To Mia Wasikowska, the filmmaker Guillermo del Toro isn’t your typical crafter of big budget fantasias.
“Visionaries don’t always care about the emotional side of things,” the actress says. “What makes him powerful and resonate with people is that he never sacrifices the emotional drive of the story for the frights.”
Wasikowska says del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” wrecked her, and she’s similarly gushy about “Crimson Peak,” a Gothic romantic horror in which she finally gets to work with him. She plays Edith, an aspiring writer in the 19th century who winds up interred in a massive, awe-inspiring house haunted by both ghosts and dastardly siblings (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain). Even though the people are more malevolent than the spirits, Wasikowska notes how they come off as more damaged than evil.
“The fear comes from knowing these characters and seeing how they disintegrate. That’s original. Not as many directors care that much on an emotional level,” she tells us.
Though the sets are big and the effects even sharper than the usual CGI, Wasikowska noted that del Toro never forgets about his actors — mostly just three of them, in this case. “Sometimes when it’s highly planned in a visual way it locks you into a certain thing that might not feel right. They want to achieve so much visually that you have to try hard to make that feel natural. That’s fine, that’s your job. Guillermo, though, always follows you emotionally.”
Edith, it should be noted, has more going on than the usual Gothic female lead. Usually they’re repressed (Deborah Kerr in “The Innocents”) or repressed and troubled (Julie Harris in “The Haunting”). Edith does a fair amount of running around and damsel-in-distress-ing. But she’s also a proto-feminist in a particularly patriarchal era, and she even gets to have a sex life without being punished for it.
“She has a strong sense of self, especially at the beginning. She’s feminist enough, even for our times” Wasikowska says. But she’s also flawed and not just one-dimensionally strong. “She’s a little idealistic — and also naive.”
Still, a good deal of Wasikowska’s job involved being by herself, skulking about the massive set and looking freaked out. Wasikowska has done her share of big budget, F/X-heavy fare, including Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and it’s forthcoming sequel, “Alice Through the Looking Glass.” This often means acting with things that will only be added later. But a fair amount of “Crimson Peak” was tactile.
“The sets were real, the ghosts were played by two actors who got six hours of make-up done,” she recalls. That made it easier to seem real, although it’s still a challenge trying to fake fright. “Being scared is not something you can recreate when they’re no there. You have to physically remember how it feels. You have to remember what it does to your body. A lot of hunched shoulders and breathing — that seems unnatural.”
Wasikowska recalls an extreme version of this: in the film “Tracks,” in which her character traverses a good chunk of the Australian Outback, she was really amidst the desert. “It saps your energy standing in the sun like that for five hours. You’re already like, ‘Ugh,’” she remembers. “That sort of film would be impossible to do on a green screen, apart from the fact that it would be pointless and look terrible.”
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