Remember that scene in Ti West’s horror-slasher Pearl when Mia Goth holds a bone-chilling smile for so long that her face starts twitching? Well, Mia Goth does, and she says the iconic scene actually wasn’t in the script — she improvised it at the last minute at West’s suggestion.
“That wasn’t scripted. That was something that I think Ti came up with on the day,” Goth told a room full of wide-eyed students at Savannah College of Art and Design on Tuesday at the 25th SCAD Savannah Film Festival in Savannah, Georgia in October. The actress, who also stars in West’s X, the first installment in the trilogy that includes Pearl and the upcoming MaXXXine, received SCAD’s Lumière Award before the screening of Pearl and participated in a Q&A afterward during which she broke down that creepy smile scene.
“He said, ‘Why don’t we just see what happens if we just hold on your face for a while and see what happens?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, okay, Ti… leave it with me,” Goth joked.
She and West shot X and Pearl back-to-back in New Zealand. But although her memories of the time are a little bit fuzzy, she knows the scene was a spur-of-the-moment idea.
“I think he just said, ‘See what happens at the end of the film. If nothing comes, then we’ll just do a freeze frame and it’ll be great. We’ll just play around with it. Have fun,'” Goth recalled
In West’s horror trilogy, Goth has three roles: old Pearl, young Pearl, and Maxine. In X, Goth plays Maxine, a country girl with dreams of becoming a famous actress by way of the porn industry; Goth also dons heavy prosthetics to play the elderly version of Pearl, an old farm woman who resents young Maxine’s beauty and potential to have the success she was never able to achieve. Pearl is a villain origin story and a prequel to X. In it, Goth plays the younger version of Pearl, whose dreams of becoming a famous dancer are threatened by her own tendency to fly into a jealous rage.
Playing both Maxine and elderly Pearl in one movie led to some very long shooting days for Goth.
“When I was shooting X, I was being Maxine, and the first half of the movie we’re just shooting Maxine. But then the next half of the film, we were also shooting Pearl, and then by the time we got to that section of the shoot, I was basically on set all the time. We would… have a pickup of about 2 a.m., get to set, start makeup and the prosthetics about 2:45. And then I was in the chair until maybe 11, midday,” she said. “You have to then get ready to do a whole day’s worth of shooting, and you would always go over. Then, to take the makeup off at the very end of the day meant that you would [be] driving home about 24 hours later. So just in that sense, it was challenging, but the idea that I was able to play two roles — that was more a gift than anything, and I relish in the challenge that was presented to me.”
The Suspiria and A Cure for Wellness actress co-wrote Pearl with Ti West, and she remembers sitting in her New York apartment brainstorming ideas for the extremely long monologue that Pearl delivers to Mitzy (Emma Jenkins-Purro).
“The writing process for that monologue really reflects what the entire writing process for the script was, really. I would write in the kind of stream style [of] consciousness, and then I would send that out to [West]. I would often write in the mornings, I would get up very early, I would get my coffee, set my computer overlooking my apartment, and I just started writing. And I’d send it off to him, and he would incorporate that into the script format because I’ve never written a script, I’ve never studied screenwriting. So that was kind of how it worked. The same applies to the monologue.”
Goth also said that she was inspired by the 2008 Steve McQueen film Hunger.
“A big source of inspiration for me for that monologue was, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Hunger by Steve McQueen? You know, there’s that incredible scene with Michael Fassbender and the cameras on him for however long, and I’ve always thought that was a great scene. You look at that as actors when you’re watching movies, and you’re like, ‘I’m gonna do that.'”
Tuesday also happened to be Goth’s 29th birthday, and SCAD presented her with a cake — the crowd even sang her “Happy Birthday.”
Main Image: Mia Goth in Pearl. Photo Credit: A24.