From director Diederik Van Rooijen, the horror thriller The Possession of Hannah Grace follows Megan Reed (Shay Mitchell), who finds herself working the graveyard shift in the morgue while trying to get her life back on track. After the delivery of a cadaver of a young woman that’s disfigured as the result of an exorcism gone wrong, Megan begins to have terrifying experiences that lead her to suspect that the body may be possessed by a demonic force driven to kill.
At the Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with actress Shay Mitchell at the morgue at Mountain View Cemetery to chat 1-on-1 about why she was drawn to The Possession of Hannah Grace, what she liked most about her character, all of the research she did for the role, the responsibility that comes with being #1 on the call sheet, how lonely the production sometimes felt, working with an actress who could physically contort her body without much special effects to enhance her performance, and the creepiest moment during the shoot. She also talked about the kind of acting roles she’d like to continue to do, finding her voice as a producer, and juggling her YouTube channel with her travel accessories line.
Collider: How did this come about? Had you been trying to find a role like this?
SHAY MITCHELL: No. To be honest, we shot this right after we wrapped [Pretty Little Liars], a couple of years ago. What I was drawn to was just the character. There are so many different layers to Megan, and I love the fact that she didn’t need anybody to save her because she saved herself. That was a really powerful message to me. To be honest, had the movie have ended in a different way, I don’t know if I would’ve wanted to do it.
Did it always have a bit of an ambiguous ending to it?
MITCHELL: Yeah. I think it’s always really interesting, when you’re left wondering, at the end of a movie.
It seems like there was also a lot of research and physical training that you had to do for this. Was there one aspect that you focused on, more than the others?
MITCHELL: I researched the addiction side. I also spent time in a real morgue, and that was interesting. And I also did a ride along with the Boston police. There’s a lot of bravery that goes into being a cop. Playing Megan, her idea of taking a graveyard shift was very different. She’s not gonna be as scared as I would be. She’s already been a cop. She’s been there and done that. This isn’t her first rodeo. But what I think was really interesting, in terms of research and getting to sink my teeth into this role, was going to a bunch of different AA meetings for addiction, and speaking to a lot of people. Also, the PTSD of different experiences really takes a toll, in a completely different way. I feel like, after having those conversations, it was easier for me to understand the character’s mind.
What was your time in the morgue like?
MITCHELL: It was interesting because, as much as it’s freaky and eerie to anybody who’s not a mortician, it’s just their place of work, like for a doctor in a hospital. To them, it’s not even creepy. But, it was a little eerie. You can feel the energy within the walls.
At the same time, being #1 on the call sheet seems like it would have very big responsibilities and a weight to that. What was it like to be the one setting the tone for the whole cast and crew?
MITCHELL: It was amazing because of the situation and the character that I was playing in this. I was playing a character who was dealing with major anxiety, and to be honest with you, before this role, I hadn’t really encountered anxiety in my personal life. Getting this role and being in Boston and shooting it, right after coming off of PLL, to then leading this film, there was a lot of pressure. What was I gonna do next? Can I carry a film of a completely different genre? I started to lose it a little bit, and I really started to second guess every single thing that I did. I had so many panic attacks, in those first three weeks of shooting, and it was only a four-week shoot. For the majority of it, there were a lot of moments where I was like, “I don’t know if this character is seeping into who I am, or if I’m seeping into this character, but I watched myself on screen and, for a lot of it, I don’t even really recognize myself. I feel like I was truly feeling what I think that character must have been going through.
As an actor, you do a lot of night shoots. It’s a little different than being on a night shift at a morgue, but I would imagine that there are times when you probably feel a little crazy.
MITCHELL: Exactly! Just for myself, I’m always on a plane, every other week, so jet lag seeps in and sometimes you’re tired and sleepwalking. You don’t know where you are or what time zone you’re in, and that can definitely play a huge part on how you see things. Your imagination can run wild when you’re tired.
The environment and location for the hospital just seemed so concrete and cold. Did it feel that way on set?
MITCHELL: It did. And it felt very lonely, I’m not gonna lie. There were so many different people on set, but when they called, “Action!,” I was playing with myself the majority of the movie. After coming off of a show with an ensemble cast, that was interesting. It’s not an experience that I loved or would love doing it again, but for this movie, it was perfect. Because I didn’t have anybody else to really bounce things off of. I do think that that helped get me into character, to be honest.