Actor (and cinephile) Jack Reynor on his trip to Ari Aster’s Midsommar

by Andrew Parker

Actor Jack Reynor, one of the stars of Ari Aster’s chilling sophomore feature effort Midsommar (in theatres this week), is an unabashed cinephile. Although he’s happy to talk about his work and remarkably down to earth acting process, Reynor is just as eager and enthusiastic to talk about any number of other works that have meant a great deal to him as a performer and continually evolving artist. This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone familiar with the Irish raised and American born actor. His career to date has been an eclectic mixture of prestigious dramas (Macbeth, Detroit, What Richard Did, Glassland, On the Basis of Sex), comedies (A Royal Night Out, Sing Street, Free Fire), and effects driven blockbusters (Transformers: Age of Extinction, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle), and a look at one of his Instagram accounts – which urges followers to engage with and discuss classic works of cinema – suggests someone who loves the medium in every possible form.

He can talk about every type of cinema possible (with a particular love for Japanese filmmakers), but one thing Reynor hadn’t done to date was a horror film.

“I didn’t actually get into horror movies until I was in my twenties,” Reynor admits during a recent trip to Toronto to promote Midsommar. “I was always too scared.” 

Although he shouts out John Carpenter’s The Thing and The Fog, Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, the giallo works of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and Free Fire director Ben Wheatley’s Kill List as some of the most memorable films to ever shock and enthrall him, Reynor remembers the first time he ever watched a scary movie that drew his attention to the craft that went into making it just as much as the story did.

“I think the first horror film that ever really sucked me in was The Omen, the original one,” Reynor says about the movie that opened his eyes to the possibilities of the horror genre. “That was the first time that I really paid attention to the craft and subtext that goes into making the best horror movies. Before that, I had a soft spot in my younger days for some horror movies, but The Omen was one of those films that really showed me what the genre could do.”

Midsommar, writer-director Ari Aster’s follow up to last year’s critical and commercial success Hereditary, is decidedly nothing like The Omen in terms of tone, context, setting, and overall meaning, but it’s certainly the kind of trippy, terrifying experience that one could see a performer as thoughtful and well spoken as Reynor gravitating towards. In Aster’s film, he plays Christian, a grad student in his early twenties who’s on the verge of breaking up with his long term girlfriend, Dani, played by Florence Pugh. Christian drags his heels on dumping her – despite being clearly unhappy and all of his friends begging him to end things – because Dani recently suffered an unfathomable family tragedy that has left her an emotional wreck. Dragging out the inevitable end to the relationship certainly puts a crimp in the plans of Christian and his mates, as they planned to take a trip to a remote Swedish village with a friend to partake in a traditional midsommar solstice ceremony. Dani tags along to the chagrin of Christian and his buddies, but the American travellers will ultimately have bigger problems to face, gradually realizing that the festivities are a lot stranger and deadlier than they expected.

Midsommar, like many of the films Reynor personally gravitates towards as a student and fan of the cinema, is a slow burning thriller where a great deal of the backstory is told through Aster’s stunning, sun drenched visuals and elaborate set designs. It’s a hard film to get a feel for by just reading it on the page, and Reynor is tasked with playing a tourist that’s ignorant when it comes to understanding the local customs in play, so a great deal of understanding what Aster was attempting with Midsommar came from sitting down with his director and discussing influences and tones.

“When I first read the script, Hereditary hadn’t been released yet, so I hadn’t seen it,” Reynor begins when discussing the steps that led to Midsommar’s creation. “I read this script, and I thought that this was going to be an incredibly ambitious film. It was going to be challenging for an audience, and it feels like it could be a definitive break-up movie. But it wasn’t until I watched Ari’s short films when I could see in my mind how this was going to potentially play out on a visual level. I could tell he was a very unique, skilled, and cultured filmmaker, even from his short films. Then when I sat down with him, we got to talking, and we’re both cinephiles. I’m real lover of Japanese cinema in particular, and I felt like we had a common admiration for directors like Masaki Kobayashi, Nagisa Oshima, and Akira Kurosawa, obviously, but also other directors like Bergman and Ken Russell. We were often talking about filmmakers whose work was very visually oriented. Ari spoke to me about the vision for this film in the context of some of those references. I don’t think that the film is a knitting together of all of these. I don’t think this is a tapestry woven together out of references to the works of those filmmakers. I think this exists very much on its own and is Ari’s unique vision, but I do think that the film operates in a similar space to those filmmakers, which was a great starting point for me to see how this was going to come together.”

“The beauty that exists in the film doesn’t translate to the written word on the page. Ari doesn’t write visual direction and references in the script. Reading the script, you just think, ‘Oh, my fucking god, this is a hundred and fifty pages of pure toxicity.’ That was interesting in itself, and that was what made me want to go back over his shorts and learn who this guy was and what he was trying to make. There’s a bit of description in the script, but it’s only when you sit down and talk to Ari that you hear how he plans to execute his vision. Even when I looked over his shot list, I could see how he was going to take this material that feels so toxic and emotionally draining and difficult and turn it into something palatable and engaging for audiences through visual language and film grammar.”

