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In just two-and-a-half years, rising talent Cailee Spaeny has amassed an impressive filmography of just about everything an actor can do. From her first role as the female lead of the sci-fi action tentpole Pacific Rim: Uprising to her integral role in the neo-noir crime thriller Bad Times at the El Royale, Spaeny has also worked on several awards contenders including Alex Garland’s Devs, Adam McKay’s Vice and Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex. And coming up on Oct. 28, Spaeny returns to the screen in Zoe Lister-Jones’ The Craft: Legacy, which marks her first experience as number one on the call sheet.
The Craft: Legacy is a continuation of 1996’s The Craft, which is widely regarded as a cult classic. Spaeny plays Lily, who, much like Robin Tunney’s Sarah in the original, is the new girl in town who’s quickly recruited by three other high school girls in order to form a coven of witches. Besides being at the top of the call sheet, Legacy was the first time Spaeny participated in the casting process, as well as chemistry reads that served her and her character above all. The film also filled another very important void for the Missouri native.
“We really wanted to put a spotlight on these beautiful female relationships and how important best friends are and how those are the ones that last a lifetime. I actually grew up homeschooled, and I had much difficulty making girl friends,” Spaeny tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Moving from Missouri to L.A., it was really hard for me to find my group. So this movie actually was the missing piece for me; I felt really drawn to all those girls. So I feel the same way as my character Lily. When she finds her women that empowered her, I also found that along the way too. It was really special.”
In order to protect the actors from summoning the wrong spirits, a real-life witch consulted on-set throughout filming, and her presence became all the more valuable when Spaeny experienced some supernatural occurrences at the film’s primary shooting location.
“When they were scouting for homes to film in, they found out that the place they chose was a hospital in the early 1800s where about 700 people had died,” Spaeny explains. “So I left my phone [in the attic] to go do a take and when I came back and looked at my camera roll, there was this perfect symmetrical circle orb, like a purple-y blue orb. I asked [the on-set witch] about the orb, and she’s like, ‘This is a very common thing for a spirit to move through technology and phones. This happens a lot…’ She explained some research about that particular color, and it was a guiding spirit trying to help me.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Spaeny also reflects on the pressure of casting her fellow Craft witches, watching Christian Bale’s costume test for Vice and working with Alex Garland on Devs and potentially more projects.
So was there anything unusual about The Craft’s audition process, or was it pretty standard?
I’d say it was pretty standard, but it was my first time being on the other side of chemistry reads, which was pretty intimidating. I was in the room the whole time, and I was there when the actors came in. I felt some sort of pressure to entertain them or make them feel comfortable because I was like, “I’ve done this a million times, been on the other side of this and now I don’t know how to accommodate these actors that are coming in.” Obviously, it’s so nerve-racking and so unnatural. Auditioning is a whole talent in itself so that was interesting. Then, they would close the door and ask my opinion. They were like, “How did you feel? What did you think of that person? Did it feel good to you?” I was like, “Whoa, whoa! This is so strange!” It was an information overload. I remember thinking, “You guys decide that quickly?” It was also pretty cutthroat. People would go in and out, and they’d be like, “Okay, next. No, that’s not it. This doesn’t feel right.” And then, they were on to the next person. It was pretty wild. (Laughs.) I’m not sure how I felt about it, but that was the only thing that was different about the process.
Did you do chemistry reads with the coven as well as the male lead?
All the girls, yes, and my love interest.
As far as preparation, are there advantages to watching and dissecting the original movie? Or are there more disadvantages if you’re too deferential to it?
I find it to be too much for me. I’m definitely an overthinker. And god, this was the first time I was number one on the call sheet so I felt that pressure. The Craft has a huge cult following and when I was telling people I was doing this movie, they would look me dead in the eye and say, “You don’t know what this movie means to me.” (Laughs.) So I definitely felt that weight. I did one watch, and then I tried to do my own thing as much as I could.
When Lily does that pendant trick in the cafeteria, did the filmmakers use a thin wire or a magnet inside your palm?
It was a thin wire, but I like that magnet inside the palm thing. That’s cool. I’ll do that next time. I’ll put that suggestion out there. (Laughs.) Did you just come up with that?
Oh, I don’t even know if it’s a thing; I’m just spitballing.
That was your idea? (Laughs.) That’s so good. No, it was a wire.
So I’ve covered a bunch of the Conjuring movies, and it turns out that a ton of creepy things have happened during the making of those films. It’s reached the point where a priest has to come by and bless each set. Since you were dabbling in witchcraft, did anything out of the ordinary happen on set?
