Lucky McKee’s exploitation shocker “The Woman” got the job done at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The plot alone was enough to get people riled up — a family imprisons a feral lady — but after a YouTube video from the world premiere captured one very angry audience member being escorted out by security guards after verbally lashing the director, “The Woman” took on a viral life of its own.
The film isn’t for everyone. It’s a challenging sit, at times hard to watch and troubling to the extreme. But it’s also well acted by its cast and not the horror film the angered patron would leave you believe it to be. McKee’s film is more intent on provoking discourse about the constructs of female domesticity than it is in scaring its audience. And one reason the film succeeds in its goals is the deeply felt performances of its female cast — most notably Pollyanna McIntosh, who plays the titular woman of the woods.
We spoke with the Scotland-born actress about why she agreed to take on the physically and emotionally demanding role and whether she fears being typecast after appearing in this divisive film. “The Woman” opens in limited release Friday, October 14.
How did you get involved?
Deliciously enough, they wrote the script for me because I had done a movie called “Offspring” where I brought the character to life from a Jack Ketchum book. And Jack Ketchum also wrote that screenplay. It’s a very different kind of movie to “The Woman,” but it is essentially a prequel to “The Woman.” It’s her story before what happens in “The Woman.” The producer of that film admired Lucky’s work and he wanted Lucky to collaborate with Jack Ketchum and create this second movie based on this character because when we were shooting he was like, “You’re having too much fun, I want to keep your character alive.” And then Lucky saw the movie and thankfully he liked my performance and found the character interesting and wanted to write “The Woman” with Ketchum. So it was being written for me, which is my first experience with that and that was really nice.
So what happened to the woman before “The Woman”?
Well, she had her own family; she had kind of a clan. She had a lot of children. They weren’t all hers that she bore, nor were all hers that she was the legal guardian of, but she kind of took some kids. She kind of created her own family.
Did you know the direction he was going to take, essentially making her a victim for most of the film?
Well, that was what he found interesting about it: To flip it and make the aggressor become the victim and go from there. Because even in “Offspring,” she was the bad guy but as an actor playing a role, I saw her as the good guy. And there was still an element of civilized against the uncivilized and the “Who is right?” kind of thing.
What was your impression when you read what Lucky and Jack had prepared? Were you skeptical?
I was horrified!
I was horrified at some parts. I was just like, ah… I just don’t… I can’t do a whole movie like this. What am I going to do with myself, you know? But I did already see what he was trying to do with just the script, what both of them were trying to do with the script. And then when I read the book, it was even clearer. And then when we started talking about, for instance, the rape scene. Oddly enough, what really sold it to me was that rape scene. I was like, this is something I haven’t seen before and I think this is something powerful and, you know, I vowed never to do a rape scene in a movie and I never want do one where it’s eroticized or panicked, you know, that typical screaming victim stuff.
I already admired his work, so I knew there was something there. But when we got talking about the specifics of it and he asked me for notes and everything, we ended up being on the same page about everything. It just became really, really exciting and I was ready to take on the challenge. And it didn’t feel restrictive at all being chained up for 90 % of the movie. I actually felt physically engaged the whole time, you know?
How did you set up that kind of trust with Lucky, given what your character goes through?
I just knew exactly where I was going to go with her. I knew I wasn’t going to be stopped from going to the places I wanted to go with her because we had four months of conversations on the phone. I felt trust as an artist feels trust with other collaborators. I didn’t feel like, “Little actress, do what you’re told by the director man.” He was the one who said, “Make sure you tell us if you’re in any pain.”
What was the atmosphere like on set? Was it light and jolly behind the scenes or did you kind of keep this tension going?
There were some really funny people on the crew. There was a lot of humor all the time. But it was also a big-scale indie production with a really talented bunch of people who are really focused on getting the job done. So the joyful silly moments came at appropriate times. Because we were all just really in sync.
And it was often a closed set at really tricky points. I’m not a Method person, so I’m not like in character all the time. But there were always a few moments where I had to be left alone.
