Film

Interview: Amy Seimetz on Pet Sematary, Reading Stephen King as a Kid, Learning Not to Apologize

Amy Seimetz is best known as a high-caliber actor capable of plumbing the depths of just about every character she’s ever played, including as the guilt-ridden wife and mother Rachel Creed in the new release Pet Sematary (based on the classic Stephen King novel). But she entered the film world through the side door of producing independent films, including Barry Jenkins’ 2008 feature debut Medicine for Melancholy. For most of the 2000s, she’d been performing in early works by Joe Swanberg (Silver Bullets, Alexander the Last, Autoerotic), Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture), and Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way To Die, You’re Next).

She’s made career-defining turns in such works as The Myth of the American Sleepover, Upstream Color, The Sacrament, and the television series “The Girlfriend Experience,” which she also directed. In 2012, she moved from directing shorts to helming her first feature, the revelatory, central Florida-set Sun Don’t Shine, which she also wrote, produced and co-edited. Most recently she directed two of the best episodes of the most recent season of “Atlanta.”

Pet Sematary

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Aside from a part in the ensemble cast of Alien: Covenant, her role in Pet Sematary (co-directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, Starry Eyes) is one of Seimetz’s highest-profile parts to date. She’s a standout as a woman dealing with a traumatic childhood while also attempting to raise her two children in her family’s new home in rural Maine, where the family has moved after the pressures of Boston life became too much for the Creeds. Jason Clarke plays her husband, Dr. Louis Creed, and the two attempt to adjust to the slower pace of the country while also figuring out what exactly is going on in the woods behind their home that’s making for quite unsettling living conditions.

Seimetz has another movie coming out next week in Chicago, called Wild Nights with Emily, a thoroughly researched biopic of poet Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) and her relationship with her brother’s wife (Susan Ziegler). Seimetz plays a woman named Mabel, who just happens to be having an affair with said brother. After Emily’s death, Mabel spearheaded efforts to get her largely unpublished works finally published, even though she sullied them with some minor “tweaking.” Seimetz plays Mabel as equal parts charming and horrible, and it’s note perfect as a characterization.

I spoke with Seimetz recently about her indie roots, her personal connection to her character in Pet Sematary, and how she’s glad she’s had experience in the many aspects of filmmaking over the years. She’s a fantastic talker and a great analyst of her own strengths as an actor. Please enjoy…

There’s this trend in horror films right now, and it’s made a huge difference to me as someone who has been watching them most of my life. The trend is to emphasize the more human, family drama almost over the horror. And then some greater evil comes in and exploits the cracks in the family and attempts to tear it apart. Did that more deep dive into this emotional side of the horror story appeal to you as an actor?

Yeah. Let’s just get it out of the way: life is scary [laughs]. My mom, when she gives me the silent treatment, is scary. I fear that more than zombies. And even if you go back to Stephen King’s works, there’s a lot of that at the heart of them—the family drama. Each kid in It has their own drama. Even in The Shining, which is about an extremely dysfunctional family, with a husband who has anger-management problems.

It’s an abusive relationship.

It’s so abusive; it’s terrible. I was just re-watching it, and everybody remembers the twins or the blood coming from the elevators, but I was like “Why are we not talking about how abusive he is?” It’s so good. The backbone is such an accurate portrayal of an abusive relationship, even the way Shelley Duvall’s character reacts to it and how submissive she is and embarrassed. That’s the terrifying thing. What’s interesting about a good horror film is when it taps into something like that, that’s identifiable, and you have the audience hooked on this very relatable thing. Then you take them deeper into the What If… What if there were something supernatural in addition to these horrors that are already scary. Like you said, that trend is doing really well, and most of my favorite horror stories take things from life and push it further.

Even if you look at what you all did with You’re Next, that’s a metaphor for a family slowly being ripped apart.

Right. The sibling rivalry is key there, exactly. And how people treat money and how that rips people apart. That happens all the time. At the same time, you go into this absurd territory. Again, that’s one of my favorite components in genre and what’s so fun about it—it can be funny and terrifying at the same time, and that interplay with the audience is so fun. It’s such an interactive experience. Audiences are screaming and laughing; we want to have a collective experience at the cinema, and genre delivers that.

I’d forgotten how much guilt is a fuel for this story. It propels everything. And this version of the story almost feels more like Rachel’s story than the book did. She has this backstory that is built on guilt. Can you talk about that aspect? There’s a young actress playing Rachel as a girl, but you also are forced to relive some terrifying moments from her childhood as an adult.

