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Frances O'Connor on going from drama to 'The Conjuring 2'

The acclaimed actress tries her hand at frights.

Like most of the cast of “The Conjuring 2,” Frances O’Connor is not a horror actor. She’s an acclaimed thespian, the star of 1999’s “Mansfield Park” as well as Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.,” the 2002 comey “The Importance of Being Earnest” and the show “The Missing,” for which she scored a Golden Globe nomination.

But like co-stars Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, she found shooting James Wan’s second haunted house grinder to be artistically fulfilling. O’Connor, 48, plays Peggy, the harried low-income mother of four whose English council home is (allegedly!) terrorized by an evil spirit.

As a parent it must be rough getting in the headspace that Peggy goes to — not just trying to protect her kids from potentially supernatural forces, but being so brash.
I really hope I’m a better parent. [Laughs] Peggy’s not really PC in the way she parents. But she is a ’70s parent: She’s always stressed, she shouts at her kids, but ultimately she loves them so much and would protect them with her life. There’s a scene where I give my son cookies before he goes to bed, which is such a parenting no-no. I love that she does stuff like that.

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She’s also low income in 1970s England, when there wasn’t a strong welfare state. She’s amongst those ignored by society.
What’s great about the film is it values her in a way society doesn’t. They’re kind of underdogs. They’re not really listened to. Because of the stress and how unhappy that family is, you kind of believe that that energy kind of summons the entity.

You’ve mostly done dramas and had only done one horror film, “Mercy,” before this. Were you itching to try this type of film?
Not really. It’s kind of fun to go, “Oooh, let’s see what being in this genre is like.” But ultimately I feel it’s all the same. You’re still telling a story, though perhaps in a more technical way.

Apparently director James Wan blessed the set before shooting, because the first “Conjuring” was plagued with lots of freaky events. I’m sure that gets you in the mood to make a horror movie.
I did a lot of research, but when I turned up on set I found it less spooky. It’s quite a technical medium to work in as an actor. The camera’s very much a part of it and you have to hit your mark and look in the right place so you get the close-up and the eye-line. That took a bit of the spook out of it.

As an actor used to characters, how did you adjust to something that’s often so technical?
The scene where I’m woken up the kids screaming and the drawers go slamming across the room — that was all one take. So it felt like it was really happening. It makes your job easier, because you can react to what’s happening at the moment. There are other moments that are very artificial and you have to generate it. You have to really concentrate and come up with the goods.

I’m pretty sure you’ve never screamed as much as you have in this film, too.
[Laughs] At a certain point James was like, “We need more, actually.” I was like, “More than that? Are you kidding?” I’m kind of new to this genre.

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The real-life Enfield Haunting is a hotly contested case, with skeptics pointing out inconsistencies, even fakery. Where do you stand having made a movie about it?
The producer got a hold of the guy who took those photos [during the alleged haunting]. He thought there was something genuinely happening in the house. Even if it wasn’t supernatural, it was maybe a kinetic force. There’s so much weight on both sides of the argument that it’s hard to know if it really happened.

It can be tough being coldly rational when you’re confronted with traumatized people who claim they’ve encountered something paranormal.
Those kids, now as grown-ups, are still kind of freaked out. That event has affected the rest of their lives. Some of the footage and the photos and all these audio recordings, it’s really spooky looking and listening to them. I don’t know. I can’t say definitively whether it happened or not. It’s very convincing if it’s not true.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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