Madison Iseman on 'Annabelle' Scares and Her 'Jumanji' Future

The actor looks at going from 'Conjuring' horror to an even more secretive threequel to the Robin Williams film: "We had the lockboxes on set this time and had to return our call sheets and passworded scripts at the end of the day."
Madison Iseman stars in 'Annabelle Comes Home'   |   Rich Fury/FilmMagic
The actor looks at going from 'Conjuring' horror to an even more secretive threequel to the Robin Williams film: "We had the lockboxes on set this time and had to return our call sheets and passworded scripts at the end of the day."

For Madison Iseman, starring in Annabelle Comes Home proved to be a terrifying experience.

Iseman plays Mary Ellen, the babysitter to a young girl named Judy (Mckenna Grace) whose parents happen to be renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). The Warren home is filled with terrifying artifacts that ultimately set their sights on Judy, Mary Ellen and her curious friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) thanks to the Warrens' recent acquisition — a possessed doll known as Annabelle. Iseman quickly bonded with her young co-stars, often getting just minutes to prepare scenes together (in order to capture scares as realistically as possible).

The star broke out in 2017's Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, in which she played Bethany, one of four real-life teens who were trapped inside a video game and represented via avatars. Since Jack Black portrayed Iseman's character's avatar, the two actors collaborated rather closely as they were both tasked with playing the teenage Bethany; 2017's biggest surprise hit has a sequel opening in December, and the production was markedly more secretive than the last entry.

"I will say it's an even bigger adventure than the first movie and it’s just as much fun, if not more fun," Iseman tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Everyone will be in for a surprise. It’s so top secret. We had the lockboxes on set this time and had to return our call sheets and passworded scripts at the end of the day. They got super serious on this one."

In a conversation with THR, she also discusses chemistry reads with Grace, who was coming off of playing young Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel, as well as teaching Jack Black how to play a teenage girl for his Jumanji role.

In Annabelle Comes Home, you play Mary Ellen, the babysitter to Mckenna Grace’s Judy Warren. Have you had any remotely terrifying experiences with a babysitter, as a babysitter or even while you were home alone, that gave you something to channel into your performance?

I’ve always been scared of being alone. I still sleep with a light on; I don’t like the dark. When I lived in South Carolina, I babysat all through high school. One time, when I was putting one of the little girls to sleep, she said, “Do you ever see stuff?” I was like, “What do you mean?” and she said, “Do you ever just see stuff around the house?” She just kept saying things like that, so I texted my dad to drive by the house and make sure everything was OK. So, that was the only babysitting experience that comes to mind, but in general, I’m just a big chicken.

Was there anything unusual about the casting process?

When Mckenna and I did our chemistry reads together, she had blonde hair at the time, and for a second, they thought we looked too much like siblings. As soon as they dyed Mckenna’s hair dark for Judy, they said, “OK, now it’s fine.” There was a big discussion about how to make it work because we looked so much alike when she had blonde hair.

Captain Marvel wrapped three months before you started shooting, so she must’ve had her young Carol Danvers hair still.

Yeah, I think she did. Although, she goes back and forth so much. Mckenna is the most genius little actress in the world. She’s been doing it even longer than I have, and it was awesome just watching her. There’s something about starting at such a young age; all your talent is so raw and untouched. She didn’t have that side of her brain that I feel we all get when we’re older: “Am I doing a good job? Is this what we’re supposed to be doing?” She just does it. She can cry on the spot; she was just a great person to work with and is really interesting to watch.

I just saw pictures of you, Mckenna and Katie (Sarife) at the MTV Movie & TV Awards. Compared to most sets, is a stronger bond created between you and your co-stars when the material deals with life and death, as well as vulnerability in confined spaces?

Absolutely. It’s so fast-paced. They’ll give the three of us five to ten minutes to prep before a scene, and we’ll go in a closet or private space to talk. You get really close really fast because you’re so vulnerable around each other. We’re picking each other up, holding each other and making each other cry. We filmed over two and a half months, and now I’m super close with both those girls. We also got to be part of the casting process for a very long time, which was cool. We did chem reads for every character, and they asked me and Mckenna how we felt with some of the other actors. It was very collaborative and it felt really cool to be a part of that process as well.

Did you guys do any chemistry building before or during shooting?

We did! It was right around Halloween, and after rehearsals, we would go to Warner Bros. Studio for their version of Horror Nights [Horror Made Here]. They had the It and Exorcist houses and characters. So, we’d go over there and go in all of the houses. So, we hung out as much as we could before we started filming, but we got close really fast just because we were around each other 24/7.

