- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
[The following interview contains major spoilers for Midnight Mass.]
Annabeth Gish has been acting professionally since she was 13 years old, and the work has only gotten more and more rewarding, particularly because of her collaboration with filmmaker Mike Flanagan. Their latest work, Midnight Mass, is Gish’s third project with Flanagan since 2016 (Before I Wake, The Haunting of Hill House), as she plays Dr. Sarah Gunning, the doctor of a very religious island community. In one of the series’ many powerful moments, Alex Essoe, who plays Sarah’s mother, Mildred, emerges from her dementia, which hit Gish close to home.
“Alex and I, in particular, had one scene in our home where she’s suddenly alert from her dementia, and there was this connective energy transfer that rocked me to my core,” Gish tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I have an aging mother; she’s my best friend. And to play this scene in a world where you can re-meet your younger mother was a beautiful and spiritual experience. It was for both Alex and I — and Mike, too. I had to step away from it for a minute because it was really potent.”
At the very end of the series, Dr. Gunning is shot to death by mistake, but in her dying moments, she refuses the vampiric blood of her father, Monsignor Pruitt/Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), a choice that Gish wouldn’t necessarily make herself.
“At the very end, if it was me, Annabeth, I probably would’ve taken the blood he tried to give me because I’m sentimental,” Gish shares. “I want to know my father and I want to know my mother, but Sarah lived in her conviction. She was so solid.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Gish also looks back at Halt and Catch Fire, Mystic Pizza‘s prop pizza and the challenges of joining great shows in the middle of their runs.
Congratulations on Midnight Mass. It’s truly a special piece of storytelling.
Thank you. I’ve been holding that hope because I know what we were a part of, so I really hope it resonates and lands. But it’s very different. It’s not your typical horror, genre food. It felt special when we were making it, and it felt special when I watched it. So I really do pray — with the emphasis on pray because it’s a religious series — that it resonates in different ways with people.
So when you see Mike Flanagan’s name on your caller ID, do you immediately start packing a suitcase?
(Laughs.) There definitely is a titillating tickle of anticipation. This is my third project with him, and I’m always just innately intrigued and honored that he keeps coming back. (Laughs.) He’s curated this repertory company, and to be invited back is always just an honor.
As flattering as good reviews and awards probably are for an actor, repeat business seems like the ultimate compliment.
It’s interesting because Mike doesn’t invite sycophants. It’s not like he wants anyone to kiss his ass. He just really likes working with people who are professional, creative, prepared, interesting and dare I say, nice. Because he’s so highly organized and extremely, exorbitantly prepared, there’s no time for bullshit on a Mike Flanagan set. There’s time for fun, but you have to know your role and bring your A game. So yes, it’s always a good thing.
From top to bottom, Mike always gives his actors their big moment or two to shine, unlike a lot of shows out there. So I can see why you and your castmates love working for him.
Yes, this is a very astute observation, but I do have one bone to pick about this particular project. For Dr. Sarah Gunning, I have this whole expositional scene and purpose because she has to scientifically explain what could be happening in this metaphysical experience. So I had to learn how to say “erythropoietic protoporphyria,” and it’s not even on camera! (Laughs.) So I said to him the other day, I was like, “If I knew you were going to shoot the back of my head for that very scientific word, I wouldn’t have learned it!” (Laughs.) I’m kidding, of course. But he does give everybody their steak dinner, if you will, such as Robert Longstreet, who I adore. There are so many quiet performances in all these things, but particularly in this. Henry Thomas has a whole new note. Kristin Lehman. I think Rahul Kohli is doing something we’ve never seen before. Even myself, there’s no high drama. It’s just a steady intellectual, scientific grounding, but everybody gets their meal. You’re right.
These characters are isolated on an island, as were the cast and crew during the pandemic. Could you sense that your own feelings of isolation carried over into the work?
