More so than its clever scares and its terrifyingly effective slow burn pacing – harkening back to chillers of the 1970s – what made 2013’s The Conjuring stand out from its peers was the cast of real, human, empathetic characters. It was a film that worked not only on the visceral level that horror aims for, but as a moving, emotional character story with resonant, powerful themes.
The challenge, then, with James Wan’s The Conjuring 2, is to recapture that sense of connection to characters with an almost entirely new cast. On that front, Wan succeeds marvelously. Before the horrors start, the inhabitants of the soon-to-be-haunted Enfield home are compelling and sympathetic in their own right, which makes their descent into the world of the terrifying and the supernatural all the more effective for an audience.
Heroic Hollywood, along with writers from several other publications, had a chance to sit down with Madison Wolfe and Frances O’Connor to talk about portraying the story of this family and what it was like to work with James Wan.
NOTE: This interview contains a few minor spoilers.
Was there anything weird that happened on set that was unexplained?
Madison Wolfe: We were actually just talking about that. There were little noises and such, but I think for both of us most of the weird things happened during our audition process.
Frances O’Connor: Yeah, just prepping, I think. We both had stuff like, when I was was auditioning, I was just self-taping and sending it to the U.S., and the chair my husband was sitting on just spontaneously collapsed. So, I was like, ‘I’m gonna get this part!’
Wolfe: And then when we uploaded my tape onto my acting coach’s computer, the date was December 19, 1979 instead of 2015, and you know The Conjuring was set in the 1970s, so we were like, ‘Oh, that’s a little weird!’
O’Connor: But when we were on set it was actually a lot of fun.
Wolfe: Yeah, it was great.
It didn’t look like you were having fun.
O’Connor: Well, right after the cut you would have seen us laugh a lot of the time.
Madison, how familiar were you with the first film?
Wolfe: Well, I love scary movies, so when I read for the role of Janet I convinced my mom that I had to see the first one for research, so I finally got to watch the first one.
And how long ago was that?
Wolfe: It was during the audition process, so a year ago, I guess.
Scary enough for you?
Wolfe: A little. (Laughs) It was terrifying.
So did you keep the water in your mouth for the whole take?
Wolfe: I did! I actually did keep the water in my mouth.
So you’re a method actress
Wolfe: (Laughs) I guess to some extent. I stayed in my British accent the whole time while filming.
Did you have any different feelings about the paranormal before you made this, and by doing this has it changed anything?
O’Connor: I think doing the research, when you get into looking at what happened in that case, it is very scary – the reality of it. Because there are real recordings you can listen to with Janet speaking with the Bill voice, and that is very terrifying. I kind of believe in that stuff anyway and I think it’s not good to open that box too much, you know, because I do believe in the reality of it.
Wolfe: Yeah, I agree. I think that also, for me, meeting Janet and Margaret really opened my eyes, because she talked to us and she told us, ‘this is what happened.’ I think meeting them really influenced me and my performance. It made me want to portray their story correctly and as well as I could.
So all of you met the real people?
O’Connor: I didn’t want to. I felt like, because Peggy has passed on and I’m playing their mother, I just didn’t want to meet them. I just wanted to use my imagination. I had a choice to meet them, but I decided not to.
How was it like working with James Wan? What’s he like as a director? What do you think characterizes him?
O’Connor: I think he’s an actors’ director, and I think because he really cares about performance and how that’s going to help tell the story.
Wolfe: Yeah, he’s amazing. I think that he’s so patient and so giving of his time and really is a perfectionist and I think that’s why his films come out so amazing.
O’Connor: Yeah, he really loves story, he loves telling stories, and he loves audiences. I think watching his films, you feel that as an audience member – like he’s enjoying telling you the story. And you feel that as an actor, when you’re working on a set with him you’re enjoying telling the story. Even if it’s scary and it’s kind of adrenalized, it’s still great to be part of that world.
Have you both seen the film?
O’Connor: I haven’t seen it yet.
Wolfe: I have.
I’m just curious to your reaction. You were there making it and now to see this finished product… I mean, we were scared out of our minds.
Wolfe: I was terrified too! You know, it’s funny because I was watching myself knowing exactly what’s going to happen and I was still scared. I was sitting in the screening room and it’s amazing what they can do in post production. It looks so different on the screen.
