In 2011, Maika Monroe was ready to hang up on her dreams of becoming an actor. Though she had been involved in a handful of small projects, Hollywood had yet to come calling.
At 17 she moved to the Dominican Republic’s north coast in Cabarete, where she saw a brighter future in professional freestyle kiteboarding, a sport she had learned from her father. She was ranked 32 in the world.
Then the call came. Director Ramin Bahrani had seen her audition tape and wanted to cast her in At Any Price, a farm drama set in Iowa that would star Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron. She would play Efron’s girlfriend. That call, she says, changed her life.
Her career snowballed from there, landing her key roles in Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, Adam Wingard’s The Guest, and, now, David Robert Mitchell’s critically acclaimed indie horror It Follows. In It Follows, Monroe plays teenaged protagonist Jay, who finds herself and her friends pursued by a supernatural evil with a very specific, unusual M.O. We caught up with Monroe at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where she is quickly becoming a regular attendee.
Jeff Meyers, MovieMaker Magazine (JM): So, any regrets about leaving professional kiteboarding to become an actress?
Maika Monroe (MM): No, my true love is definitely acting. It’s not a question. I was in the Dominican Republic training, and it didn’t even take me a split second to think about getting up and going and shooting this movie. I didn’t even have to think about it, I knew what I wanted to do. So no regrets.
JM: What is the most challenging part of being an actor for you—your Achilles’ heel, so to speak?
MM: Being vulnerable, especially with a horror movie, surprisingly. [There’s so] much emotion you have to give, because I’ve never been that terrified in my life. I’ve never been running for my life ever, and I have no idea what that feels like. So trying to figure that out and make myself terrified, that’s not easy.
JM: And you’re an athlete. I imagine you don’t frighten easily.
MM: Oh yeah. The athlete side came in with the physicality of the role, but otherwise, yeah, to scare me takes a lot. For a role like this, finding the scream, the absolute feeling of being terrified… I feel like people think it’s so easy, horror movies, but man, it’s difficult! I don’t think I realized how challenging it was going to be reading the script. I’m like, “Oh, this is awesome, this is going to be amazing.” But then you get there and you’re like, “Holy shit, I have to go through all of this. I physically have to go through all of this.” You read a script, and you don’t realize, “I’m getting pulled underneath a pool five times.”
JM: You’ve mentioned in other interviews how hard and intense it was to make It Follows.
MM: Well, I shot three movies back to back, and It Follows was the last out of the three. I shot The Guest, then I went home for one day, then went to go shoot another movie; I was there for a month, then I flew straight from there to go shoot It Follows. So I was on my third, and I think naturally I was going slightly crazy, so it might’ve helped. But every day on It Follows I had to be screaming, crying, and running for my life throughout the day. And I’m almost in every frame of the film, so that was every day of working for me. You not only become mentally exhausted, but physically exhausted.
JM: How do you maintain that for weeks at a time?
MM: It takes a lot out of you. At the end each day you’ve got to say to yourself, “OK, I gotta get up tomorrow morning and do this again.” On set, I would have headphones in my ears all the time, because I couldn’t go back and forth from myself to the character just like that. It’s just not possible for me. The shoot was pretty rough because you have to stay in that dark place, so when they call action, you’re able to pull out that emotion and grab onto it—it’s right there.
JM: Who wants to cry every day?
MM: Yeah, and to cry you have to go to a really dark place. I can’t just cry from here; I’ve gotta take a minute and really go there. So when it was all done, I think I slept for three days. I was just so exhausted and just trying to get that weight off my shoulders.
JM: Would you do it again?
MM: A horror movie? Yeah, when a good script comes I can never turn it down—if it’s an awesome character or an awesome script. And the thing is, I love the challenge. I love difficult and weird characters. That’s why I love my job.
JM: Because It Follows has a lot of wide-frame compositions and extended shots, there’s an almost play-like aspect to the drama. Did that mean you had to do a lot of takes? Because it seems like your emotional state is so important and the technical demands of the film can sometimes work against that.
MM: Oh, totally. We’d have to do several takes. And before one of the really intense scenes, like the scene where I’m in my bedroom and the giant comes in, there’s a lot of pacing, crying, and being terrified. So David [Robert Mitchell] and I would talk and I would say, “You know, I’m not going to be able to do this five times. I can do this scene three times, but beyond that, I won’t be capable of screaming and crying and truly giving it my all.” And so we’d map it out, because like you said, a lot of it’s a play, a lot of it’s the movement, and one camera shot, and moving with the camera. We had to figure that out beforehand with the scenes that are really intense. With scenes that weren’t, we would do a million takes, because David is so specific in what he wants. I have complete trust in him as a director. So if he says, “OK, we gotta do the 10th take here, because we gotta have this,” I’m like “OK, let’s do it.”
JM: Were there things that surprised you about David’s process? I’m interested in the director-actor relationship and how that helps or hurts a performance.
MM: David is super hands-on. He can be frustrated or getting angry with something but you wouldn’t really know because he’s so calm, and just very quiet. With the intense scenes, he’s very cautious and careful. He’d come over and pull you aside, talk to you one-on-one. Just me and him. And that is so nice to have with the director. He knew these characters so well. He’s come down to wardrobe fittings and pick out the clothes and the hair. He’s that specific. He knows the exact look that he wants. He’s creating his little masterpiece, which is very cool to be a part of.
JM: Was there room for collaboration, for your ideas about the character?
MM: There were many times I’d come to him and say, “These words aren’t coming out naturally. If we want this to be as real as possible, it makes more sense if I’m saying this.” And he would listen. Any ideas that I had, he’d be like “Yeah, let’s try that.” Which is very refreshing, when you feel that you are working together as a team to create the best possible outcome.
JM: What, if any, relationship did you have with the crew?
MM: You know, we were doing an indie film and we didn’t have a huge budget, so the actors didn’t have trailers to go to. We’re shooting in a house, and our waiting room is the living room. And it was a small crew, so we would all hang out at night because we were all staying at the same hotel. I remember during the lake stuff we shot, we were all staying at this shitty little hotel in Michigan and we were going into each other’s rooms. And it was kind of the first time everyone was united as one. Normally I feel like it’s more separated, you know—the crew hangs out here, the cast hangs out there. It was really refreshing having everyone together.
I have such respect for the crew. They work 10 times harder than us actors. They’re there two hours before we get there, two hours after we leave, and we’re complaining, “Oh, I’m so tired.” Our job is hard, don’t get me wrong, it is. We’ve got our job and they have theirs. But they work their asses off, and as we’re being pampered, they’re still working their asses off.
JM: David Robert Mitchell has said in interviews that It Follows is supposed to feel like a nightmare. What scares you enough to give you nightmares?
MM: For whatever reason, knives really scare me. I’m scared of them enough that a friend could be cooking in the kitchen using a big knife and I don’t even want to be in the kitchen. I don’t know if it’s a past life or something, but for me, nightmares consist of someone chasing me with a knife. MM
It Follows opens in theaters March 13, 2015, courtesy of RADiUS-TWC. Read our interview with It Follows director David Robert Mitchell here.