Yep, I’ve got one for you. So I’m very sensitive when it comes to horror films. I grew up religious. I don’t know if that’s a component to it, but I really can’t take them. I only have one horror movie that I’ve watched and that I’ll show off to my friends. If they’re like, “We want to watch a horror movie tonight,” I’ll give my suggestion of the one movie I’ve seen a thousand times, so I don’t look like a baby in the room. It’s The Babadook, which I really love, and I think Jennifer Kent is such an amazing filmmaker. But I was really curious going into this movie if something like that was going to happen because you hear stories all the time. When they were scouting for homes to film in, they found out that the place they chose was a hospital in the early 1800s where about 700 people had died. I remember walking in on my first day and this weight on my chest suddenly hit me. And I’m really not into this kind of stuff, but I felt it right away. It wasn’t scary or anything, but I felt the need to cry. I just felt like there was a lot of sadness. It was interesting because I asked all of the women on set if they felt it. It was in certain rooms you’d walk into, and it was a pretty big house with three stories. But all of the women on set felt it, and none of the men did, which I found interesting. (Laughs.) Anyway, there was just a very palpable energy in there, and they gave me the attic to hang out in. I just wanted some privacy, so they were like, “You can hang in the attic up here.” So I left my phone up there to go do a take and when I came back and looked at my camera roll, there was this perfect symmetrical circle orb, like a purple-y blue orb. It was black all around, and there was a perfect black circle in the middle of this purple orb. I still have it.
Yeah. So we had one witch on set, who would guide us through the movie, make sure the spells were genuine and be there on the days that we were using spellwork. She would make sure we weren’t calling upon things that we shouldn’t be calling upon and that we were all safe. But I asked her about the orb, and she’s like, “This is a very common thing for a spirit to move through technology and phones. This happens a lot. It hears our energies and soundwaves…” She explained some research about that particular color, and it was a guiding spirit trying to help me. I did speak out loud in my holding room; I just went, “I don’t mean any harm. I’m here making a movie. If you want to help me out or offer any sort of guidance… I don’t want to make anyone mad.” (Laughs.) But I was also by myself in my dressing room and the door suddenly opened all the way, right in front of me. So that happened. When the witch came by the next day, she then talked to all the spirits. Apparently, they were just really confused by how many people were in the house, and they had never really experienced that. There’s just one single guy that lives there usually, and she just told them, “You don’t need to worry.” Then, she poured salt around the perimeter of the house, and it was much better the next day we were filming.
I’m really creeped out right now.
(Laughs.) So yeah, that’s my story.
I’m going to go grab some salt. I’ll be right back.
(Laughs.) You should.
Zoe (Lister-Jones) is the second woman director you’ve worked with in your young career. That’s pretty significant when you consider the fact that many movie stars have gone most of their careers without collaborating with a woman director. Can you sense that the industry is changing, even in the couple years you’ve been acting?
Yeah, I think I hopped right in when things were taking a sharp curve. A lot of women came before me and paved that way. They were brave and they spoke up to make an industry that I now feel safe in. I can speak up now and I’m very thankful for that. I also really love working with male directors, but there’s a sort of camaraderie you get with a female director. Zoe and I are like best friends now. I’d go over to her house every weekend and we’d rehearse all the scenes before every week. That female bond just really shines through in this movie as well. We really wanted to put a spotlight on these beautiful female relationships and how important best friends are and how those are the ones that last a lifetime. I actually grew up homeschooled, and I had much difficulty making girl friends. And then, moving from Missouri to L.A., it was really hard for me to find my group. So this movie actually was the missing piece for me; I felt really drawn to all those girls. Gideon (Adlon), who plays Frankie in the film, was a friend of mine prior to filming, but like I said, Zoe and I have now become really close. So I feel the same way as my character Lily. When she finds her women that empowered her, I also found that along the way too. It was really special.
I thought you did some amazing work on Devs. Is Alex (Garland) as intimidating as he appears to be?
Thank you so much. You know, I had the same exact feeling. Before I auditioned for it, I watched some interviews of him and he terrified the shit out of me. I don’t know why I did this. It did not make things better for me. I’m like, “I don’t know how to hold myself around him. I just can’t.” He’s such a strong personality, and he’s just a no bullshit kind of person. But he’s the warmest. He’s got two kids too, and I think I was the youngest on that set, so he was very paternal towards me. He would seriously do anything for that cast and he just means it. We all felt like a family on that set, and he was like, “I want to work with the whole cast again.” And then, almost immediately, he started writing parts for every single person from Devs in different kinds of films. He just doesn’t mess around, and he’s pretty intimidating. He just doesn’t like the Hollywood scene. (Laughs.) During all the press that we did, he didn’t understand smiling. He was like, “I don’t feel like smiling. I don’t understand.” (Laughs.) He’s so funny and the sweetest person alive.
