A couple of weekends ago, I arranged to show about 200 hardcore horror movie lovers an advance screening of YOU'RE NEXT as part of the Flashback Weekend Convention just outside of Chicago. After the screening, I heard several members of the enthusiastic crowd utter variations on the same, obvious question: "Who was that Australian woman?"
The reason the question is so screamingly obvious is that the woman in question, Sydney-born Sharni Vinson is the clear breakthrough performer in a film fully loaded with great performances from the likes of AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seitmetz, Ti West, Barbara Crampton, Rob Moran, and many more. In the Adam Wingard-directed variation on the home-invasion film, Vinson plays Erin, Bowen's girlfriend who was raised by survivalists in Australia and knows a thing or two about how to defend herself.
Vinson is probably best known in stateside as the bitchy Natalie in STEP UP 3D or maybe in the direct-to-video sequel BLUE CRUSH 2. But for Australian audiences, she had a seven-year run on the hit series "Home and Away." Of the couple of films she's got in the can already, I'm most hoping that PATRICK makes it to America; it co-stars such great actors as Rachel Griffiths and Charles Dance. It's set to open in October in Australia, and I'm hoping since it's also a horror-esque movie, it might find its way across the Pacific.
I had a chance to chat with Vinson about landing such a meaty role, especially in a film populated by actors and filmmakers, many of whom had worked together before. She was a real delight to talk with, and it would be great to see YOU'RE NEXT be the first of many standout roles for her. Oh, and consider this entire interview one giant spoiler, if such things matter to you. We don't spill anything that hasn't been talked about before, but I'm not talking any chance for those of you wishing to remain pure. Please enjoy my talk with Sharni Vinson…
Sharni Vinson: How are you doing, Steve?
Capone: Good. I’ve got to be honest: this is going to be a tough interview, because there’s a big part of me that wants to keep all the secrets and twists of the film alive.
SV: I know, exactly. It’s been tough for that reason.
Capone: Have you tried to do that too, or have you just have given up at this point?
SV: Well there’s a certain amount that I think we are revealing at this point and there’s certain twists and turns that we’re not really talking about, but we have to divulge something or there’s nothing to really talk about, is there? [laughs]
Capone: I’ll do my best. Just over this past weekend I showed the film to about 200 hardcore horror fans in Chicago and they went ballistic for it. When I first saw it at SXSW, the response was overwhelming, and you were there to see it. What has that been like for you to have that kind of reaction, not just the film, but to your character in particular?
SV: It’s pretty overwhelming, to be honest, because the reason that I took on this movie was for the character of Erin. In reading the script, I absolutely fell in love with the character that Simon Barrett had created, and I just wanted to be the person to have the opportunity to bring her to life. In doing so with all of these screenings that we’ve had over the last couple of years since we shot the film, it never ceases to amaze me with the reactions of the audience and how behind her they get.
I think it’s quite testimony to the fact that we are not used to seeing women really stand up and take charge in these situations, especially in a horror film where it’s usually an overly sexualized female protagonist. I feel like we try to really bring it back to the core of what makes a woman tough, and it’s not necessarily posing to be tough--it’s an inner strength. The character was just written so well, so to see people react, especially females, in such a positive way to her, it’s just amazing to me that I’m the one that got to be her and that people are really responding so well.
Capone: Did you know when you first read the script that she was going to turn out that way, or did they give it to you hoping you would be as surprised as everybody else has been?
SV: All I had was information that they’d been trying to find this action girl, and I had been seeking an action role. My name came up through a stuntman that I’m friends with, and he knew the producers. from what I believe, they'd been trialing and testing a lot of girls and hadn’t come to the final girl yet. They were then looking into the stunt industry to find a real action-esque female, and that’s how my name came up. I’ve never been a stuntwoman, but it’s always been a huge passion of mine to be one, and fortunately my name was recommended that way, and then I received the script.
I think I knew that the character was a huge part of the movie, but I didn’t realize how big of a part the character actually was until I started reading it and got all the way through the script and went, “Oh my goodness, wow, like this character really is carrying the crux of the film.” I think that was, again, one of the reasons that I was so drawn to the character. I really wanted that challenge of letting the movie rest on my shoulders and see what I could do there.
Capone: YOU'RE NEXT has been screening on and off for the last two years almost. Has it been a little frustrating, both personally and for your career, wanting people to see it when you know you’ve got this great thing that you want everyone to see. So many people walking out of the screening that I just did last weekend were like “Who is that woman?” I said, “Did you see STEP UP 3D?” I’m guessing a lot of the hardcore horror people hadn’t.
SV: [laughs] Completely, it really has, because I was very well aware when we starting shooting the movie that we had something special on our hands just in the shots that Adam Wingard was producing on the day. I just saw the brilliance in him and the way that he was shooting the movie, and I knew that the product was going to turn out quite remarkable. But it wasn’t until I actually did see it as a completed product that I went, “Wow, this is even better than I ever imagined,” and then for it to screen so well that first screening at Toronto in 2011, it was the exact audience that the movie had been marketed for with that Midnight Madness crowd at TIFF. To see them respond in that way was just like “Wow, this is everything that we could have possibly hoped.”
Then once Lionsgate had the same belief and were so fast to pick up the movie, we were like “Yes, we did it. This is going to be out soon. This is going to be a game changer hopefully for the horror genre,” but in my opinion, it was going to be a game changer for my career. Then all of a sudden, we were put on a bit of a backburner, with Lionsgate merging with Summit and having so many films under their belt that they had to redistribute the releases of the those movies, so they weren’t in competition with one another, which I completely understand.