In a film filled to the brim with difficult-to-watch scenes, what was the most difficult scene to film personally?
The rape scene was difficult, but not for the reason you’d imagine. It was difficult because I felt really badly for Sean [Bridges, who plays the head of the household, Chris Cleek]. We’d become very close at this point. So I felt really badly about what he had to go to to live in at that moment. It’s quite grotesque and heavy and horrible. Just like the characters, I think he had to go through a lot more than I did in that scene. So that was uncomfortable to me because I didn’t want him to go through that. I just wanted to make it all right for him.
Were you at the Sundance premiere?
I was, yes.
Were you in the room when that whole commotion happened and that man spoke out?
Yes, angry dude.
What was that like?
For starters, I had just watched the movie for the first time. So I was taken on the same ride that you were taken on. So even though I was close to it, I still felt like I just had that journey that every other audience member had. It was kind of like, Whoa! at the end of it. I thought it was a bit jacked up and then this guy starts. And his level of anger, his level of piety about the whole thing felt so incredibly inappropriate. Especially in that setting, where nobody else was agreeing with him. And if they were, they had left by then. And so I just felt very uncomfortable, a little bit scared and very defensive for Lucky because he was green before the start of the movie.
I was just pissed off. I think we all were. Especially the girls. It was a pretty jacked up atmosphere. You couldn’t have asked for better publicity. And all free? Thanks dude, that was awesome.
Given the nature of the publicity that response garnered, do you think it’s going to negatively affect its performance?
I think in a way it probably already has negatively affected it. Some people have probably chosen not to see it because of that. But at the end of the day, having something related to your work that’s got 65,000 hits 10 hours after it goes up… there’s nothing like that kind of talk to get bums in seats. Most of the comments I’ve seen were like, “Yeah that made me want to watch it even more.”
It made me curious.
What kind of life do you want to see it have in theaters? To me it’s a film with a message, but what kind of message do you hope it elicits in its viewers?
I think at a basic level, it’s very exciting for viewers to see how they feel about seeing a very powerful woman onscreen. A very powerful woman who’s not using her sexuality to be powerful. I also think that Lucky’s always saying it’s not a philosophical movie, but I disagree. I think it is a philosophical movie. I do think there’s so much about imperialism and control and abuse. And I think even though it’s not a real story, it’s not supposed to be a realistic story. I think there are realistic characters and realistic reactions to what’s going on. The reason I do this is so I can affect somebody and make them feel less alone and more human. I think this film manages to do that. It does that for me. If it allows someone to feel like they’ve been understood in some way or less odd, then I’ll be happy.
Give me a brief rundown of the projects you’re working on and whether the reaction to “The Woman” has affected your public image and whether casting directors now are a little cautious.
I don’t know and I wonder about it myself to some degree. But not in a big way. I’m just really chuffed to be part of something that I think is good. And for any actor to be the lead in something that’s getting a theatrical release — you know, we’re all struggling — is a big deal, I think. I’m sure there are lots of people who think, “Oh yeah, that horror girl.” I’ve also had filmmakers that said, “Oh, I’d like to see this” or “I heard about that film and it looked really cool.” Since doing that movie, I’ve done like three comedies and two dramas. I guess it just depends on how good my other work is that comes after.
And I have to admit and I haven’t admitted this to anybody yet, but I just finished on a movie called “Love Eternal.” We just wrapped in Luxembourg. By an Irish writer/director called Brendan Muldowney. He did a movie called “Savage,” I don’t know if you saw that.
No, I haven’t.
Well, you know this is my first lead since “The Woman.” And it’s a very different kind of character. It’s a grieving woman who covers her grief with endless hope all the time, but is actually suicidal at times. And I had a little actress fear while shooting.
I won this award at FrightFest for “The Woman” and I’m getting all this really positive response and everyone’s saying how brilliant I am in it, and la, la, la la… And I have this little actress quibble and I’m like, “Oh God, what if this movie comes out and I’m playing a normal character” and everyone says, “Oh it’s just a one-off. You can play an animal, but nothing else.”