Doctor Sleep: How Rebecca Ferguson Brought Evil to Life

Doctor Sleep's Rebecca Ferguson explains how she approached the role of Rose the Hat in the new Stephen King thriller.

Rebecca Ferguson in Doctor Sleep
Warner Bros. Pictures

In Doctor Sleep, Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson (best known to American audiences as spy Ilsa Faust in the last two Mission: Impossible movies) plays Rose the Hat, the semi-immortal leader of a cabal of psychic vampires that call themselves the True Knot. Rose and the others keep themselves alive, empowered and seemingly ageless by absorbing enhanced life force (or “steam”) from children and young people who are gifted with enormous psychic powers. To get the most out of the “steam,” however, they need to terrify and torture their victims unto death.

In this sinister context, two people enter the True Knot’s orbit: a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran), whose own mental abilities make her a potential motherlode of “steam” for the Knot, and Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor), a recovering alcoholic whose own psychic abilities (the shining”) saved himself and his mother at the Overlook Hotel 40 years earlier.

Yep, Doctor Sleep is the the long-awaited sequel to The Shining. In the hands of screenwriter and director Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House), Doctor Sleep pulls off the amazing feat of transferring King’s novel to the screen while also paying homage to both the book The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film version of it.

In this vein, the movie faithfully brings one of King’s most complex villains to the screen in Rose, with Ferguson giving an extraordinary and arguably movie-stealing performance. Rose is not sympathetic, but she is empathetic in the sense that she is doing what she must to keep her people alive under increasingly difficult circumstances.

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Den of Geek spoke with Ferguson by phone recently about giving this unique monster life on film, walking around the Overlook sets from The Shining that were recreated for this movie, and more, including her upcoming roles in the sci-fi milestone Dune, as well as the directorial debut from Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy.

I read that you started out on this not being a fan of scary movies, but also thinking you’d like to throw yourself into genres you haven’t really done yet. Is that how you approached it?

Rebecca Ferguson: Completely and utterly. I really wanted to venture onto the genre of scaring grownups, because I think that is one of the most difficult things to do, if it’s not made by the startle effect of jumping out. But this is so layered, and it’s really about the challenge of finding different onion layers to this character that made me drawn in and then like her. And then she does the horrible things.

read more: How Doctor Sleep Connects to The Shining

What were your initial impressions of Rose and were you hesitant at all about playing someone who is, like you said, layered but under the surface monstrous?

I was drawn to her because Stephen King writes such brilliant characters, and he explains them so well that she just came to life when I read the book. The script was very true to the book, or as true as it can be. I loved the idea that there was no real history to how old she was, so I took her back to 700 years old, thinking about everything that she’s gone through and asking, “Who is this character?” But the central bit of her, which I love, is that she’s nothing but a loving, caring, kind human being, who just wants to feed and support and love the people she has around her. The evil comes obviously in the consequences of her actions when she needs to feed her loved ones, and it’s a beautiful complex balance.

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What were you more familiar with in terms of The Shining, the movie, the book, or both?

Actually, funnily enough, I’ve read so many of Stephen King’s books, but I hadn’t picked up The Shining. The film was basically what I had. Now I have read it, and he is an incredible, incredible writer, but I also try to not go into analyzing The Shining, because I think The Shining is so brilliant in its own way. I don’t want people to go into this film and have expectations that they’re going to see and feel and experience the same thing that they did so many years ago.

This is a new film with connecting bits of homage, and it’s kind of a linking entity between Kubrick’s film and Stephen King’s writing.

It really is, but in a sense, it’s very much its own standalone story as well.

Oh gosh, completely and utterly. You can see this film without having any information about what The Shining was, and hopefully, it’s still a very good film. It’s just that if you have the history with what The Shining is and the elements…when we walked onto that set when they built the Overlook Hotel, you’re all giggly, and you felt young and you felt excited. And I got to play a character who’d never been there before. It was a very cool experience, bringing back what was and also creating something new.

