that everybody expects when they see a sequel or a prequel, for it to rehash exactly what you knew about the last one. And I love that this movie takes the audience by the hand and the audience is like, “Okay, well, we’ve already seen that.” And all of a sudden, it just flips everything on its head. Kind of in the same way that “Scream” did this year, where they like played into the comedy of the fact that it’s a horrible scary movie and therefore made it better. I can’t wait for people to actually see the movie because a lot of the comments on the trailer are like “Oh, it looks just like the last one.” and I’m like, “You have no idea.”
What was it like working with Julia Stiles, whose character Esther has such a strange dynamic with in the film?
I’ve grown up watching her movies and I’ve been obsessed with her so long. Because of COVID we couldn’t see each other outside of work. So I started, as you do in quarantine, making bread, and I just kept bringing your bread to work. I remember one day she was like, “It’s really nice that you do that.” And we just started chatting and she’s so incredibly intelligent, so smart, so fun. We became, I would say, friends while we were working on it. I can’t exactly say exactly what it is but I’m going to be working with Julia on a movie that she’s doing and I really can’t wait to work with her in a slightly different capacity, because I really think the world of her, and loved the cat and mouse game we got to play in this movie.
Final question: are we going to have to wait 13 years for “Orphan 3?”
I don’t know. I do know that [producer Alex Mace] has already talked to me about doing a third one. And if the script is good, and people love this one, why not? I would love to do that. I don’t think we’re gonna have to wait 13 years because I don’t think it’s gonna be possible in 13 years. When you’re in your 20s you can still look like younger if you get on a little stool chair, or have children play you from multiple angles. But I would love the opportunity if it came up. I wouldn’t say no.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.