Australian actress Radha Mitchell co-stars this week in the intense, well-crafted thriller The Crazies, where she puts her genre experience from films like Pitch Black, Silent Hill, and Surrogates to good use—as well as her impressive screaming ability.
Mitchell balances her obvious enjoyment of action and horror roles with her wider interest in other dramatic types of filmmaking—she’s also appeared in High Art and Finding Neverland, and starred in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda. The actress’s first name, given to her by spiritually inclined parents, means “devotion” in Hindu, and that sort of embracing of the light and dark, the joy and suffering of life is clearly reflected in how she approaches her art—both the films she makes, and the ones she’d love to see made.
Several other writers and I sat down with Mitchell in Chicago a few months ago to talk about The Crazies; acting in horror films; the need for slower, more poetic filmmaking; and throwing up on or around strangers in public.
On What Makes The Crazies Different from Other Horror Films
Radha Mitchell: I was in Calcutta [producing a film called The Waiting City] when I first spoke to [The Crazies director] Breck Eisner. I couldn’t get through the script for The Crazies because it was so dense in description. Generally when you flip though a script you’re just looking for your dialogue, but in this case it was like “focus on the field, and there’s a pitchfork.”
And when I spoke to him I got quite excited because he said he was going to reference movies like No Country for Old Men–that’s the mood, the tone was going to be very restrained. And I was like, “really, but it’s a slasher film?”
It was interesting to me to see two adult characters in The Crazies with adult issues at a center of the story. [Mitchell’s doctor character is the wife of Timothy Olyphant’s sheriff.] Sort of unusual in a way—you’re used to seeing teenagers in movies like this.
On the Film’s Themes of Pandemic Paranoia
Mitchell: It’s a pretty bleak film. But I grew up afraid of nuclear explosions and worried about what the future was going to be for my generation. Our whole generation had this fear of being blown up before we grew up. So I guess there’s always been some sort of fear of the apocalypse, and now we have global warming to think about. There’s this idea that maybe humanity is not going to continue. And if a disaster like this did go down, does the individual count or are we all statistics? I think we all know we’re just statistics. I could certainly imagine a scenario where the individual loses value in terms of trying to save the whole world. After all, what’s the value of four people’s lives when a disease could spread?
The fear of a global pandemic is very real. You can see how quickly these things can go through a community. It’s pretty scary. I guess the diseases are getting smarter and wiser and stronger and bigger and tougher. They can take over at any point.
On Doing Horror Films and Acting Terrified
Mitchell: It’s fun! We should have a go right now! [Suddenly screams very long and loudly.] If you do that long enough, and loud enough, afterward you just feel kind of like ahhhhhh. Because you get things out that you can’t in real life, right? I mean, when do you get to attack a crazy and smash them around in the rain? And don’t you have a fantasy about doing that somewhere inside you?
What’s really difficult is to act surprised or shocked. Surprise is probably the hardest thing to fake. On the set we had these gunshots—“POW”—go off when we need a shock moment. It’s just so hard to do that without some physical stimulation.
On Being Part of the Horror Film Community
Mitchell: Often genre movies do sort of go to the edge of where the mainstream is willing to go, and in that way they can bring to the fore issues people don’t want to discuss. There’s certainly a rage and rebellion and things in these films that are important and need to be included in culture, and I’m happy to be part of that voice.
I have no interest in celebrity, but it’s fun to talk about film and your work if it’s with people that love it. That’s why I like talking to people about genre films, because generally the audience members are film buffs and they know cinema. Their references are about the movie and not about your love life or these things that you don’t want to talk about. It’s very much for the love of cinema.
On the Sort of Horror Films She’d Love to Make
Mitchell: I actually I really liked the monsters in Silent Hill. I thought they were beautiful and ugly and strange and so surreal. I’d bring those guys back, but I don’t think I’d be fighting them. I’d want to have a domestic scene, like a normal family movie with those guys. They must relax at some point. When we were shooting Silent Hill, there’d be monsters on set like drinking Coke or having cigarettes. I’d love to see that in a movie where it’s very casual and the monsters are just living life, you know?
If someone were to make like Rosemary’s Baby again, that would be great—where there’s that level of sophistication in the filmmaking and the horror element.
On the Need for Slowing Down and Appreciating Small, Poetic Dramas
Mitchell: I guess people don’t really get out to see drama anymore, or small dramas. Why that is, I’m curious. They can’t even make adult drama anymore. I guess you could say the people are desensitized, because there is so much stimulus going on, and you have this veneer around you that is hard to penetrate. Small dramatic movies like that don’t necessarily sell even if they have massive stars. I don’t think you can’t blame Hollywood–I also think it has something to do with what people want, that maybe people need to slow down in general. You have to look at the audiences and ask, “Why are we so busy? Why are we always on our cell phones? Why are we so distracted? Why can’t we sit still and focus on something?”
I want to see a movie that’s that slow, that’s about a nature photographer, where you’re forced to slow down to the speed of a forest. Like Terrence Malick films where you seriously watch grass grow. And it’s not boring. It’s very poetic, and there’s something about that that reminds us of our humanity. I’d like to see more films like that. I’d like to be in more films like that.