“A Monster Calls” is not your typical children’s film. And Lewis MacDougall’s tween hero isn’t your typical children’s film lead.
The Scottish actor, 14, plays Conor, a boy in remote Ireland whose mother (Felicity Jones) is wasting away from cancer. He finds himself visited at night by a giant tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), who seems menacing yet only wants to tell him stories — fairy tales, but not ones that promise happy endings. Instead, they’re lessons are about how life is difficult, people are complicated, and death is a fact of life. These aren’t what kids usually hear, especially in movies.
“Quite a lot of films really underestimate how much a child can understand,” MacDougall tells us. “It’s important to be honest with kids. After all, they’re going to be adults one day. They really need to learn about the troubles that life has, that life can be complicated.”
They’re messages MacDougall really loved while reading the 2011 book, by Patrick Ness (who also wrote the film’s screenplay). It doesn’t sugarcoat things, and it allows Conor to tap into his darker, angrier thoughts, sometimes destructively.
“It’s something Conor is struggling to do: be honest with himself. The people around him aren’t being honest with him about his mother’s condition, about what’s going to happen to her,” he says. “This story can really help people. A lot of people, sadly, experiences loss or grief in their lives.”
“A Monster Calls” is, as you can see, a really heavy film, and MacDougall had a tough job to do, as any actor of any age would.
“When I was told I got the part, obviously I was excited. But I was a bit nervous as well,” he explains. “It’s a big role to take for someone of my age. And it was only my second film.” (The other one was a supporting turn in last year’s “Pan.”)
One thing “A Monster Calls” director, J.A. Bayona (“The Orphanage,” “The Impossible”) did to help MacDougall, and his other actors, get into the appropriate moods was play music on set. He mixed it up: When they were doing something bouncy and exciting, he’d put on hip-hop; when the scene was emotional, he’d go with classical music. MacDougall said that helped, as did talking honestly about Conor and his sense of guilt for the times when he acts out his anger or frustration.
The young actor finds “A Monster Calls” to be one of the rare films about kids that really gets them. He cites “Stand By Me” as another. “It doesn’t sugarcoat things,” he says. “It shows the tough parts, and it shows them goofing off.”
MacDougall is due for a change of pace in next year’s “Boundaries,” a road trip drama in which he acts with Vera Farmiga, Christopher Plummer, Bobby Cannavale and Kristen Schaal.
“It’s important for me to do different types of roles, to keep things fresh,” MacDougall explains. “All the films I’ve done have all had different types of characters.”
He says there was never a moment when he realized he wanted to be a professional actor. He almost didn’t go to the open casting call that got him his stint in “Pan.” He belongs to a drama group, whose director encouraged him to try out. Despite the big films, the actor says his life hasn’t changed much.
“My friends and teachers treat me the same way,” MacDougall says. “Just like how Conor wants to be treated normally [in “A Monster Calls”], I want to be treated normally.”