Faces Down a Monster
by Jay S. Jacobs
It’s quite an impressive and scary achievement, a twelve-year-old boy, appearing in only his second film, gets the starring role. His character is the main thrust of the movie, and on screen almost the entirety of the film. It is based on a critically acclaimed best-selling young adult novel. His role is significantly bigger than the supporting roles by genuine movie stars like Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver.
However, this is the place where young Scottish actor Lewis MacDougall found himself a couple of years ago, when director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) and the makers of the film A Monster Calls chose him from a pool of over 1,000 boys who were considered for the part. MacDougall only had one supporting film role to his name – he played Peter’s best friend in Joe Wright’s Pan – so it was quite an ambitious choice.
MacDougall plays Conor, a morose Irish student who is trying to come to terms with his life, in which he is regularly bullied in school. His mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of breast cancer, but no one will tell young Conor what is happening. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is a rather cold, distant woman, who is dealing with her own pain and unable to comfort the boy.
One night, as he struggles to sleep, Lewis looks out his window and sees a giant monster (played by Liam Neeson through motion-capture CGI), formed from earth and a giant yew tree down the valley. The monster starts coming on different nights to tell Conor three stories, insisting after his three stories Conor must tell him a story. He may be real or imagined, but it turns out that the monster helps the boy to come to terms with his fears and what is happening in his life.
It would be a difficult role for a veteran thespian to play, but even more impressive for such a young man, early in his career. He certainly impressed his famous co-star Liam Neeson, who portrayed the monster of the title.
“[MacDougall] embarrasses Shakespeare’s Hamlet with the range of stuff he has there,” Neeson gushed about the young Scottish actor. “Really remarkable…. And it wasn’t a performance. There was no acting. Certainly not when I was with him…. Terrific what that kid does…. He makes it real. There’s not an ounce of sentiment…. I can’t praise that boy enough.”
Now MacDougall is fourteen, and his film is entering theaters with critical buzz. MacDougall also has two more films in the can, Boundaries with Christopher Plummer and Vera Farmiga and The Belly of the Whale with Pat Shortt and Michael Smiley.
A week or so before the release of A Monster Calls, we were able to sit down with MacDougall in the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York for this exclusive one-on-one interview.
You had mentioned you were not familiar with the book until you were up for the role…
When I was asked to do the audition, I went and got the book. I read it before I got the role.
What was it about the story that intrigued you?
I think the fact that a lot of people can relate to Conor’s story. Whether they be a child or an adult, they were sad and suffered a loss in their life, so they could really relate to that. I also thought it could help people, especially those going through grief.
This is your second film and your first lead. You’re on screen pretty much the whole time. What was it like to carry such a big project so early in your career?
Yeah, as you said this is only my second film. When I did the audition I was excited, but also a bit nervous, for the reason that you said. It is really early in my career and I’m taking on such a big role, which deals with a dark and emotional theme.
From what I hear, the book is a bit darker than the movie.
I would say that the movie does the book good justice in that way. If you talk to Patrick [Ness, the author of the book and the screenplay adaptation], he’ll tell you how when he first was going to make the film, people suggested to maybe soften it. I think that’s really something that we don’t want. No, I don’t think the book is necessarily darker than the film. I think the film does the book justice in that sense.
How much of the character did you take from the book and how much came out while acting?
Obviously, this character has already been established in the book. As a whole everybody wanted to do the book justice. So, I did take a lot from the book. I read the book a couple of times. I read it even after I filmed the movie. I read it again. I definitely did take a lot of the character from the book, because there is that whole character there, ready. I just needed to embody that.
[Director] J.A. Bayona says you were one of 1,000 boys considered. He said he finally realized when it was down to five people that you got it, you were playing the role with a barely checked rage behind the sorrow. What was the auditioning process like?
I joined the whole process really late, actually. It went on for a while before I was involved. Auditions, (chuckles) they can be quite nerve-wracking. I guess I really just did what felt right emotionally. I thought this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to try to do this. I did what I felt was right.
So much of the movie is about the loss of a loved one and processing grief. You said in the other room that your mother died about a year before you made A Monster Calls. I’m so sorry to hear that. Was that something that made you connect with this character?
Yeah, I suppose. I mean, the thing of it is, it’s two completely different circumstances. I can understand the basic feeling, but the circumstances are completely different. Conor’s not being told the truth at all. That wasn’t the case for me. I think that’s really what Conor is struggling with: not being told the truth of what was going on with his mother. He has this thought in his mind about it. He feels guilty because of that. Really it’s that. Something I talked about with Patrick and the director before we shot was that Conor wanted to be punished, especially with the bullying scenes. He wants to be punished. He feels like he deserves it, because of what he’s thinking. Really that’s not the case. That shouldn’t be the case at all. I suppose that’s really what the monster is trying to teach him – among other things – that it’s okay to think things like that. Don’t be hard on yourself because of it.
Did you ever have dreams of monsters?
Well, when I was younger, I guess like any child I had stuff like the monster underneath my bed. I really think this monster that Conor encounters is different to what a lot of people [had]. The term monster is really something that doesn’t necessarily have to be scary and horrible. For Conor it’s this spirit that came to help him encounter and face his biggest fear.
