It Comes At Night, the new indie horror film that has been garnering some very positive reviews (including one on this site, nudge nudge), is in its second week of release. I’m incredibly encouraged that it’s been a profitable venture for writer/director Trey Edward Shults & co., especially since the film itself, with its reliance on mystery and an almost Lynchian approach to dread, is an unusual type of summer fright.
Pair that with the recent opportunity I had to sit down with two of the actors in the film – Carmen Ejogo (Selma, Alien: Covenant) and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (12 Years A Slave, Ender’s Game) – because their eagerness to extend their points of view and insights into the more puzzling aspects of the narrative were of a type heretofore unfamiliar to me in the course of press junkets. Some actors might love the movie they’ve made and, well, some might not, but very few I’ve spoken to have beamed so excitedly when a random press guy needles them for more detailed information or reveals from the story like these two. It speaks to what must have been a fascinating process on set, and a durable challenge for the actor, this need to draw up character details based on what’s on the page, and on the “head-canon” an actor musters through their own theory-crafting on their given role.
I want to thank Kelvin and Carmen for sitting with BlackGirlNerds and getting into the deep end on It Comes At Night. Make sure you all take the opportunity to experience this unique and memorable summer film, in theaters now!
NOTE: SPOILERS FOR IT COMES AT NIGHT BELOW
Kelvin Harrison Jr.
[NOTE: As I mentioned in my review, Kelvin steals a lot of the show here. Much of It Comes At Night focuses on his creaky character progression, his reactive adolescence, as a potential stand-in for the viewer’s understanding. Many other horror films include a character who seems to know more than he lets on, but Travis doesn’t withhold information out of spite; to me, he’s just a very traumatized teenager trying to make sense of his restricted, lethal world.]
BlackGirlNerds: What were your first thoughts on approaching the script?
Kelvin Harrison Jr.: I didn’t get the script at first, I just got the sides, and I auditioned just like everyone else. Immediately, something clicked, where it made sense. The scene I got was the scene where he was with Kim, at the table, talking about rice cakes and cookies and cupcakes. My first thought: there’s nothing on the table! Second of all, why doesn’t he like cookies and cupcakes?
I was like, who is this older woman? He’s sexually interested in her. All of these elements gave me this [idea]: “What does it mean to be seventeen? What does it mean to be in this house?” All of these questions got [me] started. Then [I] meet Trey, and I ask him what this means to him. He starts talking about his dad and the other parts of [the script’s] backstory. That’s when you start to realize that Trey is Travis.
BGN: Wait, did he say that, or did you realize that yourself?
KHJ: I realized it. I realized it first. When he started doing the parallels, I realized that he’s the kid. The story’s through Travis’ perspective, which means it’s through Trey’s perspective.[Working on the film,] you start learning Trey more. There’s a youthfulness in him. There’s an openness in him, an innate empathy that he has, that makes him so great as a human being. I felt like that was the biggest thing for Travis. I wanted him to feel very kid-like because he’s been trapped. How long has he been in his house? Three months? A year? Two years? How long has he been here? That started to make me think about what that might do to a 17-year old psyche, and that’s how I approached the part. [But,] as much as I was interested in everything and so fascinated by him, I didn’t always understand him. I felt like I had to do the investigative work as an actor. I would ask Trey ‘Why am I in the attic today, in the middle of the night? It’s weird.’
Trey’s like, ‘He’s not weird, he’s just curious.’
Then I realized that Travis is looking for something. Everyone talks about how scary this house is, but for me, the house wasn’t scary. The experience can be scary, but when you’re 17, you’re looking for some reason to make it make sense. You’re trusting in your parents to make it work. There’s almost a level of comfort in it, where you’re not as stressed as everyone else, so you find little ways to cope, while your parents have to deal with survival and protection. So you can listen and creep and find a way to feel good.
BGN: Something that came up in discussing the film with Jacqueline Comey: is Travis Paul’s biological son?
KHJ: He’s not.
BGN: He’s not explicitly, or that’s how you understand it?
KHJ: We made a decision! [laughs] From the first day, I was like, I don’t look like these two! [laughs] We would talk on set about how Joel’s character Paul has qualities of [Trey’s] stepfather as well as his biological father. We started to see that in this relationship, there was a [feeling] that there was another father in the picture. Travis’ dad wasn’t in the picture, so maybe Paul stepped in. As Travis is getting older and becoming a man, he’s looking to Paul to help him become a man, [which creates] a weird dynamic where there’s a push and pull. And Carmen’s character [Sarah] is so nurturing, like in the scene with Stanley, where I’m really frustrated and upset, and Joel gets a little aggressive with me, she kinda jumps because, you know, that’s hers.
This conflict adds another layer of tension.
