HEAT VISION

Annabelle Wallis on 'The Silencing' and Convincing Tom Cruise to Run With Her

Actress Annabelle Wallis - Getty - H 2020
Desiree Navarro/Getty Images
The actor also delves into James Wan’s mysterious 'Malignant' and why she left 'Peaky Blinders.'

At this point in her career, Annabelle Wallis is swinging for the fences, something James Wan reaffirmed to her on the set of their much-anticipated genre film, Malignant. Wallis — who’s best known for her role as Peaky Blinders fan-favorite Grace Burgess — returns to the screen as Alice Gustafson, a guilt-ridden Midwestern sheriff who pursues a killer in Robin Pront’s The Silencing. After numerous roles in period dramas and genre films like The Mummy, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Annabelle, the British actor knew it was time for her career to take a left turn. So when the role of a Minnesotan sheriff emerged on her radar, Wallis’ interest was met with some skepticism by those around her, but such doubt only motivated her to pursue the role.

“I’m at a place in my life and my career where it’s time to be brave. It’s time to push,” Wallis tells The Hollywood Reporter. “There’s a lot of people who don’t think I can do an American accent… And when I spoke to people about the fact that I was going to play a sheriff, there was kind of this side look of slight doubt, which also encouraged me further.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic reshuffled the entirety of Hollywood’s slate, The Silencing is essentially taking the Aug. 14 release date that once belonged to Malignant, Wallis’ second collaboration with Wan. While Malignant remains undated for the time being, Wallis is already buzzing in anticipation.

“I think we have something very special. I think it’s genre-bending. I think it’s so brave. It’s so original. I just haven’t read anything like it,” Wallis shares. “And James Wan, we worked together on Annabelle, so he was like, ‘I wrote this part for you, Annabelle. Let’s collaborate.’ I think I’ve found in him such a wonderful collaborator, and I know that we will continue working together for years to come. I think it’s really going to be something that audiences are pretty wowed by because it’s a real passion project for him.”

Three years removed from her starring role alongside Tom Cruise in 2017’s The Mummy, Wallis still fields questions about the thrill-seeking movie star/stuntman. In fact, Wallis has quite the bragging right as she inspired Cruise to make the rarest of exceptions.

“I got to run on-screen with him, but he told me no at first. He said, ‘Nobody runs on-screen [with me],’ and I said, ‘But I’m a really good runner,’” Wallis recalls. “So, I would time my treadmill so that he’d walk in and see me run. And then he added all these running scenes. So, that was it. It was, like, better than an Oscar. I was so happy! I was so happy that I got to run on-screen with Tom Cruise.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Wallis also reveals why she left the BBC’s smash hit, Peaky Blinders, in season three and her hopes to work with Cillian Murphy again on both Peaky Blinders and a completely separate project. The Silencing director, Robin Pront, also adds his insight into casting Wallis and why she was perfect for the role of Sheriff Alice Gustafson.

Annabelle, I loved seeing you in something that is markedly different from your existing work. Was that a big factor in your commitment to The Silencing?

Annabelle Wallis: Yeah, that definitely was. I think it’s a big factor in my career. At this point, when you get the freedom of slightly more choice, there is a debt you feel to kind of flex your muscles as a performer. Because of the idea that you might not get this chance again, I feel there is kind of this desire to be brave about the choices a bit more, whether they work out or not. So yeah, it was definitely a choice going into this film. And yes, it’s a remaining factor that I apply to a lot of my choices.

Robin, how did it become apparent that Annabelle was your Alice?

Robin Pront: Because of the decisions that the character makes in the film, it was important that we found somebody who we always felt somewhat sympathetic with, and Annabelle has that kind of grace over her. So that’s why I thought she would be perfect for the role. Then, we went out to her with the script, and she liked it. She’s also a blast in real life, which is a plus. So that’s how we got to talking with her, and she was very happy to commit to the project. 

So when you receive a script like The Silencing, are you able to read it objectively at first, or do you immediately start imagining yourself in the role of Sheriff Alice Gustafson and begin voicing her in your head?

Wallis: I immediately become the character, but I would love to be able to be more objective and more, let’s say, analytical about a script and understanding the beats. I’m more of an emotional reader, and I get really wrapped up. I apply my own emotions to it so strongly that it can kind of consume me. So, I guess I definitely do get very much attached to the character and the world, and my imagination goes wild thinking about the way you would shoot it and the way I would speak in the character’s voice. So yeah, it’s definitely an all-consuming task when asked to read a script.

