In Ouija: Origin of Evil, Elizabeth Reaser plays Alice Zander, a widow raising her daughters Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson) by herself in 1967 Los Angeles, where she makes ends meet as a medium — with a little help in the special effects department from her kids. But when a Ouija board comes into their lives, Alice is unsettled to learn that Doris may be a real medium, and that the little girl might be channeling real and eventually malevolent entities through the game.
Desperate for help, Alice turns to the principal of the girls’ school, Father Tom (Henry Thomas), to unravel the secret of the Ouija board and the past it is slowly unlocking in the Zanders’ house. Directed and co-written by rising horror auteur Mike Flanagan (Oculus), Ouija: Origin of Evil may be the rare prequel that actually is better than the original, with Flanagan concentrating on setting a pervasive mood of dread and developing his characters, the latter aided by his committed cast.
Reaser comes to the film with a long line of TV and film credits under her belt, most notably a recurring role on Grey’s Anatomy for the former and the part of Esme Cullen in all five of the Twilight movies for the latter. Here she takes the lead and believably portrays a single mother faced with extraordinary and terrifying circumstances, an aspect of the character that she spoke about recently by phone.
Den of Geek: Did you watch the first movie and were you aware of the back history set up there?
Elizabeth Reaser: I was aware of it, but because it was a very different movie, a different filmmaker, almost such a different world, it was more important for me to invest in our world and in the ’60s and the relationships with the kids and with Henry. That was really the real focus.
What was your view of Alice when you first saw the script and read through it? What was it about her that struck a chord with you?
I was very moved by her and the idea of her being this window in the late ’60s and being a single mom, probably not extremely educated and not a lot of job opportunities and the fact that she turns to this thing where she is a medium or a psychic or has these séances in her house. Just the desperation that she’s contending with and the grief that she’s experiencing. The loss that she’s dealing with makes her extremely vulnerable and that was what was very moving to me.
She’s almost like a woman out of time in a way, because she doesn’t really fit into the decade she’s in.
That was what was really drew me to it too. How often do you see a movie about a single mom in the late ’60s? I think that that’s fascinating, and then she’s sort of modern in spite of herself. She’s a weirdo. She’s embarrassing in ways and she stands out. She’s totally unconventional and I thought that was really fun to play.
The dinner scene with your character and Henry’s was so well done because it was so non-conventional in a way. It didn’t go the way you might think it will. What do you remember about shooting that scene and what your thoughts were on it?
Well I loved working with Henry. Mike Flanagan really was more interested in these relationships and the story than almost anything else. He gave the time and the space for it. He’s such an actor’s director, which is surprising. You would think it wouldn’t be that way in this genre but he’s so into the acting and the characters and he cares so much about them.
Working with Henry, I thought it was interesting, that relationship, because he’s a priest and some part of her is in love with him even though she knows it’s forbidden and highly inappropriate. He’s the only person in her life that she actually can turn to and that is an adult that gets it, what she’s dealing with on some level. I think that’s really intoxicating. Also, just getting to do a scene about adults and what adults deal with I think is so unique these days.
Did you get to spend any time before the cameras rolled with Annalise and Lulu and do any kind of bonding with them?
Yeah. That was kind of my number one focus before we started shooting, hanging out with them and having dinner and playing. I went over their house and basically just hung out with them, at Annalise’s house and with Lulu. A lot of it was just being there and hanging out and getting comfortable and letting them get comfortable with me. Also, they’re not really kids. I mean, they’re kids but they’re actresses. They’re not like child actors. They’re actual, real actresses.
Are parent/child relationships any more difficult to play than husband/wife, brother/sister, any kind of intimate or family type of role?
Well I think you want it to feel real, and that’s something that … I feel like a lot of times you see people just like, “Oh hi, you’re a kid and I’m a mom.”, and it just feels sort of not real or natural or it’s too sweet or too precious. It doesn’t feel like how I felt with my mom, which is a real relationship. That was important, that we feel like a family, that it doesn’t just feel like this fake idea of a family.
Was a lot of the horror imagery that happens in the movie actually done on set?
Yeah, and I think that’s why it worked so well. The majority of it, anything that he could do practically, was what Mike did. It makes it harder sometimes, because you’re working with magnets and candles and Ouija boards. There’s a lot of props going on and trying to nail things and time it out. You also have acting to worry about, so it was challenging but ultimately I think that’s really very exciting to get to act with those real elements.
How far did you go in terms of the physical stuff you did?
There was a stunt woman, thank god, that helped me, because I really can’t go flying across the room and land on my tailbone at this age. It’s just not a good idea. It was intensely physical and just exhausting. Plus all the crying and the high, high intensity emotional stuff is really exhausting.
Did you do any research into mediums? Have you ever been to one yourself?
I did and I have. Some of the stuff is weird and some of it’s really believable and even scary. I think psychics, there are some people that really are psychic and it doesn’t make sense, but why should it make sense? To me there’s so much we don’t understand about our world and I think it’s really fascinating to see these people come up with the stuff that they come up with. Some of it is BS, but a lot of it isn’t, from what I’m seeing.
Did you ever go to one where you felt like it was the real thing?
Yeah, I did. I went to someone who knew things that they shouldn’t have known or that they couldn’t have known and predicted things that ended up being true. It unnerved me because I think I’m suggestible to begin with. It’s interesting.
Did your family have a Ouija board in the house when you were a kid?
Yeah, we did and it was like a fun party game, a slumber party kind of jam. When you’re a kid it’s fun to try to scare yourself, but then as I get older, after doing this movie, it’s just a little bit different. I don’t want to be scared now.
Do people or fans on the street still approach you about Twilight? It’s been a few years now since the last one, has that simmered down?
It’s definitely simmered down, but it also just depends. I was in Italy this summer and I encountered a lot of fans there. They also happen to love Grey’s Anatomy in Italy so it kind of depends on where you are. I never really think about it because I live in Los Angeles so it never comes up.
What’s going on for you next?
I’m going to New York to go start a play called The Babylon Line at Lincoln Center. I also have a Joe Swanberg series that just came out on Netflix called Easy. It’s really, really fun. It’s really good. I highly, highly recommend it. I know I’m in it so that’s kind of bullshit but I really like it!
Ouija: Origin of Evil is out in theaters this Friday (October 21).