[NOTE: Kelvin also spoke here a little bit of a cut scene involving a conversation regarding Andrew and whether he was actually Will and Kim’s biological son, but he says it was removed from the final cut, for bringing the subject too much to the foreground. It’s another great example of the film’s lean approach, but probably not germaine to the story discussion since it’s cut content. Just wanted to mention it here, anyway!]
BGN: What did you draw from in the course of the role?
KHJ: The closest thing for me has been going through Hurricane Katrina. I’m from New Orleans. We actually went to a house in Mississippi, but the hurricane traveled there. I remember a tree fell into the sunroom and it was just split wide open. You’re 12 years old, and you’re using your imagination to figure it out and deal with it.[In my experience], I thought it was a vacation at first until you look at the news and realize that it’s more like an apocalypse. You think, my house is there. Do I know anyone there? You depend on your parents, solely, to protect. That was the closest thing to my experience in the film; you think how you need them to save you.
Also, it’s not the same, but, I also think that Travis is like the kid from ET. I wanted him to feel like a child trapped in his teens who hasn’t matured yet.
BGN: Did Trey know about this when he cast you?
KHJ: No. I don’t even think I realized how deeply I felt about everything until it was done.
BGN: What were some other challenges in the course of acting in this film?
KHJ: For me, as an actor, it was figuring out what those nightmares meant. On the page, it was a little different, because Travis originally called out to his mom and dad while he was having them, and they didn’t respond. But the nightmares were hard, in figuring out how they connected, and how they affected my character’s behavior in [waking] life.
We talked about every small detail in the movie. I know how many days they were there, how many days they were gone, and how long they’ve been in that house. I kept a little journal for myself, thinking about what I did for those days. How did I keep myself entertained? Did Kim look at me? Andrew said this to me today. And so on.
It was fun because Trey doesn’t always answer questions. If I asked Trey certain questions, like ‘What’s behind the red door’ or about the nightmares, he’d never answer directly. The unknown and the presence of fear of the unknown is a big part of the movie.
BGN: What has been your path to acting? Do you have any advice, either that you’ve received or had to create for yourself?
KHJ: My first big experience as an actor was getting upgraded from being an extra on Ender’s Game. Viola [Davis] told me to look at the work as a craft, and to take classes. The next thing I did was get into a class, and did that for the next few years, and did a lot of reading. My next big project was 12 Years A Slave, and Steve McQueen reminded me, again, that this is a craft [laughs]. My biggest advice is to read, be aware, be open. Examine your life and where you are. That’s been a big part of my journey, through my jobs, really understanding where I am in my life and how this corresponds to the work that I’m doing.
BGN: Who are your favorite working actors, your “patron saints?”
KHJ: Tilda Swinton is fascinating. Transformative. I love how low-key she is. When I don’t realize that an actor’s in a movie and I have to go back and be like ‘time out, that was her?’ I want to disappear into a movie [like that]. I don’t know how to act, I just know how to live, and to make sense of it in the moment. I like seeing actors that do that. I love you, Tilda, if you ever hear this!
BGN: What should people look out for in the future?
KHJ: The show Startup on Crackle, the second season comes out on September 28th.
Talk about how his entourage steps into the shoot, just hangs out and is supportive and generally chill.
BGN: Not to start on a negative, but I feel like there are people who are gonna watch this and not appreciate it. They’re not going to get final answers; a scientist isn’t gonna come in at the end and say ‘this is what happened to the world, end scene.’ It doesn’t have those tidy conclusions. How did you approach a script like this, initially?
Carmen Ejogo: I got excited by the script, and then I saw Trey’s debut Krisha. After seeing Krisha I knew that even if the script hadn’t been as strong as I thought it was, I’d still do anything he did next. It’s very rare that you come across a filmmaker and can just immediately tell that they are a visionary, that they have a really singular point of view that is going to be important within the film world for some time. That was the impact that Trey’s debut film had on me.
Couple that with a script that I thought was very interesting and strong, it was very easy to sign on. I didn’t see all of the layers and nuance coming, to be honest. We were all taking a bit of a risk in many regards, because this is quite new territory. It’s all very unconventional in many ways. As much as one might have the ambition of getting to that point, getting to that place, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll arrive there. It takes a lot of mastery in many different departments to pull of something that’s this brand new. But that doesn’t stop you from trying and taking the risk; at least it didn’t stop me. I’m so glad that I did because it paid off.
Having said all of that though: if something has really strong characters, that’s all I need as an actress. Even if at the end of the day the film isn’t great, at least I’ll know I get to do my bit within it, to do what the director needed, and I’ll be satisfied with that. The fact that it all came together so eloquently was what we aimed for.
BGN: Speaking to Kelvin, it sounded like you were kind of a “camp” of actors figuring out the movie as you made it.
CE: Trey is so interesting. He’s so young, so confident and clear-minded as to what he wants. Yet, within all of that, the ultimate sign of confidence for me in a director is when they know all of that, but still give the actors space to do what they need to do, to change things if they feel they need to, while still knowing that he’s holding onto the reins and not losing control by giving that over. Because I was working alongside some really smart actors, who were just really bright people in their own right, the ideas that were forthcoming were just elevating things even further.
