Cloverfield ingénue Odette Yustman returns to the PG-13 horror world with The Unborn, a scary ghost story written and directed by David Goyer. Odette plays Casey, a young woman haunted by the ghost of her twin brother, who died while they were both in the womb. The Unborn has all the right elements for the genre: creepy kids, dogs with upside-down heads, Nazis, and a Jewish exorcism. (Plus, you don’t want to miss Gary Oldman as a rabbi.) Yustman talked to us at the LA press junket for The Unborn about foreign objects in her eye, bugs in her bra, and why her childhood hobby was smashing porcelain dolls with a hammer.
I’m sure this is something you have discussed a million times before, but how did you feel when David Goyer sneaked in the eye speculum scene?
I was about to kill him. I really was. He said, “I have an idea for this scene.” I said, “What do you mean you ‘have an idea’?” He said, “There’s this thing, it’s called a speculum… it kind of goes in your eye, but you numb it, so you don’t really feel it, and you only have to do it once.” I said, “Fine, but if I have to do it, you have to do it.” He said, “Sure, no problem.” So we do it, and it is horrible. They told me, “Don’t blink, don’t blink.” David thought it looked really cool, and wanted all these different angles. We ended up shooting it six times, and David didn’t [wear the speculum] at all.
And he didn’t warn you about the bugs ahead of time either?
Not at all. He said, “Yeah, they’re potato bugs, I found one in my backyard, it’s not really a big deal.” So they showed me the potato bugs, and they are huge! Then David said, “We are going to put some on you, but they’ll be fine.” They start crawling up my shirt, going into my boobs, one caught on my arm and started biting me. David told me they don’t bite – then he just shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”
Was there a potato bug wrangler?
Yes, there actually was! He was from South Africa, I think. He couldn’t have been sweeter, but he was so serious about his bugs. He was losing them. One of them was caught on my arm, and I didn’t know what to do. He told me, “It’s okay, don’t harm them.” I just wanted to fling this thing off me – I don’t care about the bug right now!
How long did you have to shoot with all that?
They put me through the ringer. It was a while. We had to do multiple shots of one on my hand, one crawling on me, a bunch on my whole body… we got very well-acquainted.
I heard you did your research by watching exorcisms on YouTube.
Yeah, that’s exactly how I did my research! I figured I could go buy the books, but I really wanted something visual so I could create my own idea of an exorcism. I found a lot of amateur exorcism videos. I found really crazy things. If you search for exorcisms, it’s actually a terrifying thing. You have people all around the world, parents who think their kids are possessed, so they take them into churches for exorcisms, and these kids are terrified! I don’t know if the parents are crazy, if these kids really are possessed, or whatever. Some are screaming, some are completely still. It’s just really scary, and I watched it by myself, at night. I was petrified! I couldn’t sleep. It’s the scariest thing because it gets in your head and, for me, psychological thrillers are really terrifying. The Exorcist is probably my favorite horror film. I watched it for the first time when I was seven, with my mother. I don’t know why my mom let me watch that. I couldn’t go to the bathroom by myself, I couldn’t go upstairs by myself, I couldn’t sleep… it just really got in my head.
Can you talk a little about working with Gary Oldman and Jane Alexander?
It’s so weird when someone tells you you are going to be the lead of a movie, and you are going to be opposite Gary Oldman and Jane Alexander. But you have a bigger role than them. It’s like, What? These are the greats. These are actors. These are people you admire. I was really nervous at first, but they couldn’t have been better. They just took me under their wings, gave me great advice. Gary sat me down one day and said, “This is how you have to deal with the business,” and he’s telling me stories about The Professional and Sean Penn. I was like, “You’re Gary Oldman. And you are calling me by my first name. This is so weird.” I learned so much from them. They were so great and so professional.
Throughout the movie, there are some subtle color changes going on with your eyes. Was that CGI or were you wearing contacts?
Contacts. I’ve never worn contacts, ever, and I have super-sensitive eyes. I had no idea how I was going to get through this. I just couldn’t think about it, didn’t complain. Like anything else, you just have to get used to it, and I did. There were different stages of color, so certain contacts didn’t hurt as much as others. But it was irritating after a while.
Have you been getting a lot of horror scripts after Cloverfield?
Here and there, yeah. I guess more than anything else. I don’t want to be stereotyped, but I also don’t ever say never. When I saw The Unborn script, I loved it so much, I decided it didn’t matter –I had to do it. It was a great opportunity.
What stood out about this script?
