WHITE SETTLERS star Pollyanna McIntosh on the appeal of home invasion horror

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The woman who played The Woman isn’t half as scary as you might think. Potty-mouthed Pollyanna McIntosh is game for a laugh, so much so she’s even directing a comedy next year.

Speaking to Vérité about her role in the new home invasion film, White Settlers out now on DVD and Blu-ray, she told us why she’s uncomfortable with the Scotland-set film being labelled “referendum horror”, her thought process behind playing fear, and what she makes of being thought of as a genre icon.

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Vérité: You terrified audiences in The Woman, here you’re playing the one who’s terrified, which do you prefer?

Pollyanna McIntosh: The Woman will always be a film that’s incredibly close to my heart, it’ll be very hard to top a role and experience like that and I doubt I’ll ever get to play someone quite so animalistic again. But as far as playing good guys or bad guys, I wouldn’t just say it’s better to be playing the one bringing the scares. I just did a short called The Herd, in which I played the villain doing loads of horrible things, and while I’m very proud to be part of the movie, I really hated playing that absolute bitch. She’s not a cartoon villain, she’s someone who knows exactly what she’s doing but just swallows it down and gets on with the job. That’s so realistic to me of the everyday cruelty you see in the real world and the fucked up behaviour we’re all capable of, so I definitely preferred being Sarah in White Settlers to being her.

So while The Woman was far from easy to play, it was easier for you mentally to disassociate from her behaviour because she’s less recognisably human?

Yeah, I see her as the hero! I know that’s crackers ‘cause she’s doing awful things, but as a primitive, she’s sees herself very simply; a survivor with every right to defend herself. There was a lot of power and strength to it, and from that, a lot of comfort in playing the role despite what she goes through. Being terrified as Sarah in White Settlers was exhausting but a new experience, and that’s mainly what I look for.

Outside of The Woman, you’re becoming generally well regarded for horror, with White Settlers and Let Us Prey at Grimmfest recently. Did you ever envisage being so involved with the genre?

I’m surprised by it. If you at my whole body of work, there’s more drama or comedy than there have been horrors, but I feel like the horror community and press is so strong that those films just get out there more. I also turn down more horrors than I take because I get offered a lot of those now, and while I don’t see myself as a horror person, I have to recognise that right now that’s a strength for me. It’s funny because journalists always ask “What’s your favourite horror movie?” and I have no idea! It’s not my thing, and I don’t watch them ‘cause I’m a complete pussy. But when you get a good script and a strong character, it’s going to be tempting whatever the genre.

Outsiders attempting to integrate themselves into a new, often hostile, environments has long been a plot staple for fright films, from Hammer horror to Peckinpah, why do you think this archetype endures and what made Sarah different in this respect?

I think the reason it’s so enduring is it’s much easier to be frightened if we relate to the character on screen being a normal person in a normal situation under extreme circumstances. The horror has to come from within them rather than a fantasy world of vampires or whatever it might be. For me, home invasion is a very real fear I have. It’s happened to me before, so it’s something that when I read the script, made me unable to put it down. I wanted to see them win and for her to get away and I didn’t know if she would or not. I like Sarah because she’s not your typical victim. She’s in many ways quite unlikable at first, manipulative and needy. I liked the powerplay between her and Ed. I feel like a lot of victim-turned hero characters in movies like this, we never get to know them or see who they are before the shit hits the fan.

White Settlers

We don’t see the home invaders till the halfway point and up till then it’s only you and Lee Williams playing your husband on screen. Is it difficult sustaining that tension and sense of imminant threat with only each other to play off?

I think that Ian Fenton wrote a really tight thriller. It’s all there in the script, and it helps when you have chemistry with the person you’re working with. Lee was amazing in coming on board very last minute, that was brave on his part. We got to play with scenes where the dialogue wasn’t entirely working for us and we got on as friends, so it all happened very naturally. I’m a little bit of an emotional whore, I kind of attach to people very easily when I’m on set, so it wasn’t surprising to me that I saw him as my husband very quickly, but that’s not always the case. For other actors, sometimes they’re a little bit weary of you. But Lee was lots of fun, very relaxed. A good London boy. Plus we both had this awful modelling background around our necks to try and cast off, so we bonded over that too.

Was Lee coming on so last minute of any concern to you?

I wished I woked in the days where films had rehearsal time, but working on mostly independent films as I do, I’m used to having no prep time. I was more worried for the filmmakers, as we were so close to shooting and I still didn’t have a husband. We went out husband-searching and auditioned loads of people. Either we found the right guy and the timing was wrong or we couldn’t find the right guy. Simeon (Halligan, director) was very committed to finding someone who was a bit of a man-child whilst also seeming tough. A football-loving, laddish type of guy, but someone who you would believe would settle down and get married and who Sarah would be in love with. That was hard to find and thank God for Lee. He probably wasn’t the Ed people had in mind. ‘cause he’s not robustly blokey-looking, but I thought that fitted really well, especially because Sarah turns out to be the stronger of the two.

There’s lots of your character observing her attackers from a hiding placing with many, many close-ups on your face. As an actor do you plan ahead and modulate your fear so you’re not giving the same reactions?

