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Teresa Palmer on wanting do a smart horror film with 'Lights Out'

The actress talks about a lifetime being morbid and her forthcoming mom podcast.

Teresa Palmer didn’t want to do a typical horror film. And with “Lights Out,” she didn’t. It may appear to be a standard ghost movie, where a supernatural presence latches onto a splintered family, just like in “The Conjuring.” But Palmer has a real character to play: a young woman who is pulled back into the life of her estranged, mentally ill mother (Maria Bello) when her house is haunted by an unknown presence that can only be seen when the light switch is on off. In addition to writing, Palmer is also a podcast-nut who’s about to start her own, launching next year and all about her experiences with motherhood.

Since you’re doing your own podcast, I should ask: What podcasts have you been listening to lately?
Obviously “Serial”’s done. They’re doing another season soon. There’s another true crime podcast called “Sword and Scale,” which is nice because it doesn’t glorify any of the crimes. It really helps you sink into the victim’s perspective. It’s very thoughtful and very respectful. I also listen to “Mysterious Universe,” which is all about strange phenomena in the world. And I have my mom podcasts, like “Atomic Moms,” which is my favorite. A very eclectic bunch, but that’s how I roll.

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Judging from some of those, you seem to have a bit of a morbid streak.
I’ve always been that way. I watch every crime show — all the true ones, at least, not the fakes ones. I’ve always loved them, even when I was a little girl. When I was six years old I was the one who said in class, “If anyone wants to hear ghost stories, follow me!” I would sit under a tree with a group of kids and I’d make up ghost stories. I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a ton of darkness in my own life.

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And yet you’ve done very few horror films, apart from your first American film, “The Grudge 2.” What was different about this?
I had to do a smart horror film. I needed it to be layered and interesting. My favorite element was how the family felt very real. I’ve dealt with a lot of people in my life who have manic depression and schizoaffective disorder and psychoses. I really could resonate with Rebecca’s decision. It was written so realistically. With genre films that’s very refreshing. I felt it could be a family drama outside the supernatural element.

There are a lot of genre films that actually do sneak in real, deep thought. They’re considered disreputable, and some filmmakers use that as license to get away with really subversive material.
Then there’s the flipside, where they have soulless characters that are just there to be scared or murdered. Pretty girls get murdered and people aren’t the sharpest tool in the shed and get murdered instantly. With this I wanted to have the supernatural element, but I also wanted to play a real character. That means the audience is really rooting for the characters. They really believe in them and want them to be OK.

Do you tend to be into the more cerebral horror films, like “Rosemary’s Baby”?
“Rosemary’s Baby” is unbelievable. Or the David Lynch film “Eraserhead.” The baby that comes out is totally bizarre. Being a pregnant woman, I’ve had those nightmares. In my first pregnancy I would dream about being Mia Farrow.

Did you have similar anxieties actually making a horror film?
When I was shooting this movie, all these feelings would come back to me. I knew what was in it, because I’d read the script. But I’d come home and have to switch my brain off about some of the images I was seeing at work. It just triggered something for me. I had really bad insomnia shooting this film. I slept with a night light on. I kept pretending it was for my son, that he needed the night light. But he didn’t need it; he was nine months old, he was fine. It just got under my skin. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it: I wanted to feel that real fear.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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