‘Barbarian’ Star Georgina Campbell on Her Character’s Bad Choices: ‘It’s a Horror’
Editor’s note: The following interview contains minor spoilers for “Barbarian.”
Whether she’s trusting strangers or booking an Airbnb in the diciest part of Detroit, every decision Georgina Campbell’s character Tess makes in “Barbarian” seems like a bad move. But hey, “it’s a horror,” says the 30-year-old British actress, who is set for a major breakout in one of the wildest, most entertaining horror movies of the year. Tess may make some questionable choices, but Campbell endows her with a strong sense of morality, finding grounded motivation for every time she opens yet another creepy cellar door.
“Lots of people are caught on my character and the decisions she makes,” Campbell said of early fan reactions to the movie. “That she seems intelligent, but also is making decisions that seem confusing. But at the same time it’s a horror. She has to make those decisions, otherwise where’s the film going to go? Half the fun for the audience is in the fact that you know that this is a bad route to go down.”
Written and directed by Zach Cregger, best known as a member of the comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U Know, “Barbarian” bounces gleefully between absurdly self-aware and legitimately chilling horror. The movie opens with Tess arriving at a short-term rental in Detroit only to discover a strange man (Bill Skarsgård) already staying there. As she weighs whether or not she can trust him, the house slowly reveals secrets of its own.
Like Tess, the audience is left guessing where the real terror lies. Every time Tess opens a secret door or descends a dark hallway, one senses Clegger crafting an elaborate prank. But as each shocking reveal pumps up the insanity, it’s clear he’s not messing around. Or is he?
“It has so many twists and turns, and it was exactly the same when you read it,” Campbell said. “It was just such a bizarre script and it kept getting stranger and stranger and stranger, and also funny. It had a very weird tone that, once I figured out that was the tone of it, I was just really into it.”
Campbell wasn’t familiar with Cregger’s previous work when she got the script, but her boyfriend happened to be a big fan.
“I was trying to tell him about the script over the phone and sounded like an insane person. He was going, ‘What are you saying? That doesn’t make any sense this sounds awful.’ And I was saying, ‘No, no, no, it’s really good. I’m not explaining it properly.’ And then he asked who the writer was and I said it was Zach Cregger, and he immediately said, ‘Oh, well you should do this film because he’s amazing’ So he was a big reason I said yes.”
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios
A brilliant second act needle drop throws an entirely new character into the mix: Disgraced Hollywood actor AJ (Justin Long), who is reeling after a co-star accuses him of sexual assault. Strapped for cash, he is forced to sell some of his rental properties in — you guessed it — Detroit. In ways that are both subtle and completely integral to the story, “Barbarian” weaves a pretty wide-spanning morality tale that covers gentrification, toxic masculinity, sexual assault, and how those things disproportionately affect women of color. It’s also a pretty rollicking good time.
“It has all kinds of nuanced messages in it that you can read into, but at the same time, it’s a really fun film. It doesn’t beat you over the head with an agenda or a message, but it’s there if you want to lean into it,” she said. “I think horror always is a really good place to be able to get those messages across in a way that isn’t too overbearing.”
Since “Get Out” exploded the horror landscape five year ago, it can often feel like every scary movie tries to squeeze in urgent societal critique — to often cringeworthy ends. “Barbarian” is one of the rare movies that earns its political underpinnings. Unsurprisingly, Jordan Peele had an unofficial hand in the proceedings.
“Zach’s good friends with Jordan Peele, and I think he spoke to Jordan Peele a lot while he was writing the film, and Jordan Peele saw an early cut of it as well,” Campbell said. “So he definitely was kind of part of the essence of the movie.”
Though Tess may make some poor choices, she is undeniably the smartest and most empathetic character in the film. Thankfully, there is nothing stereotypically feminine about her (other than her preference for clean bedsheets), but her emotional intelligence is ultimately the key to her survival.
“It was interesting that [Cregger] he decided to have a woman be the character that sort of ends up being the savior and isn’t the damsel in distress,” said Campbell. “She has a morality that is completely opposite to AJ’s morality, in that she will do anything to help these people she barely knows. I can find that hard to relate to. I’m not sure if I would put myself in the same positions as Tess. But I think it’s exciting, and I think it’s always good to change those dynamics. And in horror, you get the final girl dynamic a lot, but I think it’s interesting that this final girl has a lot of agency and also does try to save the men.”
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