I always delight in “discovering” a young actor on the verge of stardom. Such as Emily Goss. I didn’t know that name but was tremendously impressed by her in Melanie Mayron’s festival favourite Snapshots, in which her rebellious Louise has a passionate, taboo affair with another married woman, Rose (Shannon Gottis), during the early sixties.
Curious, I watched her in an earlier film that I admit I’d never heard of, The House on Pine Street. Not surprisingly, Goss gave another captivating performance in this horror film as an unhappy pregnant woman who believes the old house she and her husband have moved into is haunted. To my surprise, The House on Pine Street turned out to be a thoughtful, spooky sleeper with a number of original ideas, and of the countless indie horror films, it is the one I suggest you move to the top of your must-see list.
Having seen two exceptional performances by Goss, I then watched a boatload of videos on YouTube of this relatively unknown California actress, whose lone venture into the mainstream was playing the sole survivor of a serial killer in season ten of the CBS series, Criminal Minds. All worth watching (!) and displaying a remarkable range (from dark drama to light comedy) that explains why she is in as much demand for theater as film.
When growing up in San Mateo, California, when were you first attracted to acting?
In high school. I’d always loved movies and plays but acting was not part of my life. My parents are both artistic and creative, but they are lawyers not artists and didn’t think about it for me. I always read while growing up, and I loved characters, stories, and worlds that I could fall into. I went to a small high school, Crystal Springs Uplands School in the San Francisco Bay area, and it had a lovely theater program that was small and safe and stimulating. We could take on anything we wanted. Like a lot of actors, I had a fabulous drama teacher who was inspiring and encouraging. I just did high school theater, I didn’t audition for regional theater or anything else. It was small-time but just felt right, like the most fun I could have, unless I was playing soccer.
How good were you at soccer?
I was good. I was a striker. A couple of girls I played with went on to play at USC and Dartmouth and one who was way better than me was actually on Mexico’s national team. Soccer was my first love and I wanted to be a soccer player. But then I discovered theater and moved away from soccer slowly but surely.
When did you start thinking about applying to college to do theater?
It was the only option that occurred to me. I didn’t think about doing anything else. I didn’t think about the realities of being an actor, I just wanted to be one. I decided between USC and NYU and chose USC because I’d been to a small high school and wanted to go to a school with a campus and a football team, so I’d have a college experience. I lived on campus as a freshman and later a college apartment and a house within walking distance of the campus.
You’d later do a large number of shorts, but when at USC were you making any films?
Most of the shorts I did came after graduation, but I was in a lot of student films. I made many friends who were in the cinema department and we’d continue to work together. It was a fantastic experience and I learned so much.
Yet instead of sticking around and trying to make it in Hollywood, you went to England to study theater.
That’s right. I didn’t like any of the study-abroad programs offered by USC, so I decided to do my own thing. I took a year-long post-graduate course at LAMDA, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. I lived in London for a year and saw a ton of theater and got to study with amazing teachers who had taught Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ruth Wilson and other unbelievable British actors.
What did you learn there that you didn’t learn doing theater at USC?
What I learned at USC was mostly neck up. It was about imagination and sense memory. What I learned in England was mostly neck down. It was about breath and body and physicality and movement. So, I was lucky to combine those schools of thought. At USC I did mostly contemporary plays, though I took one class in Shakespeare. But my training in England was exclusively classical. I did some Greek Theater, Restoration plays, and Chekov, but the emphasis was on Shakespeare. That’s what I wanted. I wanted a conservatory experience. At USC I took theater classes, but I actually had a liberal arts education and got a B.A., not a degree in theater. But now I got a post-graduate diploma in theater at LAMDA!
By this time were you thinking what your career was going to be like? Were you thinking of doing movies or theater or were you thinking you could live in L.A. and do both, as you have done?
I knew I wanted to do film and television, and I knew I wanted to return to L.A. after leaving London in 2012. Fortunately, I got a manager after I graduated from USC and came back to L.A. and started working with her. Also, I started getting small things for myself off of Actors Access, submitting myself for anything that I could. From that, I made connections and got to be in a lot of short films.
