Prior to [Buffy], I had done mostly comedies and thought of myself as a comedic actress. They kind of dragged me kicking and screaming into drama.
Inspired by the story of H.H. Holmes, one of the first documented serial killers at the end of the 19th century who built a booby-trapped hotel and killed up to 200 people, Andrew C. Erin’s Havenhurst is not a groundbreaking horror film by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s a neat metaphor for addiction. Imagine an organization like AA punishing drunks and junkies for getting high, with a big goon dishing out tough love on offenders, quite literally turning them inside out.
Jackie (Julie Benz) is in need of some help. A recovering addict fresh out of rehab, the guilt surrounding the death of her child is consuming her every thought. Jackie needs a place to stay. She takes refuge at Havenhurst, which appears to be a godsend. Unlike other properties you might find around Manhattan, the beautiful gothic apartment complex extends its hand to charity cases: folks ranging from reformed streetwalkers to the most violent pedophiles. Here, the rent is what you can afford. The cardinal-rule is simple enough: don’t fall back to your old ways and you can stay indefinitely. But there’s something else that’s drawing her in: Jackie’s rehab friend Danielle (Danielle Harris) was staying here, before she vanished. Now she’s on a mission to find her with the assistance of a detective (Josh Stamberg) and the troubled young girl living next door (Belle Shouse). Add to this Havenhurst’s icy landlord (Fionnula Flanagan) and her unsavory maintenance guy son (Matt Lasky), welcoming new arrivals just as quickly as they would see them out.
Most residents at Havenhurst will get “evicted”—addiction is a beast, after all. This is where our shadowy foe comes in, always concealed behind false walls, escape routes, and trapdoors the property is honeycombed with. All passages lead to a torture chamber where characters soon find themselves in the grinder, or actually worse, the furnace, which adds a dynamic urgency to the film’s proceedings. The nameless figure is the lord high executioner of this veritable murder castle.
Havenhurst opens in select theaters and available to view across digital platforms on February 10.
Congratulations on Havenhurst. Your new show Training Day also premiered this week.
I know! February is a big month for me. Who knew? [Laughs]
You’ve been in your share of horror films over the years. What drew you to Havenhurst?
I really loved the script and my character Jackie. Even though it’s considered a horror film, there’s still drama behind it. Jackie is also battling inner demons, outside the demons we find at Havenhurst. To me, the film operates on many different levels and it’s not just a horror film.
Addiction is paramount in telling this story.
What [Andrew C. Erin and Daniel Farrands] wrote was so specific on the page and I just really understood Jackie. I don’t suffer from addictions, except I maybe post too many pictures of my dogs on Instagram. [Laughs] I’ve always been fascinated by addiction. The key to understanding Jackie is that, because of her addiction, she is responsible for her daughter’s death. She has to live with that every single day and it’s about trying to imagine how hard that would be to live with. I tried to convey that in my physicality as well. It’s a little bit like Jackie’s wading through mud in the beginning when we first meet her. Every breath she takes to stay alive is stressful. People can relate to that because we want these characters to stay clean. When they don’t, they pay the price.
There’s a lot of running around that comes with the territory in horror, right?
Yes! It was very physically challenging. I did have an amazing stunt double who took the majority of the blows, but they let me do as much as they were comfortable with. One of the scariest moments for me was when I had to do a long chase scene, stop at a very specific mark, and drop down as the floor was pulled from underneath me. I dropped down to a pad, but if I missed that mark by even an inch, I would run the risk of hitting my head on something. During the first take, my heart was pounding so loud that you could hear it on my mic. [Laughs] I was so terrified. They also let me go into the furnace. They said to me, “You don’t need to stay in there that long. Don’t let the fire get too close.” Of course, I pushed it a little further and stayed in a little longer than they were comfortable with. I just wanted to see how long I could stay in before getting really scared.
Where do you draw the line when it comes to stunt work?
When I worked on Rambo, [Sylvester] Stallone came to me at the very beginning and said, “It makes for a richer film if it’s your face hitting the dirt.” So I made a deal with him that I would try every stunt once, and if I got scared, my stunt double would take over. That has pretty much been my rule ever since. I’m very physically active and I’ve been an athlete my whole life. I love being challenged. I’m open to trying out stunts and pushing the envelope. The one thing I can’t do are water stunts—I have to know my limitations. You’re not going to see me in the sequel to Titanic, basically. [Laughs] That’s not my movie. So it was the same thing with Andrew on Havenhurst. I’m willing to do whatever you think I can handle. There were some big falls that my stunt double had to take because I’m not a trained stuntwoman. I’m willing to try as much as possible, as long as I’m not putting my life at risk. I’m very clear about that. I’ve worked with some amazing stunt teams over the years so I know where to draw the line. I know what’s safe and what’s not.
What did you find challenging on this film that you maybe didn’t anticipate going in?
Andrew had a specific style of directing with a lot of long, slow-moving shots. He really slowed my pace down. I’m used to working on television where you hit the mark and say your lines as fast as you can because we have to move things along. I had to trust that those moments of pauses and the slowness were strong enough to be interesting. It’s scary for me, as an actor, to slow down.
I’m assuming most of this was shot on a soundstage.
A lot of it was set, but there were some locations. We actually shot this film in Los Angeles, which was really exciting. We got one of those special package incentives to shoot in L.A. I was excited to shoot a movie in L.A. because it’s very rare. When the opportunity comes up, it’s very exciting.
