From director Brannon Braga and based on the acclaimed horror anthology written by Clive Barker, the Hulu original film Books of Blood tells the stories of two very different women – Jenna (Britt Robertson), a troubled college student trying to piece her life back together after suffering a mental break, and Mary (Anna Friel), a college professor who debunks psychics but then is challenged by one claiming to be able to speak to her dead son. As their stories interweave and we learn about the mission of a mercenary (Yul Vazquez) who’s trying to retrieve a book worth an extreme amount of money, the twists will keep viewers guessing on the outcome for these characters until the very end.
During a virtual press junket for the film, Collider got the opportunity to chat 1-on-1 with Anna Friel about what drew her to this project, why she was drawn to her character, connecting to what Mary was going through, exploring the complicated relationship dynamic at the center of the story, and what she thought of the ending for her character. She also talked about the magic of Pushing Daisies and what made it such a special show.
[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Books of Blood.]
Collider: This is a story and character that seems like it must have put you through a lot, emotionally. When this came your way, what were you told about the project? How much did you know when you read it and how much was revealed to you as you read the script?
ANNA FRIEL: I wasn’t familiar with the novels and I’ve never worked in the genre before, so everything was new to me. I read the script but didn’t understand the tone and how they were gonna intertwine all of the various stories smoothly. Brannon Braga, who’s the director, got on the phone with me and said, “I want it be very, very naturalistic.” We talked about references of some of my favorite things in The Ring and The Sixth Sense because I find things that are psychologically frightening far more scary than lots of good guts, blood and gore. This has just the right amount, so I thought this might be a nice introduction to that genre.
This type of horror, where it’s so personally connected to the characters, is the kind that lingers with me.
FRIEL: It’s the kind that freaks you out and makes you look behind the door. And I totally understand Britt’s character with the over-sensory thing because I have that sometimes. I’ll be like, “Oh, God, stop tapping.” It’s those things that you can completely relate to. Brannon was very keen to stay true to Clive’s vision, and I think he’s done that. I also think, for me, and I don’t know if I’m biased, but it’s retro genre. There’s humor to it. Especially it being set in the ‘90s, it has a unique tone and it’s quite Twilight Zone-y. With everything that’s going on in the world, with Halloween being canceled and Christmas potentially being canceled, it’s nice to be able to do that ourselves and to have our own experiences with our families at home.
How did you ultimately find yourself identifying and connecting to this character?
FRIEL: That’s a good question. What I recognize and sympathize with is that I hate people being taken advantage of. People seem to take advantage of those that are weak or suffering or vulnerable. That goes right back to, as a child, if I ever witnessed any kind of bullying, I’d step in because it was a lack of justice. That’s happening more and more and more. There are frauds out there and people will abuse people that you could never imagine – people who are vulnerable and need help, and they go in there and swipe and get whatever they can for themselves. The principle of that is something that I was very interested in. How could a professor with such intelligence be fooled in the way that she was? Anybody can be fooled, if you’re an empath and you’re caring and compassionate because you see the good in people.
Especially with someone like her, who has experienced tremendous grief, it seems like she would be searching for something and it would be easy to prey on that.
FRIEL: Well, exactly. I don’t think you can get much worse than the death of a child. What I like is how the story turns and unfolds, and there is redemption. She gets her own back.
How was it to explore the dynamic between your character and Rafi Gavron’s character? What did you enjoy about digging into that complicated relationship?
FRIEL: Yeah. We joked at first, because I said, “It’s the older woman and the younger man.” It was me that had more of a hang up than he did, I don’t know why. We both had little debates about who was allowed to have the English accent. Brannon said, “I can’t have both characters being English. You’re gonna have to decide between the two of you.” And he got to Brannon before me. I said, “Okay, so Mary’s not gonna be British?,” which is how I’d imagined her, I don’t know why. And he was like, “No, no, she’s American.” But we had lots in common. We both come from London, and he took a serious approach to the work, as one would expect and one does. And we hung out on the weekends or when we had days off, and went on drives and visited lighthouses. There was a nice, easy, natural connection, and he’s a lovely person to work with.
How was it to see what he would look like at the end of this?
FRIEL: That was much discussed and so much money went the prosthetics, which I like. It’s old school. It’s not all computer generated. Of course, some of the writing that you see visually appear is, but when he came out of make-up after six hours, the poor angel, and it was very claustrophobic and hot, it was quite terrifying to look at. I hadn’t quite seen prosthetics like that since the Sleestaks in Land of the Lost. I think they took as long as that. I wanted to be able to get them out of that suit as quickly as we possibly could.
How do you feel about the journey your character takes in this and where she ends up? Once you got to that end point and realized what her full story was, what was your reaction to that?
FRIEL: I went, “What happens next? What happened to Mary before?” I liked the story of redemption, that you don’t mess with Mary, and the fact that she gets her child back and that’s left up to the imagination of the audience to wonder, “Has she really gotten him back? Is that a figment of her imagination? Has she gone into a different realm?” The fact that it’s open to interpretation is what’s clever about it. One of her last lines is, “I’m in my happy place,” and she very much is, having gotten her son back.
You talked about not having done this genre before. Is there another genre that you haven’t done that you would like to do?
FRIEL: I’ve worked for 30 years, so I’ve covered most of it. I want to do more sci-fi. I’m really obsessed, at the moment, with space and thinking about how many people are up there right now and how far up Mars is. I’d like to work more in the sci-fi genre. Especially in the world we live in now, it’d be nice to be able to take a look at our future, when we’re all thriving and there is harmony back in the world. And I’d also like to do more comedy. I keep being offered roles that are dark. The next job I do is incredibly dark, and it’d be nice to do something funny again. And I adore a good love story.
Which I think is part of why I absolutely adored Pushing Daisies as much as I did. It was just such a magical and beautiful story. Do you think that’s why people still want more of it?
FRIEL: It was so ahead of its time. The part of the show that I loved the most was the love story between Chuck and Ned. I love that they wanted each so much but couldn’t ever quite get together. It was like what Moonlighting used to do, when you used to watch Bruce Willis and go, “Kiss! Just kiss!” I think a lot of people have mirrored it and copied it, or taken elements of it, because it was so far ahead of its time. All of the right things came together at the right time, apart from the writers’ strike, with the wonderful Barry Sonnenfeld and the genius that is Bryan Fuller. Lee [Pace] and I are still close. Whenever we see each other, I’m like, “Oh, my Ned!” And he’s like, “My Chuck!” Every time he comes to London, we’re always talking about what we can work together on. Can you imagine not being able to touch? I’m surprised that it’s not been put on Netflix or another platform now because it’s so appropriate right now, a kiss through cellophane wrap, or we call it clear film, and just the bright colors. We need to switch off. I don’t know about you but I have to go through periods of just not watching the news. Sometimes I can’t watch it because it’s just all bad.
Books of Blood is available to stream on Hulu.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.