I do actually. I’m very aware of how this all might piece together in a way the audience wouldn’t be bored with; “Okay, Sarah’s afraid again”, we get it, y’know? I hopefully succeeded in modulating it, so that it remains interesting. She’s a nervy person by nature, yet in other ways very confident, and what I wanted was you to think she was going to be this wimp – something she would expect too – but when the occasion called for it, she actually turns her very capable mind on, which is how she functions in everything else in her life. I didn’t want her falling apart from the start or have her letting her breath out too much, and hopefully there are moments where it pitches up to a point where you feel she can deal with this threat.

Most of the film takes place over the night from hell for this couple, what was it like doing so many night shoots or did you do an equal amount of day for night shooting?

Mostly it was night shoots because a lot of it is outdoors. Stuff inside the house was shot during the day and the picnic scene that didn’t really end up as a picnic, just a shag, but you know what I mean.

They skipped straight to desert.

Exactly. So night shoots are always rough. Your body clock gets all fucked up, but I knew that going in, and honestly it helps with the atmosphere and your performance. I’m sure the crew didn’t love it, but it helped me!

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What was the toughest scene for you and how did you creatively solve it?

I don’t think I did solve it actually. There’s one scene that really bothers me. It’s when we go into the barn and Ed’s tied up and I end up smashing that guy in the face. It wasn’t planned or in the script that I did it like that, it was a last minute improv, and if I’d known, I would have planned it to show her falling apart a bit more after that point. She’s basically just killed somebody and there’s this awful moment where I’m going “Get the keys, get the keys, they’re in his pocket” and I’m clearly not in the state of mind of a person who’s just killed for the first time. It’s a mistake on my part and it annoys me ‘cause I just look kind of knackered! The other bit was the five foot male stuntman playing me running across the roof which I wasn’t allowed to do. I’m watching this guy running like a girl and thinking to myself “I don’t run like that!” It’s a lesson in humility because I was wrong and it totally worked. He did a great job and you completely buy it.

Taking place as it does in Scotland, what did you make of the film’s unforeseen topicality, and it being referred to as the first ‘referendum horror’?

I don’t think it’s an essay on Scottish-English relations and shouldn’t be taken with any political seriousness. It’s about the haves and have-nots and people going into a culture they don’t understand, taking advantage of someone else’s loss and whether or not they understand what they’re responsible for. The villains in this film aren’t the masked men, it’s the bank, human greed and the society that allowed this all to play out in the way that it did. For me as a Scot, I was all for independence, yet I still think it’s a fun ride and a valid set-up for a piece of entertainment. I didn’t expect anyone to take it seriously as a political statement and when it was dubbed as the first ‘referendum horror’, I balked at it and felt a bit ill. It’s misleading and unhelpful to the cause, but of course, people are smarter than you give them credit for. I had a couple of people giving me shit on Twitter, but that’s Twitter isn’t it? What really made me laugh was that Scottish cinemas wouldn’t show it before the referendum because they felt it could be incendiary. They said they wouldn’t even show Bravehart at a time like this, but of course there weren’t riots in the streets or the English citizens being rooted out and it wouldn’t have happened even if we had become independent. Most people appreciate Scotland for the international place that it is with all sorts living there, English included. But it’s so hard getting a film noticed already, if this angle helps, then good luck to them.

I liked that at no point do the villains state their reasons for wanting the couple gone. There’s no speechifying. 

They actually have more dialogue now than they did in the script, which I prefer along with the facelessness. It’s more mysterious that way, and guys in masks are really scary to me. I like the ambiguity of just how awful these people actually are. We could have upped the ante and had them do truly terrible things to Ed and Sarah, and there was talk of that when we were doing some pick-ups, which I was very against. It would have made the misinterpreted Scottish thing even worse and taken away the ambiguity of their actions, which is part of what makes it terrifying.

White-Settlers

The fact that they’re wearing pig masks, we see a pig early on and that there are pig ornaments in the house, what’s your reading of that?

It helps early on in letting you know the masked men might be connected to that house and that they might be farmers. The three little piggies ornament in the house makes you think about Ed and Sarah possibly being the big bad wolf, coming in and taking their house away. The masked guys being the poorer element, it makes you question if they’ve already been treated like animals before any violence occurs. We also wanted it that the masks weren’t too designed. Those are masks you can pick up online for stag parties and stuff. It’s more about amenity than psycho killers. It’s not Michael Myers, it’s real guys.

What do you have coming up next?

A British movie in December called Its Walls Were Blood. Steve Oram from Sightseers is playing my husband. It’s directed by Paul Davis who did a short with me and Reece Shearsmith called Him Indoors which was very funny.  We’ll see more of that here with a couple of cameos from some really big British actors but I can’t say who. It’s a portmanteau and then one wrap-around in a Hammer horror style, and I get to play a very glamorous, dark, cruel character.

I know you also write your own material. Are you cooking up anything totally removed from horror?

Yes I am. I’ve got a film called Perfect that I’m on the last week of deadline with the current draft. I’m directing it next year. It’s a comedy about a stoner perfectionist comedienne learning that she doesn’t need to be perfect. I’m doing a lot of stand-up right now to know how that feels and shitting myself on an almost daily basis. It’s more terrifying than any horror, going on stage!

First published by Vérité Film Magazine on October 22, 2014

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