If you were handling yourself, how did you negotiate contracts?
There was no negotiating on the shorts. It would be $125 plus 10% a day. Okay, fine. On shorts or web series, I didn’t expect to negotiate for points.
And you starred in your first feature around this time?
Yes, in 2013, I did a film with some other USC alums in Seattle. It was called Painting Anna and it was a wonderful crash-course, indie film experience.
I hadn’t worked with the director, Vanessa Pantley, but she had seen my student films and asked me to audition. It was just me, Vanessa, who was lovely and so talented, and a guy holding a camera, Carmen Emmi, who was a genius director in his own right. It was a docu-narrative film. Half of it was scripted, the other half was documentary. It was about a new apartment building in Redmond, Vision 5, which was intended to be an affordable place for artists to live and work. There were painting studios, common areas, and gardens to inspire creative minds. It was a brilliant living model.
And you played a painter?
I was kind of a mole. Think about Borat, in which Sacha Baron Cohen is an actor mingling with real people, because that’s kind of what I was. I played an [accountant turned] artist named Anna Katz who was moving into the building, along with a bunch of real people who were actually moving in. So, I had a storyline as Anna and she met the real residents, who didn’t know I wasn’t really Anna.
Did you get evicted when your cover was blown?
(laughing): No, we just ducked out of there. We did tell everyone what we did and showed them our movie. We made some great friends, so no one felt hurt or betrayed.
How long was it before you filmed The House on Pine Street?
I made that in 2014. Austin and Aaron Keeling, who directed The House on Pine Street, also had gone to USC but we didn’t meet there. They were a year behind me but had seen my student films. Natalie Jones, who co-wrote and co-produced the film, didn’t go to USC but they were best friends since middle school and always intended to make movies together when they grew up.
In an interview I saw with the three of them, they said they needed an actress to carry the movie. Did they tell you that when they approached you?
They didn’t phrase it that way! Jennifer is in almost every scene, but none of us thought of it that way. She was just a part in the movie, a part of a whole. They offered me the part after I auditioned, and I was really happy to play it because I thought it was so interesting that I didn’t like Jennifer when I read the script. She wasn’t the typical horror movie heroine, she wasn’t a scream queen, she was a complicated woman dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. No one else in the script shared her stance. Expectant mothers are supposed to be blissful and glowing, yet often times they’re not. What I loved about the film is that it takes the horror found in real life – the horror of losing your agency, the horror of a changing relationship, the horror of not being seen by the people you love, the horror and fear of change – and it ups the stakes by turning it into a supernatural haunted house movie.
When you first said this to them, did they agree with you?
They did. They joke that nothing scares them more than ghosts and babies, but I think they touched on something more profound and more relevant to our time than they gave themselves credit for. They’re very intelligent and knew what they were doing.
One of the tropes of horror movies – with the exception of The Haunting, which they’ve said is the biggest influence along with Rosemary’s Baby – is that nobody ever believes the female when she notices there are strange things going on in the house. Others insist she’s experiencing hysteria or having another mental breakdown or her mental state has to do with some baggage from the past.
And doesn’t a woman not being believed have more resonance now than ever?
I know that when you take a role, you like to devise a backstory. But you have said that when making this film you didn’t have the time because you were also acting in a play and flying back and forth between L.A. and Kansas and Missouri.
I had only about four days to prepare for the movie, but that turned out to be enough because I had a lot of time during production to prepare for what I needed to do and talk to Taylor Bottles, who plays Jennifer’s husband, Luke. We talked about the relationship and how they’d met. He was a bartender and I think she met him at the bar. I forget if we decided they went to college together.
What did Jennifer do before getting pregnant and moving to Kansas?
It’s never stated. I think she had a white collar job. She hasn’t let herself be an artist.
Did Luke want them to have a baby from the beginning of their marriage?
I think so. I think it was a strong choice on his part. My sense is that Jennifer was ambivalent about it, and if she wanted a baby, it wouldn’t be for about ten years.
Did she ever think she didn’t want to have a baby because she didn’t think Luke would be a great father?
