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November 23, 2020

Body Swaps, High School and Serial Killers: Kathryn Newton and Vince Vaughn on "Freaky"


The Maroon sat down with Kathryn Newton and Vince Vaughn to discuss their new film, "Freaky."

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The Maroon sat down with Kathryn Newton and Vince Vaughn to discuss their new film, Freaky. Also conducting the interview were The Duke Chronicle, The Battalion, Red and Black, The Daily Illini, The Famuan, Her Campus, The Daily Bruin, The Daily Californian, and Aspect.  

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Duke Chronicle: One of the things that I enjoyed the most was that balance of comedy and horror in a way that almost [reminded me of] Scream. What do you think were some of the challenges of finding that balance between not being too cheesy, but being both comedic and still having those horror elements? 

Kathryn Newton: The number one thing I took away—I got a lot of this from Vince—was to really play the reality of the scene. Keep it as grounded as possible because then it's funnier. Everything happens because it's the way it's written. So for me, it was all on the page. Like the scene where I'm in my costume as the beaver, my high school mascot, that inherently is hilarious. That made that whole situation comedic. Then the rest, you just have to be really scared or get into the reality of it. And when you have such good actors like Misha [Osherovich] and Celeste [O’Connor] as well, everyone being as real as possible created that balance. 

Vince Vaughn: Having Chris Landon as a director…it's hard to balance. It’s hard to do one genre well, let alone put both under a roof. So I think Chris has done well, and obviously with Happy Death Day and it being a [Blumhouse Productions movie], you felt confident that the filmmakers involved would do a good job of balancing those things. Kathryn’s right, the more grounded you are and [the more] that you buy into the performances, the setting, and that the reality is real, it helps you laugh. And the kills are just cool. [Landon has] got some really fun imaginative kills in the movie.

The Texas A&M Battalion: You both embody two characters, one man and one woman, for one movie. I'm thinking about the scene in which [Millie] says, “I felt empowered when she was in a male body,” while Kathryn as the Butcher changed Millie's whole look to radiate confidence and a different sort of “red lip” way. How did playing within the concept of gender allow you to learn about the different strengths of any identity? 

KN: I hear what you're saying about changing your gender and your identity, but the truth is, Millie is the same through and through. So, when she sees herself from another perspective, it's less about what she looks like. She looks at herself, and it's the first time she's seeing herself and the power that she can have. 

And for me just growing up, I look [at pictures of myself] in eighth grade, look at my outfits, and go, “What are you doing? Who are you?” But that's just who I am. I'm the same person, but I just look at myself with a lot of more love. I'm like, “I didn't realize how cool I was, but that kid was great.” That's what the movie is about: really seeing who you are and celebrating it. Because that's your power. It is who you are and the gifts that you were given. 

VV: I agree. What's interesting in the movie is that it's odd that the movie does a good job of setting up Millie going through situations with people that are harsh on her. So, when she [is inhabited by] the serial killer, it's weird that you're sort of rooting for the serial killer in her body in some situations, which is very unique. 

And [as far as what Kathryn said], I do think life is about accepting who you are ultimately and becoming comfortable with that. That’s something empowering. I like, where Millie’s concerned, [that] she’s kind of nervous to share her dreams with her mom. [While in the serial killer’s body], she gets to hear a mom's perspective in a conversation they probably wouldn't have. So, I think it's about being comfortable with who you are and owning it, versus becoming someone else necessarily. 

The University of Georgia Red and Black: Obviously, you guys both portrayed two very different individuals, so what was the character development like for each character? And did you guys work together on finding the identities and the mannerisms of each? 

VV: Yeah, for sure, it was really unique to have someone to build out the characters with. Kathryn was terrific and had great ideas. We both had done a lot of preparation, and then when we met, we rehearsed and both worked emotionally and physically and found common threads between the characters. It was a blast to do it with her. 

