How 'Dark and the Wicked' Star Marin Ireland Faced Her Fears

The Dark and the Wicked
Courtesy of RLJE Films /Shudder
Though the 'Umbrella Academy' actor refuses to watch horror movies, she stepped into a role in Bryan Bertino's creepy new film.

Filmmaker Bryan Bertino certainly knows more than a few things about scaring people. From his terrifying debut, The Strangers (2008), to his follow-ups, Mockingbird (2014) and The Monster (2016), Bertino has kept his finger on the pulse of modern American fears. And this weekend he’s back, with his most alarming film since The Strangers.  In The Dark and the Wicked, what comes knocking doesn’t just challenge the boundaries of home and safety, but faith and moral certainty.

In The Dark and the Wicked, two siblings, Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) return home to their rural farmstead to look after their dying father (Michael Zagst). But a dark presence grows at his bedside, and when a mysterious priest (Xander Berkeley) comes to their door, Louise and Michael are faced with waking nightmares, a crises of faith, and the sense that there is something deeply wrong about the foundations of what they believed to be true.

Ahead of the film’s VOD release on Nov. 6, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Ireland, known for her work on Netflix's The Umbrella Academy, about her experience as an actor afraid of horror movies being thrust into one of the year’s most terrifying horror films, the personal nature of the work, a scene-stealing goat named Judy, and what it takes for an actor to play terrified.

How did you come aboard The Dark and the Wicked?

I was sent a script and I have to say that normally I’m too delicate to watch horror movies. (Laughs.) I have a very delicate constitution. I’ve been able to watch some of the classics but I get too frightened. So I knew of Bryan [Bertino], and I have horror movie fans in my life who were like, "oh god, Bryan Bertino!" So I knew enough about who he was. And thought, well these things aren’t usually my bag but I’d like making one, I don’t know. So I started reading it and in the first two pages I was completely hooked. He is such an incredible writer. And the script felt like such a deep and profound story to me, it just went a lot farther than a lot of other stories do. But it was a setup that to me felt incredibly, intensely personal. So the intimacy of the story really grabbed me. And when I talked to Bryan on the phone, when we had our first meeting, he talked to me about what horror movies mean to him. And one of the things he said is that when he sits down to write is he thinks about what’s the scariest thing he can imagine right then. And then he writes through that, looks it right in the eyes.

That really moved me and felt really profound. It made me really excited to work with him and about what this project could become because it was liking having the opportunity to do Greek Tragedy or something, to go as far as you possibly can. That’s exactly what those plays from all those many, many hundreds of years ago were about. You get people being decapitated and their eyeballs being cut out and all this stuff, because it’s literally about taking human beings as high as they can go in terms of their emotions. Then the audience doesn’t have to do that in their life. They can watch someone else do that and learn what that feels like and what that could be, and where that is. And that’s a service, y’know? That’s a really great service you can provide.

Were you able to work up the courage to watch any of Bryan’s previous films?

No! I’m so embarrassed. I told him that he has to forgive me. And he was fine, he said it’s fine. But Mike Abbott, I don’t think he forgave me for that. He was like "that’s unconscionable!" (Laughs.) So one day when we’re out of this quarantine pandemic I will watch them with Mike Abbott. I’m sure I’ll watch The Strangers and I’ll watch his other movies. But Bryan is the kind of person where he’s so incredibly kind and compassionate he was like, "No, I get it. You don’t need to watch them. It’s fine." (Laughs). So not yet. And I definitely can’t watch this because I can’t watch myself in anything. That’s definitely my version of the scariest movie in the world, having to watch my own acting. (Laughs.)

We don’t see Louise and Michael’s relationship with their father before he’s sick. I think Louise is perhaps a little more devoted to caring for him than Michael. Where do you think that devotion comes from?

I think there’s a lot about this movie that is intentionally obscured and kept vague. What I personally like about that is that it allows for the audience to unwittingly project their own life into it. Yes, you run the risk of people being like "I don’t understand that so I don’t know what to think," but I think the way Bryan wrote it and the way it kind of slowly unfolds I do think you get to drop your own story into it and it allows space for that. So I don’t want to say too much about where I kind of went with it, but for me, there were certainly sides to Louise I was interested in exploring. One side was a positive side where she probably remembers being closer to her father than to her mother, and felt more understood by him when she was very little before the family kind of splintered. And I think there were also some elements of it where there was some potential for something unhealthy about that relationship, that there was maybe some form of abuse that happened and in that way she’s maybe more tied to him, or feels that she owes him something. And I also think, outside of that, whether those things are part of it or not, the thing that feels even stronger to me because it is in the script is that Louise, as the youngest, feels the most acutely abandoned by the family, and that was the sharpest for her earlier on in her life. She was out on her own. And I think now she sees her father as being the most vulnerable. So I think she sees herself, in many ways, in him. She looks at him and realizes I was abandoned by this family, I was not cared for, and left to my own devices. And I think that she finally sees there might have been something tyrannical about him when he was younger, and now she sees herself in that.

