First time Swedish director, David F. Sandberg, hit the jackpot when his two-minute short horror film, Lights Out, went viral on YouTube, prompting Hollywood to get him over to adapt it into a feature film. When it came to casting, someone suggested veteran actress, Maria Bello (A History Of Violence, Coyote Ugly), for an important supporting part. “I love her…do you think that we can actually get her in the movie?” was Sandberg’s reply. The answer was yes, and Bello’s casting proved a masterstroke, with the actress excelling in the role of Sophie, an increasingly unhinged mother-of-two whose ties to the enigmatic Diana – a terrifying spiritual entity – threaten to tear her family apart. When FilmInk sat down to chat with Maria Bello about being part of such a strong female cast in Lights Out, the actress opened up about her experiences with the horror genre, as well as gender inequality and life in Hollywood.
Do you see many horror films? “I don’t particularly like the genre, and I don’t watch horror films. The last one that I watched was The Exorcist, when I was little, and it freaked me out. Since then, I haven’t seen any horror films, though my fifteen-year-old son does. I understand why people love them. There’s something about how we live our lives in a straight line, with little hills and bumps on the way, but with horror films, the adrenaline that you feel is almost like you’re high, especially when you’re in a theatre with a bunch of people who are feeling that same thing. That’s why I think kids really love it.”
How did your agent know to even send you this script? “My agents are so good at finding great parts, and this was a great part. If you take the horror out of this film, it is a standalone family drama. It really is about mental illness, and these characters are so well drawn. It’s a really interesting character study.”
For Sophie, this is not really a supernatural story…she really sees Diana as a friend, and is not as horrified as everyone around her. “It was about keeping it real. This was a depressed mother who’s gone off her medication. She’s on the verge of a breakdown, and you don’t understand why. I really love that in those first two scenes with Teresa Palmer [who plays Sophie’s adult daughter, Rebecca], you really get a backstory just from our interaction of what she had to go through this as a kid. She had to take care of her mother. And now as an adult, she doesn’t want intimacy, so she won’t have to take care of anyone. She doesn’t want to get close to anyone. Imagine growing up with that! So for me to be able to portray that on screen, in a realistic way that wasn’t over the top, was very important.”
Has anything ever scared you, that’s been impossible to explain? “I used to be terrified of snakes when I was a kid. I had a nightmare of a snake coming out of my bathroom wall when I was a little kid, so for years whenever I would see a snake, even someone carrying one on the street, I would get down on the floor, and go into like epileptic shock. It was crazy. I went to Africa when I was 28, on my own, so I decided to do snake therapy.”
What’s snake therapy? “Snake therapy was to get over my fear of snakes. I went to see this woman, and I had to carry around a rubber snake for months. And I would take trips to the zoo, and every time that I went to the zoo, I would have to take a step closer to the cage of snakes. And of course, I went to Africa and I never saw one snake. But I did eventually get over my fear of snakes. Like, if one came in here, I would just be like, ‘Holy shit!’”
And what about Hollywood…is it a scary place? “Hollywood? People are always shocked to hear this, but I would say that 99% of people in Hollywood are the nicest, most down to earth people that you’ll ever meet. This is an artistic culture. We’re artists, and we’re people from all over the world. We are thinking outside of the box, and doing different kinds of movies and TV shows, that are teaching compassion and doing things that haven’t been done before. I’m thrilled to be a part of this community.”
You’ve done a little bit of everything: drama, comedy, and all kinds of projects. Is there something that you enjoy the most? “I don’t. Whatever it is, it’s about the character. It’s about the people that I’m surrounded with. I’m doing a series right now for Amazon, a David E. Kelley series, with Billy Bob Thornton and William Hurt, called Goliath, and to be surrounded by such great actors…and how could you go wrong with scripts by David Kelley? And with Lights Out, for instance, I don’t say no to movies because it’s a small budget or a new director. If it’s a great part, and I know that there are great people surrounding it, then I will take a chance. And now I’m getting more and more into producing too; I have a film coming out at The Toronto Film Festival that I starred in and executive produced, called The Journey Is The Destination. And I’m producing another big film, an action-adventure with Viola Davis and her company, which will be announced soon. I’m very interested in doing films with strong women characters, in front of and behind the camera.”
