How Carmen Ejogo Helped Build a Personal Apocalypse in It Comes at Night

Carmen Ejogo explains the unique freedom actors had to build their own nihilistic corner of hell in It Comes at Night.

For an ensemble piece about family and the pains it can endure, Carmen Ejogo’s Sarah is more than just the mother of an endangered den in It Comes at Night; she’s the key that makes these people blood relatives. So she has the most to lose whenever any of it spills.

When the film begins, an unseen apocalypse has been muddled through for an unknown amount of time, but it’s certainly taken its toll on Ejogo and everyone left that matters in her life. Secluded and surviving in her presumable childhood home, a house deep in the woods, the picture opens on Sarah saying goodbye to her father Bud (David Pendleton), a man suffering from a mysterious plague that has caused blisters to crop up on his face and body. His grandson Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and son-in-law Paul (Joel Edgerton) reluctantly take the former patriarch out into the woods… and euthanize him in his grave.

For Sarah, it is all downhill from there as an enigmatic family with young parents (Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough) ends up staying with them. She isn’t sure if she can trust them or anyone else who isn’t kin these days. But with already one loss in the family, she isn’t eager to see another member vanish.

When Den of Geek sat down with Ejogo earlier this week, the foreboding nihilism of this film hung heavy around the conversation. After all, director Trey Edward Shults cited the medieval painting “The Triumph of Death” as one key inspiration, and the loss of a parent as the other. Ejogo is aware of the interpersonal horror in this epic world—and how unique of an opportunity it was for her and her co-stars to build that world simply through their acting choices.

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In our conversation with the Selma actress, we veer from discussing how she, Edgerton, and Harrison had the freedom to conjure this reality and emotion, as well as what it means to her and our seemingly darkening world. But there is light too since we also discuss whether we might see Ejogo again in a Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them sequel!

So you’ve been in horror movies before, but none quite like this. Could you talk about what you might’ve expected the script to be and how you reacted upon reading it?

So I got the script, thought it was really interesting, but didn’t have a sense of who the director was given he had only made one film. So I went to that film, which is called Krisha. It was immediately obvious to me that this was somebody who had a very clear sense of self as a director and a filmmaker, and whatever he did next would be potentially really powerful. So I guess it was a combination of script and seeing his material that made me sign on, and then it just got better and better. I was like, “Who else is probably going to be cast?” Hearing about how he was going to approach lighting in the movie and the very unorthodox attempt at bringing on a sound supervisor who was going to be pretty radical in some ways.

So there were so many reasons to be excited. Because the things that are the most hard to come by in this business are original ideas that are then executed the way they are intended, which is what I think was the promise of this from the start.

How much of yourself do you look for in the subject? Because despite being such an apocalyptic setting, the film is dealing with very primordial concerns about mortality and losses within one’s family.

Good question. I think often as an actor you read material and you don’t even realize fully why you’re responding until maybe afterwards, maybe never. That was probably the case for me. I know it was the case for Kelvin. I didn’t know until today that he had gone through in some form or another Hurricane Katrina.

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So he lost a home. He was only 12-years-old at the time, but that’s the kind of memory that I imagine stays with you the rest of your life. So it’s bound to inform the kind of professional choices you make too. So I don’t doubt that there are experiences I had, if I thought about it, that would keep me interested and pull me back to this sort of genre world, and this sort of darker, nihilistic kind of space we inhabit.

Did you call on anything specifically to find Sarah?

I think the one thing I drew about regularly was the relationship with my own son who’s 15-years-old, who is at a very close age. I would argue that Kelvin plays it like a 15-year-old a lot of the time, in terms of his innocence, curiosity, his sexual desires for Riley’s character, and so on and so forth. It’s all just emerging. It’s all just beginning to blossom in him.

Trey is apparently heavily influenced by Pieter Breughel paintings, specifically about medieval plagues. Obviously, there’s a painting in your character’s house in the movie. Did you study the paintings of Brueghel and did you get to talk to Trey about why your characters’ would keep this painting?

We definitely talked about why we keep the painting for sure. One of the things that became a fixation for all of us was timeline. Even if we didn’t know what the backstory was entirely, we did need to have a feel for if this disease is something that’s been around for six months or two years. How long does it take to die from it? How long has Bud have it before he gets the blisters? You know, these things kind of things did need to be answered in order to move forward in a way that was consistent.

