Scream Queen 101: How Maika Monroe channels real fear in films like Watcher

Monroe’s latest horror outing uses Hitchcockian paranoia to tell an all-too-familiar feminist tale

Scream Queen 101: How Maika Monroe channels real fear in films like Watcher
Maika Monroe in Watcher Image: Courtesy IFC Films

The “scream queen” has been a cinematic trope for nigh a century, but as horror filmmaking has evolved, so has the term. One key turning point came when Maika Monroe earned the label of indie scream queen with the one-two punch of The Guest and It Follows, tapping into modern horror’s more thoughtful, challenging, and feminist leanings. Her work down that path continues with Watcher (in theaters everywhere June 3), a tale of paranoia from Zack Ford that is given Hitchcockian thrills by director Chloe Okuno.

Monroe plays Julia, an out-of-work actor who moves to Bucharest with her husband and spends her lonely days halfheartedly attempting to learn Romanian. It isn’t long before her isolation sours into paranoia when she begins to believe that the figure watching her from the window in an apartment across the street is a local serial killer targeting young women. While Julia descends into terror, Watcher teases out its most telling point: no one believes her. As Monroe tells The A.V. Club, it’s a story made all the more chilling for its relatability; part of her job, in this and other horror roles, is to recreate the feelings of danger she herself has experienced—no small feat, but hey, the life of an actor is a strange one.

The A.V. Club: You’ve dabbled in different screen genres, but we have to ask about your horror work. With Watcher, It Follows, The Guest, Greta…I have to ask, are you okay?

Maika Monroe: [Laughing] Honestly, thank you for asking. Yes, I am doing okay. To be totally honest, it’s all sort of by chance. I remember being stuck in New York, one of my best friends was turning maybe 21 and I went to her birthday in New York. I booked a one-way ticket and just figured I’d hang out for a bit, and ended up not even being able to afford a flight home. At that point I was completely broke. But I got a call saying, “You actually ended up booking The Guest.” I had done a couple auditions for that movie. And I was so excited, not only to be, like, finally making some money, but I was a huge fan of [director Adam Wingard].

So anyway, while I’m filming The Guest, I’m sent this very weird script called It Follows. [I was] very unsure about it. But meeting David [Robert Mitchell], the director, I was like, I’m obsessed with him. And then these two movies came out and they just did very well. And especially It Follows, I think came out at a similar time as The Witch and The Babadook. I think there was this real shift and change in genre films and horror. No longer was it just about hot girls and sex and murder and stuff. There was actually substance to the roles and there was a real elegance, you know, going back to Rosemary’s Baby and all these films that were so influential and important and incredible cinema. So since then, yeah, I feel like I’ve been sent, obviously with the success of those films, a lot of genre films. And some I don’t like! But some are really such incredible roles and honestly, I think horror films, genre films are truly some of the most challenging. And I enjoy challenging.

AVC: Are you thinking about how audiences, or even casting directors and filmmakers, perceive you?

MM: You can’t help but think about all that. I feel like I’ve gone through different phases in my career of what was important. Initially, I’m trying to make a living, I’m trying to feed myself and pay my rent. And so for the first three, five years, that was my focus, pretty much just trying to book anything. And I was so incredibly lucky that the first things that I booked were going to festivals and people were paying attention. And so then I was able to kind of enter this next phase of being offered things or having more opportunity to meet directors and audition. And I think in that phase, it was very much about the roles, what roles seemed interesting to me, what seemed challenging. And now I’m entering this phase where I am, more than anything else, probably focused on the filmmaker, up-and-coming filmmakers or filmmakers where I am obsessed with their movies. And so, yes, it is all intentional, but also in this career, I have no idea what I’m going to be sent or what director will stumble across my path. You have no idea. And there’s something quite fun and exciting about that.

AVC: That leads us to Watcher. Why this film, and why now?

MM: I was sent Chloe’s short, called Slut, probably six months before. And I just was absolutely blown away, just with everything about it. It was so specific. I was like, “Man, I’m curious what she will do next.” And then, months down the road I was sent Watcher and read it. I remember seeing her name and recognizing her name and being like, “I hope that this script is good!” And then I read it and related to it immensely, as I hope many people watching the film will. And I thought it was such a brilliant way to tell this tale…her ideas for this film just really spoke to me. I was like, “Man, I’ve got to do this.”