KN: I had no idea how to play a serial killer and did not know what Chris Landon was thinking. But he said that he saw a killer in me and that he thought I could do it. You just have to trust in that. I didn't know that Vince was going to have so many brilliant ideas because you just don't have any expectations. All three of us really created these characters together, starting with talking about their backstories, which led to how they might carry themselves or walk. With that kind of support, you felt like you could do anything. And then on the day, you just had to be ready to change and kind of just take a lot of risks.

The Daily Illini: For a pretty good portion of the movie, you both are playing characters of the other's age. Were [there] challenges for each of you trying to portray a character of a completely different generation than yourself? 

KN: I didn't even think about that…but I [also] did. Inherently, there were scenes where the Butcher was in a situation with teenagers where they were taking selfies, and I wanted to make sure he looked like he didn't know what was going on or that he was even being photographed. 

Or if I'm taking my phone out with my dad, he doesn't even know how to use the camera. It's so annoying that my mom will never lock her phone. Isn’t that just the most annoying thing? Why won't she just click the button and lock it? 

But also, the Butcher is really smart. There are moments like the transition between being the Butcher, but then the Butcher being a teenage girl, where I wanted to show what a grown up person might think a teenage girl might act like. So, it was kind of like another layer of the Butcher being a man within a man thinking he's a girl. What would he do? That went into the outfit and everything. That is inherently something I did, [but] I didn't even think about it. 

VV: For me, I straddled both. I mean, I still feel very much like a grown up obviously with the career that we do. I'm always playing make-believe and exploring things and having fun. I am guilty of what Kathryn suggests, though, that [with] technology I'm not the savviest. My nine-year-old daughter will help me on occasion with how to unlock things or do things. 

But as far as mindset…I think as a performer, you understand the aspects of people. What’s fun about Millie as someone who's got a lot of great qualities, who's just not giving herself all the permission to follow what she's wanting to do, [is that] she’s…try[ing] not to disappoint a parent; listen to the calling that she has; and [find] that ability to own what…she wants to be doing, and not worry about hurting her mom as much as being true to herself. 

That part was easier for me. The Butcher was much more challenging in some ways, lacking any empathy. It was fun to play that because it's always exciting to play different sides of human nature. I don't know if the Butcher is probably good with cell phones. Probably not? I would imagine he would, but he is so smart. He might actually have some good ideas about how to handle technology. 

The Famuan: How has your role in Freaky differed from your previous horror film experiences in Paranormal Activity for Kathryn and Psycho for Vince? 

KN:  In Paranormal Activity 4, I learned how to tell a story with your eyes, and that's it. In horror films, the audience is ahead of either the victim or the killer, or [knows] what's going to happen. When you're in scenes like this one, there's a lot of those moments where the Butcher and the audience are in on things together. And I was pretty aware of that because it's just the natural thing that happens in a horror film. So, I learned how to be really still on Paranormal Activity, and I tried to take that over. I had Chris Landon and Jason Blum on that movie too, so I knew that it was going to be in the same family. I just trusted that they knew what they were doing. And they do. I just did whatever they said. 

VV: The [Psycho] remake with Gus [Van Sant] was interesting. I always like Gus as a filmmaker, so I was more about working with him. And that was a very different kind of thing, where some days we would kind of find the scenes ourselves, and other days, it was about matching what the other actors did. 

[Freaky] was great because you were getting to build your own character with someone else. It's always more fun to organically [come up] with a character and [create] a backstory and physicality. Then on [production] day, you show up and listen and react to the other actors. We had terrific actors in this movie to be present with. Doing two characters in one film and building it with another actor was very unique, but also a lot of fun. 

KN: There were also a lot more laughs on this one than other horror films. Horror films are fun, because you're always trying to lighten up the mood, but on this one felt like…[just being] on set with Vince and Misha and Celeste. Because most of the time I was just by myself killing people. It was just fun to improvise, be in the moment, and find what was going to work and what was going to happen. 

The Daily Bruin: Chris Landon [mentioned that he] went back to the 2009 horror film Jennifer’s Body when writing Freaky. So I wanted to ask Kathryn how she sees Millie's character fitting in alongside other existing and iconic women in slasher and horror. 

