If all actors and actresses were as sweet and forthcoming as Liv Tyler, this would be the easiest job in the world. Alas…
What’s not easy is watching someone as gosh-darned nice as Ms. Tyler get terrorized and hacked at with axes for ninety minutes, which is one of the reasons Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers is such an effective little horror film. Tyler plays Kristen McKay, the longtime girlfriend of Scott Speedman’s James Hoyt. When the film opens, the couple are on their way out of town to a house in the country – and they’re not terribly happy about it. As the narrative unfolds, we find out that James proposed to Kristen earlier in the evening, and… she didn’t exactly say “Yes”. As for “Why?”, who knows? Bertino’s film isn’t about “Whys”. For the first ten or fifteen minutes, The Strangers is about regret. Then, after an unexpected knock at the door at four in the morning, it’s about survival.
For the characters, that is. For the audience, it’s about pure, visceral terror, which Bertino delivers early and unremittingly. And if it’s rough on your nerves, imagine how brutal it was on Tyler’s body and psyche. Remember Bertino’s comments about evoking the aesthetic of 1970s horror? It sounds like he brought that stripped-down, unforgiving philosophy to his treatment of the actors.
Naturally, Liv had a blast.
Q: I know Bryan’s screenplay had a bit of heat when it initially made the rounds. Were you aware of this when you read it?
Liv Tyler: No, I wasn’t. I didn’t know what it was about. I was going through a stack of scripts, and picked up one that said “The Strangers“. I didn’t know if it was a comedy or a drama or what. (Laughs) So I picked it up, and I was just blown away. I was really taken with the story. It’s a rare thing that happens to an actor, where you get a script and you say, “I just have to play this part.” It wasn’t until after the fact that I heard from a few friends [who are actors] that they really loved the script, and that they still think of it every time they go to their house in the country. (Laughs) I’m kind of a nerd. I’m not very social. I just kind of stay home with my son all the time and work a lot; I’m not really up on what’s hot in Hollywood. I probably should be better at that.
Q: No, no, no. That’s very commendable.
Tyler: I know that now. Thanks for telling me. (Laughs)
Q: (Laughing) You mentioned that people reacted so strongly to this script. There’s a universality to this predicament. I think everyone’s been alone in a creepy house in a secluded area, where you start hearing noises and your imagination gets the best of you. When you began developing your character, did you have any scenarios like that to draw on?
Tyler: I’m a bit of a scaredy cat. I grew up in Maine in the country, and I remember being a kid and hearing the house creak and wondering if there was something in the room. I was also a little bit obsessed with horror movies when I was a kid, so I was sort of familiar with that feeling in a way. I think what makes [The Strangers] so scary is that it’s not a ghost. It’s not something supernatural. It’s a real human being with a mask on who wants to kill them. That’s terrifying, and I really didn’t know how to play that. I’ve never really been scared that much before. So Bryan tried to create a real environment for us, and this was something he specified to us all the time: it was real, it was very bleak, it was very silent, and it was basically pure emotion. And to get in that headspace, we couldn’t really be playing by the numbers or laughing about it. And he could tell if we weren’t really there.
Q: Silence is one of the most captivating elements of the film – especially the space between the characters. Bryan had mentioned that your early scenes were really about paring down the dialogue, and that you and Scott were almost improvising by subtracting. Why say it if you can convey it with a glance or a nod?
Tyler: I’ve always been a big fan of that. I just did [The Incredible Hulk] with Ed Norton, and he would say, “God, I’ve never met an actor in my life who tries to take away more dialogue. You should’ve been a silent film star!” (Laughs) I think things are sometimes are so well written on the page, but then when you’re there and doing it… it’s too forced or it’s just too much, and you can say so much more with a look or a sound or a silence or a pause. Sometimes you just have to throw all of that away and see what happens.
Q: There is something there between you and Scott. Did you have much of a rehearsal period or, at least, a little time to get to know each other?
Tyler: Not really. But that’s what drew me to the script when I read it the first time. There was so much to it. The relationship between these characters… I mean, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s not in the final cut that we shot, where they’re alone in the house in the midst of all that. The way [the film] opens up, the first time you see them, they’re already upset and they’ve already been through so much. You can just feel and sense their chemistry and their history without explaining everything. That’s something I really like about the story. You never know why she said “No” to him. I think there’s something very real and very human to that; nowadays, we want answers for everything in movies. They test screen everything so much, and if someone in the audience has a question, they answer that question. But one of my favorite things about cinema is having that discussion after the movie where there are questions. I like it when things are left up to interpretation, and you can discuss things with friends. And maybe when you see it the next time, you’ll discover clues or other things that lead you to another conclusion.
Q: It’s about respecting the audience.
Tyler: Yeah. Letting them dream a little bit.
Q: But when studios make horror films, they are, for the most part, geared toward teenagers. They have to be a bit more sensational and pitched right down the middle. So I think it’s nice when a film like The Strangers tries to live on the edges a little.
Tyler: But that’s what’s great about Bryan: he wasn’t trying to do anything. He just wrote this story, and it was so authentically what it was. I got that and Scott got that, and we weren’t trying to make the best or scariest movie ever; we were just trying to make this story the best we could. That’s one of the things that makes it so original. Bryan would give us music to listen to, and pictures and photographs [to look through]. It was very important to Bryan that it was a ranch style house, and all the furniture in the house was from this real, authentic world that he had grown up in. That’s what makes it so wonderful and different to me: these aren’t the kinds of things you normally see in a horror movie.
