EoM contributor Thomas Manning recently had the opportunity to interview Oscar-nominated actress Barbara Hershey about her role in the new film The Manor, a Blumhouse production distributed through Amazon Studios. Throughout their conversation, Hershey discusses her experiences working with director Axelle Carolyn, the creative potential of the horror genre, and her perspective on the evolution of the film distribution model.
Thomas Manning: In this film, your character, Judith, finds herself doing a lot of reflecting on her life, her family, and the years that have gone by. Did getting into that mindset of the character lead you to do some reflecting of your own, on your life and your career in the film industry?
Barbara Hershey: I just prepared for the movie and the character. I reflect a lot automatically in my life, but I prepared by trying to get into the physicality of what she was feeling, and what it feels like to have a mild stroke. I studied that a bit. And then she has the beginning of Parkinson’s Disease, which is what got her into a rest home, because that’s a progressive disease and it was just going to get worse. So, I first just dealt with all of that, and not to make it an “in your face” thing that you would feel a lot – but, that it’s underneath everything. And then the whole mental state of these things happening and her wondering, “Is this what dementia feels like?” Doubting herself, but also truly believing this is happening. So, there is a lot going on under the surface, which is, in a great way, covered with a horror movie, and covered with humor. It was a lot going on at once.
Thomas Manning: This was your first collaboration with Axelle Carolyn as a director, and she has a background in acting as well. Did you notice anything in her directing style that seemed to connect to her acting background?
Barbara Hershey: I didn’t feel that in particular. We got along really well. It takes a minute to figure out whether or not you can trust somebody with your insides, and then once I realized I could, we just fell in love with each other and got really close. I didn’t feel in particular that the acting thing was an element in her directing. She’s very visual. She’s very much an artist about atmosphere and had lots of ideas visually on the material, since she wrote it.
Thomas Manning: I loved the relationship of your character with her grandson, Josh, played by Nicholas Alexander. What did that character dynamic mean to you, and how was it working with Nicholas?
Barbara Hershey: Nicholas is fantastic, and we hit it off right away. For my character – he is her raft, he is everything to her. He is the reason she’s living. Their whole thing had nothing to do with age – it had to do with two human beings who just love and adore each other and have fun together. And I love that, and that it was represented that way.
Thomas Manning: I’ve always found the horror genre to be so versatile in the stories that you can tell, and of course there are different subgenres within the horror. At various points throughout your career, you’ve worked on a handful of different horror projects. What do you appreciate about the creativity that this genre sparks as a mode of storytelling?
Barbara Hershey: In this case, this is a character driven horror film, a psychological horror film – it’s not bloody or anything like that, which I like personally much more than the other kind. Horror is a safe place to experience fear, like a roller coaster is. It’s built into us to experience fear, and even crave it if we don’t have it in our lives. And, we’re equipped to deal with it. So, this is sort of in a safe arena. And I think horror films can provide that, which is can be very satisfying to an audience. We seek them out. It’s fun. But underneath it all, if the film is about something, it offers a world where it’s exciting and you can make it about something, without hitting an audience over the head. It’s wrapped in horrors, wrapped in humor. I like how irreverent my character [in The Manor] is, and that she swears, and that she’s fun, and that she’s full of life, and not a cliched older person – but someone really vital. I thought it was a great arena to explore all that.
Thomas Manning: You’ve had a pretty healthy mix of television roles throughout your career as well. Those are stories stretched out over multiple episodes and multiple seasons, whereas films like The Manor are stories contained within a couple hours in a movie. How does this impact your approach to the project? Is there a different sort of energy you have to bring to a film character compared to a television character?
Barbara Hershey: Not in particular – I approach it all the same. I just try to get to something real, which can happen, and doesn’t always happen – but when it does, it’s ecstasy. I think it’s all in the writing. In a series, you often don’t know any more than the audience does. You don’t know episode to episode what they’re going to write next. So, you can’t create an arc with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s more like life, when you don’t know what’s happening next for an actor. Whereas a film has its beginning, middle, and end, and you can create an arc and you can figure out, “Okay, what does the filmmaker want to say with the film? What am I trying to say? How does my character serve that ending?” In a series, you can’t quite do that, just depending on what they give you, and sometimes it’s surprising. It’s a different experience, but my work is the same, in terms of preparation and how I approach it.
Thomas Manning: In looking at The Manor being distributed through a streaming service: For the majority of your career, the concept of a streaming service wasn’t even in the conversation. As someone who’s been right in the middle of the industry as it’s evolved over the decades, what does that feel like for you as an actress and also just as an appreciator of cinema to see this evolution?
Barbara Hershey: I think it has pluses and minuses. There’s nothing to replace the romance and that chill you get in a darkened theater – the kind of intimate experience with you and a big screen as an audience member. That is something that I think is amazing. But, the streaming stuff I do love because of the ability to embrace young filmmakers. [Streaming] doesn’t have the same kind of weight of making a film where you have to get people into a theater. I like the freedom, and the variety, and the opportunities for actors with streaming. Personally, as an audience member, I love being able to think “Hey, I want to see this film,” and look on Amazon Prime, and there it is. In five minutes, it’s streaming, and I’m watching it. That’s incredible to me. I love it on that on that level, I really do.
Thomas Manning: You’re someone who tackles multiple projects per year. What is it that keeps drawing you back to your passion for acting, and has kept you motivated to continue doing this as long as you have?
Barbara Hershey: My passion for acting is the thing that’s sustained me through all the highs and lows, and continues to. An actor is dependent on being hired in order to act. With other art forms – a painter can paint, a musician can compose – but you know, you actually have to be hired to act, and that’s a very vulnerable position to be in as an artist. My love of it is the one thing that has been constant – that I’m not dependent on being hired. This “golden thread” I call it inside me is my knowledge about myself as an actor – and that, no one can take away from me. It doesn’t depend on being hired or not. It’s the thing that’s sustained me through everything.
A malevolent force preys upon the residents of a sleepy nursing home in The Manor, a gothic tale of terror with a modern twist. When a mild stroke diminishes her ability to care for herself, Judith Albright (Barbara Hershey) moves to Golden Sun Manor, an assisted living facility with a sterling reputation. But despite the best efforts of the staff, and a budding friendship with fellow senior Roland (Bruce Davison), strange occurrences and nightmarish visions convince Judith that a sinister presence is haunting the massive estate. As residents begin to die mysteriously, Judith’s frantic warnings are dismissed as fantasy. Even her devoted grandson Josh (Nicholas Alexander) thinks her fears are the result of dementia, not demons. With no one willing to believe her, Judith must either escape the confines of the manor, or fall victim to the evil that dwells within it.
Available for streaming on Amazon Prime October 8th, 2021.
Thomas Manning is a member of the NCFCA and SEFCA, and also the co-host of the television show and radio program “Meet Me at the Movies.” He has served as a production assistant and voting member on the Film Selection Committee for the Real to Reel Film Festival. He is currently studying film, television, and English at Gardner-Webb University.
Categories: Filmmaker Interviews