Maria Bello is no stranger to complex characters, but in “Lights Out”, the new horror film from producer James Wan, she takes on something completely new as the trope of children with invisible friends is flipped on its head, and this time, it’s the parent who has one…
We spoke with Maria on the phone from L.A. ahead of the film’s release about her ‘gift’ of bipolar disorder, the similarities between filming a horror and a romantic comedy, and what it was about this film that drew her in.
Congratulations on the film, I thought it was really fantastic, even though it hasn’t done great things for my electricity bill…
Maria: [laughs] You’re not going to believe it, people aren’t usually very frank at these press junkets. They don’t really say if they don’t like the film…but everyone has been terrified, saying they slept with the lights on.
Is it scary when you’re shooting films like this or is it just like any other film?
Maria: I feel like filming a horror film was like filming a romantic comedy. You look up and you see about 50 men and women standing there, doing the lights, messing with your hair, they call cut in between. Even the scariest scenes – the scariest scenes are the ones that took the longest because they have to position Diana in a particular place, and get the shot, so it’s kind of the same thing [laughs].
Well that’s good, your electricity bill has not gone up!
Maria: No. I have a fun job I have to say.
For this film you had an incredibly complex character – she was struggling with mental illness, abandonment issues, she was obviously very protective towards her children but she was also the one bringing this danger into their lives. As an actor how do you approach a role like that?
Maria: Well I wrote a book last year called “Whatever… Love is Love” and in it I talk about my gift of bipolar disease that I suffer from that. So I was able to use that gift and bring it to the screen. Not a lot of people have experienced those really high highs and those really low lows. So I had that experience. I was just talking to my son about it and he was like ‘yeah Mum, you know what that’s like!’
You know I watch a lot of films, and as a female I’m very conscious of female representation…
Maria: So am I! [laughs]
I’m sure! Is it nice to see a role like this for a female?
Maria: Yeah it’s fantastic. And that there are two leading roles for females and it’s not just about boys. We’re not just talking about men or a romance with them on the side. I’m working on a project with Women in Film and the Equal Employment Opportunity Agency, talking about the fact that there’s only four per cent of women directing in Hollywood, and talking about unconscious gender bias and really trying to put more women in front of the camera and behind the camera. 50 per cent of our movie going audience are women! I have to be producing now and most of the movies I’m producing are really strong female roles with female directors.
That’s fantastic. I saw in Sweden they’ve introduced an initiative where theatres grade a film as to whether or not they pass the Bechdel Test for Women, and they’ve seen a significant increase in the number of movies that pass since they’ve done this as it was affecting the film’s performance.
Maria: Yeah, that’s great. And we pass the Bechdel Test!
This one definitely does! And working with children in a film like this I imagine can be tricky. I know you’re a mother yourself, and you had a very chilling scene ‘movie night’ scene with Gabriel Batement [as son Martin], definitely not like your typical mother-son activity. How is it working with children in a scene like that?
Maria: Well I wouldn’t call Gabriel a child – he’s so mature for his age he’s like a little man, and a great actor. We’d be hanging out between sets talking about life in general – he’s a little philosopher – and then he can just put it on. He’s a really really great actor.
And director David [F. Sandberg] is a first time film-maker. Does that ever worry you when coming on to a film?
Maria: You know sometimes it is worrisome, being that he’s a first time film-maker, but I saw his shorts online, and thought that in just three minutes he had captured something really universally scary. And his wife who played the woman in that was just really human, and I thought ‘oh my gosh, if he can bring that the big screen’…plus he had great producers in Lawrence Grey and James Wan and they’re so excellent at what they do I knew it was going to be something special. But I didn’t know it was going to be this special! People are really loving it. So I’m pleased with that.
I know it was bumped up to a summer release because of the excitement around it – taking on the big blockbusters.
Maria: Yeah these movies tend to do really well, there’s a real audience for these genre films. Particularly this one because it’s not bloody, it’s a thriller, it’s horror, there’s great relationships in it. It’s not just a stupid horror flick.
And that family drama element really makes it quite personal and as an audience member you’re so much more invested. Is it unusual to get that combination in the scripts you see?
Maria: For sure, I’ve been offered these sorts of movies before but I was drawn to this one because of the character, all of the characters really. Eric [Heisserer] who wrote the script created real characters with a really complicated dynamic. To play this mother who’s really torn between loving her kids and dealing with her mental illness and this friend that she has, and the complications of that, it was really great to be able to play.
“Lights Out” is in cinemas everywhere 21 July 2016.