A lot of people probably know you more for your horror roles. Is horror a genre that you’re particularly drawn to or is it just happenstance that things worked out this way?
When I first got into this business, I wanted to do comedies—romantic comedies, specifically. Then, because of Joss Whedon, my crew and I took a left turn. I discovered that genre films are actually more challenging. In genre films, you’re challenged on many different levels, physically and emotionally. Also, any given circumstance is so extreme that you have to create something real in ways that really challenge your imagination. I get very excited and stimulated by that.
What about as a spectator? Do you enjoy watching scary movies?
I do! I love being scared—as entertainment. [Laughs] People are drawn to horror. It’s humanizing to know what scares you and to be scared. But I don’t think we want to experience that in real life. I think there’s a sadistic element to it as well, with the adrenaline rush. It’s a roller coaster ride.
What scares you in real life?
Going underwater. I don’t swim—well, I doggy paddle. The ocean scares me. What lies beneath?
My absolute, long-standing fear is floating in a body of water, alone, in pitch darkness.
When Jaws first came out—I must’ve been two or three years old—my parents took me and my siblings to a drive-in, thinking that we would all sleep in the back seat. Nope, we stayed awake. None of my siblings—none of us go in the ocean. [Laughs] Jaws is the defining horror movie.
I know you were once squeamish at the sight of blood and that sort of dashed your childhood dream of becoming a doctor. I would venture to guess that you’re used to it by now.
Nope! Nope, nope, nope… [Laughs] I’m still squeamish and I still get like, “Oh god, I’m going to throw up.” I’m just really good at pretending like it’s not happening. It’s kind of ironic because I do take a lot of genre/horror work and there’s a lot of fake blood on set. I do get kind of nauseous from it. I have to constantly remind myself, “It’s fake! It’s fake, it’s fake, it’s fake… It’s not real.”
Andrew and Daniel also pulled a lot of inspiration from the legend surrounding H.H. Holmes.
It’s a very, very big part of it. From what I understand, Andrew and Daniel had originally conceived Havenhurst as a TV series, so the H.H. Holmes reference was really fleshed out. By the time we went to shoot it as a movie, everything was already in place and for a specific reason. By the time I read the script, I knew there had been a lot of thought put into that already. There were no script changes while we were working and we shot the script as written. I read The Devil in the White City years ago and found it fascinating. I was fascinated by that whole twist in the movie.
What is your proudest moment in acting? What is your crowning achievement?
I think Buffy and Angel, so far. They’re distant horror, but also a crossover. It still stands and has legs today. I meet so many grown-up Buffy fans who’ve now introduced the show to their children. Just knowing that it will stand the test of time, in many ways like Star Trek, is a real honor.
Buffy was certainly a breakout role and you pretty much explored everything, including period costumes and a lot of melodrama. What was the learning curve like on that show?
I always say that working on Buffy and Angel was like going to graduate school as an actor. I learned so much from Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt. They encouraged us to make creative choices. Sometimes those choices didn’t work, but at least we made a choice, you know? They pushed me out of my comfort zone. Prior to that, I had done mostly comedies and thought of myself as a comedic actress. They kind of dragged me kicking and screaming into drama. [Laughs] It was a really special and amazing experience for me as a young actor to be a part of that universe.
Have you noticed changes in the way women are portrayed in horror since the days of Buffy?
I think we see more heroines now. I think in film, not just horror, we’re seeing more flawed women we can still root for—fully-realized human beings—versus the archetype or stereotype. We’re seeing more women in power versus women in peril. We’re definitely seeing that change.
Is there, or were there, ever talks about resurrecting Jawbreaker with a sequel? Is that something that would interest you this far down the line? It has such a cult following.
Darren Stein always had this idea of doing a spin-off sequel where Marcie and Courtney are in prison. [Laughs] But at this point, if there was a sequel, they would have to recast the roles because we’re all much older now. I loved playing Marcie. I thought she was just so much fun.
Why do you think people build entire communities and sub-cultures around horror movies?
It appeals to you in a very specific way where, in your terror and in your fright, you can bond over it. Horror has always lived on the outskirts of the mainstream. I think diehard fans of horror watch it in a different way, accept it in a different way, and are passionate about it in a different way. There’s a huge swath of people who don’t like to be scared, at all. They want to prance through life in a garden of daisies. When you’re a horror fan, it actually brings you together.
What’s the scariest movie that you saw in the past year?
I’m terrible at these kinds of questions! I can’t remember when you put me on the spot. [Laughs]
It doesn’t have to be last year. What’s your favorite horror film, period?
The Saw franchise really fucked me up. I was in [Saw V] and I still haven’t watched it. The first one fucked me up big time, emotionally. Being in one was a challenge because I was terrified of all the traps. I had nightmares the whole time while we were filming. I actually vomited on set one day when one of the traps got too real. I actually took that movie to see if I could be in that world, and I discovered that I cannot. [Laughs] That franchise just really, truly screwed with my head.
Is there a sub-genre in horror that you’re more drawn to than others?
What are the different sub-genres?
Supernatural, slasher, psychological, body, zombies—
I don’t like zombies. That’s the one genre I don’t like. I can’t get past the zombie thing.
If you had your way, what kind of role would you want to take on next in horror?
This isn’t straight-up horror, but I would love to play a role like Sigourney Weaver did in Alien.