Yes. We were one of the first productions to get back up and running in August 2020, five months after the world shut down. Mind you, we had a massive table read of all seven episodes, and then the next day, we all had to fly home. So it was percolating in our psyches and in our emotional lives, and it was terrifying. We were doing things that every medical professional was saying not to do. We had groups of people in a church. We were crying; there were fluids. And yet, because of the protocols that Mike, Trevor [Macy] with Intrepid and Netflix all set forth, there was an odd feeling of safety. It felt daring and it did feel isolating, because nobody else I knew was working. Even a few friends down in L.A. were like, “Are you really sure that’s safe?” But having worked with Mike and Trevor before, there was an implicit trust and a willingness to do it. I would never have not gone back. The other wonderful thing we were all allowed to do was bring our families, which made it less isolating. But gone were the days of meeting at some place for a meal or having big cast dinners; none of that happened. We were isolated, and the only time we got to connect was on set. So that probably invested more of us.
[The rest of the interview contains major spoilers for Midnight Mass.]
There’s a powerful scene where Dr. Gunning tells Kate Siegel’s Erin that her baby is gone, and it very much seemed like you had to walk a tightrope. You not only had to maintain a brave face to Kate’s character, but you also had to communicate to the audience that something was very wrong. So what was your approach going into that scene?
I adore Kate Siegel so much. Kate and I are both mothers, so it’s a delicate conversation to have. That scene was so strangely emotional even though it’s so scientific and rational. We shot it very quickly. Mike likes to train a camera on his actors and let them do their thing. The camera is a fourth person in the scene, but it is quiet as hell on the set. Mike makes sure that everybody knows to respect this process, because it’s three pages of dialogue. But so much of the nuance of that is just to deliver the lines as honestly and authentically as possible. I think that’s something special about what his actors do; nobody is over the top. Even Hamish [Linklater], who has this massively religious rhetoric and scripture, is just so grounded.
It’s a fitting contrast that the island doctor ends up being the daughter of the island pastor. Did Sarah suspect this at all in your estimation?
No, I don’t think she ever knew, and I never played it as such. That would’ve changed everything. I think there might have been a subconscious, psychic thought about this person [Father Paul aka Monsignor Pruitt] who’s shown up. You can see it when he watches how he gives her mother [Alex Essoe] communion in this intimate, tender way. So I think she witnessed that, but I don’t think there’s any world where she ever thought this, especially with her devout mother. This lends itself more to the beauty of the project because it’s so sad. It’s so tragic that all those times she thought he was looking at her and judging her, he was actually looking at her lovingly. So it’s so tragic, and this is why I love Mike because he never indulges that shit. It’s just like, “OK, that’s a tragedy we missed.” But to play Hamish Linklater’s daughter was great. I just love him. I always call him “Dad.”
Much like the Crock Pot Luck staring scene, I rewatched the first scene between Sarah and Father Paul in the doorway, and Flanagan gave us all the clues. Paul was fixated on her before saying anything, and even though most people used the term Monsignor, she called him “Father,” which obviously wasn’t going to raise our suspicions on the first viewing. But were you and Hamish actively trying to plant seeds that might reward the second viewing?
I think Mike Flanagan was actively planting seeds to do that. Of course, we, as actors, know. Psychologically, Annabeth knows and Hamish knows, but you have to enter the world in which Sarah does not know. His character knows, obviously. So no, I wish I could say that.
Would you have taken the blood that Father Paul offered?
At the very end, if it was me, Annabeth, I probably would’ve taken the blood he tried to give me because I’m sentimental. I want to know my father and I want to know my mother, but Sarah lived in her conviction. She was so solid.
I just love how Dr. Gunning stuck to her guns by refusing his blood. That was completely in character, like you said.
Completely. Sarah never wavers despite being their daughter. It’s such a subtle, quiet storyline. It doesn’t have a lot of fanfare. It’s just a quiet moment toward the end, but it has profound implications if you think about it. She’s rejecting the blood of Christ, the blood of her father. Mike is operating on so many subtle levels that it will take three or four viewings to really understand the scope of it. What daughter rejects the blood of her father? Certainly not a good Christian girl. (Laughs.) But she was different and an outsider from the beginning.
The Easter Vigil poisoning must have been a wild sequence to shoot, especially during a pandemic.
