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‘Orphan’ Turns 13: Isabelle Fuhrman on the Cult Movie’s Legacy and Acting Its Gnarliest Scenes as a Child

Fuhrman tells IndieWire about returning to the iconic horror villain role that launched her career for "Orphan: First Kill."

ORPHAN, Isabelle Fuhrman, 2009. ©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

“Orphan”

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

A 10-year-old playing a 33-year-old who’s pretending to be a nine-year-old is a tricky tightrope to walk for anybody, but then-preteen Isabelle Fuhrman achieved it with preternatural creepiness as the “little girl” Esther in 2009’s “Orphan.”

The Warner Bros. horror offering was an end-of-decade, word-of-mouth sleeper in spite of, and because of, its risible-on-paper plot — a nine-year-old Russian girl terrorizing her adoptive family is actually a 33-year-old Estonian woman with a rare hormonal disorder that stunts her physical growth. But what made the movie so sickly convincing and effective was how straight Jaume Collet-Serra’s direction and David Leslie Johnson’s screenplay played the ridiculous story. Still, it wouldn’t have worked without Fuhrman, now 25, and returning to the role 13 years later with Paramount’s sequel origin story, “Orphan: First Kill” (August 19), from “The Boy” director William Brent Bell.

“When I first found out I was coming back, I was joking to myself like, ‘Well, this will be way easier, because instead of being a kid pretending to be an adult who’s passing herself off as a child, I just have to be an adult that pretends to be a kid,” Fuhrman told IndieWire. The actress is now 25, playing Esther at an age closer to the actual character’s in “First Kill,” which starts with Esther’s violent escape from an Estonian psychiatric ward and follows her journey across the Atlantic to America, where she impersonates the long-missing daughter of a wealthy family desperately deluded Esther is their own (played by Julia Stiles and Rossif Sutherland).

Sequel talks have been swirling since circa the original film, but “First Kill” kicked off in earnest when Fuhrman reached out to screenwriter Johnson (a credited story writer on the sequel) after seeing a 2019 “Dr. Phil” episode about a Ukrainian orphan accused of lying about her age.

ORPHAN: FIRST KILL, Isabelle Fuhrman, 2022. ph: Steve Ackerman / © Paramount Players / courtesy Everett Collection

“Orphan: First Kill”

©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

“There was a story on Dr. Phil about a young girl adopted by a family in the United States, who bought her an apartment and left her there, and said that she tried to kill the family, and that she was a grown-up. She ended up being adopted by another family,” Fuhrman said. “I don’t know how that story ended, but that’s what made us bring the script out, because everyone was talking about ‘Orphan’ [because of the special]. We realized, ‘This really is a cult classic. It hasn’t just been written about that way. So many people are fascinated by this.'”

In the deeply twisted original that Freud would have a field day with, Esther torments a grieving couple played by Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard, with the creep factor notching from the outset as Esther appears to know way more about things like sex and psychological manipulation than a little girl should. So how did the filmmakers handle those uncomfortable scenes on set? (Think of a child actor like Danny Lloyd, six years old while making “The Shining,” who was protected from the movie’s true themes and told he was making a family drama.)

“An example would be the scene where Peter Sarsgaard’s character, John, rejects Esther,” Fuhrman said of a shuddering moment in the original when Esther seduces her adopted father after driving many a grisly wedge into his marriage. “That, to me, was explained as ‘he is somebody that you love, who thinks that you’re absolutely disgusting, and doesn’t want to be anywhere around you.’ That is the basis of what sexual rejection feels like, but no one explained it to me in terms of sex. You don’t experience that until you grow up, but the emotion was the same.”

ORPHAN: FIRST KILL, Isabelle Fuhrman, 2022. ph: Steve Ackerman / © Paramount Players / courtesy Everett Collection

“Orphan: First Kill”

©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Fuhrman said that, in rewatching “Orphan” to prep for “First Kill,” “That totally looks like if you’re experiencing sexual rejection, 100%. Other things, too. I remember that iconic line, ‘I’ll cut your hairless little prick off before you even figure out what it’s for.’ I didn’t even know what it was for! I just knew I had to say it like I believed what I was saying. I still use that sometimes. I just did a movie where I play a scientist, and I am not a scientist in any way shape or form. You’ve memorized the line, you say it with conviction, and go, ‘I know what I’m saying.'”

For “First Kill,” Fuhrman, now quite a bit taller than she was in 2009, worked with two child body doubles to play Esther, which meant working with them in shifts so they could do normal kid things like go to school or work reasonable hours on a movie set. (There are other clever in-camera tricks used to diminish Fuhrman’s stature that are best left unspoiled.) So Fuhrman would draw upon her own experience as a child working on “Orphan” to help coach them through scenes that called for a wisdom beyond their years.

“I was constantly thinking, ‘What did Jaume [Collet-Serra, director of the first ‘Orphan,’] say to me about this?’ How do I explain how to caress a man’s face in a loving way to a 10-year-old, in a way that doesn’t jeopardize where they are in their life, which is nowhere near this. So I was like, ‘Try and discover all the wrinkles on his face, try and count them all.’ And it totally worked.”

Fuhrman praised the filmmakers’ sensitivity to the material in such scenes that almost threaten to tip over into unethical territory.

ORPHAN, from left: Vera Farmiga, Isabelle Fuhrman, Peter Sarsgaard, 2009. ©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

“Orphan”

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

“In the original script, Esther kisses John on the lips, and when they realized they were casting a kid, they took that out immediately,” she said. “There was so much done to protect me from what was going on and to be aware of what we were making.”

The 2009 film had a twist you just had to see to believe, making it a must-see for horror nuts. But there’s great fun to be had with knowing that twist in the sequel, which allows the filmmakers to open up to the campier possibilities of the story. See: A seemingly juvenile Esther shooting a mini-bottle of vodka in an airplane bathroom, or stealing a car and smoking a cigarette. There’s also the existential question of whether or not her ruse is really worth it in the end.

“It’s funny because she’s not a kid, but she looks like a kid. She’s living this fake double life, trying to fit in with this family. And she’s kind of going back and forth on whether it’s worth it or not. It was fun to play with those sides of Esther, especially because, in the first movie, people hated her,” Fuhrman said, recalling early test screenings of “Orphan” and audiences’ vicious reactions to the original ending. (Spoiler alert: Esther drowns in an icy lake at the end of the first one.)

Originally, Fuhrman said, “The character lived, and all the focus group note cards came back, ‘Kill the B.I.T.C.H.,’ so they went back and filmed the ending where I die. But the fans love her. So for this one, we decided, ‘Let’s bring her back and let them love her a bit.'”

“Orphan: First Kill” opens in select theaters and streams on Paramount+ beginning Friday, August 19.

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