If you ever get the opportunity to begin your day in a conversation with actor/writer/producer/all-around horror aficionado Barbara Crampton, I’d recommend you do so. The official occasion for my most recent discussion with Crampton was her appearance in the feature debut from filmmakers Emily Bennett & Justin Brooks, Alone With You, the story of Charlie (played by Bennett), a professional make-up artist awaiting the return of her girlfriend Simone (Emma Myles) from an extended work trip. She’s setting up their apartment for maximum romantic atmosphere. Meanwhile, she has to fend off some potential distractions, including her judgmental mother (Crampton), who is attempting to find a necklace belonging to her recently deceased mother that was given to Charlie. But once Charlie is able to focus on Simone’s return is when things get weird and then strange and then scary.
Between Bennett’s substantial turn as Charlie and a confident visual style from the filmmakers, Alone With You aims for an early-Polanski paranoia vibe and pretty much nails it. And anytime Crampton is able to cut loose, even in a smaller role the way she does here, is a bonus in my book.
Many of us have been admirers of Crampton since her early-career turns in Body Double, Chopping Mall, Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Castle Freak, but there’s an entire generation of film lovers that first saw her in Adam Wingard’s groundbreaking You’re Next, which kicked open the doors to a new phase in Crampton’s career—one that includes memorable turns in We Are Still Here, Tales of Halloween, Beyond the Gates, and her leading role in the critically acclaimed vampire tale Jacob’s Wife. I’ve known and interviewed Crampton several times over the last 12-plus years, and she’s always been very perceptive about her own work, the world of horror, and what it takes for her to trust the vision of a new director she’s considering working with (as was the case with Alone With You).
The film is in select now in theaters and available via VOD, digital, and DVD. Please enjoy my chat with Crampton…
I’ve been fascinated with the way some filmmakers have approached filmmaking during the pandemic, and I think Alone With You does a terrific job under those conditions. What are some of the unique challenges of acting while looking directly at the camera, as you do here in a pair of Zoom calls? What do you like about it? What don’t you like? Could you actually see Emily during those scenes? Walk me through it.
I could see her. They sent me a camera through the mail, and I set it up right next to the computer. Justin Brooks told me how to set it up, plug it in, all that. I had to be my own makeup artist, lighting designer, etc. That was more daunting to me than anything, but it worked out okay. Then they had a camera at their end filming me looking into the Zoom lens, so what they were seeing on Emily’s side of the screen was filmed—my face on her computer screen. To be honest, it wasn’t that different than being on a set and having a closeup with the director saying “The actor you’re in the scene with can’t be here by the camera because we don’t have enough room, so we’re going to put this piece of tape here and have you look at it. That’s the actor’s face.” I’m used to that, to working with a ball and a sock tied to a C-stand, and that’s somebody’s face. You hear the actor’s voice usually; it’s usually not the first AD giving you the lines, but sometimes that happens too, sometimes the actor can’t be there, especially if the scene involves special effects makeup. My life for 40 years has been playing pretend, so I play pretend; it’s just a muscle, like anything else, so you get better at it as time goes on.
And Emily was right there with me as I was acting with her, even though they were filming me. I could see her face on the Zoom screen, and by then, we’d been using Zoom for six months—this was a the very beginning of the pandemic, when people were not going out or fraternizing with one another, even in our yards. We were still washing the lettuce when we came home from Whole Foods. This is before we knew we would have vaccines or anything. It was a very dark time in our lives. But I was able to see her and respond, and she is fantastic in the movie. I really want to give her kudos for her performance; she was so emotionally available and really facile at going from feeling completely scared and upset to frantic and paranoid. I really appreciated acting with such a striking young performer.
Following up on something you just said about when you shot this, at that time, our homes were our safe places. We’d stocked our homes as best we could, and that was the place we felt the most safe because it had to be. And I love that the horror of this film is that even your home isn’t safe now. It’s not even necessarily an outside invader; it’s all inside the house. And the house itself is the enemy almost.
That’s a really good point, Steve. I didn’t even think of that. When I first ready the script, I was trying to figure out what was going on. Was she being haunted? Was this a dream? What is revealed toward the end, I didn’t see coming. And normally, I can see what’s coming. I know all of the tricks and tropes, and I didn’t see that. But what you’re saying really illuminates what we were all feeling at the time. Our home was our safe place, but this was an unsafe place for her. That’s perceptive.