One of the main things was that this isn’t a remake. This is a horror film with a completely new idea. An original story, and that really stood out to me. Nowadays, I don’t think women have such a great opportunity to play a character like this, to be able to carry a whole film yourself. I was really fortunate to have that role and be able to hit every single emotion. My character, Casey, really is a tortured soul. She goes through so much throughout the movie. As an actress you look forward to those roles. Would I do it again? Yes, but it’s a challenge. You have to know you are going to be working all day long, you are going to be in bad weather, you can’t complain, you can’t be sick, you just have to be on it. It’s what I love, and I am really grateful I even get to do this.
What was it like working with David Goyer?
He is such a great director. I have been a fan of his work even before I got this script. Sitting down with him, working on this character and what we wanted from her, we developed a great relationship. We became very close. We joked around all the time on set, it was really fun.
What about working with Cam Gigandet? Did you two hang out off-set?
Yeah, absolutely! Cam was shooting Twilight before The Unborn, and I was shooting another movie as well. So [before shooting began] we contacted each other via email and the phone. Then when he got to Chicago, we kind of “forced” ourselves to hang out together – not that it was such a bad thing! We would go out together, go to dinner, talk about the characters, rehearse together… we wanted a real relationship. When you get to know someone, you know what to do in a scene to make them laugh. And Meagan [Good], we hit it off right from the start. We had actually met about two years before this movie, and we got along really well. When we both found out we were doing this movie together, we were like, “This is perfect! We don’t even have to act!” We didn’t even need to rehearse together, it just flowed naturally. We’re really buddies off-screen.
How did you guys handle the real earthquake that took place during shooting?
It’s unbelievable how that and so many other weird things would happen. The lights would go on and off, there was this earthquake in Chicago, there was a picture taken of this guy going down a staircase with hands grasping him…
You are going to have to elaborate on that one.
Someone took a picture of a crew man coming down the stairs, and you can see these hands coming out [to grab him]. This was in the insane asylum we shot in.
As an actress, how do you manage to keep your energy up all day?
I feel like the lead actor sets the tone for a movie. I think it is really important as an actress to come in with a smile on your face and put everyone in a better mood. Because if not, what are you all working for? We’re all here to have fun. We’re not curing cancer, we’re trying to entertain people. I know others would disagree with me, and some actors just show up, do their part, and leave, but I really try to embrace everybody and make everyone feel comfortable.
So you don’t need to “stay in character” between shots?
I’m not really Method, no. If it’s a really intense scene, people will know – I will have my iPod on and my head down, and they know not to disturb me, but for the most part I can pretty much just be me while not shooting.
What was actually there on set that you saw, as opposed to things that were added digitally? Like, the dog with the upside-down head – was he really there (without the upside-down head, of course)?
There was a real dog. Her name was Maddy. She didn’t listen at all. She was horrible. The dog wouldn’t move when she was supposed to, or she would just walk away when she wasn’t supposed to. It was kind of scary, though, when the mask would go on her.
So the dog was really wearing a mask?
Yeah, they really put a mask on her. The dog was like, “What is going on here?”
Can you talk about acting with that creepy little kid?
He actually wasn’t creepy at all – he was the cutest little thing. I was on the gurney for the exorcism scene, and Barto [played by Ethan Cutkosky] came up to me and said [excited voice], “Hi! Hi Odette. How’s it going today? I’m really excited about this scene because I get to scare you! I can’t wait for this!” And David would say, “Ethan, when I say action, you have to open your eyes and don’t blink.” He would say, “Okay guys, I’ve got it!” And he would go… [opens her eyes really, really wide – then blinks rapidly].
Did he have to wear contacts too?
He did. I think he got used to it after a little while, but we were both like, “Oh great, we have to put the contacts in again.” It was a joke between us. But he was fantastic – such a little trooper.
You frequently bounce between TV and films. Would you like another TV commitment?
TV is really bittersweet for me because I had such a great experience shooting October Road. I had this great family [on set] and the creators were my mentors. They guide me with everything I do now. I definitely would be interested if it was the right character with a great script, a great pilot. And especially if it was something from the creators of October Road. Anything for them.
Have you seen The Unborn with an audience?
I saw it with about 15 people. But I saw a really rough cut – the music wasn’t done, and they were going to add more scares. But I’m really excited to see it when it comes out. I think I’ll go to the theater, sit in the back, and watch people’s reactions. I hope they like it!
What are some other horror movies that you like?
Rosemary’s Baby. Oh, this movie called Dolls. I was petrified of that movie. I had porcelain dolls growing up, so after I saw that movie, I grabbed a hammer and I took off their heads. My mom freaked out – she said they were expensive. I just said, “They have a brain! I know it!” My mom said, “You are the weirdest kid ever.” I didn’t care. I was probably like eight years old or something. To this day, I cannot look at a porcelain doll the same way. But I love scary movies.