So in that exploration in putting questions back and forth to Trey, it became clear he had imagined that this had been the house Bud stayed in as the family moved out and grew up, or moved to after he split with his wife or his wife died…. But then there are other things he had no intention of letting us know or understand fully. He wanted to keep us in the dark. I think to fester a certain amount of paranoia among ourselves. There are things Riley knew about me that I didn’t know about her and all kinds of shady stuff he was encouraging. [Laughs]

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Were you, Joel, and Kelvin able to come up with your own backstory for what family life was like before all hell broke loose?

I don’t know if we were ever completely on the same page to be honest. I know we all did it as part of our process. I had several dinners with Trey to talk about what I thought might make sense in terms of profession. Is this a rich family or a poor family? You know, where do we land on that stuff? So we definitely got into that. But as I said, some of the things would really live within ourselves. So if it makes sense to us, given the kind of family performance we were hoping for.

Who do you think Sarah was before the plague then?

So I think Sarah was a bit of a daddy’s girl, but tomboyish and resourceful, and may have learned to use guns by observing her dad, who I think it’s kind of clear, not really, but he’s probably come home from the military or Vietnam and established the house. That maybe there is something a little PTSD about him, which may be why he is so secluded in this forest in this house. And that’s also why I have an aptitude for putting together the water system or doing ABC. I can use guns it seems. It’s not a big thing for me to get ready—there are parts of the movie where I’m using guns. So that was certainly something we explored.

But you know, I could know nothing about my character, and there still would have been enough with the paranoia.

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Out of curiosity, did you speak with Chris or Riley about their own backstories, or were you as actors kept apart to build that suspicion of each other?

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Yeah, I knew and I know nothing about Chris and Riley’s characters. Other than what you see on the screen? Nothing else. I remember there was some kind of strange pitting us against each other by Trey, between myself and Riley, so there’d be a degree of jealousy festering as well. For me, the mother of my son who clearly has thing for this other girl, and I was also jealous of their marriage, because mine is very stale and a little frigid. So these are things that aren’t on the page.

There’s nothing in the stage direction or dialogue that suggests that’s what we’re playing, but there are layers and colors that lend themselves to this sort of movie, that make it very much a character-driven piece.

This movie can at times be bleakly nihilist. It goes back to Breughel and “The Triumph of Death.” What do you think the appeal is in such grimness from our art or even entertainment?

I think there’s something a little nihilistic in every one of us. That there’s this awful dance with mortality that we have to play every single day of our lives, which means there’s a fascination with death and death in all the forms it can take. Whether it’s self-inflicted, whether it’s apocalyptic events, whether it’s pandemics, whatever it might look like. To have a grasp of it in a safe arena like a cinema screen is a kind of experience that most of us are willing to go through, because we will understand that it may only be around the corner in real-life.

On a somewhat lighter topic, I just recently rewatched Fantastic Beasts again. Have you heard whispers yet about Seraphina Picquery returning for another wizarding adventure?

Write all requests to @jk_rowling on Twitter and hopefully she’ll get the message that Seraphina cannot be done without for number two! [Laughs]

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When I last saw it, it was actually the day before the U.S. election in November. JK Rowling’s vision of nationalist forces on the rise again  seems more timely than ever.

You know, I’ve made a few films—this is very interesting, because I came up earlier with the theory about Trey, who wrote [It Comes at Night] three years ago about something completely different. It wasn’t an attempt at being political or socially relevant. It was a personal film about his father dying of cancer. And yet, somehow, his feelers were out enough to tap into the zeitgeist. I’ve had that experience, when I think about it, three times. So maybe it’s as much to do with me as it is to do with Trey in how I found myself in repeated pieces of material that really resonate in the here and now.

Certainly, which you just mentioned Selma and also this. I don’t think Trey had any intention when he wrote this to tap into what’s happening right now. But if you’re following the news—real news—you saw this coming. It’s not that it happened yesterday and suddenly a movie happened to coincide [with it]. It feels like it’s in-tune or attuned. This has been cyclical for as long as I can remember. It wouldn’t surprise me around the time that Trey was writing the piece three years ago that he was just getting a feel in the air for something that was coming. Interesting that as an audience, we get to watch it right smack back in the middle of that time that he may have been sensitive to three years ago.

It feels like art will be reacting quite a bit now.

Yeah, for sure.

Thank you for doing this.

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Thank you, it was great to see you.

It Comes at Night is in theaters now.