Bringing The Invisible Man Back to the Big Screen

The cast of The Invisible Man discusses acting against a character that isn’t there.

The Invisible Man is an update of the classic tale penned more than 100 years ago by pioneering science fiction writer H.G. Wells, and most memorably brought to the screen before this by director James Whale in 1933. In the new version from writer/director Leigh Whannell (Upgrade), the central character of Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) has just escaped from an abusive relationship at the hands of the narcissistic and sociopathic Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).

Even though Adrian apparently commits suicide following Cecilia’s escape, she soon begins to suspect that her former lover–who was doing groundbreaking work in optic technology before his alleged death–is still alive and has found a way to make himself invisible. Unseen by all, he starts a campaign to methodically destroy the life that Cecilia is just starting to rebuild–or is it all inside her mind?

For the cast, which also includes Harriet Dyer as Cecilia’s sister Emily, Aldis Hodge as her police officer friend James, and Storm Reid as James’ design school-bound daughter, Sydney, acting against a character who is largely not seen–and in Jackson-Cohen’s case, playing that character–was one of the most interesting challenges of bringing this classic Universal Monster into the 21st century.

“The size of how much I would be on screen wasn’t something that I’d really thought through in a way,” says Jackson-Cohen. “I didn’t actually know how we were going to do the Invisible Man bits until I spoke to Leigh about a month before we started. I called him and I said, ‘Leigh, how are we going to do this?’ and he went, ‘Oh you know, we’ll just–it’ll be fine.’ And then I turned up in Australia and they showed up with this green morph suit and said, ‘Put this on.’ So I immediately regretted signing up for the project.” After stifling a laugh, he adds, “But it was mainly the script that made me want to do it.”

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Jackson-Cohen did get to wear the green screen suit used for the Invisible Man effects, saying, “It’s the most embarrassing thing you could ever wear. Number one, it’s made for a six-year-old. It’s so small, and you can’t wear anything underneath it. So when you put it on, everyone’s demeanor kind of changes around you and they…there’s an awful lot of this [shades his eyes] and no one likes to look below your neck. But it was quite the experience doing all of that.”

For Moss and Reid, the experience of working on The Invisible Man was a different one, with Moss–who’s done her share of grueling work in The Handmaid’s Tale and others–calling it the most physical role she’s ever played. “Definitely,” she agrees. “Leigh called me before I went out to Australia, when I was shooting Handmaid’s Tale, and he was like, ‘I really want to talk to you because I feel I really would like you to do as much as possible, and I’ve always wanted to gauge your feelings on that.’”

“I basically was like, I would love to do as much as possible because I think that’s going to be the best thing for the film,” she continues. “Of course I’m not going to be a martyr, and ultimately we should decide what looks best on camera. For example, in the big fight in the kitchen, it’s my stunt double Sara who gets thrown across the table. That’s mainly because I can’t do that. It’s going to look awesome when she does it. It’s going to look amazing and brutal, as it should. I don’t have that skill. It’s a whole skill set that I don’t have. So we decided to use her when we needed to make this look awesome, and as much as possible use me as well.”

In that kitchen scene–which is a showstopper–Moss had to act as if she wasn’t really sure what was in the room with her, or as if there was nothing there at all. “I have a really big imagination, she says. “So for me that’s a lot of what acting is, is pretending that something is there or isn’t there. It’s kind of all about just imagining.”

It’s challenging to have to imagine the unimaginable when there’s nothing there to work off of,” says Storm Reid. “I mean, I think Leigh and the stunts team, and even the special effects team, did a great job of trying to explain or show us what would be happening in the movie, but you really have to dig deep to really feel how you would feel and how the character would feel in those situations, where you’re getting tortured by an invisible man. It’s hard.”

The Invisible Man is out in theaters now.