My brain right now needs to get this out there that I want a memoir titled “Built on Guilt” [laughs]. There are a lot of things that people don’t talk about with grieving; a lot of people don’t talk about grieving in general and how messy it is and how you can’t predict it. Grieving is such a selfish act, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. You can’t grieve for somebody else; therefore, you can only grieve for yourself. My sister and I lost my dad, and I can’t grieve for my sister, and her grieving process is different than mine. Mine was this wild, four years’ worth of a nervous breakdown [laughs], and maybe it’s still happening as I maniacally laugh about it. That’s one of the emotions that people don’t talk about in grieving or in loss, the guilt that you feel and the guilt comes—at least in my personal experience—because you still think you have some control over death, but death is inevitable. And because we don’t talk about death, even if it’s by natural causes, there’s a huge wave of guilt that comes with it. I mean, I didn’t kill my dad…

Thank you for clearing that up.

Yeah, just to let you know [laughs]. But there was a massive wave of guilt. “What if I had done something differently?” At the time, my guilt was that I was a poor artist. I’d done tons of independent films and I felt incredibly selfish. I had initially wanted to be a doctor and I went though this whole meltdown after my dad died, thinking “If I’d been a doctor, maybe I could have saved him,” not just because I was a medical professional, but because I would have been making more money and could have sent him to all of these specialists. But the fact was, he was going to die, but I had that guilt. And I think that’s what’s so identifiable in the book and our film—the emotions that come with it as if you have some control over when it comes. I think that’s what Rachel lives with, carrying around the guilt about her sister but also she wants to protect her kids and not talk about death. She’s like “If I can control this environment and protect them from all of these dangerous things and bad ideas, then they’ll live a happy life. I just want them to be happy.” And what parent doesn’t want that, but you can’t protect them. You have to let them go through all of these things. You can’t be a helicopter parent forever. But that all stems from this idea that you can control death.

One of my favorite early scenes is that conversation Rachel and Louis have with their daughter about heaven and what might come after death, and you have that polite disagreement followed by “What just happened there?” It’s a very real family moment.

Yeah, that’s why it was really important to have Ellie [Jeté Laurence] be older and have that twist regarding her [dying, instead of younger son Gabe, who dies in the book and first film adaptation]. She is questioning her own mortality in a way that a toddler does not; a toddler is still the center of the universe. He doesn’t understand that there’s a self outside of itself. As opposed to when you get older and you realize “Mom and dad are older and are people and they might die; I might die.” What’s really great about the book is that it eases you into it in a way that’s very believable.

Unless you’ve experienced tragedy really young, most of our experiences exploring death is through the death of a pet. When your pet dies, your parents have to have these very heavy conversations with you, and your parents sometimes have conflicting ideas of what that means. “Church’s soul went to heaven. He’s dead here, but he’s not really dead.” And the kids have to pick that apart: “Wait, tell me that concept.” It’s like opening Pandora’s Box. But if you tell your kid “Once you die, it’s done. That’s the end of life,” then you’re opening Pandora’s Box in another way, and you create fear in them. That’s what is so good about the book and the film too is that it doesn’t shy away from these very realistic and grounded explorations of how we explain death to children. But it also admits that adults can’t accept death, and they don’t know what it is either. There’s this lingering question of what death is. The only thing that we know is that it happens.

What is your history with this book and with Stephen King in general? How far back does your fandom go?

I grew up in the ’80s, so he was ubiquitous. I don’t know an existence without Stephen King. I grew up knowing that he was omnipresent. Whether or not I was a dark kid, my parents allowed me to read dark stuff. I started with R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike, and then I swiftly moved into Stephen King when I was eight years old. My mom is a massive reader, and it isn’t like she only had horror books on her shelf, but she had tons of books. I think I read Gloria Steinem around eight as well. But my eye went to Stephen King, and they were just happy I was reading, and they encouraged me to read. I read Pet Sematary when I was eight years old.

What do you remember responding to about that book at the time and what do you respond to now?

It’s so easy as a kid to go with horror or genre books in general, because you’re still learning about the world and anything is possible. A zombie is possible, a ghost is possible, me becoming an accountant is possible; they’re all on equal levels at that age, so you’re able to go there. But what’s kind of disturbing and I think it’s why my mom let me read Pet Sematary in the first place was that she was thinking “Let’s see how long she lasts with that family drama for the first half of the book. She wants to read it because it’s called Pet Sematary and she’s eight years old and she wants a zombie cat. Got it. But it’s also a book about a marriage.” Because I was reading it, the thing that was really disturbing to me was the cat coming back, it was this intense family drama and learning that your parents don’t always have the nicest thoughts about you.

