In The Monster, the new film from writer/director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) that’s now in theaters an on VOD, Zoe Kazan brings both poignancy and ferocity to the role of a single mother who must protect herself and her daughter as a mysterious evil creature approaches. While The Monster is, as its name suggests, a horror film, many of the scares exist within a complex psychological profile. Kazan finds subtlety in a genre known for going over the top—her character addresses her daughter with a pleading “hey,” that conveys pain and desperation for security in a single syllable. The actress spoke with us about some of the inspirations behind her performance and what drew her to such an emotionally trying role.
The film is essentially a two-hander between you and your co-star, Ella Ballentine, which seems like it would be a challenge. How did you feel going into that?
I felt very inspired by the writing. I don’t read a lot of scripts that are about a woman’s relationship with another lady. Most of the scripts I read are about a woman’s relationship with a man. I was thrilled to find something substantive that was between two women. Ella was 14 when we shot this and I was 31 so our age difference is not that large. I think it’s helpful for me to think about Kathy, my character, as a young mother who’s very unprepared but trying her best. I was very moved by the journey that she takes to perceive the worst parts of her own nature and her own self-hatred and self-abuse to rise to action for her child.
And this is your first role in a horror film.
Yes. Honestly, I’m a big fan of a subset of this genre that historically has given women a wonderful chance to play something other than pretty and likable—films like Carrie, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Don’t Look Now, Under the Skin. I think there’s a kind of drama disguised as horror—it streaks horror through the drama. And I think we were trying to go in that same vein. I’d seen Bryan’s earlier work in The Strangers and was impressed by how little gore he used. I have nothing against the use of violence in a blinking way onscreen, but I have to say on a personal level it’s very difficult for me to watch it—as much as I respect Eli Roth I can’t watch a Hostel film. I don’t like seeing people get hurt for entertainment. I was happy to see that so much of this film is about the relationship and the aspect of terror is borne between the two of them and less inflicted on them.
The role of a working-class single mother with substance abuse issues can often be portrayed in cliché way. How did you go about avoiding that?
In the writing, I think Bryan did a really good job of portraying Kathy with an incredible amount of empathy. He was writing from a really personal place. There are people who are cruel and have something wrong with them and want to inflict harm on their child, but most people are trying their best. She’s struggling with an extreme amount of self-loathing and self-destructive behavior and addiction and that’s something I have empathy for and don’t want to judge. Some people—I have to tell you, especially males—who have interviewed me have said, “Oh, do you think the monster in the title is Kathy?” I reject that interpretation entirely. That doesn’t speak to our intentions with the film.
Were there any specific performances you drew on for inspiration in your role?
Yeah, I watched Ellen Burstyn in a couple things, in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and The Exorcist. Those are two big ones for me. There’s something in Kathy—she’s a real survivor of her own life, even though she’s survived with coping mechanisms that are not the best, she’s still managed to survive. It was really important to me that her physicality be really strong and brave and kind of wiry. I actually looked at James Caan in The Godfather, as Sonny. He had that open chest and turned-back shoulders and that catlike stride. That was something I rewatched while I was preparing.
You’ve done a good deal of acting for the theater. How does that compare to being in a film like this? Is there any crossover?
They’re really different. Onstage you have to build your performance in rehearsal and previews in a way that it becomes replicable every night with your fellow actors, regardless of what’s happening in your personal life or what the mood is that day. You’re creating this thing that you’ll run. On film the camera and the music and the editor help with parts of that emotional and mental story for you. But onstage you’re also in charge of pace and mood and tone. It’s a thing that becomes agreed upon between you onstage with you and the other actors. The best-case scenario is you manage that together. It’s a lot more collaborative but it also puts more responsibility on your shoulders. Whatever you think of my acting ability, I would not be the actor I am today if I had not done as many plays as I had. It’s really taught me how to be responsible for my own performances. But there is a thing that happens in film that you never quite get onstage, a kind of being able to have a freedom of expression and experimentation that is not beholden to storytelling. Because you know that other people are going to come in behind you and help crack your performance. You can give a take that feels more off-kilter or further in one direction than you would necessarily go for the whole performance. There’s freedom in it, and that’s really fun.