No, they loved each other, loved each other, loved each other.
I’m not as sure as you are. I think during the crisis in the house, Luke is revealed more for who he is.
Hmm. I like that. There is room for interpretation because once they move into the house there’s the additional horror of this relationship possibly breaking apart.
Did you appreciate that Jennifer’s relationship with Luke and nearly everything else in the movie is ambiguous?
Yeah, I like ambiguity in movies. I think it’s important that the audience is involved, and everyone is interpreting it through their personal experiences. So, of course, everyone will have a different understanding of the same movie, the same shot.
And of Jennifer, who is not your typical heroine, as you’ve said.
Not at all, which I love. That’s very important to me.
So, when playing her, did you get to like her?
Very much. Because what I didn’t like about her is what I didn’t like about myself. She reminded me of myself in many ways, and through exploring these parts of myself through Jennifer I made peace with them.
Perfectionism, resistance to change, a dogged mindset about having a goal and achieving it. Also, I too am very protective of my independence.
Cast and crew lived together in that house while making the film?
Yes. I thought that was phenomenal!
The filmmakers thought that the house was haunted because they could hear unexplained noises and laughter. Who got to stay in the master bedroom with the closet door that keeps opening in the movie?
I did! And it was the best sleep I ever got in my life. I’m a California girl and we shot the Kansas house scenes in Independence, Missouri, in a house that was built in 1840. It was so quiet and so dark, and I was sleeping in this huge room with a huge bed to myself and it was like a vacation for me. They gave me that room and that was very nice because many others shared bedrooms. I was thankful. I wasn’t in character the whole time, so I wasn’t pretending there was something in the closet. [Laughing] I even put my things in that closet, it was fully functional.
A lot of the discussion about the movie revolves around whether the house is really haunted.
I think it has to be something other than simply what she imagines because we see things going on around her that she doesn’t see. For instance, there’s the great moment early on when she’s walking in and out of her bedroom and we see her close the closet door and when she reenters she doesn’t notice it’s open again because she’s so busy talking to her friend on the phone. We see enough, including Jennifer flying around and being slammed into walls and the floor, so that we realise the house is haunted.
But…. Is it just her experience? She’s not seeing some things you see, but maybe she’s feeling them. Who knows?
(laughing) You do, and you’re absolutely right. And someone can say the opposite and be absolutely right.
I’m not sure if her negative energy brings out a lot of negative energy in the house, as is conjectured in the film, but the unique idea that the filmmakers had was to not give this house a horrifying history that would explain what’s going on.
That’s what’s so brilliant about this movie. Aaron, Austin, and Natalie are huge horror movie fans and they hate when there is an easy out, such as, ‘Oh, a witch was murdered in this house and now she’s haunting it.’ It’s too convenient and too neat, and what’s more interesting, I think, is when we don’t have an answer. Because so often in life, we don’t have answers.
I won’t give away what happens later in the film, but when Jennifer first starts being threatened by what is in the house, why isn’t Luke?
I think the energy in the house directly correlates to Jennifer, to what she’s feeling and what she’s going through. There is a relationship between the house’s energy and Jennifer’s energy. And what happens always relates to what she is feeling and thinking and wanting, consciously or subconsciously. This film is excellent to see a second time so you better notice what things are happening and what triggers them.
When Jennifer is physically attacked by an unknown entity, it happens in the interior of the house. If it happened instead in her upstairs bedroom do you think she would be thrown out the window to her death?
I don’t. I don’t think whatever is in the house wants to kill her.
I agree, though it even slams her down on her stomach, threatening the baby’s safety. Is it in an odd way protecting her from something by scaring her into leaving?
I think the house is protecting itself.
It doesn’t want anyone to live there?
It doesn’t want Jennifer to live there. Maybe the next people who rent the house on Pine Street will have a different relationship with the house.
They’ll probably get a good deal.
A real bargain.
How does the family next door fit in – is its presence just there to contribute to an unsettling atmosphere? A single mother and teenage girls who refuse to speak. They’re twins, right?