Reynor admits that helping Aster achieve the overall look of Midsommar was probably the most challenging aspect of making the film. While the material itself – which has been described by most people who see it as more of a “break-up” movie than an outright horror film – posed its own set of emotional challenges, the physical act of being on set (which was actually in Hungary and not Sweden, due to budgetary constraints) under unique conditions took a great deal of dedication and patience on the part of everyone involved.

“For me, as an actor going into that, having that understanding of how he was going to try and achieve the visual aspects of the film was really encouraging,” Reynor says about the cast was somewhat able to prepare for the rigors of making Midsommar, a film that had roughly the same budget as Aster’s previous feature, but with a lot more ambitious visual and storytelling elements. “I thought it could be this very special thing. When we arrived in Hungary, and we were dealing with the tribulation of having three different languages on set – and only two people who could speak all three – and not to mention the issues of continuity that came from setting so much of the movie in sunlight, and a heap of other things that I could talk about all day when it comes to the difficulties of shooting a film like this, I knew from those early talks that we had that it was all going to be worth it. It was going to be worth the frustrations that you sometimes feel when making something this ambitious, and we all had this patience and understanding that we were doing things so we could have this beautiful visual spectacle. The cinematography is so refined; lots of long takes, wide angles, and so many moving pieces that it’s hard to keep track of it all. You just looked around at this world that was being created by everyone involved, and it always felt special.”

“A lot of the scenes where these large scale dinners were happening were very, very difficult for us, for a multitude of reasons,” Reynor remarks when asked about the most difficult sequences in a film chock full of elaborate cinematic movements and images. “Those tables we sat at were actually mirrors, and it was boiling hot every day to begin with, but it was just direct sunlight and the reflection of it coming at you from multiple different directions. And you have to keep your eyes open, and even trying to not squint was a massive challenge for us. The heat was already uncomfortable, and the food that was out on the tables wasn’t preserved or props or sprayed with glycerine in any way, so it was rapidly deteriorating. There were maggots everywhere all the time. There were way too many wasps. There was a swarm of wasps for the entire shoot, and on that dinner table the drinking glasses were basically just filled with sugary water. At any given moment, you could have three wasps crawling on your skin, and you’d just have to pretend you were okay with wasps. There was no real way to fix it. I didn’t get any stings, thankfully, but some people did.”

Florence Pugh (left) and Jack Reynor (right) as Dani and Christian in Midsommar.

Aster has described Midsommar in many different ways. It’s a personal film based on his own experiences with less-than-ideal and codependent relationships (which is somewhat similar to his equally personal Hereditary), but also a fantasy, a revenge thriller, a female empowerment narrative, and even as a playful take on the traditional slasher thriller where a bunch of unsuspecting young people get picked off one by one. Reynor agrees with his filmmaker that Midsommar is all of those things, but one place where they have a difference of opinion is when it comes to talking about Christian’s role in the overall narrative. Aster remains emphatic that if Midsommar has an actual villain, Christian is the nastiest character of all. Reynor, while recognizing that his character is certainly antagonistic, disagrees, noting that there’s a lot of depth to Christian that’s far more complicated and true to life.

“Whenever I’m working on a film as an actor, I’m usually trying to draw from my personal experiences and from what’s going on in the society around the character, and not usually from other films,” he begins when taking a deep dive into how he framed and moulded Christian as a character. “In this instance, we’re dealing with a character that’s the antagonist, and I think the use of the term ‘villain’ in the context of this film isn’t right. To be a villain, you have to be setting about the work of causing harm to someone else. What makes you a villain is that intent to do harm. You can be an antagonist, however, through being ignorant and insensitive and lacking in empathy. I think there’s a distinction between being an antagonist and a villain. My character is very much an antagonist, but there’s so much in the character that I can relate to, and I think everyone can, really. It was more of a case of drawing on my own experiences in relationships, and not just romantic relationships, but also the demands of friends and family. Sometimes we come up short when people need us, and that was kind of where I rooted the character.”

“I can only speak to my own experience in that, but there is never really a moment with these characters – except for two of the supporting characters – where they have that ‘They’re trying to kill us and we need to get the fuck out of here’ revelation. They’re going along with this until people start disappearing. Up until the point where the ensemble has almost completely dissolved, we’re able to perform from the personal experiences we’ve had with dysfunctional relationships and people. My character goes from being this archetypical alpha male with a group of like minded friends that could support his image, and it dissolves around him almost without notice. All of the structures that have made him into the person he was are dissolving before he even has a chance to realize it. He’s on the road to being exposed towards a frightening future. It flips that type of alpha male character on its head, which I loved because you don’t really see that in cinema very much, especially in films dealing with younger adults. It’s definitely time to do that, though, and as an actor I knew it was an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often. It’s tough to occupy that mental space for weeks at a time. He’s in an unsafe environment, on a bad trip, and surrounded by people being hostile towards him, and it was difficult.”

