By John Noonan

Sharni Vinson has numerous feathers in her cap including singer, dancer, model and, of course, actor. Standing out in Adam Wingard’s vicious film, You’re Next, Sharni has leapt into other dark avenues of cinema, including home-grown affairs such as Mark Hartley’s remake of Patrick.

Her latest film, From a House on Willow Street, shows no signs of the actor softening her image. She plays Hazel, a member of a criminal gang who get more than they bargained for when they decide to kidnap the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Written and directed by South African Alastair Orr, and filmed in Johannesburg, the film is a mash up of genres with the supernatural careening into home invasion territory.

Speaking from LA, Sharni took time out to talk about the film and dangers both on and off the set.

With Bait 3D, You’re Next, Patrick and now Willow Street, you appear to be carving out a name for yourself in genre films. Did you watch a lot of these kind of films growing up?

Funnily enough, I was. It’s a weird thing, because I never really thought about it until recently. What was it that drew me to these sorts of dark, out there, twisted storylines? I did have an absolute fascination, at an incredibly young age, when I was going to the video stores and I was allowed to pick out any film that I wanted. From the age of five, I was only ever going straight to the horror section! Every Saturday night, it was like ‘Pick whatever film’ and it was a toss-up between Stephen King’s IT, and the Freddy Krueger movies, and Pet Semetary; just extraordinary films that I shouldn’t have been watching that young. Something about feeling scared, I guess, excited me as a child. So, making horror movies now is kind of a dream. I don’t know why I wasn’t scared. I guess if I was scared and suffered nightmares from watching these films, my mum would not have let me watch them. So, yeah, I’m glad that she did.”

In the case of Willow Street, it’s a mixture of two genres, going from house invasion to possession movie. What did you think when you got the script?

I thought this was an interesting twist on what is a horrible kidnapping gone wrong. I thought it was interesting that you have kidnappers who take a girl hostage, and eventually have to escape the very person they wanted to kidnap. I liked how the tables were turned, and I saw a journey within a very tough character.

I’m very drawn to these female action roles. I grew up very physical and I think a big part of it is because I crave physicality. I was a dancer, I was a swimmer, I was a horse rider, and I was always just doing stuff growing up.

One thing that gets very boring on the set is you have a lot of downtime. Filling in that time becomes a lot of ‘what do you do?’ A lot of people sit down and read a book, I prefer to get up and train with the stunt team. In the case of Willow Street, we had the most incredible weapons handler on our set. He was an ex-army ranger, and so in learning how to fire a rifle, I really couldn’t have been in better hands. It was just a matter of listening to his stories and learning from the best to be honest.

That’s a big part of the reason why I’m drawn to these roles too. I get to work with the best and train with the best in a lot these scenes that I’m doing.

You brought up the physicality of the role. Alastair Orr has described you as ‘hard as nails’…

(Long pause) Well, I guess… (Laughs). The funny thing is I’m really not. I think part of acting is the fact that you’re acting. And I don’t know why I enjoy acting in these roles. Maybe it’s a fascination of mine to portray a tough female protagonist that’s encouraging women to be independent. Be self-aware that the world is dangerous.

One of the things I realised filming on Johannesburg is it is a real dangerous place. Probably every single person I spoke to on the set, in the crew, had been held up by gun point or knife point in their lives at one point. So, that scared me a bit. I realised that this danger is very real.

A lot of things we were doing were becoming real in the moment. Like the location where we shot was an abandoned warehouse in the middle of Johannesburg, in a very dangerous part of town. And this particular warehouse had been abandoned for over 50 years since the last film crew that was there lost one of their crew members, when he fell from a high rafter and died. And it had been closed down from the public ever since.

So, we had to receive a special permit to even shoot in the location we were in! When I was crawling through the tunnels and vents, they were tunnels and vents that our crew spent six days cleaning out before we could even step foot in this place. It was revolting. So, the immediate supernatural effect was very real. This place was abandoned, people had died here and it definitely felt haunted. There were definitely a lot of elements that brought the fear to life.

That sounds quite hair-raising. Did it turn out to be an uneventful production for you otherwise?

Actually, one of our crew members was held up by gun point on the way to set one morning, and I could have been in that car. We were getting escorted to and from set in multiple vehicles. One of the vehicles didn’t have any of the cast members inside, but it did have the director’s assistant and he got held up at some outrageous time in the morning.

There’s actually a rule in South Africa that between the hours of midnight and five or six in the morning, you are allowed to run red lights. Because that’s where people wait, jump out and hold you at gun point. At traffic lights in the middle of the night!

On horror movies you’re only ever doing night shoots and you’re getting home at 6am covered in blood (Laughs). The thing that I thought was quite interesting was that if we had been held up at gun point at any time coming home, we would have already looked like we were in trouble. We were covered in what looked like real blood (Laughs).

From A House on Willow StreetYou’ve been described as an up and coming scream queen, but you don’t seem to want to be that stereotype of the final girl who only runs away screaming. You want to be person who leads the charge. Do you think horror is finally shedding that stereotype of the helpless female victim?

I think so. I think it’s been doing it for quite some time through very special movies. Specifically, movies like Alien with Sigourney Weaver. You’re looking at a female action star back then that was so strong and that took horror movies to another level. So, it has been going on for quite some time, but it seems we’re always back and forth on the female playing the victim and the female being ‘I’m going to stand up and be the one that takes charge.’

In alignment with being a horror fan myself, I always loved the movies where the female didn’t do dumb things. It’s nice not to call the audience stupid. Like, if you were getting attacked in your own home, would you go upstairs? So, let’s not have the female character, the male character, or anybody for that matter, run up the stairs. And always going down to the basement is a dumb idea! (Laughs) I’m attracted to the roles where the females are shown as strong, in charge and capable, and not weak!

These strong characters have been going on for some time, such as Scream with Neve Campbell. So it was nice to be considered for one of those female protagonist roles in You’re Next, and then to continue it with these follow ups. It’s been really good.

Moving forward, have you considered branching out from acting into directing or screenwriting?

It’s funny that you say that. You’re the first person to ask me that, and so you would be the first person I answer this question to, but I have been writing something myself for two years now. It’s kind of an epic. (Laughs) It’s not horror, but it’s definitely in alignment with sci-fi, fantasy action. It’s something I would like to watch myself as an audience member.

I love a conspiracy. I always thought a conspiracy theory goes down very well. So what happens when you put a bunch of conspiracy theories together and it all happens within one very small place. So, yeah, it takes a lot of research and I’m not by any stretch of the imagination someone who has done this before. I’m not trying to call myself a writer or create the next big thing, but I am taking it quite seriously and it’s a great hobby as well.

From a House on Willow Street is available on DVD and Blu-ray from May 17, 2017


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