AVC: Let’s talk about that notion of people, particularly women, seeing this film and relating to it. In your creative process or in building this character, are you thinking about this film’s message?

MM: Yeah, it’s absolutely part of the job that I do. I think you can’t help but think about that. It was very interesting. This movie emphasizes the palpable dread [of] navigating the world as a woman. I mean, the amount of times that I’ve been walking down the street and I’ve put the car keys in between my knuckles because it feels like there’s a person that’s following me—it’s just inevitable. And I think the world has kind of created this idea of the woman to be looked at and to be watched. And so, yeah, I think that Chloe did such a brilliant job in bringing that feeling in this film. Watching it, yeah, people will connect with that.

AVC: Is there a process, in performing horror, of replicating the experience of watching a really good horror film? Do you have formative horror film experiences?

MM: Absolutely. I mean, growing up, I was obsessed with horror. I loved horror. I think the reason why people make movies is to feel something. To go to the theaters and feel something. And that’s what’s so fun about horror; it is something you don’t experience on a daily basis, a feeling that you don’t experience every day. I mean, one of my favorite actors of all time, which I’m sure is many people’s, is Jack Nicholson. I just remember being obsessed with him as a kid before I even ever wanted to act, before I even knew that that was a career that you could do. I just remember watching The Shining, just like, “Oh, my God, it’s incredible.” It’s so powerful. So yeah, I definitely find inspiration from movies to help with certain experiences that I’ve never had.

AVC: These are the films that almost teach us what it would be like to be in these extreme circumstances.

MM: Totally. Absolutely.

AVC: And for Watcher, what about Alfred Hitchcock’s influence? Where does he factor into the artistic process for a horror film like this?

MM: Yeah. I think Hitchcock was the start of something new when those movies were coming out. My dad loved showing me all these old films. The Birds probably was the one that has stuck with me the most, and Rear Window. I mean, there’s aspects of that in [Watcher]. But I think what Hitchcock did so brilliantly, and I think what Chloe brings into this, is this slow burn. This very slow kind of build up to this explosion of tension, which I think as an audience member is so fun to watch as it’s coming. You’re brought on this ride, which is just a blast.

AVC: How do you then unwind as an actor?

MM: You have to decompress. It’s also very bizarre, especially for a movie like Watcher where I’m in pretty much every scene. So that’s every day working 12-, 14-hour days. And then all of a sudden there’s nothing. And you’ve been in this character for so long. Yeah, you definitely need time to just kind of disconnect from that world and that space. When I was younger, I would do movies back to back. I’d finish filming and I’d literally fly directly to the next location. And that really is just challenging because then you don’t know—it’s very strange. You don’t live with yourself for whatever amount of time. It’s very interesting.

AVC: So it goes back to, are you okay? Because actors, you have a very tough profession.

MM: Yeah, no, it’s quite strange. A lot of actors can take it too seriously and I think there’s a balance. But also I’ve learned that what an actor has to do on set is very different than anyone else. You have to come in and bare your heart, open up everything. Everyone’s job on set is hard, the crew, everyone. But it is something specific, the actor’s job, that is very different than anyone else. And I have to respect that as well. So, I don’t know, I’m learning a lot. Every project, I feel like I learn a ton about myself and where I work and what helps and what doesn’t.

AVC: What is the biggest lesson or takeaway from this that you’ll bring into future projects?

MM: Oh, man. Taking time when I need it. I think I’ve always felt like, especially with smaller movies, you know, we only have this amount of time to film a scene, which I totally understand and which is true. But sometimes for intense, super intense scenes, or if I’m crying—it will be the best when I am able to perform at my best. And if I need to take three minutes, just, “I need a second, I need to step away,” put my headphones in and listen to music or whatever, it will always be better. I think it’s kind of ingrained to just be like, “Whatever you need! I’ll do this and that.” But also I think there’s an importance to saying, “I just need a second.” With this film I learned that, and Chloe was incredible at creating this environment where she was able to give that.

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