Sometimes, coming up as a woman in this business, it can feel like the guys get to do all the fun stuff and you're not getting to do as much fun stuff.
The central theme at the heart of H.P. Lovecraft’s writing was this idea that we live in a howling, empty void—a cosmos that’s indifferent to humanity at absolute best, and so inimical at worst that even a glimpse at the true horrors of the universe would drive most people insane. Yet, a handful of filmmakers have found wry humor in his stories, sometimes for satirical purposes, and at others, without losing the enveloping cosmic horror that’s inseparable from his work. Chief among the Lovecraftian practitioners was Stuart Gordon—the fiendish provocateur of sweaty innuendo and lascivious excess departed this world in 2020—whose Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dagon all lend a certain degree of goofiness to the subgenre. More than anyone else, Gordon recognized the inherent potential of horror to be an instrument of subversion and transgression as well. That spirit of Gordon is alive and well in director Joe Lynch’s Suitable Flesh, with the best assistance possible in screenwriter Dennis Paoli, who wrote the three aforementioned Gordon films, as well as Lynch’s gender-reversed adaptation of Lovecraft’s 1933 short story “The Thing on the Doorstep.”
In Suitable Flesh, Heather Graham is Elizabeth Derby, a psychiatrist with a hit book on multiple personality disorders and a doctorate in stifled sexual urges, and whose perfect life is still missing a spark of excitement—although the spark she finds is liable to burn her world to ashes. Her latest patient, Asa (Judah Lewis), is an emotionally ragged college student who’s frantic to get someone to listen to him, even if most of what he’s saying doesn’t make a lick of sense. His attempts to telegraph his anxieties are woefully unclear: when he talks about his father trying to seize his body, he could be talking about anything from sexual molestation to paranoid schizophrenic delusion. Elizabeth assumes the latter, deciding that Asa must be suffering from dissociative identity disorder—which in no way curtails her inappropriate attraction to her client. Soon enough, the randy, ambisexual hell beast within Asa is taking over her body, and the now dangerous doctor is wrecking havoc at home and in the workplace, threatening her core relationships with her husband, Edward (Johnathon Schaech), and her colleague and best friend, Daniella (Barbara Crampton).
Anthem recently connected with Graham via phone for a friendly conversation.
Suitable Flesh makes its streaming debut on Shudder on January 26.
I had so much fun watching this movie, and this is one of those things where you can just tell that the actors had fun making it. It’s a feeling that gets imprinted, like transference.
I’m so glad you got that from it! It was a really fun role. We didn’t get to do press when the movie came out [in limited release in October] because of the actors’ strike so I’m happy to talk about it.
How often do we get to body-swap with a demonic entity? Hardly ever…
[laughs] I was very excited about that. It was very fun!
So do you create a backstory? How does this work?
I spent more time creating the backstory for Elizabeth, but I did. It’s basically a demonic entity that can’t be killed, right? He’s only really interested in sex and domination so you’re just playing someone who, in every scene, wants to go through people and take charge.
I found comedy in that. He’s not out for world domination as far as I can tell. He’s just really, really horny, and wants to try on as many different human outfits as possible.
I think when you live forever, one of the main things you think about is that you don’t wanna be bored, probably. I think it’s kind of like, “How can I entertain myself today?”
This film is wild by design and it’s asking a lot of you so I can’t help but wonder if you had any reservations. I think it’s only possible to do this justice if you commit to it totally.
You know, I’d seen some of Joe’s [Lynch] other films, which made me feel more confident in him. I saw a movie he did with Selma Hayek [Everly] and I really liked how he shot that. When I got to talking to him, he was a super cinephile. He really knows every movie. He knows every shot in every movie. He really loves film. I really liked working with him. I think he’s talented.
A commonality I find amongst genre filmmakers is that they’re true cinephiles. They have an encyclopedic knowledge, even of obscure films. I can see how that instills a lot of confidence.
It’s amazing. I love people like that ‘cause I love movies, too. He remembers every single shot. It’s at the level of having seen every film. He has really cool ideas about how to shoot things because he notices all of that in the films he’s watched. And I think it’s cool when male directors wanna tell stories with a female protagonist. I appreciate that this is a Lovecraft story that was written with a male character. He was open to changing it to a female character. I thought that was so cool.
At a genre film festival years ago, Barbara [Crampton] did bring up that intriguing point about how Lovecraft’s writing was always male-skewing, and how she was Stuart Gordon’s invention in Re-Animator and From Beyond. Now we have a female character leading this story. Not to mention, erotic thrillers are rarely told from the female point of view, right?
Yeah, that’s really interesting! I’m glad that I had the opportunity to play this role.
Knowing all of that, did you find yourself engaging with the material differently? Is there perhaps an added sense of glee, like you’re going to go into this and have a really good time?
[laughs] Sometimes, coming up as a woman in this business, it can feel like the guys get to do all the fun stuff and you’re not getting to do as much fun stuff. So it’s really fun to get the fun stuff to do, you know? I felt very lucky. Barbara is a producer and she wants to support films that have really interesting female characters. Joe is super on board with that as well.
The film’s inclusive in other ways, too. I love that we get an ambisexual demon. It opens the story up to comedic situations, and it’s normalizing something that’s been taboo in society.
Yeah, he has no inhibitions. He would probably have sex with anyone. [laughs] He’s up for it.
It reminded me of sex addiction. Sex addicts don’t discriminate. They just want to get off.
He’s definitely a sex addict. He’s going through life only focused on sex and smoking cigarettes.
How familiar were you with the world of Lovecraft going into all of this?
I wasn’t too familiar with it. I read the short story, but I have been learning a lot more about it, and about Stuart Gordon, of course, through Barbara, who’s such an icon in that world. And from Joe.
