Brainwaves continues its coverage of indy horror flick The Axiom (releasing February 12th) by interviewing actress Hattie Smith, who plays the lead role of McKenzie in the film, and was kind enough to answer some questions about the experience.
You can check out our recent interview with Nicholas Woods, writer-director of The Axiom, here.
Brainwaves: How did you initially come to be cast in The Axiom, and what attracted you to the project? Was horror a genre that you had felt drawn to before this?
Hattie Smith: I actually attended Chapman University with our director, Nicholas. I was recommended for several of his projects and we worked very well together. We also both obviously had a passion for horror and drama. Some months prior to The Axiom, I was cast in a another short horror film that Nicholas directed, and I believe my performance in that is what got me the audition for the feature. I was originally called in to audition for the role of Darcy, but after my first read he had me review the sides and read for McKenzie. At the time I had no idea the caliber of project Nicholas had up his sleeve, but rather was thrilled to have the opportunity to possibly work with him again. It wasn’t until I got a callback a few weeks later and read the full script that I knew what a great opportunity lay before me. Several weeks later I had booked the role and was ecstatic!
BW: What would you consider to be some of the positive and negative aspects about acting in the horror genre?
HS: Don’t get me wrong, I love thrillers. I love the entire horror genre; such a visceral experience for both audience and actor. I will say, however, that most horror films are very plot driven, with more focus on pushing the story forward rather than taking time to develop it’s characters. There is a lot of work done by the actors that may not be visible to the naked eye or audience if you will. A lot of work that might not make it to the final cut for the sake of the story or the scare factor. Not to mention, I feel as though women in horror tend to fall into a specific type of category. Somewhat over-sexualized and naive. I, however, was very lucky on The Axiom to have such an amazing director and crew. There was always a respectful ear for any concerns or inputs that I or fellow actors had. That’s a rare treat, to be involved in such a truly collaborative project. All in all, I wouldn’t trade my experience shooting The Axiom for anything. But I do believe that I now have a newfound respect for actors in horror. Especially women.
BW: What did you feel was at the heart of your character? What were the defining traits that you felt were the most important for you to focus on and communicate to the audience?
HS: Above all else loyalty. McKenzie puts family above everything. This also falls under the concept of companionship, but more so unconditional love. While doing my individual work for this role, I created a complete history, full of failed relationships and betrayals. This is what made McKenzie so desperate to keep any sense of unconditional love near her at all times, at whatever costs. McKenzie is forced to make a lot of difficult choices and sacrifices, and I felt loyalty to her family was the one thing that audiences everywhere would be able to relate to.
BW: At the beginning of the film, your character has to walk a line between being grateful to the group for coming along with her, and being unwilling to leave without first finding her sister. Too far in one direction and McKenzie could have come across as unlikable or harsh, too far in the other and she fails to serve the narrative thrust of the story or communicate her desperation about her sister’s disappearance. Did you find achieving this balance to be difficult, and how did you go about it?
HS: Extremely difficult. It’s hard to be the one character that needs to make all of the hardest decisions. People naturally and instinctually desire a sense of community and family. It was that desire that was the driving force for McKenzie. McKenzie is a woman who is afraid to lose what true companions she has left. The stakes were extremely high; the prospect of being abandoned by a brother, and the possibility of failing my sister and never seeing her again. I think McKenzie, in her desperation, underestimates the circumstances and overestimates her abilities to assess a situation. Substitution played a huge part in my preparation. I myself have a very large family, and each of my siblings and I have a unique bond. Having to choose between them would be next to impossible, but the very notion would push me to great lengths and would most definitely cause me to resort to desperate measures.
BW: The relationships between the core characters in the film seem very convincing and genuine. Was this something that you and the rest of the cast had to work on to achieve, or did all of you just immediately click with one another?
HS: We were extremely lucky. Within the first 48 hours we were all very in tune to one another. There is something to be said about a group of people who are so willing to be raw and vulnerable at the drop of a hat, and that was an immediate requirement for this set. I consider myself very lucky to have been paired with such talented and giving individuals. It helps to have a core group who not only can assist in transporting you where you needed to go emotionally, but also able to bring you back to neutral and laugh with you later. With a film of this nature, it was my saving grace.
BW: Early in the film we learn that McKenzie’s brother, Martin, is moving away from her. Do you think that plays into her decision to withhold Marylyn’s journal pages from the rest of the group and to keep Leon’s info to herself? And were you worried that those decisions might cause her to lose the sympathy of the audience?
HS: I think the trust between Martin and McKenzie is very strained. I also think McKenzie is skeptical of her brother’s dedication to their family. She knows she needs his help and has rarely had to face something like this on her own, but she’s not sure if Martin’s rebellious nature and lack of faith in their family will deter him from wanting to help. His skepticism is not a surprise, as with most scary movies, the supernatural is always hard to come to terms with until its thrust upon you. I knew, as an actor, that all of my decisions as McKenzie would not be received well. People are forced to make sacrifices constantly for what they believe is right, and being aware or catering to the audience would not have served the story. All I could do was hope to convey that her intentions were clear and rooted in love, no matter how naively she may have gone about them.
BW: (Writer-Director) Nicholas (Woods) shared a pretty creepy story about shooting the film out in the woods with us, but what about you? Ever had any real life spooky experiences in the woods?
HS: Spooky experiences? Yes. In the woods? No. I am one hundred percent a nature girl. I love to go away to the mountains for the weekend for camping extravaganzas. There is something so beautiful about being in nature. I can agree, however, that there is a sense of mystery about the woods, and after shooting this film you might not find me wandering around at night by myself.
BW: Towards the end of the film, McKenzie is forced to choose between saving either her brother or her sister. Why do you think McKenzie makes the choice that she does? Was it a purely cold and logical call on her part (one having been out in the woods longer than the other), or was the decision informed by her feelings of abandonment?
HS: I can say that her choice may be reflective of her current emotional standing with her brother. She feels betrayed at the start of the film. However, I think as the chaos ensues it is primarily a logical choice. Marilyn has been out for much longer and is most likely more vulnerable, whereas Martin has always been a strong older brother. McKenzie has more faith he can survive on his own. But at this point in the film I don’t think she truly allows herself to except the idea of losing either one no matter how “damaged” or tainted their relationship may appear.
BW: Are you currently working on any other projects that you can talk about?
HS: About a year after shooting The Axiom, I starred as the lead in a film entitled Silhouette. I played a relatively large role in writing and post production as well. The film was recently completed and will be making the festival circuit this year. It is a romantic drama, and very different from The Axiom. Additionally, I am continually writing and creating my own content.
The Axiom hits digital platforms on February 12th from Vertical Entertainment.