Interview: Abigail Breslin on 'Maggie,' zombies and Neutral Milk Hotel
The former child star talks about the emotionally draining part of her new zombie drama, and shares a funny story about costar Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Abigail Breslin is no stranger to horror, and no stranger to zombies. But “Maggie” is very different. It’s not a zombie horror film but a zombie drama, starring Breslin as a young woman who’s very, very slowly transforming into one of the undead, all while being watched over by her parents, played by Joely Richardson and one Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not that the Oscar nominee and former child actress let a bleak film about encroaching death get her down, both on set and while talking about it to the press.
This is a pretty unrelentingly grim film, shot in the middle of nowhere with a small cast. How do you keep your spirits up?
You end up having more fun, I think, on serious movies, because you know it’s going to be intense so you try to have as much fun as you can. Those scenes where we’re really serious and emotional, we’d be cracking up. There’s one scene with Joely Richardson — I just saw the clip the other day — she’s putting eyedrops in my eyes. [Ed. It’s a scene where she’s suddenly very strongly smelling human flesh.] We were all losing our minds a little bit by that point [in the shoot]. And we just couldn’t’ stop laughing. I was surprised they could find takes where we weren’t laughing or smiling. We were just having a good time. We all had a morbid sense of humor. There were days when we had to sit around and chill, and I’d just listen to my playlist.
What was on the playlist?
“Calgary” by Bon Iver. “Help I’m Alive” by Metric. A lot of Metric, actually. A lot of Neutral Milk Hotel. Death Cab. Really angsty music.
I’m glad the young are listening to Neutral Milk Hotel.
It’s older than me, but it makes me sound cool.
To seem cool is one reason some of us got into Neutral Milk Hotel in the first place.
You know how I got into Neutral Milk Hotel? This is such an awful story. When I was 14 I really liked this one guy, and my brother and I shared the same iTunes account. So all of his music was on my computer. This guy was looking at my computer, and he said, “Oh my god, you like Neutral Milk Hotel?” It was my brother’s, so I said, “Yeah, of course, I do. Duh!” He was like, “That’s so cool, what’s your favorite song?” And I said, “Hmm,” and I just leaned over to look at the screen and said, “‘Oh Comely’?” He started texting me about it, and I just started listening to Neutral Milk Hotel all the time. I ended up really liking it, so it wasn’t all a lie.
This is more a drama than a horror film, but you’ve said horror is a favorite genre of yours.
Oh, I am a really big horror fan. I’m one of those obnoxious horror cans who will go to the movies and really get super into it and then have full-blown arguments and conversations about it after. When I got the script for this and I just thought it was a zombie horror. And it wasn’t what I expected it to be. It’s a human movie that just happens to deal with zombie-like creatures. I don’t even see it as a zombie movie. It’s more about being sick and isolated. Getting to wear zombie makeup, though, was a real bonus. I was freaking out over that.
Not a lot of zombie films show the transformation into the undead as slow. As an actor, how do you prepare to do this so gradually?
We were kind of making it up as we went along. The first day I came to set for hair and makeup, and we were doing the very beginning stage of her transition. I was expecting the makeup to be more intense than it was, and they just said, “OK, ready to go! You look good the way you are!” And I was like, “Are you trying to tell me I look like a zombie without makeup on?” [Laughs] She was just supposed to look a bit pale. The worst was the eye contacts. And the drops were the worst ever. It was like little unicorns hugging your eyes.
Maggie cries a fair amount, but in the back of her mind she’s also always dealing with the knowledge that death is near, and that she’ll turn into something else very soon. How do you deal with that as an actor?
That was the hardest emotionally to deal with. Usually in movies it’s instantaneous. The brains are gone and they’re acting off of impulse. In this it’s a really slow disintegration. She’s aware of what’s happening to her. One of the hardest scenes to do was the scene with the maggots, one, because I hate bugs, and two, because she’s realizes her mind is really decaying. There’s something so sad about someone knowing they’re every day getting weaker and a little bit closer to death, and possibly killing their family. There’s no way to tackle that.
Not only were you acting with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but you’re acting with him in a genre — drama — he hasn’t really done before. What was that like?
I grew up with brothers, plus my dad, so Arnold Schwarzenegger was big in my house. I don’t like to have preconceived notions before I meet icons, but there’s no way you’re not going to think, “I’m going to meet the Terminator.” But he’s so sweet and so war and so generous, as an actor and as a person. When he’s complimented he’ll always find a way to turn it around so he’s actually complimenting someone else. I did have one cool moment with him: When he was leaving set to go back to his trailer, he just said, “I’ll be back.” He was just saying it normally, but for me it was such a moment. It’s just his voice.