KN: Jennifer's Body is one of my favorite horror films. I did an interview and we talked about Jennifer’s Body, and I realized the similarities between Needy, Amanda [Seyfried]'s character, and Millie. And then Jennifer is like the Butcher in a way. You see this transition. 

But I think that they're also really different. I love Freaky Friday, [and] I love Friday the 13th. But this movie just was so different to me because it just kills all those tropes and clichés that you see in those movies. You think you're going to have the final girl. These things never stay the way they seem. 

The Daily Californian: One of my favorite parts of the movie was [Vaughn’s] portrayal of Millie. I feel like it would have been very easy to just play that for various simple laughs about how silly it is to be a teenage girl. But a lot of your scenes as Millie were very earnest. What did you draw on? Did you do any research or work as an actor to make sure that your character didn't come off as one-note? 

VV: I appreciate that. It was really my intention to build [Millie] as a real character. I didn't watch any other performances because I really wanted to take an authentic journey of creating this character and having an emotional depth. When I was in those scenes with my mom or Booker, the boy that [Millie has] a crush on, I was really just present as the character, listening, and able to feel what was going on. 

When you're doing something that's a body switch, you…[lend yourself] to the audience. The more you're grounded, emotionally available, and honest, [the more] it helps the audience buy the stuff that's more elaborate or out of the box. 

[It was just putting myself] in those experiences—having a crush on somebody, being afraid of being rejected, being both excited and afraid, being with a mother whom you love—but you're scared to say all [those things] because you don't want to hurt them or disappoint them. But then [you get] to hear [the other person’s] point of view in a way that you may not have. You're having this conversation that you never would have gotten as yourself. 

I really did try to approach Millie as an honest character in a way with Kathryn. And I think [Kathryn] does such a lovely job walking through those experiences that we can relate to [such as] the teacher taking a little too much fun and being cruel or being a kid in school. When you're older, you can realize you were probably hurting, but when you're young and people treat you like that, it feels so personal. 

The Chicago Maroon: We see Millie become empowered after being inside the body of the Butcher. Similarly, the Butcher himself in their final confrontation has some words for her about her life and gender, but we don't get to see his learning experience throughout the film nearly as much as we do Millie's. What do you think the Butcher learned from inhabiting Millie's body? 

KN: How powerful a teenage girl is! For sure. I guess that's what I think he learned. I think as soon as he switches back, he's like, “I had so much more fun as a teenage girl.” I just think that's what it is, in a very surface level way. 

VV: Yeah, the Butcher is a predator, so he is the extreme of someone who is looking to prey on people’s self-doubt or weakness. Probably, there's a history where [that] was done to him, or an experience of growing from something in a constructive way, dealing with those feelings in a really horrifying way. [That’s] what makes him so scary. He probably wanted to stay in Millie because it made his opportunities to hurt people greater because he could get close to them. 

Sadly, he is acutely attempting to find any way he can to destroy somebody. I think that's a lesson for everyone in life. Sometimes, when people are saying things to you that feel very personal, they're actually just looking for buttons to push to see if they can get you to doubt yourself. It's not that they're right; they're just that type of energy that's looking to get you to be self-destructive. Are you listening to your own voice and self-love? Or are you giving the power to someone else who's only saying what they're saying because they want to have a negative impact on you? 

Her Campus: If you saw this movie while you were in high school, how do you think it would have changed your perspective on being a teenager or the high school experience? 

KN: I wish I was in high school when I saw this movie, because it feels like a good reflection of the times that we're in. And [because] I see myself in the movie. I think I'm like Millie. I was not bullied like her, but we all have things in high school that really make you tough or break your heart. I just wanted to fit in. I didn't have that many friends. But I was also on my Academic Decathlon team and captain of my golf team. I really think that this movie is just how we talk. It's the truth of who we are right now. And so, to see that on screen, it's just a fun way to see who we are right now. 

VV: For everyone in high school, what happens is your world is so much smaller, and so things feel [impactful.] I think you [college students] know that your world expands. Now, some of the things that happened in high school seem not as permanent…The misleading thing of high school is, whether you're a jock, or whether you're nerdier, or whatever label or category, there's more in common than not. Everyone in that stage is trying to figure out who they are and feel safe socially. 