As I was learning that my parents were human beings, I was also learning that they have this inner dialogue, and sometimes they’re like “Just shut the fuck up and stop doing what you’re doing,” and that was really disturbing to me. It’s also one of the elements that’s so heartbreaking in the book, you have those thoughts about people you live with and love deeply, but sometimes you don’t have the nicest thoughts about them. That’s what is so heartbreaking when you lose someone. “I should have never felt that way. I didn’t know what I had and should never have had those terrible thoughts about somebody.” But you can’t help it, nobody is perfect, and you’re going to have those thoughts, but it adds to the level of guilt when they lose Gage in the book, or Ellie in the movie.

Let me ask you about your directors. I think their previous film, Starry Eyes, was the most amazing actors’ horror film. Even if nobody else saw it, if actors saw it, they would go “Yep, that’s how it feels sometimes.” Tell me about working with them and their take on the material.

I was a big fan of Starry Eyes. I’m not a stereotypical actor because I have my writing and directing, so I’m very lucky. But I watched that movie and I thought “Thank god, I’m not just an actor.” Thank god I don’t have to be like “What do you want me to be? I’ll do anything.” And at what cost? I’m not that way; I have this whole other side of me that’s writing and directing, and the horror of having to get chosen, I wouldn’t be able to live like that, which is probably why I’m not just an actor. I accidentally became an actor.

But what I was excited about in terms of being a part of this movie is that I loved the tone of Starry Eyes and how scrappy they are, because I come out of independent film and I love how innovative they are with no money. I always think the bigger the budgets I get, I still go back to my indie roots and I’m still scrappy. Yeah, there’s more money, but we have to be crafty with it. You can’t sit back and relax, and I’m attracted to working with people from independent film because when they’re given a budget, they don’t take it for granted. They’re like “We have more money, let’s not coast and eat sushi for lunch; let’s make it go on the screen and take advantage with it.” They are amazing; it’s two directors and they have different temperaments, but they have this very cohesive vision.

I want to ask at least one question about Wild Nights with Emily. I was aware of Mabel and her contributions to Emily’s fame after her death. But you play her like this charming, horrible human being. The tone of the film is so specific and funny. How much did you have to tweak the way you played Mabel to get it just right?

Right. It’s so complicated because you also have to understand the times this story takes place in. In an aside from what she did to literature and also what she did to set back lesbian history, you do understand her motivation. She thought Emily Dickinson was brilliant. Of everyone who was surrounding Emily Dickinson, she fought so hard and was not related to her, and the family hated her. She believed so intensely in Emily’s work and that she needed to be recognized that she sat and retyped every single poem out, got them published, was the PR person for it, but she was very vain too.

You have to remember that she also wanted to be known for her writing, and at the time, a woman wanting to be known for their writing was crass. It still happens. Women get demure or apologetic or coy or self-deprecating about their work. I even sometimes do that because that’s the way society tells women they should be, and I have to get over that…or I had to get over that. Sorry. Oh look, I just apologized [laughs]. See how engrained it is? I had a DP at one point who I worked with on “The Girlfriend Experience” Season 1…I said to my crew “Can we go again? Sorry.” And he said “Never, ever say that again.” And I wasn’t even thinking that I said it. And it’s really important. My mom watched [Emily] and loved it because it’s not just important for women’s history but gay history, and rewriting that history that Emily Dickinson didn’t want anyone to read these poems. It’s not true; she wrote them to be read.

It makes me incredibly sad because I think Mabel’s attempt was to market this in that time. And the way that she found to do it was to create this myth that Emily didn’t want anyone to read them, there was unrequited love for a man, and Emily was a spinster and was a tragic story of a woman who couldn’t get married. And she spun that story, and we believed it until…well, some people still believe it. Yes, she also rewrote her words and that’s terrible, but I don’t think she was approaching it to be terrible. I think she was thinking “I need to get these out there.” And there’s vanity attached to it. There’s not one reason people do things, and that’s why I found it so fascinating to portray her. I love the amount of detail and research that Madeleine [Olnek, writer/director] put into that story; it’s magnificent. She’s so studious and knows everything about Emily Dickinson and this story. She did it in tandem with a scholar at Harvard; it’s not a What If. It’s very researched and well-supported.

Amy, thank you so much and best of luck.

Thank you, Steve. Bye bye.

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