Like Lights Out… “This is a female-led movie, and we don’t just sit there and talk about boys; we’re not the girl on the side. But it’s not being screamed out to you that this is a female movie! It’s a horror film, and the two leads happen to be strong women. That’s exciting. And it’s exciting what Ghostbusters is doing. There’s a huge shift taking place, in terms of gender equity in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera. And in the end, it’s coming down to business and money: it’s good business to make movies with women in them. More than 50% of our movie going and TV watching population is women, so it only makes sense that we tell more of those real stories on the screen, instead of women just being the girlfriend on the side.”
We’re always interviewing actresses that say once they turn 40 the roles dry up, but you are totally the opposite of this… “I feel really fortunate now. I feel like my career gets better and better. I get really interesting roles, and I think one of the reasons for that is I’m 49 and I don’t try to look 20. And another thing is choosing roles, and being attracted to roles that are more complex than just the girl on the side, just because you get paid a lot more money for it. I’m okay to do that every once in a while, but it’s about the roles that you choose as well.”
Do you have to be willing to play people that are not necessarily likeable? In Lights Out, Sophie is often not very likable. She’s a crazy mum, and we root for her daughter over her. “I realised quite soon when I started acting that it’s never good to look at a screenplay and go, ‘How do I make my character likable?’ You have to take that off the table immediately. It’s about being real. What’s the reality of this character, and what’s the reality of this situation? The reality of this character is that she’s mentally ill, and on the verge of breakdown. She wants to do right by her kids, but she has no emotional or mental capacity to do so. And she is haunted by this person who’s abusing her. So what does this relationship look like? I can’t ever look at the idea of trying to make her likable.”
On gender equality, you’ve been a member of The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences since 2006. How do you see the gender equality movement that has happened this year? “The Academy is taking great steps this year to include more diversity, more women, and more people of colour. It’s a very complicated situation, because some of the people in the Academy haven’t worked in the business for twenty years, but they still get the screeners and can still vote in the Oscars. Then you have these younger people who don’t have a say, or a voice. The more inclusive that we’re getting, the better it will be. If it doesn’t continue to become more inclusive, it will be a thing of the past.”
There are so many female directors, but they don’t get to direct because they don’t have an opportunity in Hollywood… “Right, we’ve been dealing with this a lot, in things like Women In Film and The Sundance Institute. We’re in a project called Systemic Change Project, looking at female directors. Stacy Smith from USC did a study for three years about women in film, and besides the fact that only 4% of women directed the top 100 films in Hollywood, a lot of women who go to film festivals and have highly rated films come out and can’t get a job. Meanwhile, men from film festivals come out with one film, and they can get a feature film made easily. So there is a subconscious gender bias which we are trying to break. We are going to studios now, saying simple things like, ‘Do you know that, with scenes with extras in them, even with animated films, only 30% of them are women?’ And the studios always go, ‘What? Really?’ So it’s not that people hate women, or want to be rude, we just don’t even recognise it, and now we’re starting to bring that to light.”
Do you think a story like Lights Out – with David Samberg making a two-and-a-half minute short, and then getting to direct a feature film – could have happened to a female director? “I would like to see it happen more to female directors, because as happy as I am that we’ve become a global audience, and that someone sees David’s work online, and he gets all these hits, and he gets to come to Hollywood and direct this film, I’d like to see that happen with women as well. I haven’t seen it yet, but I would like to see it happen. I’m on the lookout for female viral video directors. I am.”
Last year was the fifteenth anniversary for Coyote Ugly. How does that feel? “I can’t believe that this film still holds up! Little girls know this film. Talk about female empowerment! Back fifteen years ago, people were trying to sell it as something salacious, and I remember us being on a talk show going, ‘No, this is about us taking our power!’ It’s wonderful to see that it still has resonance today.”
Lights Out is released in cinemas on July 21.