So I think that the oddity is that more people are connected than one realizes in that experience. It's not like anyone is questioning following their own dreams or learning to be okay with who they are. There's a lot of peer pressure not to be who you are in high school…and you have to learn that lesson sometimes of not feeling good about listening to other people. And sometimes you only learn those things by making those mistakes. And as we get older, hopefully, we all get more comfortable being ourselves and caring less what people think. 

VV: Don't you feel like you're getting that way as you get older, hopefully? 

KN: Absolutely. I think it's really important to stay on your path of growing up. When I was in high school, I wanted to try to be like everybody else, desperately. I wanted to be friends with everyone, and I wanted everyone to like me. But then I never got to do what I wanted. And then you sacrifice who you are for other people. And no one else is going to do that. No one does that. It's important to have friends and to care about people, but it's also important to accomplish your goals. So in high school, I think you have to learn those lessons, because it just makes you who you are. So I'm thankful for not fitting in, because I still don't, and I don't think I ever will. 

VV: I think [with] a real friend, you have to have honesty and loyalty; you have to trust them. But a real friend lets you be who you are. 

A real friend doesn't try to make you something you're not, whether that's in a romantic relationship or just in a friendship relationship. A real friend doesn't try to make you be someone that you're not. If they're trying to make you someone you're not, that is probably someone who's not a real friend, but [someone] trying to get you to fit into what they need. 

KN: Misha and Celeste are best friends in this movie because they’re like, “Millie, we’re gonna make you ‘you’ again. We’re going to come back to you. You need friends who help you stay you.” 

Aspect Journal: Kathryn, you've mentioned before that you don't really watch horror movies, but you've been in like a lot of properties like Paranormal Activity, Supernatural, and now Freaky. What makes starring in horror more fun than watching horror? 

KN: That's a difficult question because I do love watching horror films. The thing is my eyes are closed the whole time. Growing up, it's what I used to do with my friends, and I was such a scaredy cat. You know, even like Halloween Horror Nights. I just can't do it. But I like the experience of that. I like the memory of that with my friends. They can make fun of me when I spill popcorn all over myself. 

But making horror films—it's just a different kind of movie. I really like telling a story differently, and it's also fun when you're on set to get scared. On Paranormal Activity, they had this giant bass drum that they didn't tell me about. One day I was in the scene, like how I am with you, because everything was shot like this. And then there was this giant drum that scared me really bad. So, there's things on a horror film that you don't get on other movies. You laugh a lot more than you think. 

VV: I have a question for you guys. From your perspective, what was it about the movie [that made it] unique from other films in this genre? 

CM: I think it intersects the comedic and the horror really well. It does a really good job balancing those two commitments, whether it's the slasher scenes or the scenes with Millie and her friends where you get heartfelt interactions. That's really unique. You don't get that in many horror experiences. 

DC: I think it's a good reflection of what it's like to be in high school now or like anytime within the past five years. Just that social scene and having your gay best friend swiping through Tinder or Grindr and finding some 50-year-old man on there. And a lot of the slang used is almost like a parody, but it's still accurate. I think for high school students seeing this now and even for me—I just graduated from high school two years ago—I thought it was funny to see that 2010s high school experience on screen. 

The Famuan: I [liked] the inclusiveness of Millie's two best friends. I thought that was a good ode that is not addressed [in a lot of horror films], but in a lot of high school dramas like Riverdale

The Battalion: I also love the intentionality of the film. It's very self-aware. Director Chris Landon has made a name for himself by marrying beloved tropes and terror, and he pulled a Groundhog Day with Happy Death Day. And now we have this innovative “Freaky Friday the 13th.” Do you have any ideas for other tropes that can be explored within the context of the slasher genre? 

KN: I haven't [given that much thought]. I just have never seen a movie where you like the killer. You want the killer to do well. That was probably my favorite thing. And I think that could even be pushed further in a film. 

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November 23, 2020