Oh my God, it was all of the chaos that you would imagine under extreme, protective protocols. I mean, we were getting tested multiple times a day. We had a group of extras who were also podding and isolating. So it was like 200 people in this sequence for the last two weeks of our filming. It was terrifying, and yet, we’d already had four and a half months of this rigorous schedule and protocols. None of them were ever relaxed by that time, even in Canada where the numbers were so much less. I was doing this scene where Alex Essoe was leaning over me and crying, and I was like, “This is so not COVID-approved.” (Laughs.) But we trusted, and no one ever felt unsafe, even though there were candles and people everywhere. It was one of the most wild experiences I’ve ever had. Wild and rewarding.
Sarah’s story about Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis and hand-washing really struck a chord given the past 18 months.
It’s prescient of Mike to have written this before COVID. Dr. Sarah Gunning talks about a blood-borne virus, and it is preventable. If we do these simple scientific things like washing our hands and wearing a mask, they make a difference, medically. But it doesn’t matter in the face of religious fanaticism, which we’re clearly living through.
Alex Essoe, who plays Sarah’s mother, was made up to look much older since her character goes through this rejuvenation process via the “sacramental wine.” Did the dynamic get more and more bizarre as this maternal character got younger and younger?
Yes, your reaction is absolutely accurate. It was bizarre, especially because I’ve also known Alex for many years through the Mike Flanagan world. She’s younger than I am, inherently, and Hamish is younger than I am. So I was the eldest of either one of them, even though they were playing my parents. Alex and I, in particular, had one scene in our home where she’s suddenly alert from her dementia, and there was this connective energy transfer that rocked me to my core. I have an aging mother; she’s my best friend. And to play this scene in a world where you can re-meet your younger mother was a beautiful and spiritual experience. It was for both Alex and I — and Mike, too. I had to step away from it for a minute because it was really potent.
At the end, did they light that entire location on fire for the most part?
I believe they did. I’m sure some of it was effects. We spent a lot of nights in Langley, British Columbia, and they built this whole set. And I think that they did light it on fire.
You were a part of Halt and Catch Fire, which is one of the finest shows ever made. How would you sum up that experience?
I came to that show late. I came for the last two seasons, and I was only recurring. So I only had intermittent visits. It’s interesting that you say that because Stephen King, in the last two weeks, has tweeted about Halt and Catch Fire and Midnight Mass. And I’ve already done two Stephen King projects prior to this [Bag of Bones, Desperation]. And because I think his book on writing [On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft] is the seminal book on writing for artists and creatives in general, it’s no small thing when he notices. I think Halt and Catch Fire is one of the most undersung television shows of this decade. The Chrises [Christopher Cantwell, Christopher C. Rogers], who created it, are brilliant, and that cast, there was just something so exquisite about the chemistry of everyone. I’m not giving you a good sound bite about it, but it was a complete honor to be invited to play with those people.
You’ve joined several great shows in the middle of their runs …
That’s my M.O.! (Laughs.)
But it probably has its challenges since the cast and crew are already connected. Does it, in fact, feel a lot like changing schools during your senior year?
Yes, clearly you understand my psyche. It is always terrifying like the first day of school or the night before. I’m honored that I get invited to join these shows, whether it’s The West Wing, The X-Files, Sons of Anarchy and Scandal for a little bit. So I get these gifts, and it is always intimidating. But I never forget that I just like being in the arena; I’m honored that I get to join the arena. I’m a journeyman actress. I’ve been around for a long time. I started when I was 13, and now I’m 50. I also still think the best is yet to come, so I guess it’s just an attitude.
Midnight Mass is proof of that.
Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Lastly, my mom raised me on Mystic Pizza, and while you’ve probably been asked this a million times, I have to follow suit. So was that prop pizza any good?
(Laughs.) Of course not! No prop pizza is ever good. It just simply can’t be because of the timing and all that. But Conchata Ferrell’s recipe for pizza is magical. She was where it’s at. She was the heart and soul of Mystic Pizza.
Midnight Mass is now streaming on Netflix. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day