So it did become a team effort, despite the fact that we had a really great place to start with, with the script.
BGN: It sounds like you and the actors had to bring a lot to it.
CE: Trey was comfortable in the minimalism of it all, and didn’t have a problem with us potentially going in a direction that wasn’t what he might have imagined, but wouldn’t interfere with his ultimate vision. It takes some confidence to be able to do that.
BGN: One of the things that’s been coming up is the whole question about whether Travis is Paul’s biological son.
CE: That was a thing confidently between us all, we were back and forth on. I don’t think it becomes anything that’s in the script per se, but I love the fact that there might be enough…I mean, one could make that argument potentially based on skin tone…
BGN: That’s also come up, but feels limited in the context of casting.
CE: Yes, Kelvin could easily be the son of a mixed-race marriage. It’s all up for grabs! But I also know that we were at times embedding a layer of neuroses and paranoia, that maybe you also picked up on, in terms of the dynamics between the father and the son, or the mother and the father about the son. All of these estrangement details between the parents, and the over-compensation for that dynamic in what then is a slightly overbearing relationship between mother and son. All of these are things that we were definitely playing with. It’s all subtle stuff, and not all of it ends up on the screen, but I love that it’s then another thing for an audience to leave and ponder over.
BGN: I was also thinking about that scene with the touch, where Paul carefully touches Travis’ shoulder, with a sense of distance.
CE: Maybe! Or maybe he’s scared of catching the disease…even within the family; no one knows for sure who has the disease or doesn’t.
This is why it’s a lot more fun, and psychologically draining, and horrifying, to offer very little.
BGN: Something that came up in my review was this idea of borders, invasion, and immigration as a kind of allegorical theme. Do you think that’s too off-the-mark? I imagine that Trey wrote the film prior to the US presidential election.
CE: I think that Trey did not put pen to paper with the intention of writing something of the zeitgeist, or socially or politically relevant. He made this as a very personal story about his father dying of cancer but having said all that…
…I think maybe as filmmakers, and as an intelligent, sensitive human being in the world, that we all, coming together in June, could smell something in the air. That there was enough on the page to play with that thematically could then be relevant to this present time. I don’t think that it was intentional, but I do think that some artists just have their feelers out all the time for just that smell in the air, and even if it’s not at the time, it could be a year earlier, two or three years earlier…I suspect Trey may be one of those people.
What’s happening right now has been coming for quite some time. It didn’t just happen in November or December. We’ve been building up to a Trump administration. We’ve been building up to migration around the world at record levels. We’ve been building up to a foreign policy which led to these kinds of scenarios. If you’re in any way attuned to that kind of stuff, it already had momentum years ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if Trey, in his own brilliant way, was very sensitive to that, even if it’s not what he intended to say.
BGN: Do you have any advice for new Black actors? Any advice you’ve encountered, or conjured for yourself, that might benefit others?
CE: Never assume that anyone else’s lane is the right one to be in, even if they seem to be moving faster in it than you are. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point, but I’ve always stuck to the idea that slow and steady wins the race. There are actors that I came up with who aren’t working anymore, but who were working a lot more than I was when I was when I was 20, 30 even. The difference, in my opinion, is that I really stuck to only the work I truly believed in, all the time. I can pretty much stand by every single thing on my resume, but that’s why my resume is probably about 1/3 as long as most actresses in Hollywood! [laughs]
But for me, it’s always been about a body of work, about having enough real love for the craft of it, that you’re never gonna make a choice that a director five years from now will look back and go ‘well she hasn’t worked for 5 years, and the last thing she did was a pile of doo-doo’ [laughs]. You know what I mean?
If I hadn’t worked for 5 years – which actually was the case, as I raised children and raised a family, taking the unconventional route and decided to pursue that properly – but then to come back after many years and still get work and, in my opinion, some of the best work i’ve ever been offered, it’s because anyone looking back in my resume doesn’t go ‘well they haven’t worked for 5 years, and the last few jobs were crap.’ The last thing on my resume is as interesting to me as an artist as the first thing I ever did. I continue to work with that mindset, and that can be across genres, across disciplines, across different media. There are no rules, no snobbery about where the good work can happen, I think that’s also an important thing to keep in mind.
BGN: I’ve been trying to champion this film, because I really want this to resonate with the horror fans who aren’t normally looking for something like this.
CE: I think that there’s a level of sophistication in every single one of us, and that you can still be entertained by a movie like this which has that sophistication, and be truly entertained. I think you come out of this unsettled in the way that the best popcorn horror movie can unsettle you. I think you get the best of both worlds.
The film It Comes At Night is in theaters now. Portions of the above interview have been edited slightly for clarity.