One of my favorite actors is Stephen McKinley Henderson, and the two of you had some really compelling scenes together throughout Devs. Did you learn a lot from him as a scene partner?
Oh my god, yes. He wants to learn every single day, and that’s something that’s so amazing about actors like that. He could easily be like, “I’m a seasoned pro. I’ve done this my whole life.” But, every single day, he was like, “Teach me something new. Show me. I want to learn. I want to collaborate.” One day, coming off of set, he was like, “Ugh, I was so nervous today. I just have to remember I’ve got to learn the words. Learn the words and see where the scene takes me.” (Laughs.) He’s just the most positive person, and there’s so much light about him. He never made you feel like you were less-than. Everyone is equal. Yeah, he was so smart and so fearless. Yeah, I love that guy.
As far as Bad Times at the El Royale, I hope you and Dakota (Johnson) make another movie together just so we can have more junket moments between the two of you.
(Laughs.) Oh my god, those were so insane! They pop up on my YouTube every once in a while.
(Laughs.) Fans really had fun with that. Yeah, it was funny. Drew (Goddard) and I always joked about making a Summerspring sisters movie. Yeah, Dakota’s so great. That was a fun time.
Because you’ve had such a wide variety of roles thus far, no one has been able to label you as this or that. Are you purposefully putting yourself out there for unique characters so that the industry can’t categorize you as one thing?
Yeah, whenever anyone asks me what I want to do next, I always put it out there that I just want to do the exact opposite of what I last did. I don’t know how long that can last because I don’t know how many of those roles are out there for me, but I think I’ve been very lucky, especially with Devs. That was so out of left field. I had no idea where that was going, and Alex just told me the night before that he wanted to see me read; it was so last minute. So it’s worked out in that way, but I’m also at a point in my career that I don’t really know where I’m going to end up. I’m not sure what kind of actor I want to be. I feel like that’s such a luxury that I never thought I would have. I know I just love working and doing anything that feels challenging for me. Being the lead of a studio movie like The Craft: Legacy was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I definitely learned a lot from that and what it takes on and off set to be that kind of person. So I don’t know. My dream is to keep playing very weird, obscure things and something that I’ve never done, but I don’t know where I’ll end up. We’ll see. But yeah, it is conscious and I try to be conscious about that.
I really liked your work in Vice regardless if it made the cut or not. I thought you conveyed Lynne Cheney’s ambition to a T. Was having that experience still a win for you at the end of the day?
Totally. I adore Adam McKay and what he’s done in his career. The stories he’s telling now with all of the comedy experience in his back pocket is so genius. And Vice was my second project ever, so I got to glimpse a lot of things. I saw Christian Bale doing his screen test and how committed he was to his role, even for that. We were literally just testing the costumes and he was in full character. I have notes in my notebook of what exactly he was doing that day. So, it was totally a win, yeah. I can’t believe you saw that, though. (Laughs.) It was so sweet that Adam did that too! He was so bummed out because there were so many people and moments that got cut from that movie. Even though they were a lot of fun, it made sense why they had to go. But he sent me an email and was like, “I’m making a little short film, and it’ll be in the extras.” He was super gracious when it came to that.
I didn’t realize you had a history with music until recently. Do you have future plans for more music alongside acting, or is acting the priority now?
Acting is my priority, for sure. Music was such a fun thing to do as a little kid. I was in a band when I was 11 years old, and it was such a fun pastime. I was horrible in school, so I was doing any artistic thing I could get my hands on. I’ve been auditioning for lots of musicals, and I’ll get close on them. That’s something that I would love to try, and I think it’ll come into play eventually. I really love it, and it was such a big part of my life. I moved to L.A. thinking I was going to be a teen pop star! That was my dream. (Laughs.) So that’s not what happened, but yeah, I think it’ll play a part someday. We’ll see.
Lastly, I talked to Craig Zobel at the start of the pandemic, when he was still shooting HBO’s Mare of Easttown. How’d that experience go for you?
It was good. I mean, it’s a smaller role than I’ve done before, but I felt like the story was so compelling. My character is a teen mom with a really tragic storyline, and I just found it really interesting and difficult. But, to be honest, I didn’t do a lot of days on that before Covid shut us down. So I’m hoping to jump back in at the end of the month and start working again. Yeah, I think I’ve forgotten how to act, but we’ll see how that goes. Wish me luck. (Laughs.)
The Craft: Legacy is available Oct. 28 on PVOD and Digital.
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