Sarah Bolger Talks Playing Unhinged in Emelie

We chat with Sarah Bolger about playing an unhinged babysitter with bad designs for her "children" in the new thriller, Emelie.

Emelie marks a departure for Sarah Bolger. Ever since appearing in Jim Sheridan’s In America when she was child, the Dublin-born actress has had a rising career in the industry, appearing in series like The Tudors and Once Upon a Time, and in films such as The Lazarus Effect. But even with that most recent horror film, in which she played a college student terrorized by a demonically possessed Olivia Wilde, Bolger has traditionally appeared as a younger, innocent persona (or at least as innocent as Mary Tudor could be considered…).

But whereas she was spooked in Lazarus, with Emelie she is doing the spooking by turning a dated horror trope on its head. Bolger might be playing a babysitter in a genre piece, but in Emelie the babysitter is the most terrifying one.

Bolger’s eerily off-kilter performance allows her to (in a bit of meta-irony) play a woman pretending to be a teenager after she murders a babysitter in the film’s opening scenes; it’s nothing personal, it just allows her to enter three young lives that have been unwisely placed in her charge. Needless to say, it’s not a quiet night in suburbia.

So, as the film is in enjoying its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, we had the chance to sit down with Bolger to talk about what makes Emelie tick and what it’s like to play the malevolent force at the heart of the film.

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This isn’t your first horror film. But it’s the first time you get to be the one causing all the mayhem. What’s the experience like going from a victim to possibly the worst babysitter in movie history?

After seeing the film, and [while reading] the script, I never thought it was a horror. I always thought it was more of a thriller, because it’s a little bit about who is she and what is she? What’s scary about this movie is the reality and how rooted in modern day society it is. We let people into our homes all the time; we have cleaning staffs and we have babysitters, and we have Uber drivers.

You allow your life to be placed in people’s hands every single day. And we just take these things for granted. She’s the most unusual character I’ve ever played because she has the moral compass of I don’t know what. She is not good nor evil; she is her own concoction of everything.

But did you view it at all as an opportunity to subvert a certain horror trope about babysitters?

I think so that’s a good way of putting it…but I’ve never babysat anyone in my life. So, this movie is the first, and I don’t think I’ll be getting a job babysitting after [Laughs].

She does have her own moral compass, but how did you and [director Michael Thelin] develop that, and did you talk about or research nanny gone wrong incidents?

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Yeah, and actually there’s quite a few. Rich [Herbeck], our writer, had a number of incidents, personal and private, that he had in his life and in his rolodex about things to know of his character, and where the story is rooted.

This girl’s come from a really hard background, and it’s really about getting into that mindset, and there’s an element of maybe—did she have post-traumatic stress disorder after losing her own baby? What was it that had exactly happened to her? It was a lot of back-story and a lot of developing her as a human. Or a subhuman.

One thing I thought about many of her mind games throughout the film with the children is she was testing them—

Yes, I thought it was all a test. I mean, I think she’s testing herself and I think she’s testing them. How far can I go? How far can I do this without getting in trouble? How far will people allow me to move within the realm of insanity?

Do you think she cared about all of them when she met them? Or was she trying to figure out which child she might [want to abduct]?

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I don’t think she went there thinking she could take any of them. I think this is not her first time doing this and I think she has yet to take a child. It was just how similar maybe to her, or how similar the little one reminded her of [her own son]…I don’t think she’s a serial killer. I think if you get in her way, she has to move you out of it. And I don’t think her methods are calm or rational.

Could you talk about working with the child actors a little bit and did you develop a rapport with them?

It was hard, because the subject matter is difficult and there are three under-15-year-olds in the film, and the little one who plays Christopher is five. That’s insane! I actually started acting when I was five, but I don’t know if I could be in a subject matter like this! This movie is very dark. So, it’s messing with them and then taking them out of the room, and doing some of the screaming. I think at some points they got a little scared.

Well did you want them to be a little scared for the acting?

I did, but I also wanted them to feel comfortable. And I’m not sure they understood why I was so angry with them as a human. I think our eldest Josh [Rush] is great, and he got it. But the other two—we had to be careful. We didn’t want to spook them; we wanted them to feel comfortable on set and be themselves, and adlib, and have fun with it. So, during some more of the horror moments, as such, I think we did remove them a little bit.

Given your background with child acting, did any of them or the parents come to you for advice?

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The parents did a little bit. I steered clear of the kids, because I didn’t want to build a relationship with any of them. I’m new to them in this movie, and I thought if I befriended them—I wanted those moments where I turn, I need them to be scared, I need them to not know me enough to know that this is me acting. It sounds so cruel, but [it was necessary].

How have you found that transition as coming from child acting to taking on more adult roles in the last few years?

I’m so grateful. Like, I have a young face! [Laughs] I can’t get away from that! So, I can still play these younger roles, and this role is a girl who’s portraying herself as younger than she really is. It’s great. I’m doing a show in New Orleans currently called Into the Badlands for AMC, and she’s someone’s young wife. She’s going to get married. That’s the most adult thing I’ve ever played: it’s marriage.

It’s really exciting for me; it’s great to be able to act your whole life and grow up within roles, and now I’m 24, so I’m of marrying age. I guess that’s what I’ll be starting to play.

As you said, in this role she’s someone who’s portraying herself as younger than she actually is, but she’s dealing with some very dark and mature issues. So, how were you able to thread that needle to find a dark and disturbing place, and were you able to just turn it off after you were done shooting a scene?

No, I think this girl is slightly warped. Her background is formed in a way where she’s not alright, she’s not okay, and she’s not happy. And I had to really stay in that for the month in Buffalo, or six weeks in Buffalo, which is hard!

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I had to walk on that set and not be anyone’s friend, because she’s a loner. That’s hard because I want to make friends, and I’m a social person and I like people. But Emelie isn’t, and I have to live in her for a little bit.

And on top of that you’re in Buffalo.

Yeah. There wasn’t a lot to do.

Moving on to your other projects, do you think we’ll see Aurora again on Once Upon a Time?

Yeah, I’d love to go back there. So, I do little bits every season for a couple of episodes. I love those guys, I think that show’s brilliant, and I was a fan even before I went in for season two. Aurora’s so totally polar opposite to Emelie.

Sarah, thank you very much.

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