Going off that idea of people being able to drop their own backstories in the film, something I really liked was that this felt like a story that could happen anywhere in America. And I think there’s an interesting reflection of modern American values and struggles with belief. Is that something you and Bryan discussed?

For sure! Absolutely, we did. We definitely talked about how this story is everywhere and it’s everybody. And it has a lot to do with faith and the question of where do we turn in moments of crisis and moments of chaos. Some people find that in their family, but if you don’t have a family to support you in that way then some people turn to religion. But what if that fails you? Or what if that doesn’t ring true to you? So there is this real desperate search not to be alone on this planet. And that’s something I think is extremely universal and a lot of people find whatever ways they can to cope with that. I think part of what Bryan was trying to do with this film, again with building the worst-case scenario of the scariest thing, is exploring what happens when everything fails you, and if you don’t feel a connection to any of these possibilities of something to believe in.

This being a horror movie, I have to ask: did anything creepy happen on set?(Laughs.) I mean everything creepy happened on the set because we were in this farm in the middle of nowhere in Texas so it all felt a little bit crazy! Probably one of the wildest things to me was, early on in the film there’s that one shot where, and I don’t want to give anything away, but we run outside and find something in the barn, and it’s one incredible long take. But as we run into the barn all the sheep and goats run out. I did watch this scene because I wanted to see how it turned out. But we just shot this a few times, and at the last minute, Bryan asked if we could put the sheep and the goats in this shot. And we were like "Bryan, it’s one shot. You can’t control these animals. What do you think is going to happen?" (Laughs.) He thought they would just be milling around but when we let them out they all freaked out. It was creepy, in a different way, but they all just leaped out of the barn, and started running. And I remember genuinely feeling like there was something terrifying happening in that barn even though it was just the camera and the actors. They were just playing but it was like there was some sort of demon in the barn. But otherwise, the sheep and the goats became our best friends and they were all camera hogs and divas. (Laughs.) They were all ladies by the way. All the sheep and goats were girls because it was a dairy farm. But it was really hilarious. There was a goat named Judy, who found her way into the front of every scene. It was really sweet. So we mostly had a really, really fun time. Mike Abbott might have some stories, but mostly when we were shooting I was hanging out with the farm animals. (Laughs).

I think an actor’s ability to play frightened carries a lot of weight in terms of a horror movie’s ability to scare an audience and your performance is really effective at that. I was genuinely scared during the film. What’s your process for getting to that place of sheer terror, especially as an actor who doesn’t really watch horror movies.

I had such a great, simpatico relationship with Bryan in terms of understanding what he was up to, and what inspires him, and excited him about what horror movies can do. It really helped me throw myself into it as an actor, and let my imagination go, and really feel free and trusting of him. There were a few times where things were super technical, like if I played that moment at a nine should I take this one to a six? Or let’s take it to a seven. (Laughs.) But again, Bryan was so tuned into me that he really helped me do that. But he also took care of me in that way because he could see that my only way into this character was to really throw myself into it. But this was actually an opportunity as an actor to go as far as it’s possible to go, which you don’t always get to do as an actor. Sometimes you get to play within a pretty small range, which is fine for a project. But to have the opportunity to really take it outside of where you thought it was possible for you to go felt like a really thrilling challenge. I didn’t really have any other secret other than just going for it, and knowing that everyone was there to catch me on the other side. We would talk about how I would have to pace out my energy because I couldn’t push myself as far as I did for five hours. So a lot of it came down to figuring out what are the shots, because there are more shots in a horror movie than I’m used to, and more ways to set up the stunts. So Bryan would say, "alright there’s going to be a lot of shots in this scene." So then I’d tell myself not go out on this take, and save it for another, or not to scream as much in the moment and save my voice. So we did a lot of that kind of strategizing to take care of my little vocal chords.

Lastly, Is horror a genre you’d like to explore more in the future as an actor? Even if you’re not necessarily a fan of the genre, I think it’s evident from this film that you could bring a lot to it performance-wise.

Yeah, absolutely! What inspired me about this movie was the script and how beautifully written it was, and how it was a real story that felt so personal to me, and felt very moving. So that was just something I could really get into. I didn’t need the VFX or the green screen. I could just play the story, and the story was just terrifying. So I feel like yeah, I’d definitely do more. For me it’s always about the script and the collaborators. And with this I knew Mike Abbot was involved and I’d do anything with him, I think he’s the greatest. So absolutely! Never say never! I think I was always frightened of it because I’d never had a script that came my way that didn’t feel like I was reading a horror movie script. This just felt like I was reading a script about something terrifying happening to this woman, and a really intense situation that wasn’t just a genre thing. And I had a great time. Honestly, because I’ve learned so much from Bryan about what the genre is and what it can be, I’m super excited to get to do more! I’m a greedy actor and I like to leave it all out on the field, so anytime I get to do everything you can possibly do as an actor, stunts, screaming, going crazy, tearing a room apart, I love to do as much as I can possibly do. (Laughs.) I’m a real greedy actor, so absolutely I’d do more horror. Bring it on!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.