Yes, like Austin and Aaron. Of course, they wanted to have them be twins because it made it more fun for them. Because the filmmakers love horror films, they included a lot of red herrings. There are the creepy twins next door, there is the distant neighbour, there are party guests who look strangely at Jennifer, there’s the psychic who is going to come into the house and…
…not figure out anything.
Exactly. All of those horror movie tropes don’t go anywhere. Because that’s not what this movie is about. This movie is about a psychological experience.
Talk about the scene in which Jennifer visits the psychic at his house for some support, and the two of them sit and talk.
Shooting that scene was so stressful. That was probably the most difficult scene for me in the whole film. We were running late that day and had that location for only a short amount of time and it wasn’t working with the lights or this or that. It was a long, wordy scene and was very complicated. We were under the gun and just trying to crank it out but fortunately it came together so nicely.
You see that he had a dead male lover so you like him for the first time, but then he starts yelling at Jennifer as she’s leaving. Why is he so angry with her?
I don’t think anger is the right word. I think he’s frustrated with her. Because she’s not opening her mind to anything other than what she wants to see. She has blinders on and has a goal she’s doggedly pursuing. He’s frustrated with her because she’s not listening to him or considering what he has to tell her.
When I met you, you seemed very happy that I like The House on Pine Street.
I was because it is very special to me. I am very proud of the work that we all did. We were a bunch of recent college graduates making this film on a shoestring budget and we pulled it off. I think it’s excellent so I’m so happy you enjoyed it.
According to IMDB, Austin and Aaron Keeling directed a couple of films before The House on Pine Street, one while at USC and the other a few years before that, but no other films are listed. However, they and Natalie Jones have achieved notoriety putting on unusual theater productions in L.A.
Yes, Aaron, Austin and Emily have started developing very successful immersive theatre experiences. It’s in the same realm as Sleep No More, which ran in New York forever and ever. They are using their love of horror and their knowledge of story to create a spooky world. The audience comes in and moves through various rooms and there are exhibits and actors to observe in each room. These shows are hugely successful. They always sell out. It’s so inspiring to watch my friends using their mastery of horror films to make immersive theater.
Were you excited to appear on Criminal Minds?
Yes, it was fantastic. It was my first television credit and I had a big part in the episode and got to play with phenomenal professional actors, and there was a huge crew and an amazing, experienced director, Hanelle Culpepper. She was very pregnant and it was inspiring to see her directing, calling the shots, creating moments that made that episode far from robotic. She was the first one there and the last one to leave.
I found online, and I hope others do too, your 2017 female-empowerment short, Finding No One. You narrated, directed, and wrote it. I really like your writing. Is that poem the only thing you’ve written?
Thank you so much for watching it. I had written a lot in London; it was kind of my activity on the tube. I love poetry, as does Louise in Snapshots, and I’d write a poem instead of reading the Metro newspaper. But I hadn’t seriously pursued it. Then I had this opportunity last year. There’s a company in Los Angeles called Some Assembly Required that produces four short films and four short plays each cycle that are inspired by audience-suggested dares. This is how it works: the audience shows up at a performance to watch four films and four plays, and writes down a dare on a piece of paper. It might be something like, ‘I want to see a play in which all the characters speak different languages.’ At the end of the evening the four playwrights and four filmmakers pull out a dare from a hat. At the next performance you will see a play and film inspired by each dare. My dare was ‘Finding Nemo Meets Chicago.’ Someone else did a play based on that dare. The poem I wrote was inspired by the dare. It took only a couple of days to write. It was cathartic for me. It was important that it was all women in the short and women of all body shapes and ethnicities. It was cleansing because it came from a place of frustration. I was feeling very unfulfilled and after 2016 there were a lot of horrible things happening in the world. And I was frustrated creatively and got to write this poem to empower myself and hopefully empower other women who are on their journeys. My partner, Barret Bowman, who is a brilliant director, writer and editor, shot it for me and it was fun because I got to involve a lot of my friends. It meant something to people and that’s what you hope for when you create a piece of art. I’m very proud of it.
The House on Pine Street is available on DVD and digital now.