Papa Vinyard here, now here's a little somethin' for ya...
Ambyr Childers has been on the scene since 2003, when she starred as Scott Terra's teenage crush in DICKIE ROBERTS: FORMER CHILD STAR. Since then, she's starred on ALL MY CHILDREN and has appeared in movies as varied as LAY THE FAVORITE, GANGSTER SQUAD, BROKEN CITY, 2 GUNS, and THE MASTER. In WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, she plays the eldest sister of a secluded family who, in their cabin deep in the woods, engage in some pretty extreme behavior. She's the protagonist of the film, and seeing the story through her eyes helps create the natural, matter-of-factly approach to the inevitably extreme subject matter.
When we spoke last week, Ms. Childers had just arrived from a plane to her family's house, but she was kind enough to give me some time to talk about her new movie. Be warned, we get into some spoilery territory regarding her character. If you want to go in fresh (and I highly recommend that you do so), read at your own risk.
VINYARD: Hi Ambyr, this is Vincent with Ain't It Cool News.
AMBYR: Hi, how are you?
VINCENT: I'm okay. How are you?
AMBYR: I'm good! Good, good, good. Sorry, I was on a plane, so I couldn't talk earlier.
VINCENT: I was told, and I understand you're at your parent's house, so I won't take up too much of your time.
AMBYR: Okay, great. Thank you, I appreciate that.
VINCENT: I just had a couple questions. First off, this is a remake- WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is a remake of a 2010 movie by Jorge Michel Grau. Had you seen the original film?
AMBYR: No. That's not something I set out to do. Jim recommended not to and typically, the way I work, I try not to unless there's a specific reason to see the film. We really didn't wanna, like, one-up the film. It was more about making a re-imagining of it; it was based off of two sisters instead of two brothers in the Mexican version. We just wanted to create our own story and make it more authentic instead of trying to, you know, recreate or do better than what they did, because that film obviously did very well. We had a lot of deep respect for the director and actors on that project.
VINYARD: And it's really different too, because this one takes place in the middle of the woods, whereas that one I think is a more urban setting, so right off the bat there's a difference.
AMBYR: Yeah, mm-hmm.
VINYARD: How did Jim Mackle end up casting you in the movie?
AMBYR: I had done a Skype call with him. I was in France at the Cannes Film Festival, and I got a call from my agent saying, "You need to read this script right away," and I was like, "Really? I'm in the south of France! (laughs)Like, I'm enjoying myself, I'm working!" And they're like, "No, you need to read this script," and I said, "Okay, fine." Then they're like "We have this great director, he's really creative," and I said- I ended up doing a Skype call with Jim, and he and I really connected, and we- I really understood what he wanted with his character; coming from somewhat of a conservative background, I really understood what he wanted. So he could just, you know, tell that I got it.
VINYARD: Your character in the movie is not only from a similarly conservative background, but she's abused, she's always frightened, and right off the bat, she's aware of her family's dirty secret. Using your background, how hard was it to get into her mindset?
AMBYR: Well, I mean, obviously growing up I was never abused, but I grew up in the Mormon Church, so there's somewhat of a closeness in dynamic of a family that I really understood. So, for me, I tapped into that, and obviously- regarding the story, you never really know what's going on until the end. You don't know if it's maybe sexual abuse, or whatnot that's going on, so…it's something that we all had to create in our mind, like what goes on behind closed doors, and how exposed to the outside world are these two girls, and whatnot.
VINYARD: When the violence finally does come at the end, there's some explicit gore in some of the scenes, but it's presented more naturally than your typical horror movie, like, say, FRIDAY THE 13TH or something like that. Was there ever a moment where the intensity of the scene, in those gory scenes, started to affect your performance, and you started to kind of get really into it because of the violence?
AMBYR: Yeah, I mean, we wanted just- since it was one of the last scenes of the movie, we really wanted to really have these girls go at their father, and kind of just really- you just see that there's the true side of them almost, like as much as they don't want to be part of it, that's just who they are. I think that's a great- (laughs) the movie's called WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, and it pushes- these things, unfortunately, do happen in the world, and very few that you hear about cannibalism, but there were like three stories that came out, like that guy in Florida, and the "may fire" in Europe (no clue what she was referring to), and…so plenty of these people snap and for them I guess that's just how they took their anger out.
VINYARD: Well, other than that, other than the ending, the film is mostly just quiet and low-key. By the end it's pretty much a horror film, but until that point, it's very broody and slow. How would Jim Mickle create that vibe on-set to get you guys in the proper mood?
AMBYR: There's something very- these girls are always very introverted, and they both have arcs that kind of like cross over at certain points. Iris, in the beginning, is given a huge responsibility once the mother passes away, and then you have Iris (I believe she meant Rose) who is the kind of rebellious one, and then our roles kind of reverse. It's kinda like this sister thing where she becomes the strong one and I become the weak one, and I think it goes back and forth like that, so I think that's kind of how we kept it sorta- and, you know, the whole setting of the movie is dark, quiet, eerie, you never really know what's going on, and then I think that's what makes that last scene so dramatic, because it's the only big action scene towards the end.
VINYARD: Where did you guys shoot? I really like the locations.
AMBYR: We shot in the Catskills. Upstate New York.
VINYARD: Lovely location.
AMBYR: Yeah, it was great.
VINYARD: What about that stew that you guys eat? (She laughs) It's really disgusting. What's actually in that stew?
