Wunmi Mosaku feels that the intimate set of Remi Weekes’ His House, a dark thriller that centers on the haunting reality of a Sudanese refugee couple settling into an unwelcoming English town, was necessary and immersive. “We talk a lot about refugees and asylum seekers, but we don’t hear from them,” Mosaku told The A.V. Club. “We get numbers and politics and newspapers telling us how they got here. They’re not talking about the individual stories of how they suffered where they were from, how they suffered on the way to here, and how they continue to suffer in their place of refuge.” For her character, Rial, and her character’s husband, Bol (Sope Dirisu), their suffering is the product of both anti-immigrant sentiments and their turbulent escape from an embattled South Sudan, which led to the loss of their daughter. It’s a story that countless refugees already know by heart, translated in images of waterlogged monsters and a decrepit haunted house for those who aren’t intimately knowledgeable of that experience.
If anyone understand the communicative and transformative powers of the genre it’s Mosaku, who has made her mark in some of the most effective horror of the year. Both His House and HBO’s Lovecraft Country creatively reflect Black experiences across the diaspora, employing metaphorical imagery—all unsettling and effective in equal measure—to illustrate communal trauma. Days before both the film’s Netflix premiere and Lovecraft Country’s season finale, Mosaku shared how working on these projects have irrevocably changed her relationship with her own trauma and what attracted her to His House even as a “scaredy cat.”
The A.V. Club: A fun fact that we recently learned about you is that you aren’t that big of a fan of horror. In fact, you once said that you consider yourself a “scaredy cat.” And yet, you’ve worked within some of the most resonant works within the genre today, including Lovecraft Country and now Remi Weekes’ His House. What made you brave the genre in order to participate in this film?
Wunmi Mosaku: As a storyteller, I just want to tell good stories. The fear, the horror—that is a vehicle for a good story and it works; it’s not just fear for fear’s sake. It really is a perfect vehicle for exploring social issues and cultural oppression. That fear that you feel in the safety of your home when you’re watching a horror film is just an iota of the real, true fear that these characters are facing in worse situations, whether they’re being bullied by a cop in Lovecraft Country or if they’re a refugee journeying into the unknown. So I was completely enthralled by the story. It never really quite hit me that I’d have to watch it myself [Laughs.], but I really, truly believe the characters and the scenarios playing out on the page, and I just wanted to be a part of it.
AVC: Rial is such a well-rounded lead. Because of both her strength in a terrifying atmosphere and her vulnerability in relation to her daughter’s death, she defies a lot of the tropes that are saddled on women in horror, especially Black female characters. Did you get to help shape her character at all?
WM: I would say it’s all there on the page, because I felt her so strongly. Remi has this way about him: Even though he wrote the script, he has this kind of humility. He just lets the story be the thing that is his vehicle rather than his ego. So he would push and pull me in different directions in the scene and we would find so many new avenues and kinks that he didn’t see when he was writing it and I didn’t see when I was reading it. Just a note as simple as “what if she was feeling emboldened rather than scared right now” took her in such a different direction and shined a whole new bright light into another realm of Rial. It was a rearing together of Rial and Bol. He’s very meticulous, but he does it without pride.
AVC: Rial and Bol represent two familiar, opposing modes of thought when it comes to assimilation. Where Rial is desperate to get back to the metaphorical ocean, find her presumably dead daughter and reconnect with her roots, Bol is very desperate to find peace by blending in with the community—so much so that he’s willing to become Rial’s oppressor just to keep her there. Was there a moment where you felt some connection with Bol’s side of things?
WM: I understood Bol 100%. I get that desperation to feel like “one of the good ones.” Up until this year, I never spoke about racial injustice as I had experienced it. I had never really done that because I had always wanted to be seen as happy, happy, happy. Like Bol, I realized that you’re actually just complying with the oppression, that dishonesty to yourself is also oppression. So I totally empathize with Bol.
For me, part of the beauty of it is that both are coming to peace with the truth, which is that this is who they are now. They can’t pretend anymore. He can’t pretend and neither can she go home. The only way to survive is to live, be haunted forever, and confront those things that haunt you. You can’t run away from yourself and as much as we try, we just have to be honest, as uncomfortable and painful as that is. I’m honoring who I am and the trauma I’ve been through by recognizing it verbally, emotionally, and not pretending everything’s okay. And now I’m truly loving myself by not being preoccupied with the outside world and what they think of me and what we need of me.
AVC: Both Lovecraft Country and His House dig deeply into community-wide trauma, and I imagine that being so immersed in both of these projects can be emotionally draining. What helps you maintain your energy in order to deliver such standout performances in the midst of all of these heavy stories?
WM: It has been emotionally draining, even through press junkets, because you have to keep talking about the trauma that we go through and your process through that in order to get to that character. People who know me would think I was really sociable—and I am, but I really need peace, quiet, and silence at home. The TV doesn’t really go on in our house very often because I need that quiet for it all to seep out and process my thoughts and emotions. I didn’t realize how much I was going to change by playing Ruby Baptiste or Rial. I didn’t realize how much it was going to affect me and change me as a person.
And this whole process, especially doing ten weeks of press and having to constantly talk about it, is almost like therapy. When you take on a role like Ruby or Rial in projects like Lovecraft Country or His House, the social commentary is so urgent. I understood it when I was reading it, but I forgot that I was going to have to be the spokesperson for it afterwards.
AVC: What do you hope the Netflix audience gets from His House?
WM: I just hope for empathy, understanding, kindness and generosity. People are living with gaping wounds emotionally, spiritually, and physically. They just need a place to heal and live and hope. I really wish that “us and them” is a phrase that will die out one day. I just think now more than ever we all deserve the right to dream and live and fulfill and flourish. We all deserve that, none of us deserves it more than the other.
AVC: The parting shot, where Bol and Rial are standing in their living room packed with the spirit of so many refugees, really sends that particular message home.
WM: Yes. It’s needed, and I’m not being silent anymore.