This article first appeared as part of Jenelle Riley’s Acting Up newsletter – to subscribe for early content and weekly updates on all things acting, visit the Acting Up signup page.
One of my favorite genres also happens to be one of the least appreciated — horror. I’m sure philosophers and therapists can offer endless theories on why we love being scared, but it’s safe to say that horror films offer an experience like no other… when done correctly. Of course, it’s also one of the hardest genres to get just right, and a performance in the medium can make or break the movie. We’ve all seen those films or performances that walk a fine line between absolutely horror and unintentional comedy.
One of the best genre directors is M. Night Shyamalan, who has directed multiple actors to acclaimed performances in films that featured the supernatural, including Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette, who both earned Oscar nominations for “The Sixth Sense.” He also introduced movie audiences to Bryce Dallas Howard in the psychological thriller “The Village,” her feature film debut, cast James McAvoy in a new light in “Split” and earned the likes of Bruce Willis career-high notices for their collaborations.
Shyamalan’s latest film, “Knock at the Cabin,” is currently in theaters now and one of the reasons it works so well is the performances from its ensemble. Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge play Eric and Andrew, a couple who are held captive with their daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), by four strangers (played by Bautista, Grint, Abby Quinn and Nikki Amuka-Bird. The intruders say that in order to avert the end of the world, the family must choose to sacrifice one of their own.
It’s a tight, efficient thriller that never lets up and its small cast and singular location are an area in which Shyamalan has thrived, years after venturing into big-budget epics such as “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth.” And so much of it is a character piece, asking the actors to run a gamut of emotions over a short period of time. Groff, Aldridge and Cui in particular, find themselves in a constant state of terror.
Asked how Shyamalan guides his actors to express fear on camera, and the director says he simply doesn’t think about it in those terms. “It’s never even occurred to me, I guess because it being a scary movie isn’t how I think of it,” he says. “Fear is a secondary aspect that comes out of the situation. If you’re thinking about protecting your child or your spouse and someone says, ‘I’m coming in the door,’ you don’t concentrate on fear. You concentrate on the love for your spouse or your child. And you have a natural reaction to that.”
In short, he says, “I would never give anyone the direction to ‘be more scared.’” And to help guide an actor to the place he wants, it all comes down to how well the performers know their roles. “I think the deeper you are in the character, the more organic their coping mechanisms are.”
While the horrors in “Knock at the Cabin” are all too real and human, Shyamalan has worked with special effects and creatures in other films, and says he adopts a similar approach on those. When an actor has to give a reaction to something unseen (it could literally be a tennis ball standing in for whatever they’re imagining) he doesn’t use adjectives including “bigger” or “scarier” but talks them through the situation. “I’d give them thoughts about what’s happening so maybe they don’t have the opportunity to think about that tennis ball,” he says. “I’d say something like, ‘You have this feeling there’s something in the room and you don’t want to turn around because you don’t want confirmation. You’re trying to tell yourself you’re being silly and talk yourself out of the feelings you’re having. And then you turn around and can’t internalize what you’re seeing.’”
Shyamalan, who once told me he played terrifying pranks on his cousins at a young age including pretending to be possessed, adds that he is not a director who tries to “trick” his actors into giving a reaction. For whatever reason, the horror genre seems to inspire an above average amount of stories of directors punishing their actors to elicit a response — be it Stanley Kubrick verbally abusing Shelley Duvall in “The Shining” or William Friedkin allegedly slapping an actor before a take on “The Exorcist.”
Says Shyamalan, “There’s no energy left to do any of that. From the time I land, it’s a chess match against the clock for me. So there’s not time to play gags on people, at least not from me.”
Instead, the filmmaker trusts in his actors and gives them the freedom to try different things. But there is one emotion that is off-limits. “The only thing I don’t allow actors to do in the movies is feel sorry for themselves,” he says. “I think audiences can find that indulgent in a way that’s offensive. But as soon as characters feel sorry for themselves, audiences are like: ‘I’m out.’”
He continues, “You can show anger, you can show fighting, you can be funny, but you have to be active in your own survival. If you feel sorry for yourself, that’s a form of giving up, and that’s not a circumstance I want to put them in.”