The Saudi Arabian-born Australian actress Ashleigh Cummings is unfamiliar with the term “Rorshach test.”
“A what, sir?” she asks when the phrase is brought up to describe her new AMC horror series NOS4A2. Despite hearing the technical phrase for the first time, Cummings fully appreciates that NOS4A2 will be an inkblot test for many viewers. The series, based on a Joe Hill book of the same name, follows Cummings’ character Vic McQueen, a young New Englander who discovers she has potentially supernatural abilities. Those abilities will come in hand to track down and defeat the vampiric Charlie Manx and his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith.
“I found through this genre, you kind of get drawn into these emotional, kind of larger picture things about parenting, about loss of innocence, about the political climate, about human psychology, about… gosh, everything.”
We spoke with Cummings at the 2019 TCA winter press tour about Vic McQueen’s big heart, NOS4A2 as an inkblot test, and what it’s like to work with the old, decrepit version of Zachary Quinto.
DEN OF GEEK: What drew you to the show in this role?
ASHLEIGH CUMMINGS: Well, you know, initially when you get the breakdown for the auditions there’s not a lot of information. So I only had a couple of pages of sides. I didn’t know, I couldn’t really judge on the script but I went to the source material and Joe Hill’s book is just so rich with metaphor and complex characters and interesting psychology and so that was the initial kind of draw and then as soon as I started reading script and talking to Jami and just understanding her vision, I was so excited about the project. I think what really, it was in the complexity of Vic’s character and the multitude of layers of themes and metaphor that excited me the most.
What do you like about Vic McQueen?
I love that we are seeing a heroine that is a little more developed, I feel, than what we’ve been subject to lately. It’s been really amazing to see this rise of films portraying strong female characters, but what I think sometimes is missing, which we can kind of develop further is, an embracing of the feminine energy. I think Vic is a perfect embodiment of the strength, the ferocity, and the courage that we typically see in our female heroines, but also her strongest muscle is her heart.
Her superpowers are her creativity, her intuition, her emotion, her vulnerability and I think that fusion of typically masculine and typically feminine energies is something that’s really important to see in the world. I think if we practice that daily interactions in our policy making and everything. I think the world could be a little better place. So I think she just embodied something that I really believe in.
Interesting. I’m kind of glad you mentioned her emotional vulnerability because she is a strong female character, but she’s also literally a kid. I’m just wondering what it’s like to find the space to portray an individual who’s heroic but also still very young.
I feel so honored that I got the chance to play it and I think one of the biggest joys about it was not actually knowing exactly where I was going to go. We had a vision, but we’re all kind of finding the character and finding the story as we went along and how to tell it. And I think that’s what Vic’s going through as well and I wonder if it makes a difference if whether you’re a child or an adult.
When you’re faced with confronting your fears, your demons, do you always feel like a child anyway? Whenever you’re facing something new, you do go back to those beginning stages of walking again. I feel like life is constantly about us finding our way and kind of being children and acquiring wisdom and knowledge through it. But yeah, it’s a really interesting question.
I mean I still feel like a kid.
Don’t we all! I mean I think that’s part of the thing is that, one of the things that I loved about the stories and the characters is that a lot of, the way that they became, the way that they were defined was because they were children and how they were nurtured as children, or not nurtured. Yeah, I think the concept of children is very present in these stories.
What is it like to interact with Charlie Manx the character and Zachary Quinto the actor?
Oh gosh, I mean Zach is just a dream to work with. Sometimes it’s hard for me to stay present because I’m so fascinated by him as an actor. I look at him and how he’s able to physically transform himself. Not just the makeup but his physicality, his vocal qualities, it’s just really astonishing to watch. But then there are other times when it’s, it’s genuinely scary and I don’t have to act too much because it’s right in front of me and there wasn’t a lot that was done in post-production. The makeup team was just phenomenal.
So, it was genuinely terrifying to come close to that. I really felt like I was facing a monster. And then there would be times where Zach would drive me to set and he would be in his stage five look which is the oldest look with his Apple ear pods and his like modern car and his Adidas clothes that it was very confusing. But yeah, it was scary.
I believe it. It’s funny you mention Zach in his modern car. He has a very non-modern car in the show that plays a huge role. Is it like, what’s it like interacting with a prop or a part of the set that’s so crucial and important to this story you’re telling?
I mean it feels like a character. It is a character in a sense. The engine is his heartbeat, essentially. I remember the first time I saw it and I was kind of taken aback by how large it was and just knowing what the vehicle meant, what it housed, where it transported people to is quite scary and it does feel like you’re interacting with another actor in a way. And sometimes it was a little hilarious to see a man in a green suit driving it. That was pretty funny, but yeah. They have the fishing wire and stuff to make the door open but you, as an actor you don’t often see the fishing wire so it really does feel like it’s opening. Yeah. It’s pretty cool.
What were your impressions of the story when you read it? What did you take away from it and, I don’t know? How did that help inform your performance and what did you think of the book?
I think the thing that was most astonishing to me was that even though it was a horror book and it had these supernatural elements, emotionally I was deeply affected by it and I think what Joe Hill and Jami have done really well is, they’ve done what story tellers do best and they create meaning and metaphor through a narrative lens. I found through this genre as well, which has been really compelling and engaging, you kind of get drawn into these emotional, kind of larger picture things about parenting, about loss of innocence, about the political climate, about human psychology, about… gosh, everything.
I mean every time I talk to someone about the story it means something different to them. I think that’s the genius of Joe Hill’s book. And that Jami has done adapting it, it is so many things at once. But yeah, that was the thing I took away most from it was that I, ’cause I don’t typically read horror, but it didn’t feel like a horror book to me though a moment there I was really confronted by it but, it wasn’t supernatural for the sake of whimsical eye candy and it wasn’t horror for shock factor. It was deeply grounded in emotional meaning and larger truths and questioning of what is to be human and good and evil and such.
Cool. I think horror kind of does tend to be like a Rorschach test for some people.
A what, sir?
A Rorschach test like that-
Yeah, Rorschach. It’s like the ink blot test-
Like you look at it and you’ve got to see what you want to see.
Yes! Yes. What’s it called? Ror…
What is it like to now be a part of essentially the horror royal family. You’re in a Joe Hill project.
You know, I haven’t thought about it in that sense I suppose. I think making the show, like any storytelling, it just has to be grounded in emotional truth. Well, for my job anyway. And so, yeah, I haven’t looked at it so much in that broader scope. I feel so excited and honored that I’ve been included in that family, because I have so much respect for what they do and how they do it. So yeah. I hope they embrace me.
What are you most excited for people to see in this season?
I think, I’m most excited for people to witness the uniqueness of this show. I think it’s a really clever fusion of genres. I think that there is that horror element, but there’s also a really gritty family drama, and then there’s elements of supernatural stuff. So I’m really excited for people to tackle these important issues about identity and the nature of good and evil and so on in a really interesting and unique lens.