Q: Bryan mentioned that he shot the film in sequence. I know that’s not the norm, but is that preferable for you?
Tyler: Yes. You can get really neurotic about it, but it feels better because you can follow the story in some way and build on the arc of the character. But sometimes that’s not the case, and sometimes that’s for the best; the scene that you might do first on a big movie could actually be the last scene in the movie, and sometimes that works out great. But, of course, shooting in sequence was wonderful, and it was really important in a movie like this. You don’t want to be too over the top. It was really important that the performances were real, and if you’re overreacting to something that’s not that scary… you know, it was nice that we got to build to see what happens when that first knock comes. It was kind of natural.
Q: But I’m also wondering if shooting something like this in sequence can be psychologically wearying, especially since you know where it’s going.
Tyler: Yeah, but that’s what we were there to do. It was not easy in any way, but it was a wonderful challenge and something we all really wanted to do.
Q: Did you get to know Kip, Gemma and Laura [aka The Strangers] all that well? Did you try to keep your distance from them?
Tyler: I worked every single day in almost every scene, so I was mostly with Scott and Bryan. I did get to spend some time with them when we went out to dinner a few times, but they came along halfway through. And we were shooting in this big old warehouse in South Carolina – it wasn’t a studio or anything. They just built this house in the middle of this warehouse, and it was all pitch black unless you were on the set. So I think for people who came to the set, they’d be outside looking at the monitor and hearing the screams and crying and yelling. It was really scary. And I think [The Strangers] wanted to be respectful to us by not coming on the set and laughing and taking off their masks; they wanted to stay hidden from us a little bit.
Q: This is the kind of film where you expect to hear about bumps and bruises being sustained throughout the shoot. How did you hold up?
Tyler: It was hard! I’ve never in my life done anything so physical. I was covered in bumps and bruises and burns and… you name it! I think the hair and makeup people were shocked; they kept taking pictures of my wounds because I’m very fair, so when I bruise it’s, like, crazy purple. But it was good for me to realize that I was a little bit tougher than I thought I was. I’d fall down or hurt myself, and then I’d have to get up, brush myself off and keep going.
Q: More physical than riding a horse and doing all that stuff in Lord of the Rings?
Tyler: There’s no comparison. I’ve never done anything like this before in my life.
Q: How does it feel to have two films coming out within two weeks of each other? It’s like “The Summer of Liv? [I really said that?]
Tyler: When it rains, it pours! I feel kind of embarrassed. I’m not very good at the publicity work part of it; I always get really shy and self-conscious. But it’s weird how they both came out at once. They’re both Universal movies, but we made The Strangers two years ago and suddenly it’s coming out at the same time as The Hulk. I haven’t done [press] in a while; I’ve just been home being a mom. This part of it feels kind of alien to me in a way, and I’m trying to adjust to it all.
Q: You certainly couldn’t have two more different films. Have you seen The Incredible Hulk yet?
Tyler: I haven’t. I just spoke to a journalist on the phone before you who was one of three people invited to spend an afternoon with Louis [Leterrier], and he said he really liked it. So I started asking him questions. (Laughs) I can’t wait to see it, though. It’s amazing with films like that, when there are so many effects involved. Some of those sequences, we were shooting them for a week. There’s a scene where I’m in a cave, and it’s just me and the Hulk and the rain. But it’s really just me alone in the rain. (Laughs)
Q: What about working with Edward Norton on this? Since he had a hand in writing the script, he was obviously personally invested in this.
Tyler: I loved working with Edward. I’d always wanted to work with him. I think we work well together, and complement each other really well. He’s a wonderful writer and an amazing storyteller, and he wrote a really great part for me. He gave me so much to do, and I feel very lucky about that. And getting to work with William Hurt was amazing. That’s what’s so cool about these big action movies: there’s so much at stake, but then there’s this amazing group of actors. A lot of us had never done a movie like this before. I’d probably done more of this kind of thing than anyone else, but it’s a whole different kind of experience making a movie like [The Incredible Hulk].
Q: You think you’ll be playing Betty Ross again?
Tyler: I hope so. That was one of the great pleasures of signing on to do this: getting to work with the same people and play the same character again in another movie. That’s one of the things I really loved about working on Lord of the Rings.
Q: Do you have anything else coming up?
Tyler: Besides everything else I have coming out? (Laughs) No. I worked all year, and I was really worn out after doing The Strangers and The Incredible Hulk back-to-back, so I’ve just been spending a lot of time with my friends since November. Now, I just have to get through all this press stuff, and then I’ll decide what I’m going to do next.
Q: Any thoughts on The Hobbit? Like “Are you going to be in it?”
Tyler: It’s so funny. I got asked about a few things the other day, and I got so misquoted! The internet today is so bonkers. I don’t know much about it, but I’m glad they’re finally going to make it. I just can’t wait to see it.
Q: It’s Guillermo Del Toro working with Peter Jackson on two movies. It’ll be absolutely insane.
Tyler: And because it’s two movies, people are asking me who will be back. I honestly don’t know. You probably know more than I do.
Q: That’s probably true.
Tyler: Maybe you should be my agent.
Q: Oh, I’d be awful. I’d get you in the worst movies. But I won’t misquote you on The Hobbit!
Tyler: (Laughing) Thank you!
The Strangers opens nationwide May 30th. The week after that: no Liv. Then The Incredible Hulk hits on June 13th.