I had the chance to speak with actor Alistair Petrie about the new film The Cursed, which explores an 1880s town afflicted by ravaging werewolves. Petrie is a British actor best known to American audiences for his work in Netflix’s Sex Education, the AMC limited series The Night Manager and The Terror, and a supporting turn in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
The Cursed is an evocative, extremely well crafted horror story. I found Petrie an engaging, good humored fellow, who is deeply passionate about the art of filmmaking. I was delighted to see his eyes light up discussing practical creature effects. I also appreciated his nuanced, thoughtful answers about his efforts to find the humanity in a character who does evil things.
The following has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
How Alistair Petrie Came to be Involved with The Cursed
What drew you tp the project? Are you a genre fan? A horror fan?
Petrie: Yes, both really. Stories come in all shapes and all sizes so, yes, completely. I’d never done an out and out horror film before aside from a sort of zombie thing awhile ago. I was fascinated to meet, and work with, Sean Ellis. That was the headliner since I saw a film that he did called Metro Manila. You have a quiet little list in your back pocket of people that you’d love to work with and Sean was on that list. So when the script arrived and said written and to be directed by Sean Ellis my interest was immediately piqued because Metro Manila blew me away and I loved his work on Anthropoid. The man is an artist, a visual artist. He shoots on film, which is an unbelievable treat. I used to do a lot of that and then it all became digital so to return to film and the intricacies therein was a treat. Sean Ellis was the big draw, and then you start seeing Boyd (Holbrook)’s name attached and then Kelly Reilly’s name and it’s not a difficult decision to jump in with both boots.
What It’s Like to Shoot a Film as Visually Precise as The Cursed
The visuals in this movie are so interesting. I know Ellis has a background in still photography. I was curious how you feel that impacted your performance in the film. I imagine he would have been very precise with a lot of the staging so I’m curious how that would impact what you’re going for with your character.
Petrie: We shot the whole thing on location, which obviously adds. All the walls are real, not made of cardboard. *Laughs* Honestly, as an actor, you have to adapt to it. The whole thing is ultimately fake. Of course it is, you’re making a movie, but ultimately you’re looking for a reality or truth. So to shoot the whole thing on location, which gives you a real sense of time and place. All of those little details like the period costumes help as well. With shooting on film, the lighting is so specific and so detailed. Digital you can shoot much quicker, obviously, and it’s a lot more forgiving, but when you shoot on film you’re almost doing something old fashioned, something classic in many ways. It looks stunning, some of the shots are just breathtaking. All of these ideas he has in his head! His background, and his innate understanding, allows him to not only write but be his own director of photography too. That’s a unique working relationship to have the writer, the director, and the director of photography sitting right in front of you. I still believe that he did the catering too! *Laughs* But he was not an egomaniac, that was the other thing! He was so collaborative!
Finding the Humanity in a Difficult Character
I wanted to ask about this character specifically and how you find the humanity in him. There are very difficult elements. I think of the slaughter of the Roma camp – it’s almost as if the perspective shifts to Seamus’ perspective looking down the hill as the horses attack the camp. It’s really sort of a mind blowing one shot there, but I’m curious how you look to humanize this difficult, troubling character.
Petrie: Bernard it’s right on the money, that question there. It’s the first thing you do really, or what I do as an actor, is looking for the human being. It’s an old cliche but no one is born evil, but it’s how you chart that. I was very keen not to justify the decisions that he makes, but to find the human being first and foremost. It was incredibly important. I don’t judge my characters. There’s a wonderful phrase I’m thieving from someone else – you have to be your character’s lawyer in many ways. That’s rather good! I wanted to find and at least hold within me, whether it comes out is not for me to judge, exactly what you say: the humanity, the human being. That’s where you build from. Obviously, this is a man who holds enormous responsibility in the community and he takes that incredibly seriously. He’s a man who is losing the love in his life, and cannot find a way to get it back. He’s a man that’s quietly grieving but cannot show he is. You try to build all these emotional layers. Some of it will seep out, some of it won’t, but if you hold it within you it will always inform the decisions and choices you make in terms of your character and your interactions with the other characters in the piece. It’s absolutely about finding a human being. It’s a very intensely personal experience but you still have to have those conversations. Kelly (Reilly) and I had a lot of conversations about the nature of their marriage, how they met. We were both of the belief that these were two characters who fell in love and born of that love they had children, and then things started to go awry.
Petrie Discusses the Film’s Sexual Dynamics
I wanted to ask about that as I think the sexuality, or really the lack thereof, in the film is very interesting. There’s a complex dynamic. One of the ways we’re introduced to your character and to Kelly’s character is through the bathing scene, which has this almost alien departure between the two of you. And there’s a complex dynamic of a new, young, virile interloper brought into the home so I was curious how you approach this dynamic.
Petrie: Kelly and I really spoke a lot about that beat, the one you refer to when Kelly is bathing. We talked a lot about it because for me I wanted it to say a million and one things, which is very hard to do given that there’s no dialogue. It’s an eighth of a page, just a description. We talked a lot about it with Sean as well, about what it meant to both of us. It is pretty much exactly as you describe it. It’s a love lost, and these two people cannot find their way back to it, which is deeply tragic and incredibly sad. I think it’s incredibly human. I’m sure this story is played out a lot. That was really, really important. It’s interesting that notion you talk about Boyd’s character arriving as a threat. I think that is a real thing for Seamus and quite subconscious. I was keen when I read it that there wasn’t a version where they – Boyd’s character and Kelly’s character – go off into the sunset.
Petrie: An obvious version, without giving anything away, might have gone that way. That was a discussion point. It’s an obvious thing to happen but I think life is much more complicated that that. I think the film reflects that. That beat you talked about was incredibly important, and we talked about it an awful lot to get at the depth of the emotion that still exists between them but is just lost and muddied. It’s a sad relationship.
Petrie’s Appreciation for The Cursed’s Practical Effects Work
I know we’re coming to the end of our time but I wanted to ask one last question about the practical effects in the film because I think it’s great to have practical effects in a film like this again.
Petrie: So great!
I was curious what your experience was like acting against them. I think particularly the autopsy scene is some really mind blowing visual stuff so I’d love to hear about your experience.
Petrie: It’s all – all! – in camera. I think audiences are so incredibly smart nowadays that they’ll see CGI and identify it. I think it removes the audience from the story that they’re trying to watch. So it’s nice to have as many in camera effects as possible. After the film was first screened at Sundance – the audiences are the final arbiters of any pieces of work – I think the audiences were saying ‘We love it! We think it’s fantastic! We want more in camera would work!’ Which we’ve done. That was the thing, we’d done so many in camera effects and I think there’s a natural nervousness – you’re kind of worried because you want to tell the best story possible with the nature of the effects. The autopsy scene was all in camera, all of it in camera! Anya, who was the actress who plays that character, without giving anything away, she was game! You’ve got to be game! You’ve got to be up for it! Wow! This whole thing was made by true artists, built and designed by true artists. And so to get our reactions on camera? Not hard! *Laughs*
Petrie: You know you have so little to,e, you don’t have thirty versions of this. “We’ve got to get it so good luck everybody!” And that’s really exciting to do and I think we really got it as well.
We’re coming to the end of our time, but I wanted to say I really appreciate you taking the time to speak to me today. I really loved the film – I actually first saw the film at Sundance when it was Eight for Silver a year ago and loved it then. I’m glad to see it’s coming out now and I hope a giant audience sees it this weekend and sees how great you are in it. So thank you!
Petrie: Pleasure to talk to you, Bernard. Thank you for your time, I appreciate it.
The Cursed is in theaters tomorrow, February 18, 2022.