The basic premise behind the horror film The Boy is that children and dolls are inherently terrifying. This point was confirmed last week when I interviewed the movie’s lead—Lauren Cohan (Maggie from The Walking Dead)—over Skype and noticed, in the backdrop, a porcelain boy doll sitting idly, watching us.
Apparently, it’s just a “prop,” but how do we really know that? Either way, such was the scenery for our interview, as Cohan broke down some of the deeper elements in The Boy and what makes kids and dolls so creepy. On the face, The Boy is the story of an American nanny named Greta (Cohan) hired by a British couple who thinks their dead son Brahms is alive as a porcelain doll. The parents cope with their loss by treating the doll as a real figure and requesting that Greta do the same. Under her care and custody, all the emotional aspects of coping with loss begin to materialize. And whether Greta thinks the doll is real or not, there’s a legitimate fear of the unknown.
While the trailer does its job of spooking you, what’s not so immediately transparent are all these psychological elements at play, a mark of many of the best horror films. Here’s Jezebel’s brief chat with Cohan about her role.
Jezebel: Before this movie, I intentionally hadn’t watched a horror movie in years. I thought this one had major psychological elements—themes of motherhood and abandonment, surrogacy, protection... Which did you find the most fascinating?
Lauren Cohan: I found the motherhood and the sort of domestic violence themes the most upsetting. That was, to me, the emotional core of her journey. I completely feel you on the horror movie theme. I mean, the irony of me doing horror the way that I do when I can’t even watch horror. I’m so easily jumped. It felt like there was just a really rich story in the film and it got to be in the context of a horror movie, so it was great to see how she goes from point A to point B and where she ends up in the film. This isn’t a girl who’s like, now you have a badass chick who overcomes this thing. It was more like she doesn’t know if she’s making the right decision and she’s kind of running away from something and I think that there was a lot of scrambling for her sanity and the hard trip for her in the film. That’s what I connected to and, as well, there just being these twists in the movie that I didn’t see coming when I read the script. I wash like, “Oh, no way!” I felt like it was done really differently. We had a doll that was not your typical horror film doll. It had a true emotional backstory to this family and why there was such an odd set-up to it. So I found it a very sympathetic and odd and unique tale.
What was your emotional response when you read the plot? It’s a horror movie where the real horror is kind of the idea of coping with loss and ignoring reality.
Yeah, that’s such a good point. She, as well as the parents in the film, the Hilshires, are both burying their heads in the sand to some degree. When she gets to the house, it’s a really strange situation, but we realize she doesn’t have a whole lot of other choices and it’s really only by letting herself be completely absorbed that she feels safe and okay. And as we understand it in the film, too, there are these rules that the doll dictates as to how he should be taken care of, and it’s only when she abides by this stuff that she feels protected and safe and everything. So that brings up this huge question of what sort of game is this playing and how do you define safety for yourself and how does she sort of create her own safety.
Yeah, you mentioned the doll, which is behind you right now scaring me. Why do you think dolls are so creepy? I guess they’re images of us and we play with them and kind of pretend they’re real.
I think girls, boys, kids growing up, I didn’t play with dolls that much when I was younger, but cousins and stuff had them and I played with dolls at their house. I just remember it has as much life force as you give it. And that’s what happens for me in this film—I believed that he was real and it gave me an environment that I could sort of control and that Greta in the movie can control and this element of control. And imposing this order is sort of the theme that I thought was creepy and interesting and I connected to in the film. But I think that they are made in our likeness, and it’s sort of taken for granted that they’ll never do anything with all the information they have of being in your life and being a witness to you and when you’re naked or when you’re in your kitchen or when you’re talking to yourself. So the idea that that trust is violated is another part that’s just sort of, just creepy. [Laughs]
There’s a humor that you bring to the role. How did you handle adding that comic relief?
I think the comic relief is necessary in there because it’s so tense. It builds up for such a period of time. But I found it funny. I really found the script funny. What’s the first thing you do when you think that something’s absurd? You check in with somebody else and you’re like, “This is so crazy.” And then the person doesn’t check in with you and that’s sort of the first thing. Like, there was this great Ted Talk about the necessity of laughter and how laughter is a way of not finding something funny but making a sound that lets somebody know that you’re understood. And it’s a great one. That was one of the disturbing things in the film, is that she then tries to connect with these people with humor and they just don’t bite and she’s like, hmm. I think that you lose your sense of identity and your sense of self when you don’t have a humorous connection.
Right, the parents are like, at one point, “Be a good little boy...” And “sit up straight.” There’s also this idea of a replacement parent or a replacement child. Did you find those elements in there? It’s this whole surrogacy thing.
Very much so, and I think as we see in there that I don’t want to speak too much to yet, but she needs the order that’s in this house with the rules, as well as needing the emotional connection with this doll. There’s definitely a scar there for Greta and so she wants to play house and she wants to play mother with this doll, however strange that is. There are a lot of instances of this. Actually, it was funny in exploring even when we were looking for the doll to have in the film, there are a lot of websites that sell children’s dolls. A lot of the time, it’s people who have lost children who look for coping mechanisms and that’s a much bigger topic than we can get into on the Skype chat. But it’s not so strange when you really think about what people have gone through. There’s a lot of stuff that’s touched on in the midst of this big horror flick.
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