Yeah, you’re right, the frustration was building as far as people had not seen the film, and they weren’t going to get another opportunity to see the film for such a long time. Because the movie is so different for me compared to my last roles and what people might know me with from STEP UP, which was a PG-rated Disney film, and this is so different. It’s been really difficult to explain to people where I’m going and what I want to achieve without them actually having seen the movie. So for it to actually be now, one week out from the release and to hear what you just said with those reactions, it’s like all that frustration and the patience that I’ve learned to acquire over the last two years, I think is actually going to pay off. It’s very overwhelming at this point and it's a relief, you know?
Capone: And to the film’s credit, people haven’t stopped talking about it in that two years. Every once in a while people would ask one of the actors when they were promoting another film, “What’s going on with YOU’RE NEXT?” It’s was funny watching the film the first time at SXSW and knowing that most of these actors and Adam have worked together and that they're all friends. Was it bizarre stepping into this circle of people that have all worked together before in various combinations?
SV: Yeah, at first it was like, “I’m really the fish out of water here,” because all of those people had such a prior connection and were a family and had made movies together before, and all of these people are so heavily respected in the independent film world, especially in the horror movie world. Yeah, day one was like, “Wow, where am I right now?” That really very quickly turned around, because of the incredible people that they are, and now we're all a family.
I think the fact that there has been this two-year gap where we’ve had the opportunity to really bond and go to all of these festivals together. You never get that opportunity with your cast before a movie is released. You shoot it, and it releases quite quickly, but we’ve had this amazing bonding experience, not just on set, but also since the movie was shown at all of these festivals.
Joe Swanberg and AJ Bowen are absolutely, without doubt two of the best actors I have ever worked with, and they are so genius in their own right, and it’s about time the world was introduced to these people. I’m just as excited for them as I am for myself and the film, because there’s so much talent that goes unrecognized in the movie industry, and studio movies can really take over, and you don’t see a lot of credit going to people that have been working in this business for such a long time and really deserve that credit. So I’m really happy to see AJ and Joe specifically really shine through in their roles in this film, and I know the audience reacts so well to that.
Capone: Let’s get down to some nitty gritty here. I’m curious about the weapons and physical training that you had to do leading up to the shoot.
SV: That was the fun part for me. I've done a lot of, obviously, physical training before with just basically my upbringing in going through competitive swimming. I was in the state swim squad for 15 years and I was a dancer in all fields of dance for a long, long time. With dance, it’s very much a crossover into an action-esque world. A dancer’s physicality can be turned into a martial arts background with just a bit of training and boxing. You’ve just got this movement ability that’s a natural feel, and I never realized that it would cross over so well into the action world. Even though this is a horror movie, for my character, it’s more of an action film with a lot of blood and gore. So I really enjoyed that.
The training for me, because of the fact that I had come from such a physical upbringing, that was all there and I more or less trained with our stunt coordinator on agility, timing, reaction time. We needed to get the character into her mentality of “How would it be if you really did grow up on a survivalist compound? How does that affect your brain and mind in dealing with these situations as they arise?” I tried to give her almost a sixth sense in hearing glass break or sensing danger almost before it actually happens. That was a really cool way to go into our training.
He would have me standing up against a wall of a gym in a martial arts studio and just throw these objects at me so fast and so hard, and all I had to do was just get out of the way and duck and really move and learn like a boxer, really think on your toes. So that was really fun for me, and then I got to learn a lot of knife-twirling skills, and there was never a moment on set where I didn’t freak everybody out because I was carrying around this fire poker and was practicing my baton-twirling skills should I ever have to use that in the film, which I don’t think we ever did. But now I can twirl a fire poker like you’ve never seen. It was all that stuff that really got me excited. So yeah, it was so much fun.
Capone: Part of the reason I think the film works is because it’s not only this big action thing, but it’s also a legitimate family drama. That dinner table scene is so uncomfortable. Tell me about getting that emotional connection with AJ and having to step into this really dysfunctional family.
SV: AJ and I had many talks prior to shooting the film about establishing the love connection between these two characters, because without that there was no reason at the end to really feel for this poor girl in this situation, and we really needed to up the ante on the love stakes so it all made sense at the end as to why this was just so incredibly devastating for her. So yeah, that was a big thing.
The dinner table scene was the highlight of my life. I think there’s about 16 hours worth of footage floating around for that day, and that could be an entire B-roll section on a DVD release, or it could be its own entire prequel, to the film to be honest. It was just hilarious. And it was in that moment of watching Joe and AJ interact and improvise and Ti West as well that I was like, “Wait a minute, are we shooting a horror or a comedy, because this shit is funny?” We were just hoping that it wasn’t all going to be an onset joke at the end of the day that we all thought was really funny.
We hoped that it translated for the audience, and based on the reactions of the laughter and the jokes that they really get it in that scene. I think it sets the tone for the whole movie, in that right before the drama starts you realize this family is dysfunctional, but it’s also quite common to have a dysfunctional family. So people really relate to that scene, and it’s nice that we can infuse the elements of horror and comedy and legitimately have people laughing one second and terrified the next. It’s quite rare and that’s what makes the movie so special I think.
Capone: Sharni, thank you so much for talking with me, and best of luck when this finally opens.
SV: Yeah, right? Exactly. Cheers. I really appreciate that. Thank you so much.