AMBYR: I think the concoction was somewhat of like meat chili of some sort and in the end it was like, you know, the turkey neck…whatever props put in for like, who knows what, like the skin was really gnarly. There were a couple of times where I was like, "Okay, I can't do this again. Jim, we gotta wrap this up, I'm like gagging at this point." And she has to look like she's enjoying it!
VINYARD: Did you guys make those slurping noises, or was that ADR?
AMBYR: Oh, no, that's all…no, everything was like organic and us, and just really going at it, and that was Jim's biggest note. He's like, "I don't know what to really tell you guys, but all I want to see is you guys go at it." For me, I knew exactly what he…I knew what he meant by that.
VINYARD: Aside from you, the film has a bunch of other genre vets in the cast: Kelly McGillis, Michael Parks, Kassie DePaiva from EVIL DEAD 2, Bill Sage was also in AMERICAN PSYCHO, and you and Julia Garner had both appeared in horror films. Did you learn anything from the rest of the cast about acting in a horror film?
AMBYR: Yeah, you know, I think Michael Parks is a really talented actor. He…I really, really respect- (says something to someone else)- I really respect him, and Bill Sage is another person that I- I think he's a fantastic actor, and he is so successful, and he's one of those actors who always stays under the radar, but he should be in every movie. He's just that talented.
VINYARD: He has a really physical performance in the movie, with the tremors and barely being able to speak almost in some of the scenes. Was it weird at all when Jim Mickle would call, "Cut!" and he'd just go back to being just a normal guy?
AMBYR: No! I mean, he's definitely the kind of actor that stays in character. He's not one to switch on and off. I guess he has a great- I mean, he wouldn't really turn it off until we got back and, you know, took our showers and stepped out of the-
VINYARD: The grime-
AMBYR: …that world that we were living in all day. You know, it's one of those movies where you can't come in and out of all day. Doing that deep and dark of a movie, you really have to stay focused because…it takes a lot of emotional work to get back into it.
VINYARD: So he'd just act like that on set?
AMBYR: Yeah, I mean pretty much.
AMBYR: We worked all day. We didn't have a lot of big breaks. This wasn't a huge budget film, so time was of the essence.
VINYARD: How long did you guys shoot for?
AMBYR: I think we shot for about five weeks.
VINYARD: What about Julia Garner? You guys share a lot of time together onscreen. What was your relationship with her like?
AMBYR: She's great. I really, really enjoy her. There's really something so innocent about her, yet such a mystery. It doesn't surprise me she's done so well, and she just started not too long ago acting. She was fantastic, I really enjoyed it (working with her).
VINYARD: What about Jack Gore (who plays Iris and Rose's little brother Rory)? He has a really good presence onscreen.
AMBYR: Jack is very- (laughs) he's definitely a trooper. He's definitely a trooper. I mean, it's hard for these little kids to be on-set all day, and be told to act a certain way. He was fantastic, and he's doing well, he's on that Michael J. Fox show now.
VINYARD: You and Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt and Goldie Hawn) have a nice, easy chemistry in your few scenes together. Was there ever a moment where it settled in like, "Wow, this is Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn's kid I'm talking to here!"?
AMBYR: Uh, not really. I don't get star-struck at all, believe it or not. I know the family he comes from, and he is such a humbled guy. You would never know, you would never know. He's a hockey player, so we talked a lot about hockey. I grew up golfing, and he's a big golfer. You find a common ground when you have to get down and dirty with other actors. There's icebreakers that you have to- and barriers that you have to break down in order to make as organic and believable as possible, and it was definitely easy. He's a really great guy. I really enjoyed working with him.
VINYARD: Excellent. Your previous experience with horror was in a movie from a couple of years ago, PLAYBACK. I can't imagine a more different film from this. Can you talk about the differences on-set, lIke the vibe on-set between that film and this film, which is more kind of revisionist and, I guess, serious?
AMBYR: Yeah, I mean it's a completely- it was a completely different experience. Obviously, I'm a little bit older, and…PLAYBACK is definitely that "surface horror". This was a little bit different. This was a little bit deeper. This is a lot more emotionally draining, I guess you can say, than PLAYBACK was.
VINYARD: Absolutely. Well, here's my last question, and I'll then I'm gonna let you go. You were in one of my favorite movies from last year, which was THE MASTER. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like playing Philip Seymour Hoffman's daughter in that movie?
AMBYR: Yeah, I mean it was a great experience. It's hard to believe, even to this day, that I was in such a- part of a great cast, and with it, such a great filmmaker. I felt so, so lucky to be a part of that movie, and I- Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the best actors and Joaquin, and Amy, and I learned so much from all of them. I really, really, really loved being part of that movie.
VINYARD: Was the set as intense as the final film plays out, or was it a little more relaxed than what you actually see in the movie?
AMBYR: Um, we were all there to make a great film, and were working with Paul Thomas Anderson, so there was a time and place for us to enjoy ourselves, and when the cameras were rolling, we were, you know- Paul doesn't like to fuck around. You're on set, you have a job to do, but you find moments where it's funny, and Paul's a very easy director to work with. He's great. He's really an actor's director, and that's why so many actors want to work with him, 'cause he just makes great films. He's really enjoyable to work with.
VINYARD: That's awesome. Okay, I'll let you get back to your family. Thanks for giving me some time today, I really appreciate it.
AMBYR: Yeah, thank you so much.
WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is playing in theaters now.