When Osgood Perkins was cast as a young Norman Bates in 1983’s “Psycho II,” he stepped into the iconic role that had catapulted his father, Anthony Perkins, to superstardom in 1960. While other roles followed in well-received films, including “Legally Blonde” and “Secretary,” Osgood, now 45, came to realize that acting was never his calling. The horror genre, however, most certainly was. So, he turned to writing and directing nail-biters that, like “Psycho,” are both suspenseful and character-driven.
His latest, “Gretel & Hansel,” in theaters on January 31, is a dark fantasy based on the Brothers Grimm tale. In the film, a teen Gretel played by Sophia Lillis (“It”) and younger bro Hansel, played by newcomer Sam Leakey, lose their way in a dark wood while foraging to help their poverty-stricken parents. But after stumbling upon the home of a witch, Holda (Alice Krige, perhaps best known for playing the Borg Queen in “Star Trek: First Contact”), things go from bad to worse. Unlike traditional horror films that employ jump scares to send audiences ducking for cover, “Gretel & Hansel” provides a visually rich, character-driven experience that’s as thought-provoking as it is suspenseful. Unsurprisingly, Osgood Perkins is as complex as the film itself, as we learned in a recent interview.
1. His career trajectory is the complete opposite of his father’s.
At age 12, Osgood may have played a younger version of the iconic Norman Bates in “Pyscho 2,” but that’s about where the similarities between his career and his dad’s end. “My father made a big impression early on and struggled later,” Perkins explained. “He started as a matinee idol and was everybody’s heartthrob.” Playing a young Quaker in 1956’s “Friendly Persuasion” earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, and he showed his range by starring in the 1957 Western “The Lonely Man” and the 1959 romance “Green Mansion” opposite Audrey Hepburn. “And then he became known as the cross-dressing serial killer in “Psycho.” Anthony Perkins’ performance in “Psycho” catapulted him to horror icon status, and rightfully so, according to Osgood who still loves to screen the film with friends and his two children at home in LA. “I’m so proud of Norman Bates. ‘Psycho’ is one of the movies like ‘On the Waterfront,’ where everyone’s in one movie and Brando’s on his own planet.” But it also limited the industry’s perception of the elder Perkins. “He struggled after ‘Psycho’ to have people see him in the different parts he wanted to play.” Osgood said he himself struggled early on as an actor. Meaningful roles were hard to come by and turns in 2001’s “Not Just Another Teen Movie” and 2002’s “Secretary” failed to lead to bigger opportunities. “It was almost like a spiritual copout for me. People still say they love my character [David Kidney] in ‘Legally Blonde,’ but c’mon, it’s an old movie. I’m just starting to have an impact now as a writer and director.”
2. For Perkins, the best horror films are about sadness, loss and grief.
Yes, most horror films are disturbing and bloody. But Osgood prefers to watch — and make — movies that are mournful at their core. “Mournful sadness is very real.” He added that, if you haven’t experienced the death of someone close to you, watching a horror film is a lot like an amusement park ride. “That’s not bad. It’s great. I wish it were like that for me,” said Perkins, whose father died of AIDS in 1992 and whose mother, actress Berry Berenson, was killed in one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center towers in 2001. “Once you’ve experienced grief and death, the horror genre changes. It’s about showing me how to live when things are sad and scary and fall apart.” Not surprisingly, with “Gretel & Hansel,” Osgood chose not to rely on jump scares to send shivers down the audience’s backs. Instead, he created a PG13 film that “I think younger audiences will be intrigued by. Someone doesn’t need to be lunging at the camera for it to be really scary.” One secret to the intensity of the film: this widescreen movie is in a 1.55:1 ratio, a more square proportion than is typical these days. “We felt it would be more in the moment with Gretel in that ratio, and the specialness of that can’t be downplayed. The whole thing has a really present look to it. It’s exciting.”
3. Oz Perkins made his first film at age 41, on advice from a famous family friend.
One of Anthony Perkins’ closest friends was the late film and theater director Mike Nichols, whose oeuvre ranged from 1967’s “The Graduate” to 1970’s “Catch-22” and 1988’s “Working Girl.” “He was at my dad’s side when he was sick,” Osgood said. “And when I was pulling my head out of the sand at age 38 or 39, and wanting to commit myself to writing and making movies, it was Mike who had the most salient advice and the most revelatory thinking. He was prescriptive in a lot of ways about how to approach directing.” Above all, he taught Osgood to “communicate what’s beautiful and important about my work as clearly as possible.” The result of Nichols’ counsel? “The Blackcoat’s Daughter,” a 2015 psychological horror he wrote and directed, starring Emma Roberts and Lucy Boynton.
4. Filming his child actors in Ireland was quite a challenge.
Working with two child actors, Lillis and Leakey, on location throughout Ireland was tricky — and not because they lacked talent. In fact, Perkins called Lillis “a major star in the making” and newcomer Leakey, whom he cast off an iPhone audition, “adorable and courageous.” But with a short (25-day) shooting schedule, it can be difficult to fit it all in, particularly with child actors. “In Ireland, they really care about their children, so you can basically never shoot with them,” Perkins joked. In truth, he had just four hours a day with the film’s titular characters. The weather didn’t help either. “It’s so protean. They say Ireland has all four seasons in an hour. At times, those of us from California were saying, ‘What are we doing out here in the pouring rain?’ There were sheets of rain in the actors’ faces. With shoot locations that included The Hell Fire Club, a defunct hunting lodge rumored by locals to be frequented by the Devil, the cast and crew were fortunate that angry weather was the only force that haunted the set.
5. He doesn’t have nightmares, but he does tear up — a lot.
With three horror films to his credit, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Perkins has occasional nightmares. But he vows that he doesn’t. “I’ve never woken up screaming or upset. It doesn’t happen to me, he says. “Wherever I’m getting this stuff from, it’s not my actual nightmares.” He is, however, not averse to an occasional outpouring of emotion. “I cry whenever I can,” admits the writer/director. “It’s a great reset. It clears your mind and soul. A good cry, whether a little one or a big one, is a vital ingredient to the recipe of living.” So, “Gretel & Hansel” audiences will agree, is an astoundingly good scare.
Interest piqued to see Perkins’ smart-as-it-is-scary production? Snap up tickets for Orion Pictures’ “Gretel & Hansel“, opening in theaters on January 31, 2020.