Q&A: Actress Ryan Simpkins on “ANGUISH,” Jennifer Lynch and Her “INSIDIOUS” ConnectionFearful Features,Home,Movies/TV,News Michael Gingold
Actress Ryan Simpkins first won genre fans’ notice as the little girl at the center of Jennifer Lynch’s SURVEILLANCE, and now she truly comes into her own as the teen heroine of Sonny Mallhi’s standout supernatural thriller ANGUISH. The actress speaks exclusively with FANGORIA about her horror experiences below.
ANGUISH, currently in select theaters and on VOD from Gravitas Ventures, casts Simpkins as Tess, whose mother Jessica (Annika Marks) deals with her apparent deep psychological problems by overmedicating her. When the two move to a new town, it becomes clear that Tess’ issues actually stem from a hypersensitivity to the dead, and she becomes plagued and then overtaken by the spirit of a deceased girl named Lucy (Amberley Gridley). More dramatic and character-intensive than typical teen horror while still delivering the frights, ANGUISH (reviewed here) is a strong showcase for Simpkins, who has family ties to another notable screen chiller…
FANGORIA: How did you win the role of Tess?
RYAN SIMPKINS: I had auditioned for the casting house before; I did a film called ARCADIA with them, so they knew me from that and I got the ANGUISH audition. I went in and tried to give it my all, and I thought it was cool because I was, at the time, a really big fan of SUPERNATURAL. I remember asking questions like, “Have you seen SUPERNATURAL, is this like how they do it?” I actually originally didn’t get it and they went with someone older, but she dropped out and they gave it to me.
FANG: Tess is a very different kind of character than we see in most youth-oriented horror…
SIMPKINS: Yeah, I thought that was great, and that it was such a female-heavy cast of characters; the three leads are female, and then there’s Lucy and her best friend is a girl. I thought it was very interesting to have all these strong, complex female characters, especially in a horror film. What I love so much about Tess in particular is that she’s both a victim and a monster [when Lucy possesses her], and I was able to play sides. You can see both perspectives during the film, and you rarely see the point of view of the monster in a horror film all the way through, and that was a fascinating opportunity.
FANG: How did you go about maintaining sympathy for the character as she goes to these darker places?
SIMPKINS: Well, I felt the whole time like I had a little bit of Tess within me; even if I was playing Lucy, I’d try to remember Tess’ view of things, because she’s really just an innocent girl in a horrible circumstance. I always felt a lot of sympathy for Tess. Lucy, as a person, I thought was so selfish and horrible, so it was a little harder finding sympathy for her, but I managed to do it because Lucy just wants to get back to her mom, and wasn’t done with her time on Earth. She just wants to say goodbye to everyone, and that’s how I ended up adopting her point of view.
FANG: When I talked to Mallhi (see interview here), he said he approached ANGUISH like a drama as much as a horror film. Did that play into the way he directed you, or your performance?
SIMPKINS: Definitely. A lot of the time, the decisions we were trying to make on set were whether we should go for the scare or go for the drama. We ended up doing whatever we felt was natural for these characters, and I appreciate that it’s not the sort hokey horror film that the studios put out so often, that just goes for the jump-scares. In this one, you sympathize with all these characters and their struggle.
FANG: Can you talk about working with Marks as your mother and Gridley as Lucy?
SIMPKINS: That was really fun. Annika lives not too far from me in LA, so before we went out to Chicago to film, we hung out a couple of times, and she came to see my school performances as if she was my mom. When we were staying in the hotel in Chicago, she was right across the hall from me and was very motherly, like, “If you ever need anything, just come over.” We bonded really well on set. Amberley was great, too. There was one day when we had a tornado warning in the middle of filming; they were like, “There might be tornadoes coming, and you guys have to leave.” So we ran back to what we called our base camp and hid out in these people’s basement, and me and Amberley just watched Netflix and talked about THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT the whole time. Fortunately, the tornado didn’t actually end up hitting the town.
FANG: How was the location in general? It looks like kind of a gloomy place to be…
SIMPKINS: Yeah, we were on the outskirts and suburbs of Chicago, and it was very cold and wet. There was one scene where I was standing outside in literally nothing but my socks and a wet T-shirt, and it was something like five degrees and it was freezing—but it looked good, so that’s what counts. But on the weekends we were able to go to Chicago, and we all became really close on set. I also have friends who live around the areas we were filming, and they came by a few days to be extras. So we made the best of it.
FANG: ANGUISH is Mallhi’s debut as director after producing a number of movies. How did he do as a first-timer?
SIMPKINS: I thought he was cool. It was interesting seeing him work both as a director and a producer, because you could definitely see the producer side of him. Often when you start filming, the director gets a little stressed and starts barking more, because everything hits them at once and they have to deal with all this pressure. But Sonny was always very kind and patient, and very good at talking us through the scenes and never losing his temper. It was a joy working with him.
SIMPKINS: SURVEILLANCE was awesome, and up until ANGUISH, it was the most fun I’ve ever had on a set. When you do horror movies, you have to keep the mood lighthearted, because if you don’t, you’re just going to be depressed, because of all the stuff that’s happening in the film. On SURVEILLANCE, we had French Stewart, Cheri Oteri and all these comedic actors who were getting the opportunity to play these dark, serious roles, and Jennifer Lynch was really good about giving them their time and place to do that. On camera, they were giving these incredible, intense performances, and then as soon as they called cut, everyone started cracking jokes again. That’s my favorite thing about doing horror films: the fun you have off set.
FANG: You were very young when you made that film, surrounded by all this gruesome stuff. Did you ever get scared while shooting?
SIMPKINS: I didn’t on SURVEILLANCE, because they were very good at explaining what was real, what was fake and how they were making certain things happen. I remember there was one scene where my family has been murdered and there was so much blood and gore, and they were using, like, SpaghettiOs, and they let me play with the SpaghettiOs and were like, “By the way, this is all fake.” They were very good at keeping me calm.
I am, fortunately, usually pretty good about that. My little brother Ty worked on INSIDIOUS when he was 8 or 9, and despite the fact that they took him into the makeup trailer and had him apply the makeup to the ghosts and the monsters to show him it wasn’t real, he had a really hard time with that. He was terrified the whole time. That was the first monster-horror film either of us had ever done, and I was on set the whole way through that, and I learned from that that this was all fake, and not to be afraid.
FANG: Can you talk a bit more about working with Lynch?
SIMPKINS: Jennifer is amazing, and I’m so happy for her now; she’s doing so well on THE WALKING DEAD. Her episodes are easily my favorites in the series—not even because I know Jenn, but because they’re so amazing. I’ve cried during all the ones she’s done. She was very, very kind and so passionate about her work, and if anything got in the way, she was able to look at the situation, take a moment and move past it. I would love to work with Jenn again.
FANG: You also acted for Francis Ford Coppola in his independent horror movie TWIXT. How was that experience?
SIMPKINS: That was insane and really cool, because Francis was writing the script as we were shooting it. The film is all about dreams, and Francis was actually dreaming it as we were going. He knew everyone on that movie; the crew were people from town he knew or friends he had worked with in the past, the kids in the film were just kids who went to school in town whose parents he knew; that was a lot of fun. We filmed mostly on one location, this little ghost town with all these torn-down buildings. It was a big enough place that it was hard to walk everywhere, but small enough that we didn’t need full-on vans, so we all got our own golf carts. I really enjoyed making that film.