I also wanted to congratulate you on your second directorial feature—Chosen Family.
Thank you! I’m so excited about it. We got into Santa Barbara and another cool film festival today.
It’s one thing for an actor to wanna tell their own stories, but to actually go off and do that is different altogether. There are filmmakers out there that hope to make one film. It’s hard.
It’s like climbing Mount Everest. It’s like you’re pushing a rock up a mountain. So any time anyone gets a movie made, it’s a huge accomplishment. I grew up during a time where I feel like there weren’t as many movies made with female protagonists, and I love watching those kinds of movies. I do feel like there’s an underserved market. There’s definitely more being made now, but I wouldn’t say it’s totally equal. I just felt like I wanted to watch more movies about women. Once you’ve acted in a lot of movies, sometimes you do wanna tell a story from your own perspective.
How much progress do you think we’ve made since, say, you’re first feature—Half Magic?
I don’t think it’s a massive improvement, but I do think there was an improvement. It’s exciting to see Barbie because that’s a huge studio movie with a very feminist point of view. I love that movie because, normally, it’s a small movie when it’s the woman’s story. The huge movies are all men’s stories. It’s the action movies where men kill everyone, and maybe there’s one cool female character, but the man is the lead, you know? It was just cool to see that movie do so well—a very feminist, female-driven movie. Margot Robbie is very cool. I think she does really cool stuff.
Warner Brothers giving Greta [Gerwig] all that money is definitely a new kind of frontier.
She’s really talented. I was talking to this producer the other day and he said, “You take this underserved market and give them something that they never had, but always wanted, and now you’re seeing an appetite for it.” There’s all these women out there and there’s nothing for us to go see that might totally express our experience. You give them that movie and everyone is excited.
You’ve been prolific with many different kinds of projects. What have you yet to do?
I have a bunch more personal projects I’m working on. I optioned Liane Moriarty’s book The Hypnotist’s Love Story. I love her writing. She also wrote Big Little Lies. I’m partnering with my friend, Deb Fisher, who is a showrunner on that really great TV show Ginny & Georgia. We wanna turn it into a TV series. So I’m working on that and writing something else with another friend. It’s fun and, to be honest, it’s also really hard. Sometimes when you get to the end of doing your own project, you go, “Do I ever wanna do this again?” But there is something really fun about it.
I’m impressed whenever actors take up writing themselves. It doesn’t come naturally to me.
I’m actually writing a new thing right now, which I’m pretty excited about. And I totally find it hard, too. Sometimes, I get to the end and think, “Is this good?” I usually want to tell a story about something I care about, something I learned, or something that I thought was painful, but when I look back, can find a way to make funny. I like finding humor in things that were once painful.
This is a question I can really only ask someone who has worn multiple hats: for an actor, what’s an invaluable trait directors possess, and what’s a trait in actors directors look for?
I think being a director is almost like being a parent ‘cause, in a way, as an actor, you’re really putting yourself out there with all your feelings and emotions. You’re making yourself vulnerable, so you wanna feel like somebody’s on the other side of the camera supporting you and has your back and is protecting you and bringing out your best work. And I guess as a director, I just feel so grateful for the people that show up to work on my things that I want them to feel safe and adored. I remember working with Paul Thomas Anderson: he was just really supportive and made you feel like he thought you were amazing, you know? You do want that feeling of confidence, almost like you’re being loved, even though it’s not that and you don’t really know the person that well. It’s a feeling of just being appreciated and supported and kind of loved in a work type of way.
Trust is obviously paramount on both sides. When do you normally find that on a film?
As an actor, you have to do your best no matter what the director is like. But I definitely think it’s always a bit nerve-racking and scary on the first day. Then as you get more into shooting, usually, there’s a period of relaxing and getting used to each other where you start to feel more confident.
Joe did go on the record to say that, when he first got on that Zoom call with you, you seemed intrigued, but also probably wanting to suss him out. That’s just good sense, isn’t it?
[laughs] I guess so. You want to work with people who you think are talented and aren’t jerks. I’m sure everybody, when they start working with a new person, wants to choose well. You do.
What memorable thing has stayed with you from the Suitable Flesh shoot?
When we shot at that house with Bruce Davison, it was pretty creepy. It definitely felt haunted. By the time you start shooting, you kind of know what’s gonna happen, but I remember doing the scene where Judah [Lewis] cuts Bruce’s head off. That was so crazy. Judah really impressed me. He’s so young. He turned 21 while we were shooting. He wasn’t allowed to drink before that so he basically had his first legal beer while we were shooting. I was just really impressed by the way he played so many different characters, like an older man and me and Barbara.
When you work with a newcomer, do you have flashbacks to your early days as an actor?
Yeah, and it’s funny because he told me this movie was his first sex scene. He was really nervous.
Wow, he started at the deep end.
I thought it was kind of hilarious because I can always think I devirginized him as I watch his career grow. [laughs] It was just fun doing something that’s so out there. Of course, it’s just fun to play the demon, switching back and forth. Joe really put us through it. We were shaking and thrashing for a long time. We were both pretty exhausted by the end of the day. We were also shooting in some locations where they didn’t have air conditioning and it was the middle of summer. It was boiling. We were all basically drenched in sweat the whole time.
Well, it was well worth it.
Thank you! You’re so fun to talk to. Thanks for being so sweet and supportive and everything.
I think it really helps whenever I genuinely enjoy the movie I’m talking to somebody about.
I feel like it definitely found an audience, which is exciting. I just went to this Emmy event the other night and Brett Goldstein from Ted Lasso was like, “I really love Suitable Flesh. I love horror films.” I was like, “Wow, this is cool.” I love that guy’s work and even he watched the film.