Were you surprised by changes that were made that maybe you didn’t expect were coming?
Wolfe: I think a little bit. That always happens when filming a movie – some stuff makes it in, some stuff looks totally different, some stuff you don’t even remember filming, but I think that it was a great film. I think the final product was amazing.
O’Connor: Yeah, I just want to see it at the premiere with a big audience that’s screaming. I thought it’d be fun to do that. It’s also kind of nice to do these junkets just from having had your experience making it rather than seeing it and being on the outside looking in.
The movie deals with a lot of themes of skepticism and believing in people even when nobody else does, and, Frances, your character is right at the center of that being the mother of Janet who may or may not be faking it. How did you balance that emotional state of whether or not to believe your own daughter?
O’Connor: I think because Peggy is so stressed, it’s almost like she knows it’s happening, but she just can’t acknowledge it, because the rest of her life is so awful anyway. But I think she knows it’s there and she can feel the energy of it. I like the journey of her character in terms of thinking that Janet is making this stuff up to get attention to knowing that she’s in trouble to feeling like she’s going to lose her to reconnecting with her. It’s a really great arc. And also to play a mother that’s not ‘PC.’ If you met her on the street, you’d be like, ‘Jesus Christ!’ But she’s got a lot of heart to her and I like the contradiction of that. The harshness, but also the fact that she loves her daughter so much. It’s kind of cool to play.
Is the Enfield incident still talked about a lot in England?
O’Connor: Yeah, I think it is. It’s kind of part of folklore in London. People know that story, and they did make a three-part thing on it in the U.K. on television, so people kind of know that story.
So, how do approach portraying characters from an incident that’s so widely known?
O’Connor: Well, we had a lot of people helping us to make us look like the characters. That really helped.
Wolfe: Yeah, I know for me, I really had a lot of physical transformation. I cut my hair, I dyed it, I had contacts to color my eyes, I even had a set of fake teeth to make them a little less straight. We also did our research.
O’Connor: Yeah, we had a fantastic costume designer who sourced all the pictures and they recreated the same outfits, which were not flattering, but it’s just like, ‘this is what she wore, sorry, you’ve got to wear this.’ But it really helped us get into the character. Once we had all of that on – and the set is so dark and depressing – so all of those elements really help you to believe that you are this person and this is really happening.
Wolfe: Yeah, it’s great when you can look in a mirror and see Janet or Peggy rather than yourself.
What was the scariest scene to shoot for each of you?
Wolfe: Well, I mean, none of the scenes were scary to film. Honestly. There were scenes that I can remember thinking, ‘this will be scary in the theater – this will scare audiences,’ but I was never scared on set.
O’Connor: The only one was when we did that sequence where I’m in the bed and you guys are screaming and I come in and the drawers- because it was on wires, and they put it on a winch, so it went like the clappers. It just went ‘poof!’ And you couldn’t see the strings, so it did look like it was moving by itself and there was a force behind it.
Wolfe: Yeah, there were scenes like that where you’re like, ‘whoa!’
O’Connor: Yeah, little moments, but nowhere where you’re like, ‘oh my God, I’m terrified.’ You’re always aware of the artifice of it.
Wolfe: For me, I liked the stunts. I did some of my own stunts – all of them that they would let me do.
Which ones did you do?
Wolfe: Well, for instance, the scene where I’m on the ceiling. They actually built the set upside down, and there was a trap door that I would fall through, so that was really, really cool!
How about the basement scene with all that water?
Wolfe: Oh yeah, that scene was scary!
O’Connor: Ugh, we were wet for so long! But that was great. That was quite hard to shoot because they shot it from so many different things and they had a diver underwater, and then they had the camera under the water. Technically it was very specific so you had to be in the right place. Yeah, that sequence… It wasn’t scary to shoot, but it was difficult.
Wolfe: I remember there was a week where you and Mr. Patrick and Vera, y’all were just wet for like a straight week, because all the scenes they were filming were in the rain and in the basement.
O’Connor: (Laughs) We’d just be walking around wet.
Wolfe: Moping around, sopping.
O’Connor: Because the last third of the film, it’s raining, so that’s a month of just being wet.