We see you twice here, and the second time you get to cut loose and be a bit more demented. But a lot of what we see are effects done to your image. When you were shooting those scenes, what was the direction you were given, and did you have any idea what the final product was going to look like?
No, I really had to take my cues from them. They told me what they thought they were going to do with the material, but they said, “Give us a few different colors of things,” and I said, “You’re having me say these words, so I’m going to say them like a little girl or kind of mean or in a haunted voice or scared voice.” Whatever worked for them is what they put together. But we just tried bunch of different things.
By all indicators on social media, you seem to have a really strong and positive relationship with your own kids. Is it tough playing a mother who is so overtly judgmental and disapproving, since that goes against your nature? I realize it’s acting, but does it pain you in anyway to have to treat someone who is supposed to be your child in that way?
Yeah. As actors, to be as authentic as possible, you have to use your own experiences to a certain degree. I don’t think there’s any character that is not me. That being said, I don’t think I’m as judgmental as this woman in this movie. But in small moments, when I’ve felt I was a little distant from my kids or I didn’t quite understand what they were telling me or what they needed or maybe things they did, I didn’t approve of—little moments like that, I have experienced that with my kids. In my own mind, I use my children a lot, they’re so meaningful to me. And I just imagine in my mind my relationship with my own children in that way, per what’s going on in the scene, and I transfer that onto the other actor. It seems to work most of the time.
In general, when you first met Emily and Justin, what was it about them that made you realize you could trust them and you liked them as far as their vision for this film was concerned?
They were incredibly prepared, and anytime I had a question, they had an answer. They had a really clear vision about how they were going to shoot the movie and what they wanted it to feel and look like. I could tell from talking with them that they had a vision; you can tell when you talk to somebody if they have one or if they are going to go “Well, let’s just see what happens.” They had a clear vision, and that immediately put me at ease. And they had some good people behind them too. They had Andrew Corkin, who had produced We Are What We Are and Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Theo James, who was in the Divergent movies. They came with some people who really believed in them, and they already had [fellow actors] Emma Myles and Dora Madison signed on. Sometimes people come on the scene, and you just know they know what they’re doing, and I’ve worked with a lot of first-time filmmakers.
I felt that way when I first worked with Stuart Gordon, although back then I didn’t know what was up or down, but he proved himself a force to be reckoned with over time. Also, working with Adam Wingard, immediately when I stepped on [the You’re Next] set, even though I had spoken to you about it, I hadn’t worked in 6-8 years. But I stepped on the set and I was like “Oh, these kids are good.” And look what pretty much all of them have gone on to do. I had the same feeling with these guys; they really know what they’re doing, they’re really thoughtful, and I’d read some of the other scripts that they have, and they’re good. Working with Emily on Zoom when we were rehearsing a few days before we shot our scenes, she was fantastic and so facile in activating her emotions. These people aren’t going anywhere; they’re really smart filmmakers. I’m really proud of them and really proud to be a part of their project.
Last year was a banner year for you, between Jacob’s Wife at SXSW, you were in Joe Lynch’s “Creepshow” episode, and I loved what you did in Superhost. It feels like you’re as in demand as ever. How does it feel to have people recognize that you’re at the top of your game? It’s really wonderful to see people keep coming to you for substantial roles. What does that feel like for you?
Thank you, Steve. You were really one of the first people to reach out to me when I came out to Chicago, and I was almost back on the scene. And you asked “Whatever ever happened to Barbara Crampton?” You were one of the first people to do any kind of story on me. It’s been amazing. I feel like I have a second round to my career and I’m being offered roles that are really interesting, compelling, and complicated, like I’ve never been offered before. I’m more excited by the genre than ever before. We’re really dissecting people and desires and the mind and the psychology like never before. In the 1980s, when I was coming up, it was more about splatter and special effects, and now it’s more about the inner-workings of people, and we’re all trying to understand who we are and remind ourselves who we are. These kind of roles are really interesting. I’m also delving into more producing and helping other people realize their dreams and their visions. I really love collaborating with filmmakers and talking about scripts and working on scripts together with writers. I feel like I’m having more fun in my career than I’ve ever had. I hope it keeps going because I’m really loving it.
It’s always a pleasure. We’ll talk soon, I’m sure.
Thank you so much, Steve.
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