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Also: we got to ride the tricycle. I mean, you call yourself a Den of Geeks, I’m a bloody geek as well. They built a grownup version of [Danny’s] tricycle, and when we wrapped, we cycled through the entire hotel that we built. When it was my turn, the lights went off and people were running after me with their mobile phones trying to light up the way. All you heard was the carpet and the sound of wood.

Was it odd to step onto those recreated sets that they built for this movie and see the Overlook come back to life the way we had seen it 39 years ago?

I think Mike said it so brilliantly. I heard him say that he was looking at all of us when we walked onto these sets that they built, because all of it was stage work. The hotel doesn’t exist. Everything was in England, I believe, when they shot The Shining, that we created and rebuilt with exactly the same blueprints that we had the rights to from Kubrick’s film. So when we walked through the same environment in a different location, apparently everyone just walked around with little childish smiles on their faces, because they got to revisit an emotion that they had felt 30-something years ago. And it was very individual. We carry something from that film, all of us.

To walk into that grand hall and see that typewriter and all of the pieces of paper, where it says the “dull boy” quote–which by the way I liberated. I stole five of those papers, framed and on my wall. It was incredible, and also such an honor to be able to create your own character in that room.

read more: Inside the new Overlook Hotel in Doctor Sleep

Did you keep Rose’s hat?

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No, I wanted to, but I think there were possible discussions of doing reshoots, or additional shooting, and there was only one hat. There was no replica, but I think that I should get it now.

Did you work with Mike a lot in terms of getting the right mix of charisma and malevolence and seductiveness in Rose’s character?

Yeah, but it wasn’t a question of many takes, because everything was so well prepared and well thought through. We had meetings and conversations. The preparation stage of a character for me is to know that when I walk onto set we both know the character. I might have more secrets and elements that I want to bring as a surprise if I get the time, but we were so well prepared for this film, and Mike was, that I knew what he was after, and I knew what I was after. I knew that I also had the time to throw in curve balls and have fun with it, so it really was such a creative space. There was never a moment of “Oh, my God, am I getting what he wants?” We just nailed it because we were so on top of it.

Is there a noticeable difference when the director is also the writer, like Mike is, and he knows this material so intimately?

I guess the difference is with the sensibility of his writing and the respect… it makes it easier to have the conversation, and the creative freedom as well. And I also knew that he had… not the rights, but he had the support of Mr. King himself, so I knew that when I went to Mike and said, “How about this or this, or this?” I would know that he was free to be able to accept or change, or whatever he wanted to do with the character as well. But yeah, I think there comes a lot of freedom with the idea that he has written the script and also directed it. It makes it easier, the process.

I read that that you went into the scene where Rose feeds on a child thinking, “Oh, we’re just going to do this. We’re all professionals,” but not surprisingly, you came out of it much more affected than you thought you would be.

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Oh, my gosh, I had no idea that could happen to that extent from the moment they yelled action and he started acting, this boy who’s been kidnapped. I just broke down crying, realizing that I would mess up the scene if I don’t shape up. That’s how I felt actually with all of these child actors. I needed to step it up all the time.

We’re going to see you in Dune next year, based on a classic in its field by one of that genre’s most iconic writers. Can you give me a sense of how the film looks and how you approached the role of Lady Jessica?

Large-scale, beautiful imagery, an up-to-date version of a cool strong female character. I’m very lucky with the people I work with.

And then you’re staying in genre, working on Reminiscence with Lisa Joy.

She is seriously cool, and I’m very excited to start my production with her. We’re in prep work right now, as I’m promoting one of Warner Brothers’ films while I’m shooting another one at Warner Brothers Films while I’m talking about a third at Warner Brothers Films. Warner Brothers is where I am apparently.

What would you like people to take away from Doctor Sleep? 

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It’s about death. It’s about recovery. It’s about visiting a place 40 years later with new forces, with new strengths, with new magic and new horror and terror. But I just want people to go in with an open mind and not expect anything, because I think that would be just killing a brilliant film and a brilliant piece of writing by Stephen King.

Doctor Sleep is out in theaters this Friday, Nov. 8.

Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye