The Strangers are back in the long-awaited slasher sequel The Strangers: Prey at Night. For the sequel, the Strangers get a new director in 47 Meters Down helmer Johannes Roberts, a new cast, and an expanded playground. This time the slaughter heads to an empty trailer park resort, where a family in crisis stops in for the night and comes face-to-face with the murderous masked madmen.
Bridge to Terabithia star Bailee Madison takes the lead as Kinsey, a bitter, isolated teenager about to be shipped off to boarding school. Along with her all-American brother (Lewis Pullman), and her weary parents (Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson), the family is already at their wits end long before the first bit of bloodshed.
Last year, I visited the set of The Strangers: Prey at Night on an appropriately creepy night in Kentucky where I had the opportunity to chat with Madison about starring in the horror sequel. With Prey at Night now in theaters, I thought I’d share the full chat, which ranges from how Madison created her character, why she thinks the original film is so scary and effective, the perks of filming in a genuinely disquieting location, why she was terrified when she filmed her first scene with the Strangers, and a whole lot more.
Hi, welcome. We’re kind of in the dark on your character details so far, so what can you tell us about her?
MADISON: Kinsey’s this very serious-minded, original, marches-to-her-own-beat teenager, and when we first meet her you can tell that she’s very disconnected to her family. But the internal pain that she has is far worse because she wants to be connected, she wants to feel loved, she wants to be the good daughter. I think she’s at a point right now where she feels like it’s almost easier to not even try than to try, and throughout the film you get to throw her into this horrific world where she has to realize what’s worth fighting for, and what really matters in life. It’s a really fun, I love her, she’s a badass, she’s really cool.
We can see at this point she gets into fight mode, but is her initial instinct fight or flight?
MADISON: I think when you’re being tormented by anybody, I think you probably just want to get the heck out of there. I also think what’s interesting is that there’s always a child within all of us, no matter how old you are, and when you’re in a situation that’s scary, I don’t think your adult instincts kick in, I think you automatically want to be comforted. That’s something we explore as well, which is a really fun dynamic to get to show, the many layers that she has within her.
In the first movie, the characters weren’t able to do much against the Strangers, would you say that your character might be more capable against them?
MADISON: I think that in the place, in the surroundings they were in I think we’re equally incapable of escaping them. I think in the first movie they were in a house and obviously they couldn’t get in their car because it was there, and there were no landlines, but we’re dealing with the same situations except we are dropped in a maze of a world where everywhere they turn could be a place that they could be, and there is no way out. Which is almost more terrifying, because you’re in an outdoor space, and you’re not in the comfort of your home, you don’t know things, and you’re not aware where the twists and turns can come. I think the stakes are definitely a lot higher, because you’re all trying to save one another, and you’re in a world where it’s very hard to.
How is the family dynamic when you guys get here? Obviously, in the first film they’re in the worst possible emotional space to be attacked.
MADISON: I think I was so drawn to the first movie because of that, I think it’s very rare to start a film that’s very dreadful and very horrific in that element, the moment that you start. I think it’s very used the family road trip where everyone’s singing and happy, and then oh my god, bam, something’s about to go wrong. Whereas we’re able to follow the things that the classic held so well, which is the immediate amount of dread, you’re watching the lives of these people that you shouldn’t be watching, and you in yourself are a stranger.
When we first pick up with the family you’re gonna feel the same amount of what is going on, I think what was so beautifully done in the script is that each character was so carefully detailed and written about, you understood them, but you didn’t understand them as a whole. I think there’s so many questions when you begin the film, that once you go throughout the film the questions start unraveling even more. It’s kind of a nod to the first movie, which I’m glad they were able to do.
Is she close with anyone in her family, or is she in the isolated teen space?
MADISON: I think Kinsey in her heart is close to everybody, and I think that she won’t allow herself to be. When we pick up she’s very distant, she’s not a part of anything, she’s about to be shipped off to boarding school, so you can imagine how she feels with that. She doesn’t want to talk to anybody in that car, so that’s very interesting when she herself feels dead to the family, and then she’s put in a place where death is possible. That’s really frightening.
It seems like the fact that it’s a family in this situation would make things even more intense, the couple in the original, the family getting attacked, the parents and children worrying about each other. Would you say it’s more intense in that way?
MADISON: I think that yeah, I think it could be more intense. I think that we all have family members, and we all know what it feels like to have that fear of being called that something was wrong, or something isn’t right, or being in a situation with them and something bad happening and you being incapable of helping them. I think that is something that pulls on our heartstrings no matter what age, and I think what’s even more devastating is the fact that they are not in a good place, and they all want to be but they’re just not. They’re not clicking, and it breaks all of their hearts equally, and they’re all trying their best but nothing’s working out.
Then they’re here and all of their moments are trying to love one another while trying to stay alive and protect one another. I think that’s when all of the confusion and the teenage antics and the what’s right for her, what’s not right, and the grudges, I think that’s all dropped. At this point, we’re just vulnerable characters who are trying our best to be our best versions of ourselves in order to get out of here. Yeah, I think it’s really scary.
I haven’t been on a lot of horror sets that conjure enough atmosphere that I could see someone actually getting afraid on set, but this has that going on. What was it like when you first saw the Strangers in the full masks and regalia?
MADISON: It was awful. Christina Hendricks and I, we actually requested that for the first time that we’re working with one of the Strangers that we didn’t see them until the first take, just because we genuinely wanted to be terrified, and we were. But it’s been three weeks into it and I’m still so scared when I see the Man or a Dollface or a Pin-Up. I’m also a scaredy-cat when it comes to masks, it’s my biggest fear, I can’t go to Halloween horror nights, I can’t do any of that without crying, and yet I’m on a set where they’re just walking everywhere. But yeah, it’s very scary. It’s all at night too, it’s not like we’re in the daytime, it’s nighttime in the woods, blood, dirt, bugs, real bugs, and these really scary people running after you.
In the first one there really isn’t daylight, it’s all at night, did you guys film anything in the daylight? When you arrive or anything?
MADISON: We had a day, our first day of filming was during the day, and that’s when we just all get in the car, and then it picks up very quickly at night, and you’re in the night shadows dealing with things when no one else is awake and you, unfortunately, have to be. Yeah, which we love. [Laughs]
How many intense in-the-moment scenes have been just cut off by an airplane at this point?
MADISON: Actually none.
MADISON: Yeah, we’ve been really cautious. Or if there is an airplane, they’ll let us go and then we’ll figure it out. We’d rather go in ADR than pause it, have to redo it. I also think for a lot of these scenes it’s relying on natural instincts, and in-the-moment you can’t really prepare for a movie like this. You can try physically, but you’re still gonna be bruised by the end because of all the stunts. You can try emotionally, but no one’s ever come after you with an ax before, I have nothing to draw from. I think when you’re in these moments you just give it your all, and airplane, cars, sirens, you block it out and you just have to live in the world that you’re living in.
That’s something I think a lot of people don’t appreciate for some reason, horror performances aren’t really recognized the way they should be, I think fear is one of the hardest, for the reasons you’re talking about, really hard to sell and conjure up. What has been your approach to getting to that space?
MADISON: I think just the layers that come within it, I can’t speak as to whether I’ve gotten there or not, because I haven’t seen the footage, but I pray and hope that when the audience sees it, it works out. I think it was just, I spent a lot of time living in the movie, I wrote character notebooks of diaries that maybe Kinsey would have written about her parents and her brother. I did a lot of prep beforehand to try and let me really understand who she is. Also understanding that it’s not that exciting to watch an hour and a half movie of someone crying, but it is exciting to watch them cry and get strong, and then break down again, and then be vulnerable, and then be fearful. And then there’s so many layers of fear, that if you can uncover some of them, or most of them, then I think that’s what makes horror really exciting. I love horror performances, it’s really crazy.
It seems very difficult.
MADISON: It’s very hard, it’s very hard. We have a great team, once you get all bloodied up it starts to sink in a little bit more.
Were you a fan of the original film?
MADISON: Yeah, I loved it. I actually, I didn’t see the original until I got the script. I was pretty young when the original came out, I think it came in 2008, yeah, so I was eight years old. Probably not my cup of tea.
Probably a little too young.
MADISON: A little bit too young. I watched the movie before I read the script because I knew it was a sequel — it’s not really a sequel because it’s 10 years later, and you can see this one if you hadn’t seen the first, and you can still see this movie if you didn’t see the first. I just wanted to see what it was about it, what it was shot like. I watched it three times in one night, I was so in love with it, I thought it was so beautifully done, and as someone who had been reading so many horror scripts — I had been reading so many horror scripts, because I knew that from what I’d been able to do in the past, I’ve been very fortunate to play really fun characters, I wanted to do something that was very out of my comfort zone, and allowed me to grow up in a way that I could keep my clothes on, I didn’t have to go too crazy, but I could still establish that I am choosing things that are little bit grittier, edgier. Throughout that process I didn’t want to lose characters and realness, and when I saw the first I saw that you felt for these people, it was very truthful and it could happen, and that was what was so scary. And then I immediately shut off the movie after it was done, I read the script, and I called my team and said I have to be a part of this, I will do anythi , because I think it’s really exciting and I’m really happy to be here.
I noticed that you’ve had several horror credits over the years, are you more drawn to horror because you’re scared of things?
MADISON: I think I’m just drawn to the horror because it’s such a scary place to put yourself in, you can’t look pretty, it’s not about smiling, it’s not about being in hair and makeup for an hour and trying to wear cool outfits the fans will like. It’s about letting yourself go and stripping layers and looking ugly, and letting snot and tears roll down your face and being okay with it. I think as an actor that’s a very vulnerable thing to do, I think as a human being that’s a very scary thing to do. I love the idea that horror allows yourself to just focus entirely on the character and the script and the emotions, and that’s it. I think I’ve been drawn to it in that aspect.
What is your personal favorite horror movie.
MADISON: Oh gosh, The Shining is the first movie that I ever saw, which is probably a really bad first to show a little girl, because that was so scary. But I thought it was so brilliantly done, and Get Out, I just watched Get Out and I think that was so brilliant. I just think it was one of the best films that has ever been made, so I enjoyed that. I’m all for The Purge and all those ones that make you crazy. No, it’s the Strangers. [Laughs[
I’m impressed that you could watch it three times in one night, that movie-
MADISON: Oh, I’ve watched it, I’ve probably watched it over 15 times, I watch it a lot for the sake of just studying it and the places that they were at, the cinematography I thought was really beautiful. I used a lot of my research for this movie with the first one, I also think that the fans who followed the first are so heavily involved, and the stakes here are just as high to make it just as good. I think we all want to be respectful to the first movie, while also establishing a new era for the Strangers, but keeping it within the family, which has been very fun to get to unravel and do.
Fans have been waiting a long time.
MADISON: A long time, a long time. Out of all the things I’ve done, it’s so funny when people heard that I was doing this, they’re like, “That movie messed me up so bad, I’m so excited.” It really does mess you up.
It does, that’s why I can’t believe you watched it three times in a row, that would break me.
MADISON: It did, I was, but I was also, I was having tonsil surgery, so also in midst of recovery, so I was probably on a couple of cough medications and things to calm me, you know what I mean?
From walking around, it looks like this is a bigger scope in terms of locations and the places you have to fulfill the action, how does that shake things up?
MADISON: It’s been great, I think that it really helps, because we have three locations, we shoot in a little park called Kincade Park about an hour and a half away from where we were shooting here. And that’s where the lakes are and where the very camping ground is, and that’s just scary enough. And then we have our warehouse, which is where we did all the interior stuff, and that’s where we started off filming. We started off in the trailer, not knowing what the outside world looked like, and when we all got here we were like, “This is petrifying.” Because it’s so confusing, even drivers were getting lost trying to get us back to base camp. That’s when you realize, it’s when you’re trapped and you’re just working on your feet and you’re trying to get out of a place like this, it’s really scary.
Do you think that shake up in the geography of the movie changes the feeling of it, or are you guys very much trying to recapture that feeling of the first film?
MADISON: I don’t think it changes the feeling of what people liked about it, is I think no matter where you put these people, when you combine them with these three crazy masked killers, I think the vibe is very much there. But I do think it was necessary to put them in a new world, I don’t think the Strangers just look for a house, I think they just look to kill because they want to kill, I think that’s what makes them really scary. I don’t think the vibe has changed, if anything I think it’s been elevated.
Have you become chummy with any of the Strangers, or are you still keeping distance as a performance?
MADISON: Oh no, now we’re all friends. I kept the distance for the first three days, then I was like, “I can’t do this anymore.” The Man in the Mask is great, his name’s Damian, he’s hysterical. Then Dollface is played by a girl named Emma, and she just scares me, just in general. She’s just really sweet and very doll-y herself, we hand her a knife and she’s like, “Ha-ha-ha, fun.” Don’t say fun, it’s not fun. I think she’s gotten really into it, she’s super-duper scary.
The Strangers: Prey at Night arrives in theaters on March 9.