Midsommar revolves primarily around the crumbling relationship between Christian and Dani, but the toxicity of Reynor’s character extends to the friendships he maintains. While on the trip, Christian metaphorically stabs one of his closest allies and friends (William Jackson Harper) in the back academically because he’s too lazy to come up with any original ideas of his own. He also repeatedly rebuffs the advice and criticisms levied against him by his boorish, but bluntly honest best friend (Will Poulter). Midsommar isn’t about a single broken relationship fostered by Christian, but three of them, and the actor and his castmates were all willing and wanting to put in some extra time and effort to make sure that these partnerships felt realistically lived in and crumbling.

“There was about a week before shooting where we could all get together, sit around a table, and have long conversations about these characters and how they related to others in the real world. We talked a lot about why these relationships were all dysfunctional, and that was helpful. One afternoon, Ari, Florence, and I sat down and decided to do a little bit of an improv exercise where we designated Ari as a relationship counselor, and we spent an hour in a counselling session with him. That was really informative, and it really opened up the relationship for me. I really feel that having the time to have those kinds of conversations and to do that kind of improvisational exercise before shooting can make or break a film. It’s so rare these days to have an opportunity to do that, but if it can be done, it can turn out to be vital, especially when you want to have authenticity in the relationships of the film.”

(left to right) Florence Pugh; Jack Reynor; William Jackson Harper; and Will Poulter as the weary, wary American travellers (not in period garb) in Ari Aster’s Midsommar.

Midsommar certainly pushed Reynor in ways he’d never thought of previously as an actor, and a big reason for that was the personal nature of the material. To better understand where Aster was coming from, Pugh and Reynor had to get inside the head of their director. It’s something that Reynor didn’t take lightly, saying that the process of finding his character wasn’t something he approached with a great deal of caution and care.

“All of us had to get inside Ari’s head and experience what toxic relationships are like from his perspective. We had to create and articulate his vision from the inside, which is incredibly demanding. It’s a dangerous thing to be that far inside someone’s personal feelings about toxicity, and it can be potentially very compromising. That doesn’t extend only to Ari, but to any filmmaker you work with. Some filmmakers use that was a tool to exploit actors and performances to force things out of them, and I’ve witnessed that. That’s not the case with Ari, but that practice does exist. But this particularly intense film about such a fraught subject was a case where I realized very quickly – particularly coming off the back of a six month shoot of a television series where I was practically in every frame – that it was going to be a project where we had to exercise peak mental health every day. If I didn’t do that and Florence didn’t do that, we were going to suffer as a result of it.” 

“You’ll know from reading what Alex Wolff said about working on Hereditary that it was a heavy experience where he needed some decompression time afterwards. It’s a difficult thing to process the emotions demanded by the film and essentially walk away from yourself to do it. It was imperative to me that I was sleeping at least eight hours a night, that I was cooking for myself, that I was going to the gym everyday, and that I was kind to myself. I made sure I wasn’t sitting down and watching television during all my down time. I was always reading books and making sure that I was stimulating my mind. I would allow myself those moments to detach myself from the character and the project. Without that, I think you’re getting into dangerous, dangerous territory. Having done that almost selfishly on Midsommar, I’ve brought it onto other projects that I’ve been working on since, and I feel like I’m in such a good place when it comes to my work. I’m almost like a monk with how I work now.”

The process of making something as emotionally demanding as Midsommar has given Reynor a chance to reflect on his art, particularly since he recently completed production on his first short film as a writer-director, Bainne, which stars his close friend and co-star Poulter (in their fourth collaboration as peers), and is set to debut this month at the Galway Film Fleadh. When asked if he could let an actor into his head as a filmmaker in a similar way to him trying to get inside Aster’s head for Midsommar, Reynor’s response is as resounding, profound, and reasoned as any writer, director, or performer twice or three times his age.

“I think it depends on what you’re making,” he says when asked what Midsommar taught him about the process of directing actors. “If I was directing as something that was as personal to me as this is to Ari – like something about my family or one of my relationships – I would definitely urge them to go a little deeper, but I would encourage responsibility from my actors. I would tell them that you need to be on top of this, but you also need to look after yourself and practice self-care while you’re doing it. I don’t subscribe to the idea of a person throwing themselves into something and just letting it overwhelm them to a point where they basically becomes some sort of a fuckin’ conduit for whatever awful thing it is that they’re trying to exhibit or perform. I don’t think it’s necessary, and in a lot of cases it can hurt a project and a performance. Plus, it’s just bad for you as a human being.”

Midsommar opens in theatres everywhere on Wednesday, July 3, 2019.

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