Were you able to talk to any women sheriffs for perspective and insight on how they handle a job that presents numerous challenges that male sheriffs don’t have to endure?

Wallis: Well, there are so many incredible podcasts out there about real-life cold cases and experiences, as well as in-depth interviews with women in the field. I didn’t realize that the sheriff is elected by the people. I mean, I’m English. It’s a hierarchy system that I was new to, so I was interested in that aspect. I was interested in how a woman makes a choice to go into that world. What kind of woman chooses to confront sexism face-on like that and push through? There’s obviously this iron will behind it that I really find exciting, and I find truth about the women that I know and the women that I experience. So, I didn’t talk to one in particular, because there are few around, but we definitely had an advisor on set who I spoke to a lot. And when I spoke to people about the fact that I was going to play a sheriff, there was kind of this side look of slight doubt, which also encouraged me further.

Pront: As a woman, especially in these small towns, it’s a very rough world. We talked a lot about how she would be perceived and the looks that she got when she walked around town. I definitely tried to go wide to see the looks of the people. There are a lot of subtleties, and it’s always there in the background.

I don’t want to give away the big choice that Alice makes in the middle of the movie, but even though actors are taught not to judge their characters, was it difficult for you to rationalize what she did at first?

Wallis: No, I crave truth, and I know that I would be denying the truth if I were to reject the fact that people make choices in a moment that then, of course, they regret. A myriad of emotions go on within any given human that to assume that they will always make the right choice — and to not give them the benefit of the doubt for both the good choice and the bad — would be denying humanity. And so, I’m interested in characters who are fundamentally confused. What is flawed? What in our society have we told ourselves is a flaw? And where are the parameters of that? How do you redeem yourself to the audience once you make what we interpret as a flaw? What she does is not very good, so I’m not going to say I agree with her. But I do think it’s important to allow humans to be humans, and to not shy away from the discomfort of the choices we make. I know in my life, I’ve had to make uncomfortable decisions; I know people around me have. And especially with female characters, all the more I have this real desire to push women into a place of truth in that they are just as complex and just as flawed. There’s an equality there in all of us. The through-line really is that we all similarly cave in moments of great pressure, and I find that very exciting to put on-screen. And I guess I don’t feel the desire to be the good guy all the time, or the good girl. I’m there to tell a story, and I don’t mind the discomfort around the characters — to a certain extent, of course. There are times I’ve read things, and I’m like, “No.” (Laughs.)

Alice left her family in foster care while she went off to pursue higher education, and she seems to feel a great deal of guilt over that decision. Would you say that most of her choices are inspired by that particular feeling of guilt?

Wallis: Yes, I would. I’m so fascinated by shame in this time, in this country, in my country and how shame forces people into action. But is that action genuine and what then comes when the shame leaves you? What are you left with? Is it real change in the person, in society, in whatever it is? In her stillness, I wanted to let the audience decide if she was doing it for the real honesty of feeling shame or feeling like the shame was driving her. And there was a resentment behind it that helped lead her into that destructive path she goes down. Yeah, for me, the shame is an interesting aspect.

Robin, was it important for you to track Alice’s guilt throughout the movie so the audience understands the big choice she makes in the middle of the movie?

Pront: Definitely. That was very important. There was always this point of redemption for the character, and you don't want to lose the connection with the character because of some decisions. That was always a fine line, and if I have to give credit to Annabelle for portraying this. She really made an effort to keep her character in line with the story and her connection with her brother (Hero Fiennes Tiffin).

I’ve always been fond of your accent work. Do you still need a dialect coach for your American accent at this point?

Wallis: No, I do not! I am very proud of this. There’s a lot of people who don’t think I can do an American accent… If I get an offer, they’re like, “Oh, can she do an American accent?” And I’m like, “Yes, I think so.” I went to an American school in Lisbon for a few years, and I had 42 different nationalities in my year at school. So, you end up adapting your voice to help other kids who come from Africa or China to understand your English; you change your voice. So, I’m very grateful that I was using that tool for so long. America has been such a wonderful place and offered me so many jobs. I’m lucky, and I’m very grateful that you said that. That cheered me up. Thank you.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of no. Do you remember the first time you said no to something as an actor? How did you feel both before and after?