One thing I loved in the picture was, it was subtle, but in the family pictures all over there was a picture of Liam Neeson as your grandfather. That sort of made me think, oh, okay, that suggests another entirely different idea about what the monster was to Conor. Do you think the monster is almost a mixture of his beliefs, and his mother, and grandfather?
That thing with Liam being [the grandfather] …, obviously as you see in the movie, Conor’s grandfather has died before Conor ever had a chance to meet him. So, yes, Liam Neeson is that character in the photos. You know, I haven’t really read too much into that. People, I guess, can read a lot into it and say that the monster represents his grandfather and stuff like that, but I’m not really sure if that is the case. I suppose really the monster represents to me not so much Conor’s grandfather, but more of a grandfatherly kind of figure. Somebody who can really teach Conor about life. This monster sprung from a yew tree, and yew trees can last for hundreds of years. He represents someone who has had a lot of experience about life and tries to pass it on to Conor.
Patrick said in the book there was a character that unfortunately had to be cut from the movie, a girl who was Conor’s best friend. In school, Conor had a miserable experience, no friends and getting pushed around. The movie takes a hard look at bullying, which is such an important topic in today’s world. Why do you think bullying is such a concern these days?
It’s not that people are getting bullied more today than they were in the past, it’s just that people are actually starting to combat it. It’s an important thing to make people aware that this is going on. Make people aware and have them coming to help. Like I said, the thing that really attracted me to the film in the first place is how it can help people who are not just children, but also adults who have suffered bereavement or are being bullied.
Liam was saying this was his first time working with motion capture. He said at first it was weird in the onesie with ping pong balls all over him and you across the room so he couldn’t even see you. Was it strange for you acting in that way?
The thing is, it was weird, because obviously I haven’t done motion capture. That’s something I shared with him, because he hadn’t either. Yeah, it was a strange experience, but it was also a good one, because it gave me the opportunity to rehearse the scenes with a real person, and take that on to set.
Why do you think only Conor and apparently your mother could see the monster?
Are you talking about the ending, the book and the artwork that you may think are from the mother? Well, I think that could be interpreted differently by a lot of people. I guess, if you look at it… I’ve heard people say this and it made me think this myself: the mother talks about how she lost her father. The grandfather, obviously I’ve talked about him already. I don’t know whether maybe she saw this monster as well, to try and help her with that and now Conor is seeing it in the situation with her. I sort of maybe interpreted that she got help from the monster when she was suffering with the loss of her father.
Felicity is such a great actress, but she’s playing a woman who is fading away. How hard was it to see Felicity made up in some of the scenes where her illness was progressing?
The great thing the film does, it really shows the whole process of Felicity’s character, the mother, getting sicker and sicker. They really show that well: with the prosthetics and stuff [it shows] she didn’t have long. The relationship between Conor and his mother is really a non-traditional relationship. It’s like a brother and sister relationship, or even like they are both best friends. That’s probably because the mother had Conor at a relatively young age. She – along with the father – were probably too young really to be parents. That’s something that’s probably one of the reasons why the father is no longer there. With Felicity, to replicate the two characters being so close, we had bonding sessions. The day before we had to shoot, we went to the zoo together. Just me and her. We had a day there. We also went to a theme park and went out for dinner a couple of times, really just to get comfortable with each other and replicate the relationship the mother and son had.
The character of your grandmother, played by Sigourney Weaver, is a little distant and cold for much of the film, but as it goes on the two of you do grow together. What was she like to work with?
Just like the relationships with the actors who played the bullies in the film, I had a really good relationship with Sigourney off-screen. That’s important to keep in mind. A lot of people maybe concentrate on what Conor’s going through, and that is very important. But you’ve also got to look at what is happening to the grandmother, because she is losing her only daughter. That must be an unimaginable thing to go through. Working with her was really, really a privilege. Just down to the way she treated everyone with respect, and as her equal. That’s something I really admired about her, and I also try to do myself.
Obviously Sigourney and Liam have done so many movies. How familiar were you with their careers when you started working with them?
Yeah, I was definitely familiar with them.
Were you a little star struck to be working with these people you’d been seeing in big movies for so long?
At first, yeah, I probably was a bit star struck, but they were really such terrific and great people and I am honored that I got the opportunity to work with both of them.
Had you seen either of J.A. Bayona’s films before signing on?
I’d seen The Impossible. He does such great work – and you see it in The Orphanage as well – with children. He’s really good at working with children, bringing the best out in them, I suppose. The work he did with Tom Holland in The Impossible [was amazing]. Tom Holland is somebody I really admire. I was fortunate enough to get to meet him. So, yeah, I did look at J.A.’s previous films. You can definitely see similarities, in terms of the relationships. They’re all very family-oriented.
You have two other movies coming out. What can you tell us about them?
Earlier this year I did a film called Boundaries with Vera Farmiga and Christopher Plummer, directed by Shana Feste. That tells the story of me and my grandfather, who is played by Christopher Plummer. He’s kicked out of the nursing home and we go on a road trip down the west coast of America. When he was younger, he was a criminal and he ends up getting me involved in that. I just finished a film in Ireland called The Belly of the Whale. That tells the story of my character and [an actor] called Pat Shortt, his character Ronald. We are two misfits that are brought together and end up having to rob an arcade.
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 6, 2017.
Photos 1-4 ©2016 Jay S. Jacobs. All Rights Reserved.
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