Madison, if you love scary movies, what are your favorites?
Wolfe: Well, this is going to sound super biased, but The Conjuring 1, I mean, hands down, that’s one of the best. But I think that Mr. James is really good at telling a story rather than just packing with scary elements. You also have the romance between Ed and Lorraine Warren, you have the family bond between Janet and her family. I know for Janet you have the internal struggle of, ‘I don’t want to hurt my family, but I can’t do anything. You know, I think it just tells a great story.
And I think that’s what’s so great about these movies. A lot of times with horror, the heroes are kind of expendable – they just get killed off – but in these two movies the characters are such an important part, and I think that makes it all the more frightening. You actually care about who they are.
O’Connor: Yeah, you believe in their reality and you care about them, so if something bad is going to happen to them the stakes are really high.
Wolfe: Especially because it’s a true story. You know, you bond with those characters as an audience watching the film.
So, Frances, Madison, what do you guys have cooking? What’s next?
O’Connor: I’m doing a play on the West End for the summer called The Truth by Florian Zeller who did The Father which is on Broadway at the moment with Frank Langella.
When do you start?
O’Connor: We’ve previewed it already and we’ve got a month off and then we start the 27th. If you’re in London, come see it, it’s very good!
Wolfe: I have a film called I Kill Giants that I will be filming August/September, and I think they decided to shoot in Ireland, so that’s going to be super, super cool.
Who’s directing the film?
Wolfe: Anders Walter. I believe he’s won an Oscar for his short film, directing, so I’m super psyched to work with him.
Are you a giant killer in the movie?
Wolfe: (Laughs) I don’t know, you’ll have to watch it and see.
Frances, you didn’t mention if you were a horror film fan at all. Have you been one in the past?
O’Connor: I do! Yeah, I do get kind of scared and spooked and I have a very active imagination, so I have to watch them maybe two a year or one a year. But I like ones that are old school like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby where, again, it’s very much what James does. It’s great, specific storytelling with characters that are interesting, then you kind of go on this great journey with them. Or The Shining, just great, imaginative storytelling. I like those ones. Or I like It Follows; I think that’s a great indie horror film.
(To Wolfe) Don’t watch it.
So, I was surprised to see that you’d done a movie already with Patrick [Wilson], but Patrick didn’t remember, can you talk a little about that?
Wolfe: Yeah, of course. So, as I mentioned before, I stayed in my British accent during the filming and that included the table read. So, we were reading the script and Patrick kept looking at me, and I kept looking at him because I knew that I had worked with him, but he didn’t recognize me because I was speaking in a British accent and- I can’t remember if I had cut my hair already, but I probably looked different too. So, at the end, I went up to him, and I was like, ‘hey, I played your daughter.’ And he was like, ‘Oh my God, Hi! How did you end up here? That’s great! Congratulations!’ It was super funny. It was a joke for a while on set.
Your accent was great.
Wolfe: Thank you!
Are you just good with accents? Your little brothers [in the film] are really British.
Wolfe: Yeah they are and Lauren who played Margaret, she’s Australian, so whenever me or Lauren would say something that didn’t sound so British, Patrick and Ben would be like, ‘hey, you might wanna check on that.’ I would always try to say ‘y’all’ in a British accent, because I’m from the South, and they’re like, ‘Madison, that’s not British.’ And I’m like, ‘oh, right, thanks.’
What was the other film you did with Patrick?
Wolfe: It’s called Home Sweet Hell, and it’s with Kathryn Heigl.
Where in the South are you from?
Wolfe: I’m from New Orleans
Do you still live there?
Wolfe: I do. I still live there, I still go to school there.
They make a lot of films there too.
Wolfe: Yeah, they do, which was great for me, because when I was starting out I did tons of stuff locally. I think that’s really important to get your experience first.
Are you doing regular school or homeschool?
Wolfe: I’m doing regular school. I just graduated from my middle school.
Do all of your classmates know you’re an actor? Do they care?
Wolfe: Yeah, they know, and they think it’s cool, and they’re really supportive of me. But a lot of the people I’m friends with I’ve been friends with and going to school with for ten years, so like, all my life. So I know that they’re really my friends and not just there for the acting.
The Conjuring 2 is now playing in theaters.