Wallis: Yes, it’s so interesting because I think you feel so grateful to do what you do. You are told that you are the one percentile in the world that gets to live off what you do, and I am grateful for that every single day. And I would definitely say that, for me, the gratitude for being here and for being on set can sometimes get in the way of saying what I want to say. But luckily, I was brought up in a way where something wills within me. You can’t deny it. I have to speak up, and I’m very grateful for that upbringing. But I would say that, yeah, I think it’s very difficult to speak up and say no. I think the more you do it, the easier it becomes and the more normal you realize it is. We do ourselves a disservice the more we shy away from that discomfort. You don’t want to be uncomfortable, but I definitely felt empowered after. I knew it was right, and you know like we all know. Your whole body reacts to it when you’re not meant to do something — and that’s no. So yeah, it was incredibly empowering, but I wouldn’t say the easiest to get there with the gratitude you feel for just being able to do this job.

[The next handful of questions contains spoilers for Peaky Blinders season three and five.]

It was great to see Grace “return” on season five of Peaky Blinders. She’s one of my favorite TV characters ever, and I’ll take Ghost Grace or Hallucinatory Grace over no Grace any day.

Wallis: Ah, good. Yeah, thank you.

Did you shoot all those scenes over a week, or did you have to come back for each episode?

Wallis: No, they were kind. They got me in, and they shot me in and out. I love them all. Really, it was the first part that I was like, “Oh, this is me. And this is not comfortable. This is not an easy part. This is not how women are written. But these are the parts I have to find to exist here.” There is so much of you as an actor and you want to morph into whatever you need to be, but to find something that speaks to your truth, especially a female character... Now, we’re moving into an age where there’s many, many more of those, but I just loved her, and I’m so grateful to Steven Knight. And Cillian and I are great friends. Me and Cillian, we call Peaky Blinders the gift that keeps on giving. I mean, I don’t know if the road is done just yet. We’ll have to wait and see, but yeah.

Ooh, I like the sound of that.

Wallis: Ooh... (Laughs.)

Did you try and play her like a ghost or hallucination somehow, or did you trust that the filmmaking would create the ghostly vibe of each scene?

Wallis: I couldn’t quite figure out how they were going to make that work. But again, I’m so loyal to them that I was like, “Look, I trust you, let’s do this.” And so, yeah, I had to do it with Cillian, and we were giggling because it’s so hard to do those things. But yeah, I didn’t play her like a ghost. I guess I played her in a different tone than I would if she was alive. Of course, she’s a metaphor for where he’s going in his mind and a myriad of different things. So, I couldn’t play it in total truth. It had to be slightly off, and then they massaged around that.

While I’m still heartbroken over the events of season three, Grace’s exit made sense since the world of the Peaky Blinders gang is too dangerous for anyone to be happy for too long. That being said, was your departure also a byproduct of all the other opportunities that continue to come your way?

Wallis: Yes. If I’m honest, yes. There comes a point where you have to make choices in your career that free you from… Yes, there were other opportunities. I knew that she had done what she had to do… Cillian and I used to discuss this a lot because we would finish an episode on a Friday, and [creator] Steve Knight was still writing what we would film on Monday. The BBC greenlit two episodes for the first season, and then they saw the rushes. So, they said, “Cool, we’d love you to keep going.” That’s then how it went on. So, Steve Knight doesn’t know. He can’t give you a trajectory for what your character is, or the backstory, because he’s so in the moment. So, Cillian and I would discuss so much. I knew that Tommy’s journey — and him being the lead — wouldn’t propel dark enough. It was not going to be a romantic story. So, yeah, I knew that something was going to have to happen. And also, I communicated that I had some other things I wanted to do.

I talked to Cillian on the day that the world shut down in March, and I tried to describe the impact that he’s made along with the show. Much to my surprise, he seemed skeptical of such praise. He was rather self-deprecating despite my attempts to compliment his work. Does that sound like the guy you know?

Wallis: Oh, he’s so like that. Totally. He’s the most humble guy. He’s got that perfect career where he gets to do what he loves, and he gets to do it with impeccable form. And then, he can disappear. He can go off and live his life. He’s not bothered, he lives out in Ireland, and he has the perfect balance. But he’s not on social media, and he doesn’t interact like that. So, I think when he goes back into the world, like when he comes into London or New York and there’s a frenzy around him, I don’t think it quite marries the headspace that he’s in. He kind of does it and then walks away from it. He closes the door. But even with Grace in that short span, there was no character fatigue. So, them together have become such a force field because of what happened. I’ve spoken to Cillian about this, but I think there’s room to collaborate on something else, just because there’s this romantic idea of that and it’s so powerful. There’s power in death; she’s become this bigger thing in relation to him and their union. But yeah, he’s so humble. and he’s so good. He’s a real lesson in class in all areas, whether it’s acting class, the way he lives his life or the way he works.