Your director, Gary Dauberman, told me about a creepy moment he had on set. Apparently, there were numerous other instances that you and your castmates experienced. Were you ever genuinely scared?

Oh, yeah! There were several times. Annabelle is actually at my house right now. We had press this weekend, and Warner Bros. didn’t want to stay any longer, so we asked if she could stay with us. They said, “Yeah, but we’re picking her up tomorrow.” So, last night was really creepy.

In general, we had the set blessing, which actually made me feel really good. It kinda put me at ease. I really wasn’t even scared until one of the nights where we were shooting on location. One of our publicists on set started telling us all the stories about Patrick [Wilson] and Vera [Farmiga] on the first Conjuring. It was something like everyone’s clocks kept stopping at 3:15 in the morning or something weird. That’s when they started doing the initial set blessing. So, we had our set blessing, and there were a couple times in our dressing rooms where the lights wouldn’t turn on and we wouldn’t get cell service. During this one sequence, Mckenna and I would run up the stairs and every time we ran up the stairs, we would hear this knock in threes. It could’ve just been the set cracking, but it was definitely enough to scare the crap out of us.

How much scream rehearsal is there?

We would practice all the time. One time on set, Katie and I had a really important day to get a good scream down. Practicing was so weird; we were just screaming at each other. Every time we knew we nailed a good scream, Gary [Dauberman] would always give us a little giggle. Yeah, we practiced screams a lot.

You’ve been a working actor for six years now. Are there types of scenes or emotions that still intimidate you?

I think one of the hardest emotions, personally, is actual fear. You can make yourself sad; you can make yourself laugh with a bunch of dumb jokes. But, to actually be authentically scared of what’s in front of you is really hard to fake. If you think of every time you’ve ever been scared, it’s on a whim and if you see it again, you’re probably not going to be scared of it. So, Annabelle is probably one of the most difficult films I’ve had to do just because we’re scared the whole time.

Let’s talk some Jumanji. On Welcome to the Jungle, did you and Jack Black ever have a chance to meet before shooting so that he could incorporate some of your mannerisms or performance into his performance as Bethany?

Yeah! During preproduction, they actually flew us all out to Hawaii for the original table read. They basically said, “Hang out and we’ll call you when we need you.” So, Jack and I went over the whole script, and he had me record something for him. He really just wanted to get to know what it’s like to be a girl, down to what music I listened to and all of that. We actually spent a good amount of time together, which is really cool. He did such an amazing job portraying Bethany; probably better than I did. [Laughs.] We were both putting it on to an extent, but Jack would sometimes feel bad and be like, “You know I’m not impersonating you, right?” I’m like, “Yes, I know. You’re fine.” He did a great job of making her that typical on-your-cellphone chick, but you still felt for her. Bethany felt like a real person, and I think that’s why people loved her.

Even though you weren’t onscreen as Bethany during the game, the performances of you and Jack fulfilled a meaningful character arc for Bethany. In the bookends of the movie, you portrayed both the beginning and the end of her arc. Does the third film also give Bethany and the other real-life characters an arc of sorts?

There is literally nothing I can say that would not give away what is gonna happen in this new film, but I will say it’s an even bigger adventure than the first movie and it’s just as much fun, if not more fun. Everyone will be in for a surprise. It’s so top secret. We had the lockboxes on set this time and had to return our call sheets and passworded scripts at the end of the day. They got super serious on this one.

On the last movie, did you only work in Atlanta since the game action was shot in Hawaii?

On the first movie, we were all in Atlanta, but they had our sets in Hawaii just in case they had to bring us in for rain coverage. We never got to go back, unfortunately. It was interesting though because we shot last and the leads shot first. So, the whole first movie, [director] Jake [Kasdan] would show us different takes of everything they did, and we would have to form our performances based off of them, which was cool. Anytime we wanted to see playback, Jake would always show us. He’s incredible. He has the best-working brain of anyone I’ve ever met in person. 

When you wrapped on the upcoming film, you posted a photo from Hawaii. Should we be reading into this since the game action was shot in Hawaii on the last film?

[Laughs.] Don’t read into it too much. You don’t want to spoil it for yourself. There should be a trailer dropping very soon, I’m guessing. I would like to see a trailer so I can start talking about it more. There’s really nothing I can say; they would kill me.

  • Brian Davids