In a perfect world, I’d probably be at a press screening tonight for James Wan’s Malignant. How did that experience go for you?

Wallis: Oh yes! Oh my god. I mean, I think we have something very special. I think it’s genre-bending. I think it’s so brave. It’s so original. I just haven’t read anything like it. And you know, again, I’m at a place in my life and my career where it’s time to be brave. It’s time to push. And James Wan, we worked together on Annabelle, which was the first time I ever came to America. And then, he watched The Loudest Voice, and he said he loved my work. So, he was like, “I wrote this part for you, Annabelle. Let’s collaborate.” I think I’ve found in him such a wonderful collaborator, and I know that we will continue working together for years to come. He’s kind, and he’s so good at what he does. And I think it’s really going to be something that audiences are pretty wowed by because it’s a real passion project for him. So, I’m very excited. Yeah, let’s see! That’s what good art and good cinema is. You kind of throw it out there, and then you don’t know how people are going to react. That’s the exciting thing, you know.

Was James instrumental in your Annabelle casting from the get-go?

Wallis: Yes, he was. Yeah, so there’s a lovely cyclical feeling, as well. I think people that know you from the beginning watch you from afar, and then there’s a return, which is a really lovely feeling. It feels kind of like going home. There’s a shorthand. There’s an understanding. And I want to work with nice people, too. People that are talented and that are good people, and he’s really one of those. He’s so good. He’s so hands-on, holding cameras and moving equipment. He was even fixing my makeup. He was literally my hair girl. He fixed all my hair. So, to see someone at his level, someone who’s had huge success, and to know that in order to survive, you’ve got to go back to your roots. You’ve got to go grassroots, you’ve got to be on your set, and you’ve got to remind yourself why you love it. It’s so cool. It’s so inspiring. And there’s so many aspects of this job that are so wonderful, but you always have to be reminded why you’re doing it and keep saying, “Is it worth it? Is the time away from home worth it? Is the exposure in the world worth it? Do I want to do these long hours? Do I want to do a night shoot?” And if yes, then that’s a wonderful feeling. So, he inspired me to continually ask those questions, and I’m very grateful to him. He’s a wonderful man.

I realize I’m doing the very thing I’m making fun of, but now that you’re 3-plus years removed from The Mummy, have the Tom Cruise questions started to slow down at all?

Wallis: I don’t think they ever will. He’s Tom Cruise. He’s his own thing. He’s such a movie star, and he does his own bloody stunts! He means business, and he loves this business. He’s a cinephile. I think people are in awe of that kind of passion and love for cinema and a desire to excel, to keep growing and keep pushing boundaries. He’s on a different level, and, you know, I ticked a box. I got to run on-screen with him, but he told me no at first. He said, “Nobody runs on-screen [with me],” and I said, “But I’m a really good runner.” So, I would time my treadmill so that he’d walk in and see me run. And then he added all these running scenes. So, that was it. It was, like, better than an Oscar. I was so happy! (Laughs.) I was so happy that I got to run on-screen with Tom Cruise. But I don’t think it ever goes away and I hope it never does. It’s so wonderful to be excited by someone and in awe of what they’ve achieved in their lives. Yeah, good on him. And I hope the questions never stop. I love talking about him. It’s really cool.

The questions just got pretty weird towards the end of that press tour.

Wallis: Oh, the bum, yeah. “Was it his bum?” I was like, “I’m so confused. What?” He’s so old-school. He does everything himself. It’s phenomenal. So, no, he’s as real as it gets.

Unfortunately, we have to wrap, but did you happen to see the Annabelle video that New Line just released? 

Wallis: No, but I will watch it!

Since Annabelle has been all alone at the New Line office during quarantine, it playfully shows what she’s been up to, such as sunbathing.

Wallis: Oh my god. (Laughs.) I love New Line. They’re a hilarious bunch. Yeah, I’m going to go look at that. That’s pretty funny. 

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The Silencing is available in select theaters, on digital HD and VOD on August 14.

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